THE LANDSCAPE OF IDEOLOGY
is an art critic and
between Istanbul and
Moscow. His writing
has appeared in SFAQ,
Hyperallergic, RES Art
World, Canvas and
ReOrient. Since 2012
he has curated gallery
exhibitions in the Middle
East and contributed to
different artist books.
The extraordinary has now become a permanent condition. Interruptions into the flow of history are a matter of course today, as if they were the necessary precondition for the spectacle of the extraordinary, the never-ending global event of politics and art. As such, interruptions – namely, exceptions, are mistaken for laws of nature and then it is implied that every small incision into the damaged structure of politics will soon translate into a rupture through which the sublime oozes out and spills into everyday life like a sea. “Sublime” is synonymous with supreme, total, complete, utter and extreme – it is how we became used to describing the events of those days when protesters ran down the nearby Istiklal Street in Istanbul during the Gezi Park protests. Or it was the word we used as an iconic metaphor of the Arab revolutions, for Tahrir Square in Cairo. It is not only that those events were more of a “sublimation” in the chemical sense (the term refers to the transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas phase, without passing through the intermediate liquid phase) rather than an aesthetic “sublime”, but also that the concept itself calls for a revision that would counter its original etymology.
Originally conceived as a more observational phenomenon, the sublime emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in the written accounts of British travellers to the Swiss Alps, in order to describe objects of nature for which the traditional category of beauty would not suffice. This almost dangerous nature – qualitatively different from the natural world and the natural science of the scientific revolution – was an incommensurable entity; unbounded, unlimited, unconquerable. It is interesting to note that the birth of this concept – later of course expanded and incorporated into more synthetic systems – almost coincided with the inception of the natural world and the disappearance of “nature” per se. It is not that the physical world was no more, but rather that it became an abstract and distant form once the distinction between science and nature was established. From that point on, there was no real nature, at least not in painting. In fact, contrary to popular belief, the role of nature in earlier art had not been all that significant either, and it wasn’t until the 15th century that landscape painting was established as a genre.
The immense body of work encompassed by landscapes in the Western tradition is largely inherited from the Romantic period, and was never about landscapes but about history – mostly the reconstruction of historical battles and the staging of religious scenes. When the Impressionists and other early modern artists took to the landscape, they were less interested in the truth of representation than they were in the possibility of its disappearance.
As Murat Akagündüz sets to work on the series “Kaf”, at the heart of this exhibition, a three-partite simultaneity appears as a critical practice exploring and mapping both the politics of the Romantic Movement – for which the sublime was the most important tenet – and political romanticism in general. First, there was Akagündüz’s take on the landscape tradition, which he had earlier developed in a body of work based on the “Yurt Gezileri” project of the Turkish state in the 1930s and 1940s. But there is also an interest in the practice of the sublime in his most recent work, and ultimately, the realm of political ideology as it is encoded in images: looking at painting as a mode of reality-production in the age of metadata.
“TRAVELS IN THE COUNTRY ”
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Turkish state commissioned a number of local artists
to travel to far-away provinces in Anatolia and produce paintings of provincial life in the region, in
the course of a project known as “Yurt Gezileri” (travels in the country). This project yielded pristine
images of Anatolia as a barren, almost uninhabited land, na.ve and provincial. Such imagery
was designed to enable the early Turkish republic to reinforce the idea of Anatolia as the Turks’
ancestral land, once the most important lands of the Ottoman Empire in Europe had been lost. This
cultural policy of apparent modernisation turned out to be not only very conservative, but also
rather backward-looking, locating the past of the Turkish nation state in an imaginary site. Difficulties
arise when the present is supposed to match that mythical past, and accordingly, the state had
to expropriate, plunder and displace Anatolians in order to make the myth a reality. Such policies
were not incidental – they were fundamental to the rise of the republic. Over 650 paintings were
produced, but many works were initially censored, as they did not match the ideological expectations
of the commissioner.
