AN ASYMPTOTIC VIEW OF HELL AND HEAVEN
Today painting has become a form of visual material infinitely reproducible by everyone who is capable of using digital units known as ‘picture elements’, or pixels. All types of paintings can be produced from photographic sources, and digital image production has reached a virtually infinite scale. In such a climate, what the meaning of painting on a piece of cloth using the hand, a brush and paint may be, has been a question repeatedly asked since the last century; and many different responses have been proposed. The most valid response among them is the one that postulates that the organismic and performative relationship between the hand and the brain during the process of painting is unique and matchless; and that therefore painting (or drawing, the infrastructure of painting) is the visualization on a surface of the activity of the mind through the orientation of the movements of the hand and the body. This act of creation is, then, the artist’s act of dissolving his or her unmediated relationship with himself/herself and of forming a mediated connection with the world and with society. The assessment of the work within the science of art takes place as part of this process.
Murat Akagündüz’s series of seven resin-on-canvas paintings and a video series that discursively accompanies this series offer a multifaceted opportunity for this process of assessment. This collection of works is exhibited in the historical building of Gallery Manâ, which has been renovated in accordance of the requirements of an art gallery.
The double-installation here contains two types of pictures/images: The first is a series of canvas paintings in the purest sense, and the second is a series of digital images. The first is, again in the purest sense, the natural landscape; and the second is a documentary showing the eyes of a species (migratory birds), again from nature. The combination of these two types has been deemed necessary by the artist for the integrity of the exhibition and its discourse, yet it is also striking in that it reflects the relationships, conflict and competition between painting and digital imagery.
We see magnificent landscapes formed with a very plain interpretation of the contrast of light and shadow in the seven large paintings that create the effect of sepia-toned photographs due to the light and dark brown colours of the resin. Mountain ridges, back to back, or one piled upon another, steep rocks, dark crevices between mountain, narrow paths and tunnels striving to overcome the mountains, fortresses on hills that have become one with the rocks. In some areas in the paintings there is a sharp contrast of light and shadow where the resin has been rendered exceedingly dark and swollen; whereas in other areas the resin becomes exceedingly transparent and the surface is flooded with light. In some paintings fields of contrast subside and become barely perceptible forming a misty image that creates a dizzying effect. In all paintings in the series we see that the artist avoids any mastery of drawing or stylistic tricks and prefers a plain, neutral, sober expressive language.
Such mountain scenes can no doubt be found in many parts of the world; however, these paintings show Anatolian landscapes. Titles such as Çoruh, Tur Abdin I, Tur Abdin II, Ani, Danak, Şeytan Kalesi suggest this already; but it would not be difficult for us to imagine that the paintings feature Anatolian landscapes even if we were not aware of their titles. The artist’s previous Ankara series of paintings from 2006-2007 feature examples of his deconstructive focus on the country he lives in; therefore we can assume that these landscapes reflect the land he lives in. As the person who is viewing the paintings and writing about them, my visual memory too indicates that the paintings feature Anatolia; and it is probable that the viewers will have the same impression. In my visual memory I have, rather than photographs of traditional Anatolian landscapes, a theme of cinematic frames. This is a memory of specifically accentuated Anatolian landscapes that remind me of a series of films, starting with the oeuvre of Yılmaz Güney and extending to the more recent work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Yeşim Ustaoğlu. These landscapes activate the trace in my memory of images in these films of the silent, tranquil mountains and plains of Anatolia. In this kind of film, the camera will focus on a plain, plateau or mountain landscape without a human figure in sight, and wait silently, forcing the viewer to wait too. The human figure emerges later on; in a sense, to spoil this image by its presence…
It is the feeling of silently standing and waiting that this landscape demands which is evoked by looking at these paintings. In these films, the landscapes of course relate to the editing process of the film, but beyond that, and as in Akagündüz’s paintings, there is the will to assign this geographical terrain as the main indicator of everything that takes place on it. Akagündüz emphasizes the scope of the inclusive characteristic of this harsh and barren terrain, and assumes that this scope contains and preserves archaic or new, historical or cultural remains, past or present politics and actual and potential social tremors and changes.
