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"We all live in that same apartment": Babaevi/Father’s Home Apt., 2009

Nazım Dikbaş

All Possessions Belong to God, Neriman Polat’s work at the Hafriyat exhibition titled "Your Eyes Are Bigger Than Your Belly" organized within the scope of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial, was the most memorable work at the exhibition spread out over three floors. The work consisted of the sentence Mülk Allahındır/ All Possessions Belong to God written on one of the walls of the upper floor in a style we often see in apartments constructed with a ‘liberal’ architectural style using two different colours of mosaic tiles. Despite its utter plainness, it had an immediate, profound effect on the viewer. The contrast created by the presence of this sentence and the particular aesthetics in the gallery space increased its effect: the uncertain apprehension provoked by the use of the word Allah in this context, the accessibility of the cheapness and ordinariness of the materials and the sense of lightness created by the artist simply having seen the work somewhere else outdoors and brought it or reinstalled it into this interior space. So, where was this somewhere else? To what particular dynamics did the aesthetics of that ‘liberal’ architecture practiced somewhere else correspond to? Why would the fact that Possessions, or for instance, as we learn from stickers often seen above the front pane of white vans or rear-window panes of taxis, that Sovereignty belonged to God have to be emphasized? These questions also define the context of Babaevi Apt., the work that lends its name to this exhibition.

At this point in time, the ties between social strata and their value systems have been impeded: the dream regarding where society is heading has lost its credibility and the ideal of pluralism has served the preservation and extension of present differences rather than the organization of the redistribution of wealth, thus becoming invalid as an alternative in Turkey, where it had never reached a historical or contemporary status to be considered seriously in the first place. Babaevi Apt. is both a structure and a piece of calligraphy produced with the cultural remains of two historical events of eradication: the consequence of the obliteration of the social section that once created the public architecture of the land and the abolition of the alphabet used in writing the calligraphy that once adorned buildings, and therefore the art they created. The destruction of the architectural tradition of Anatolia, along with many other traditions, and the interruption of the continuum of traditional education today means the absence of certain ‘main’ or ‘rooted’ principles the architecture of a house would have possessed, even under the immediate conditions of immigration. The culture of the land is ancient both in the villages and the cities; however, the wound is still fresh.

This contemporary confusion, parallel to social amnesia throughout almost all levels and age groups of society, no doubt affects both cities and villages, however, this disorder of values finds its most comprehensive expression in the periphery of the city, which can no longer be described as a zone "stuck between" the city and the village, but as a zone of constant, seething and overflowing turmoil. So much so that it is difficult and inadequate to describe the periphery as a geographical zone: in the same manner that a neighbourhood without a road where slum-houses are gathering at a rapid pace possesses the aesthetics of the periphery, the laying of new, fat layers on the oldest streets and pavements of the city is the implementation of the same ‘shoddy’ aesthetics whose coarse application would shock the original founders of the city. This aesthetics, and the ethics and politics of the set of values that accompany it, are far from possessing the care required by any process of construction. Therefore the slipshod construction of the pavement is reflected in the way a lesson is taught at schools, the craftiness in bargaining is reflected in the calculations applied to a relationship of love. But we also witness a sudden and complete inversion of things: in the midst of restrictions and impossibilities, the expression of an unbound freedom which the previously mentioned aesthetics could not assemble or achieve can pass through. The religious reference in the original of All Possessions Belong to God co-exists with the weakness of social structure and the fear and paranoia of an attack from the environment, the stranger or from close-by. However, from the moment that it enters the art space, it becomes possible to contemplate the position of the deeper sources the spiritual world evoked by All Possessions Belong to God within this context. If all possessions belong to God, nothing belongs to no one, or everything belongs to all of us. However, it is not possible to transfer this depth to the social field subject to the political reign of the happy partnership of neo-liberalism and religious conservatism. This contradiction is analyzed in the piece titled Dedeevi/Grandfather’s Home.

Far From the Experience of the Soul: The Inaccessibility of the Grandfather’s Home.

