WHAT THE LANDSCAPE REMEMBERS

EMRE BAYKAL

Neither in time am I,

Nor do I stand fully outside.

Caught up in the impenetrable flow,

Of a wide, monolithic moment. [1]

 

 

 

Murat Akagündüz’s artistic production, since the beginning of his career, has expanded and diversified in consecutive, different series; yet a significant majority of this output is composed of urban and nature landscapes exploring the memory of the geographical terrain he lives in. The “book of travels” that his entire oeuvre forms begins in the town of Yalova of the years of his childhood and youth, and moves from there on to Istanbul, and then to Ankara, and finally on to a wider expanse including the region of Anatolia. As these works, which can be grouped under the main headings and periods of “In the Night”, “Island Paintings”, “Istanbul”, “Imaginary Contemplation”*, “Ankara”, “Island-Continent”, “Hell Heaven”, on the one hand combine the memory that belongs to the landscape they frame with the artist’s individual memory, on the other hand they continue to deliberate on the concepts of light and time. As for the common narrative that runs through this output, it is formed of the signs inscribed in the memory of the landscape during the process of Turkey’s modernization and becoming a nation. While travelling amongst the various temporal strata that form this memory, Akagündüz also re-contextualizes the idea of travel and landscape in pre-Republican painting in Turkey and pre-modern Western art within the potentialities offered by his own work.

 

During his early period, Akagündüz’s painting follows a route outlined by his personal geography. The Princes’ Islands, where he lived for a short period, and Istanbul, the city where he continues to reside, become the main stations of this trajectory. In these early “Island” (2000 – 2002) paintings, the artist adopts an impressionist attitude where a romantic and landscapist perception dominates the paintings, which also display figurative gestures that render nature itself foreboding to look at. A short boat trip away, in the “Istanbul” (2001 – 2004) paintings, the concrete texture of rapid urban transformation, the appearance of political and institutional powers in the public space, sites of public demonstrations, and encounters between the masses and the security forces are emphasized. In these early works, where Akagündüz observes both nature in its pure state, and urban architecture and life by travelling within the immediate surroundings of his own location, he records the contents of individual and social memory regarding the city, and investigates the role of institutional power in shaping them. In the “Imaginary Contemplation” (2003-2005) paintings the artist travels to “organized holiday sites” where short-term virtual experiences focusing on entertainment and consumption are marketed, and to “dreams of oriental villages which you won’t want to wake up from -7 nights & 8 days, all-inclusive”. In the “Ankara” (2007 – 2009) series, he turns his gaze to the symbols of institutional power and the monumentality of the capital city that presided over the shaping of the entire geographical territory the artist travels across. The “Island-Continent” (2010 – 2011) paintings seem like a return to the islands of his childhood years, an inner journey guided by the experience he has gained in trips he has been on for more than ten years across his main continent.

 

The “Excursions in the Homeland” project, realized with Hafriyat, the artists’ collective Akagündüz is a founding member of, re-imagined in the year 2010 an official art programme originally carried out in the 1940s, in which they subjected the relationship between institutional power and art to a contemporary experiment.[1] Following the trips he carried out to various cities across Anatolia as part of the project, Akagündüz produced a series of paintings using only resin, and also a multi-channel video installation. These works, brought together under the title “Hell Heaven” (2010-2011), extended the borders of the idea of travel in Akagündüz’s work. Bringing together the visual records of a common state of mind that manifested itself in the contemporary landscape of Anatolia with feelings such as anxiety, being cornered, abandoned and victimized; this series indicated a new period in the artist’s work in which the issues common to his art until that point began to evolve within wider horizons.

 

 

In “Heaven Hell”, Akagündüz also attempts, through the use of moving images, to spatialize the technique he has recently been exploring by using resin on the canvas surface and the visual effect it produces. The sepiaesque tones of resin that he first used as paint in the “Ankara” series, further purified in the “Hell Heaven” paintings, acquire  a restless fluidity in the video installation he edited using images that reflect nature in its pure state. In the video projection that completely covers the wall forming the backdrop of the installation, the River Euphrates flows with a foreboding feeling, frothy, incessant and about to overflow and flood any moment. In front of this moving backdrop, equally frightful and mesmerizing, and almost succeeding in drawing and capturing the viewer within their vortex, are monitors spread across the space that show close-up shots of wild birds endemic to the fauna of Turkey, their gaze scanning their surroundings as if to seek out an approaching danger, full of anxiety and fear. “Heaven Hell” is an attempt, carried out via moving images only of pure nature, purged of the human being and all human traces, towards both the political and psychological analysis of a geographical terrain that is always on guard.