In the early 2010s Akagündüz began to work on a number of iconic resin paintings of Anatolia
and other distant corners of Turkish geography – sometimes distant only in emotional terms, such
as the islands of Heybeliada or Sivriada. These works were produced as a palimpsest of history,
reflecting on the reality of the “Yurt Gezileri” project. Imitating the travels across the country of
the earlier painters, and entering into a dialogue with them, Akagündüz is not however resorting
to melancholy or even to depiction, which he regards as reactionary, but materialising a constantly
ageing landscape that is not permitted to fade or to pass. His images are not images in the traditional
sense, but impressions; they have not been painted from memory or imagined, but they have
been collated via many other images, and therefore they are only speculatively real. Yet they are
pregnant with a sense of immediacy and truth. His images are also barren and desolate, but this
is not the effect of a powerful myth. Instead, it is an eroded past-and-present Anatolia, where the
population has been decimated through massacres and forced migrations and its cities burned to
THE ALPIDE BELT
The mountains of Anatolia, depicted by Akagündüz in his earlier work, belong to different mountain
ranges, such as the Taurus Mountains, between the coast of Southern Turkey and the Anatolian
plateau or the Yalnız.am Mountains in Eastern Anatolia, that in turn belong to the Alpine-Himalayan
orogenic belt. One of the largest seismic and orogenic systems in the world, it includes several mountain ranges extending along Europe and Asia, in a stretch ranging from Java, to Sumatra, through the Himalayas, the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic. The mountains of Anatolia and Iran, alongside the Alps, the Carpathian Mountains, the Pyrenees and the mountains of Southeast Asia are included in this seismically active belt. By painting mountain ranges extending from the Alps to the Himalayas, the artist is extrapolating the possibility of an active sublime, encompassing a larger view than that of Anatolia. Looking at these large paintings composed of fragments from mountain ranges is not exactly “looking”, but more like depth perception: the white colour field remains infinitely distant, impassable and incomprehensible.
It is not a historical view alone what we are confronted with here, but perhaps – and especially – the systemic imbalance between history and technology that lies at the heart of our political morphology. Who is the viewer and what is being seen? These squares of white, not dotted by titles or toponyms but by geographic coordinates (the titles of the paintings are given in this way, for instance: 42" 31" 19.68"N 43" 37" 54.66"E). Is this perhaps the eye of a drone in Afghanistan or of a satellite trying to locate a missing plane? Akagündüz performs a two-fold operation: On the one hand, he attempts to return the sublime to that observational perspective of nature established by the empiricists, but on the other hand, by conflating the aesthetic sublime with other rational and irrational possibilities pertaining to it, the artist is enlarging the concept beyond Burke’s dichotomies of the beautiful and the sublime, or pleasure and pain. When framed in such a complex way, the sublime becomes an ambiguous concept, a form of aporia, expressing a constant state of doubt, instability and movement.
“Yurt Gezileri” was not the first project of its kind. In fact, such projects were the cultural cornerstone
of colonialism throughout the world, and Romanticism was its most fervent ally. Landscape
paintings that sacralised the nature of the past flourished during the entire 18th and 19th centuries,
but in fact they were not really about nature. The role of the painter was to present the site
of nature as a remote past state or “pastness” from which the present was excised – the reality of
the present, with its invasions, occupations, looting and massacres. In the 19th century, American
painters such as Frederic Edwin Church, John La Farge or Albert Bierstadt were commissioned to
execute gigantic majestic depictions of the American wilderness –Rocky Mountains, deep valleys,
untamed rivers, particularly from the West Coast, depicted as pristine and unpeopled landscapes
during the apogee of colonial exploitation, slavery and industrialisation in the Americas. Soviet social
realism, prominently displayed throughout the colonies to recreate imaginary labour conditions
in stark contrast to the facts of a dismal reality, is but another example.
Romanticism is not a historical period here but an ideology, characterised by its solubility: it was
able to dissolve all solids into its viscous substance. The sublime was a call to rediscover the magic
of nature. But since this nature was physically absent, it became an eschatology that sent nations
into the battlefield, to fight for a mythical past. But this mythical past, however remote and illogical
a construct, was a real site of consciousness. Akagündüz’s series “Kaf” makes reference to an
enormous circular mountain range that in Islamic cosmology surrounds the flat earth. This mythical
site overlaps with the unattainable real, putting delicate but insurmountable optical borders in
place. Therein lies the sensorial realism of the painter’s gesture: by circumventing the possibilities
of total representation, the work remains a latent force, and delivers the image not of a world-to come, but merely a potentiality – lying dormant, it might awaken at any time. The fragments of the mountain range, from the Alps to the Himalayas, launch a deliberate assault on the Romantic image by presenting themselves not as events, but as speculative, theoretical disjunctions.
Because of its emphasis on a strict subjectivity – rather than inter-subjectivity – the Romantic image is constantly changing, always needing to adapt to a new circumstance, replacing one mythical instance for another, each moment that the present fluctuates, so that it can never find itself at rest and is therefore constantly beset by the risk of its obliteration. It is striking how similar the law of the perpetual adaptation of the Romantic image is to our “extreme present” of the never-ending global event. The totalitarian aesthetic also shares this characteristic of perpetual adaptation. Murat Akagündüz’s work in this exhibition never goes so far as to put a stop to the eschaton, but by dislocating otherwise natural sites into an entropic system of mathematical coordinates, he succeeds in subverting the political romanticism of images, disestablishing their apparent concreteness, and merging them within complex contexts. These mathematical configurations also become a cosmic and ahistorical viewpoint, as if the world could be seen from outside of itself. Yet the movement of the world is omnipresent: there is always fluctuation, change, upheaval and downfall, but none such things are presented as truth here. The event may be permanent, but it is not a condition of life.