Ultimately, these seven paintings could be described as landscapes in the conventional sense of the term, but from the viewpoint of our contemporary sensibility this production bears a sign beyond traditional landscape painting. They are, at the same time, the final outcome of the recent trips the artist has made to Anatolia; therefore there is a passionate and persistent performance in the background of these paintings. This could also be described as a trip/performance aimed at eradicating the clichéd thoughts and sentiments related to the land of this country and the political, social, cultural facts and events created by this land, and acquiring a new point of view suitable to current conditions.
The photographs he took during this trip form a substructure for the paintings, but the technique of painting he applies indicate that they have not been executed from a single photograph but from impressions collected from numerous photographs. These paintings do not possess the artificial perfection and attraction we witness in certain contemporary paintings that are executed directly from photographs and underline the claim that painting is in fact nothing other than photography. Instead, they display a truthfulness and expression that reveal the mental, sensorial and performative quality of painting. Thus, in explaining his choice of resin as a material in his painting, Akagündüz mentions the spontaneity that resin provides in the transformation of his thoughts into drawing. As a further point, in drawings and canvas paintings of natural and urban landscapes he has produced since the 1990s, we observe an expressionist technique. In this context, two paintings, titled Pit and Manhole, both from 1996, appear as early examples of the paintings we see in this exhibition. Two images, seemingly too marginal to be chosen as the subject of a painting, a pit dug into the ground, and the cover of a manhole have been depicted with a narrative reduced to the bare minimum and an uncanny feeling. We must pay special attention to the relationship between Pit and Çoruh in order to underline the intellectual resistance and continuity of the artist.
Akagündüz is not the first painter who has set out on the road to make paintings of Anatolia! Anatolian landscape paintings are a visual element of Turkey’s Modernist cultural policy and ideal. From 1938 to 1943, 48 artists were sent out to 63 cities across Anatolia; they produced 675 paintings in total, yet a large majority of these paintings were later lost. Painters went as far as the distant towns of Dersim and Siirt, which suffered from social and political problems, witnessed the economic and cultural realities of Anatolia, however, due to the restrictions of the official ideology of the period, could neither reflect these realities in their paintings, nor could they talk about them. In a short article, Elçin Poyraz explains the circumstances: “Censorship was inevitable in state-supported art, and when combined with the ordinary ideologies of many painters back then, it should come as no surprise that idealized figures feature in these paintings instead of the facts -of course the land of Anatolia was always fertile, and its people healthy and happy.” Since they were not allowed to show human drama, these early Modernist landscape paintings lack the human figure apart from a few exceptions.
Yet the genre of landscape painting in this land has a past that goes much further back. Traditional art historians explain that the beginning of painting in Turkey is often placed in the late 19th century when the first examples of canvas painting in the Western sense were produced, yet that this does not correspond to reality, and that the history of painting goes back to a production that begins with medieval book illustrations and that the paintings of the 18th and 19th century represent a transitory period towards Western painting. We could say that landscape is, for artists who produce landscape images (in painting or photography) in the present-day conditions of memory and epistemology, a genetic form of art. Landscape paintings can be grouped in a few periods and styles within the historical process. Landscapes of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, of kiosks, gardens and pools, seen in 18th century book illustrations, wall- and ceiling paintings, stand somewhere between the aesthetics of miniature painting and Western painting, and are described as naïve from an Orientalist viewpoint. These paintings represent the option of reflecting nature in an ideal, epic and poetic manner in a cultural environment where any creation of the human image was prohibited. Landscapes of the Yıldız Palace on postcards from the second half of the 19th century and the very few paintings of Fahri Kaptan, Ahmet Ali and Süleyman Seyit may be listed in this context.
18th and 19th century painting remained loyal to a series of rules and schemes; however, it is possible to differentiate between the styles of painters. A common aspect must be mentioned: these paintings are examples of the formation of a visual culture as part of the Westernization policy of the Ottoman Empire; and the term “naïve” used to describe almost all these paintings is in fact a fragile and anxious reflection of epistemological change.
Three paintings from the historical hinterland that we can relate to Akagündüz’s paintings and that were described, using a term that would be impossible to accept today, as “primitive” by his contemporaries; Şeker Ahmet Paşa’s Soldiers’ Drill (Drill on the Hills of Kağıthane), The Fortress and Houses and Grove are all in the Collection of the Museum of Painting and Sculpture. In these three paintings nature is silent, solitary, plain and uncanny; and displays no signs of the optimism presented by painters that came before or after him. These works go against the idealist visuality that was being sought at the time; and therefore depart from the dominant ideology. These are characteristics that we observe in Akagündüz’s paintings, too.