 

Danak, a painting shown alongside the video installation in “Heaven Hell”, depicts the ruins of a Georgian-Laz temple Akagündüz has painted on canvas using only resin. These most recent paintings become a new series with the addition of works depicting a Syriac temple painted from a viewpoint situated on the Tur Abdin rocks, and the ruins of the city of Ani, one of the few remaining examples of Medieval Armenian architecture. Focusing on non-Muslim buildings that have lost their congregations, these works set out on an exploration of the befogged regions of social memory that have been condemned to oblivion. These paintings that, when viewed from the centre, seem to focus on the far away lands of the East, and the archaic temples of an increasingly dissolved cultural diversity, become almost anonymous with the sepia tones of the resin, and even begin to convey the sense evoked by an engraving.

 

Akagündüz states that “within the fantastic world of orientalist paintings and engravings, the Western romantic gaze is in fact searching for its own archaic dimension” [1]. Thus, these works by Akagündüz reflect the gaze of the modern, of those who are living in the present age, towards those that have been left behind and follow the age from behind; and in the final analysis, the artist’s own gaze oriented towards his own past. In this sense, they also recall, with their subject matter, an Orientalist understanding of painting. However, the landscapes in the “Hell-Heaven” series in actual fact belong to a more distant and solitary terrain that has remained outside the frameworks of 19th century Orientalists whose works often focus on İzmir and Istanbul. There is neither a human figure nor the traces of everyday life in the vicinity of these ruins that have pined away to become part of the melancholic, deserted landscape they are surrounded by. Despite retaining their majestic, picturesque appearance, they have lost their former strength and been condemned to their solitary fate. In depicting Anatolia, Akagündüz does not follow a developing, prospering, powerful image of Anatolia; but the image of an Anatolia where cultural diversity has eroded and disappeared as the outcome of ethno-nationalist movements, massacres, forced migrations and population exchanges supported throughout history by policies of the central authority; and a geographical image shaped by blight and downfall.

 

 

Resin, the material that provides the colour and light of the “Heaven Hell” paintings, began to take the place of oil paint in Murat Akagündüz’s work for the first time with the “Ankara” series dated 2007. Later, in the paintings of the Berlin parliament buildings (Reichstag and Palast der Republik) he realized in Germany within the scope of an artist exchange program and in the “Island-Continent” series that followed, he continued to explore the potential of this material. Although one would expect that the reduction of the material to one of the chemical bases of the paint would also restrict the range of possibilities on the canvas, in actual fact, the opportunities and meanings brought on by using resin as the sole material that are different from those offered by conventional paint and material add new and unique dimensions to both the process of painting and the painting itself.

 

To work solely with the transparency and fluidity of resin changes the ritual of the painting process. The traces that Akagündüz makes on the surface of the canvas with his brushstrokes and gestures gain an autonomous existence and take on a unique form due to the nature and fluidity of resin. The process that is completed through this constant interaction between painter and material also allows the painting to become anonymous in a sense. On the other hand, considered alongside the images of ruins abandoned to their own fate and destined to destruction, the protective and healing qualities of natural resin acquire almost a shamanistic function, opening up a new dimension in the interpretation of the painting.

 

The depth, perception of volume and soft transitions Akagündüz produces with the use of transparent layers, superimposed without the use of colour add, instead of a linear perspective, a spatial perspective in which the material’s own colour and light gain prominence. The problem of light and time, also important in previous paintings, is even further emphasized in the “Hell Heaven” paintings with the additional effect of the material. In equal measure to the effect of the temporal connotations inherent in the landscape framed by the painting, the way in which the canvas responds to this scenery when it is infused with the chemistry of the resin contributes to this achievement.

 

As Akagündüz continues to explore resin’s potentialities of impression in the “Hell Heaven” series, he is actually interested in light -and in relation to light, with the idea of time. Due to its chemical characteristics, resin reacts with a variety of reflexes according to the type, angle and strength of the light; in other words, it almost contains a spontaneous impression, enabling the artist to draw closer to “an idea of painting that strives to capture a time of light that is infinitely variable during the day- therefore seeks not something real, but an impression.”[1]  An idea of time which contains impressions of the past and clues regarding the future; and may, just like in listening to music, only be comprehended with insight and not with the mind, dominates these paintings. Comprising the unity of past, present and future, time is perceived as an uninterrupted whole, or as an eternal environment.

