On Sunday, Turkey will vote on a constitutional referendum, which threatens to expand the reach of the presidency. A “yes” (evet) vote will bring more control into the hands of the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), strengthening the executive government and reducing remaining parliamentary powers. A “no” (hayir) vote rejects this expansion, but carries with it fears of governmental push-back, including the likely continuation of the current “state of emergency” restrictions imposed after the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016.

Despite the significance of this momentous vote, the streets of Istanbul are strangely quiet. For a city known for the political outspokenness of its citizens, and particularly its artists, there is little public commentary. The difference between the seeming silence of those who would resist today and the historic resistance of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and actions is stark, and undoubtedly owes to the very real threats of arrest, detainment, and violence from the police as seen in Gezi and in demonstrations since.


Taksim Hold’em. Courtesy of Bluff Films. Photo: Ersin Gok


The soon-to-be-released film, Taksim Hold’em, which takes place during the first explosive night in 2013 when Gezi Park occupiers were attacked by Istanbul police, takes its name from the park’s surrounding square, Taksim. The feature film follows the events of one evening in one room—a living room over looking the square—where the three main protagonists, young middleclass men, who are old high school friends, meet for a weekly poker game.

Typically, Gezi, the occupation protests, and the ensuing police attacks are largely represented in the popular imagination with images of the public square, through bodies in the street, under threat: we envision artist and performative interventions, and often police attacking, and even killing, protestors with tear gas, water canons, and rubber bullets. Taksim Hold’em, however, forgoes these images so that the “public” space of the square is never pictured and only imagined through temporary intrusions. Despite the host’s intentions to ignore the protest outside, the night’s events intermittently penetrate the four walls—through the news on television, social media posts read aloud, through shouts outside, and two young female protestors admitted to take shelter from the gas and the police who are chasing them.


Gülsün Karamustafa, Memory of a Square, 2005, Video, 2 projections, black and white and sound, 17 min.
Installation view at Tate Modern. Courtesy of the artist


The new film is a kind of echo in reverse of Gülsün Karamustafa’s film Memory of a Square (2005). On view in the Istanbul Modern’s long-running permanent collection exhibition, Artists in Their Time, the prescient work offers a series of domestic vignettes. A two-channel installation reveals intimate moments juxtaposed beside existing historical footage from periods of political upheaval in the square. The street images begin with a balloon launch in the late Ottoman period, followed by the erection of the square’s statue in the 30s, in the early days of Gezi Park. Several scenes of demonstrations and political turbulence in the 70s follow, ending finally with the demolition of houses around Taksim for the construction of the Tarlabaşı road. Reading these vignettes today, it’s hard not to conjure the pedestrianization project and promised destructions that threatened Gezi Park and spurred the 2013 protests—eight years after the piece was produced. Alongside these historical images we watch meals interrupted, wounds bandaged by careful hands, suitcases packed: the everyday lives of individuals affected by the bodies on the streets.

The claustrophobia of Taksim Hold’em and the spotlight on the interior lives of its protagonists seem to carry particular weight now in Istanbul. Recent years of arrests, detainments, and dismissals of large numbers of judges, writers, professors, lawyers, and artists have left the streets quiet. As much of the world seems to be reawakening to the possibility of bodies in the streets—with protests in the tens and hundreds of thousands criticizing their own governments becoming daily events—it seems like representation in the street is more and more the measure of political engagement. Yet it must be remembered that this is not an option for everybody, or everywhere.

In her Sick Woman Theory, writer and performer Johanna Hedva suggests that the dominant discourse on political action, drawing largely as it does from Hannah Arendt’s faith in the political effect of bodies in the street, is too narrow a definition of how we engage the political. Arendt’s conception suggests that only bodies that are able to enter the street are acting politically. It privileges those for whom this is a possibility and reduces other actions to the nonpolitical. Hedva asks us to consider the politics of intimacy, of interdependence, of bodies that need, that engage in relationships and in so doing reshape the social (political) fabrics around them.