During Late Modernism, Anatolian landscapes formed the visual material of leftist discourse; they were often seen as a background of secondary importance in paintings of human figures. Neşet Günal’s works from 1960 to 1988 form significant examples in which this background is combined with the content, meaning and aesthetics of the painting. In Günal’s paintings these landscapes carry the same function as landscapes in Renaissance paintings and the arid flatlands and barren mountains of Central Anatolia complete the reality of the Anatolian people and the general social realist outlook that Günal wants to emphasize with a melancholic geographical image. In these paintings, Akagündüz uses, after Günal, the nature and cultural remains of Anatolia as the signifier of his discourse; however these landscapes are not sad and dolorous as in Günal’s paintings, but uncanny and ostentatious. They point towards social reality not in a direct manner, but through images as indirect signifiers.
In both the distant and more recent artistic production of the 19th and 20th century, in a significant manner regarding the context of Akagündüz’s landscapes, we observe the theme of the landscape without the human figure in the works of Caspar David Friedrich, Cézanne, Gerhard Richter and Mark Tansey.
Among the visual examples of Romanticism, a current of thought that produced the first criticism of the thoughts and ideals of enlightenment outlined in Kant’s philosophy, Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings are the most interesting. Nature and naturalisation are the fundamental proposals of Romanticism. In paintings of nature alone, or in paintings featuring a single figure seen from behind in front of a landscape, Friedrich depicts mountains, the sea, the rocks, cultural remains, sunrise and sunset under a mystical and ideal light; these paintings have also been described as melancholic and depressive. This is a subjective and sentimental gaze oriented towards nature deemed sublime; the painting encourages the viewer’s gaze to turn towards a metaphysical environment. Akagündüz has been influenced by Friedrich in terms of the Romanticism landscape painting traditionally contains. This influence is not in the painting itself, but in Akagündüz’s selection of this subject and genre of painting; there is an element of romanticism in his desire to interpret the country he lives in through its geographical appearance. Friedrich foresaw that the fate of nature would change in the aftermath of the rise of industry, and that a yearning towards nature would appear. Akagündüz’s landscapes also contain a similar foresight regarding the change we are undergoing as part of the globalization process; yet here the paintings reflect not a yearning, but an uncanny sense of loss.
Cézanne painted over 60 paintings of the St. Victoire mountain in the south of France; each painting revealing the steep and barren mass of this mountain from various angles with a spatial effect known as “flat-depth”. This series by Cézanne reflects his persistent dedication to research, and his constant questioning of the relativity of human perception. An early impressionist, Cézanne stated that art was a subjective process of perception that embraced the senses and that this process was organized within the painting. In these works, Cézanne questioned the act of painting via the subject of the landscape. Thus, if Akagündüz’s first aim is a geographical-political questioning, his second aim corresponds to Cézanne’s. In the era of digital image production I mentioned above, the questioning of image production through painting remains a topic we need to take up, and Akagündüz has adopted this task.
Are Akagündüz’s paintings related to Romanticism and Orientalism because they are landscape paintings? The heritage of Romanticism is there within the memory these landscapes evoke; however, this heritage no longer reflects an ideal nature to be perceived with the senses, but proposes a new awareness of the problems of Anatolia, abused with road and tunnel constructions and shaped according to the requirements of global capitalism. In the context of Anatolia’s geographical-political location and its problems with its border neighbours, these landscapes are documents of the gravity of the situation. There is also a reference to 19th century Orientalism in these paintings; especially in the context of the ruins and castles on mountain tops. Let us remember particularly those etchings that show the archaeological remains of Anatolia in an ideal and nostalgic atmosphere. The uncanny and desolate atmosphere in Akagündüz’s paintings reverses the orientalist perception in our memories.
In post-modern painting, photography is always at the source of “landscape”. The oeuvre of two renowned painters, Gerhard Richter and Mark Tansey, include important examples of this genre.