Türbes [mausoleums of Ottoman notables] are religious spaces visited to pray for the souls of forefathers or, with a more pragmatist twist, to light candles and tie rags, praying for wishes to come true. The Yahya Efendi Türbesi in Ortaköy is one of these mausoleums and hosts all the characteristics of the cultural intersection mausoleums find themselves at today. The idea of expecting something from the dead, which actually stands outside mainstream Islam, is in constant operation at mausoleums, but they also carry, far more fundamentally, the accessories of a more contemporary reality. The work titled Dedeevi at the exhibition tells a story of both grandeur and sadness, illuminated by the sun shining from beyond, within the totality of its own set of accessories, revealing the fact that we will, neither spiritually nor physically, ever get close to Yahya Efendi. The skewed cords of small yellow light-bulbs lining the entrances of the magnificent mosques along the Bosphorus throughout Ramadan, the electronic light display with red letters ‘installed’ on the wall of the Şemsi Paşa Mosque of Sinan facing Üsküdar Square designed to broadcast verses from the Koran, but which whispered to us the words ‘No System,’ flashing by at high speed in English, for months, both reflect the aesthetics, or contrast of two aesthetics, we have also observed in our mausoleums all along: The aesthetics inside the mausoleum is disregarded, the mausoleum is closed off with the mandatory iron railing and the composition is completed with the padlock on the railing. Even if the padlock is new and shiny, the mentality is archaic, you can’t trust the people, entry is ‘prohibited.’ We find the same type of railing and grills on basement floor windows, on walls surrounding schools and the entrance of empty lots of land, the same padlocks prevent ‘unseemly people’ committing ‘unseemly acts.’ To look, wander and think freely is not included in the mix of this particular aesthetics.

In Search of Space: A One-Square Meter Home of Your Own

Space is indispensable for thought, they exist together. Looking at the distribution and use of space on a variety of scales, we can get an idea about the contemporary individual’s relationship with freedom. As Istanbul is experiencing a geographical expansion which provides the most marginal data to urban planners carrying out research on mega-cities, Turkey itself has long been suffering from a cultural transformation which will eventually result in the dissolution of the concept of culture itself. It’s difficult to describe the change taking place, because despite the evidence of loss, the impossibility of preventing or curbing it has silently been accepted. Melting glaciers clearly mark the end of the world as we know it, but they occupy the mid-ranks in news reports and then continue to melt; in the same manner that rapid change accompanied by comprehensive cultural loss is taking place on all levels of society from the family to the mega-city, but this is also skimped with vague explanations of transformation, progress and development and covered up.

An unadorned analysis of the process reveals the following points of departure:

1) People still exist, human-cloning has not taken place yet, robots haven’t replaced us (jokes aside, the shadow of both these terms, as alternatives to humans, looms large) and despite all the changes, for good or worse, people continue to act in a human manner.

2) This transformation –as in the glacier example- is taking place with a huge cultural loss, old forms –both ‘the most ancient’ forms and the ‘heritage of the previous generation’- are being excluded, silenced and swallowed by the violence which feeds this transformation. This violence codes itself as a ‘facilitator of things’ and this is why utopias have been replaced by ‘project’s where cost assessment has priority over everything including the idea itself, and which seem like medium-scale projects however far their scope may extend.

3) On the other hand, in zones outside the immediate interest of the ruling class, and as a yet-unrestrained necessity of number 1 above, new forms of speech, thought and creation emerge. In areas yet undivided, from nooks where individuals haven’t surrendered their thinking to the outskirts of mega-cities, some people are still speaking their mind and acting according to their will:

Mind = Space.

In the work titled Home, the pile of bricks with its striking radiance and geometric sharpness is the material for the dream of a home. In the final photograph of this pictorial triptych we also see the relation of reality to raw material and the idea of a one-square-meter-home, a dream-unit. Reality as a volatile concept has been a leitmotif throughout Neriman Polat’s works, from The Reality Family to Bad Tempered and Sweet Woman. In the video Bad Tempered and Sweet Woman, two people, an old blind man who has set his gear up on the street and Seçil Heper, a Turkish singer, on television, sing the same song. In addition to the sense of relief brought on by him being in open air, by the sea and singing better, the old man arouses a stronger sense of reality. Whereas Seçil Heper emits a sense of virtuality, created by her dress, the standing organization and body language of the orchestra in the background and the choice of set design of the television channel. But the song is the same song, and it may be possible to listen to and bring together the two as voices of the same tragedy which deviated along different paths.

Neriman Polat says her realism is akin to ‘signpost realism.’ The sign painter uses the latest commercially available techniques to capture the eye, producing work that suits demand. At this exhibition we also see a sober section of reality and an expression of concrete processes. However, the touch in possession of an intelligence of analysis and criticality brought upon the functioning of urban aesthetics, contemporary ethics and politics, reminds us that we are in a space that only art can construct.


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