 

An overview of Akagündüz’s entire production from his early paintings to the “Hell Heaven” series reveals a monolithic perception of time where different temporal strata that belong to the region he lives in coexist. For instance, as the “Ankara” paintings focus on the image of the capital in the manner that the central government defines itself, they examine the monuments that are the instruments of the government’s manifestation in the public sphere both within the historical process and in a structural and environmental sense. This series depicts the monumental symbols of the city such as the Ankara Castle, inherited from previous cultures (Galatian/Roman) and standing in the same location for centuries; Anıtkabir, built in the style of an acropolis for Atatürk; the modernist complex of buildings that host the Ministries; the Monument of Victory, erected in memory of the heroes of the War of Independence; the Monument of Security that represents the confidence invested in the security forces; and the Natural History Museum with the bust of Atatürk and cast of a dinosaur fossil at its entrance. Looking at these paintings as a whole, some of which are painted using resin and with a semi-bird’s eye-point-of-view, thus creating the sense of an illusion or dream, rather than the idea of a real landscape, we are shown not only the geographical, but also the ideological and historical topography of the centre. In other words, it explores the memory of geography in an uninterrupted flow that extends from the past into the present.

 

The “Island-Continent” series finds its source in the interaction between Akagündüz’s own individual memory and the memory of the landscape he is painting. The Princes’ Islands, which he sailed back and forth to with a small sailing boat, form the most powerful images of his years of childhood and youth that were spent in a close embrace with the sea in Yalova. The idea to make paintings of places he has travelled to is inspired, with an added sense of adventure, by these exploration trips made to these islands, that belong neither to the East or the West, are isolated in-between, yet are not far at all. Following two comprehensive series such as “Imaginary Contemplation” and “Ankara”, he returns to the same shores with “Island-Continent” paintings bringing to the canvas surface a unique style, which has matured with his technical and intellectual experience.

 

The “Island-Continent” paintings incorporate the viewpoint of a person on a sailing boat approaching the shores of a landmass that, with the added effect of the resin, appear to bear the traces of an eternal past: “At the back of Yassıada, there is a beach facing south, and there, there is this tiny pier, a path set in to the rocks and above the path, a wall, a windbreaker. That path, of course, symbolizes the journey one takes within one’s self… I have a relationship with the Islands I have established since my childhood, and for me, the image of those islands is changing and diversifying constantly.”[1]

 

 

In addition to the romantic island image that corresponds to his childhood years in Akagündüz’s own individual history, the “Island-Continent” series also brings to the surface of the canvas a much harsher image that belongs to the same island and has been inscribed in the memory of our recent political history. On one side of Yassıada, an island that has been used as a place of exile for centuries, there lies a small, stepped path, where Akagündüz used to cast anchor with his father during his childhood. A second painting that looks at the other side of the island frames the modernist building of the sports hall that was the setting for the infamous Yassıada Trials in the derelict state it is in today. The multilayered meanings that Akagündüz produces on space, time and light are reflected in the “Island-Continent” paintings from within the texture and plainness of a barren terrain that belongs to almost no time period.

 

 

Murat Akagündüz’s painting continues to explore the visual traces of the social, cultural and political climate across Turkey along a trajectory defined by his inner journey and especially in his recent period, with a gaze directed towards pure nature itself. As he places the viewer at the threshold of an immense cliff, it is as if he is not painting the cliff but the feeling of looking down from it. Although we want to completely take in the void as we stand on its edge, the multifocal landscape we seem to be looking at from behind a veil made of tulle does not allow this. The gaze tries to find its moorings in this metaphorical abyss in order to progress, yet the landscape becomes blurred and ambiguous, and vertigo sets in. You are forced to step back in order to avoid being pulled into its vortex, but also cannot leave its threshold, wanting to look even deeper. The terminus of this journey in this Akagündüz painting is neither the pit of hell, nor the valley of heaven; but the heights of Araf[1], that comprises, in actual fact, not only the territories that the artist has traversed so far, but also the rest of the world.

 

[1] Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, “Neither in time am I,” from his Complete Poems published by Dergah Yayınları.

* The original title of the work is Hayali Seyir. “Seyir” actually means both “contemplation” and “travel” in Turkish.

[2] The CHP (Republican People’s Party) government of the single party period organized from 1938 to 1945 an art programme titled “Journeys to the Country”, sending around 60 artists to various parts of Anatolia, commissioning them to depict the beautiful aspects of the country and the acquisitions of the Republican reign. The Hafriyat group, on the other hand, when invited to the “Second Exhibition” (November 2010 – March 2011) organized at Arter, imagined a project inspired by the name and procedural logic of this programme and produced new works.

[3] From the interview with the artist held in November 2011.

[4] From the interview with the artist held in November 2011.

[5] From the interview with the artist held in November 2011

 

 

English translation: Nazim Dikbas, Ziya Dikbas