In 1965 Gerhard Richter made a canvas painting titled Mount Everest, and until 1970 continued to paint series of black and white paintings that resembled either out-of-focus or fully focused photographs when viewed from a distance. Richter himself described these paintings as “economic, technical and neutral/unsentimental”. With these numerous images of barren mountains that resemble each other, Richter underlined on the one hand that the act of painting was a matter of constant experience, exercise and action and aimed to rescue landscape painting, the most traditional form of painting, from the Modernist sublimation painting had been ascribed throughout the 20th century. On the other hand, he aimed towards the source of the crisis painting had entered into since the moment photography was invented. The similarity of painting and photography, and the aim to restructure through the use of photography itself the representational quality of painting that was stolen by photography are also themes in Akagündüz’s painting. This method can also be seen as a reparative solution to the problems and chaos post-modern and post-media painting is suffering from in Turkey.
All Mark Tansey’s paintings are monochrome; in his most recent period he has used a tone of sea-blue that renders the depths and dark areas in the images milder and more transparent. This also creates an effect that lends the painting resemblance to prints made using the now defunct Ozalid process. The photographic aspect of these monochrome landscapes stands out; but he insists that all these paintings are in fact drawings. The landscapes have nothing to do with reality; as he states himself, he uses these landscapes to transform postmodern discourses into visual images. Unexpected images, portraits and imaginary situations have been added into the landscape. To the question as to why one would paint today, Tansey responds by saying, “Given that the painted picture is a declassified medium (in Marshall McLuhan's sense a medium that is no longer the dominant conduit or voice of power, unlike television or film) it can take on new functions. One of these can be as analogue to other representational media in understanding the limits and sensitivities of one as it relates to those of another. We can use the painted picture as a way of studying its own modes of references, its ranges of sensitivity and insensitivity, its deceptions, by way of offering insights into the analogous functions of for example, film, photography, and television.” Akagündüz’s aim in painting corresponds to Tansey’s. It seems that this aim is one of the best explanations of on which basis painting can be derived from a photographic source.
There is also a series of video works that forms part of the exhibition installation. Akagündüz intervenes in these uncanny Anatolian landscapes using a scientific-documentary video work and forms a closed circuit comprising the paintings and the video works. Akagündüz filmed these migrant birds kept in a zoo by holding them one by one in his hands. These colour images that show the eyes and bright and direct gazes of these migrant birds create, at first, a clash of gazes between the paintings and the viewer. It is almost as if the gaze of the birds makes the viewer look at the paintings. Secondly, although there is no sound in the video works – the absence of sound despite the routine expectation of its presence is an element of alienation – the concept of sound enters this closed space. Thus there takes place a matching between the feeling of emptiness, alienation and of the uncanny in the landscapes and the silent birds. By using the image of the bird, a component of traditional landscape painting, Akagündüz orients the viewer towards environmental realities or problems via the presence or absence of birds in nature in Anatolia. By mentioning artists that seek to deal with the historical crisis between painting and photography, that use nature as a metaphor in order to interpret political, economic and cultural changes and that find new methods for painting within this change, I have tried to form a context within which to interpret Akagündüz’s artistic output. With this work, Akagündüz also focuses on the present-day crisis which is an extension of this crisis: he forces the relationship and conflict between painting and digital image production to a halt at a border that is reduced to its plainest form in terms of the techniques of these two forms of image production, and opens a new field of options. With this installation, Akagündüz challenges, “the spectacle which is the chief product of present-day society” and “no more than an image of harmony set amidst desolation and dread, at the still centre of misfortune”.
Elçin Poyraz “Bir ‘Çağdaşlaştırma’ Misyonu: Ressamların Yurt Gezileri (1938-1943)/A Mission of ‘Modernization’: Painters’ Excursions in the Homeland”, http://www.altust.org/2011/12
Çağdaş Türk Resim Sanatı Tarihi/History of Contemporary Turkish Painting, vol. 1, (İstanbul: Tiglat Yayınları, 1982)
ibid., vol. 2
Beral Madra, “Neşet Günal’ın Korkuluk Dizisi/Neşet Günal’s Scarecrow Series”, in the Neşet Günal exhibition catalogue, Urart Art Galleries, 1988.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Zone Books, New York, 1995, p.16 and p.41
English translation: Nazim Dikbas, Ziya Dikbas