Two recent Istanbul performances, staged as part of Look Again at the Pera Museum, addressed the body, bound and in relationship to a fixed surrounding. A museum collaboration curated by dance critic and founding director of PerformIstanbul, Simge Burhanoğlu, Look Again offers “an opportunity for artists to engage the permanent collection.”


Ekin Bernay, 9 Stone, 2017. Photo: Danyel Ferrari


Set in the Anatolian Weights and Measures collection, surrounded by scales—from delicate and ornate ones designed to weigh jewels and flower seeds, to large and perfunctory ones for measuring flour—Ekin Bernay’s 9 Stone plays at a kind of new-age healing of what she calls “the relation between body and soul, the freedom of the body.” Viewers are admitted in groups of fewer than five and given headphones connected to a microphone transmitter worn by the artist. A series of rocks sit in a line, with two larger ones on either side as seats. Bernay invites one audience member to join her. As they sit across from one another, we hear her whisper in our ears a message for this viewer—“where are you heavy?”—as she hands them a rock to hold against a knee, or shoulder, or heart. The piece moves in this strangely shared yet private way, from one participant to the next, like a game of telephone. An unnamed “heaviness” calls to mind not only hearts broken by lovers, and family traumas, but also the heavy anxious anticipation that hangs in the air of the city today.


İ. Ata Doğruel, Ambassador, 2017. Photo: Danyel Ferrari


Also part of Look Again, İ. Ata Doğruel’s performance Ambassador, is set in the exhibition Intersecting Worlds: Ambassadors and Painters and is based on the museum’s Orientalist Painting Collection. As we enter the gallery we see Doğruel in profile. He is bisected by a scrim, which extends from his clothing and tightly traces the edges of his face, head, and the chair on which he sits. Because the scrim curves in an S, one can never see both sides of Doğruel’s face or body at once, but rather has to walk from side to side, jarred by the discrepancy of his appearance: on the one side of the screen the artist is fully shaved of all hair, including his eyebrows; on the other, he sports a beard, his hair grown long and dense. The performance, like much of Doğruel’s work is durational, internally focused—he sits for six hours in the same position with no break, his head glued into the installation, which tugs visibly on his skin whenever he shifts even slightly. While the artist and official press release suggests the piece addresses the divided lives of historical figures, painters, and diplomats, the audience engages Doğruel as an immobilized body, as a body bound. The curator, Burhanoğlu, who was present in the gallery during my visit, instructed viewers to engage the artist. Viewers talked to him, although he could not answer; they lifted his feet for a moment’s relief and rubbed his shoulders.

Look Again was recently reviewed by the largely pro-government Daily Sabah. The review praised these performances as revealing new aspects of the museum’s collection, Turkey’s Ottoman history, and, by extension, the nation’s current cultural life. Recent moves by the government in the current post-coup-attempt “state of emergency” have suspended Turkish cultural institutions from participating in certain funding programs, including Creative Europe. As a result Turkey will no longer be able to receive financial support from the program, and any of the country’s partnerships with European institutions will be invalidated. Thus, experimental artists in the country are finding new homes within Turkish institutions and are producing works that read on multiple levels.


Ekin Bernay, 9 Stone, 2017. Via Pera Museum


I would be talking out of turn to suggest that these works are in any way a direct response to the upcoming referendum vote, or even that the artists have intended them as political pieces, explicitly or at all. However, they nonetheless speak to a growing consideration, in Turkey and beyond, of the politics of the most personal of interactions: those that surround bodies, and vulnerable bodies in particular. Whereas Karamustafa’s Memory of a Square, and to some extent Taksim Hold’em, oppose interiority with images of the street— public and political against private and personal, history against memory—many artists’ works now seem to muddy the distinctions.

Artists are finding once again that, as always, the personal is political, but also that the intimate encounter, the whisper, may be the hidden script that keeps the possibility of resistance alive. As Gezi and the many development projects across the city indicate, the domestic, the intimate, is not the opposite of the public square. But, like the body itself, our interior lives are central to the stakes that call us out to the streets.


Danyel Ferrari

Danyel M. Ferrari is an artist and independent researcher currently based in Istanbul, Turkey.


(Image at top: İ. Ata Doğruel, Ambassador, 2017. Via Pera Museum)

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