"I'm not beaten up any more"

“Talk to me with your eyes”: Interview with Kutlug Ataman, artist, film maker and activist.

Kutlug Ataman cuts a strange, intense, slightly piratical-looking figure in the plush Mayfair offices of his agents, The Thomas Dane Gallery. It hardly seems his natural milieu, this Turkish film-maker and video artist who in his time has been tortured in his native country, has lived in North and South America as well as making London his main base, and who is about to sample Islamabad. He feels he belongs nowhere, he says. Small wonder that his website rejoices in the name of “The Institute for the Readjustment of Clocks”.

Ataman, who made the Turner Prize shortlist a few years back and has previously produced one of his complex talking-heads-on-monitors pieces for producers Artangel, is contributing one of his richly allusive pieces to the Frieze Art Fair, starting this Thursday. Internationally, he is Turkey’s best-known contemporary artist, he has had exhibitions all over the world, but at home – it’s taken a while. Finally, this autumn, about to have his first big retrospective exhibition in Turkey, at the Istanbul Modern.

He’ll be spending a fair bit of time in his homeland, he says, not least consulting with lawyers. Because the day before we meet, a referendum in Turkey has finally voted to change the self-protecting constitution imposed by the military junta of 30 years ago, which he has such good cause to remember. He was just 19, in 1980, when, after police raids on his home, he was imprisoned by the security forces for daring to film a demonstration against the recent Western-backed military coup. He was tortured in a cell for a month, then put in one of the regime’s notorious military prisons where they forced him to take what he calls “anti-Communist ideology lessons”. It can’t have helped that he is gay. Released, he fled the country. A trial was held: eventually even the junta found him to be guiltless. Many suffered far worse treatment, many died, but he has not forgotten or forgiven. Now, after 30 years, the way is open to strike back at those involved.

“This morning my lawyer in Turkey filed a petition to sue the military junta leaders, and the police, and everybody: so I’m definitely taking them to court,” he says. His tone is almost casual – “this is not by any means a huge thing, but it is from a psychological point of view.” Well, yes. As he says, some things are improving in Turkey. “I’m not beaten up any more,” he drily remarks. And laughs, almost merrily.

After this, it seems somewhat bathetic to talk about what he’s presenting at Frieze, the autumn gathering of top contemporary galleries from around the world that starts this Thursday, but Ataman doesn’t miss a beat. The piece on display, “Column” is from his “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies” series where – and this is typical of his output – the viewer is presented in various ways with cultural conflict. Between east and west, ancient and modern, men and women, one language and another (Turkish lads struggling to read out Edward Lear’s nonsense poems, for instance), expected and unexpected. Ataman is well-known for filming people talking in various ways about all this, people caught up in the faultlines of society politically, racially, sexually. But in Column – a roughly cylindrical stack of 42 assorted old TV monitors – the faces of Eastern Turkish villagers, young and fresh, old and weathered – are mute. They just look at you. They stand for everyone who has been silenced, by whatever means, for whatever reason.

It’s a powerful piece, physically as well as conceptually. It refers to Trajan’s Column in Rome, that triumphal monument to military victory which, as Ataman points out, is like a big roll of spirally-wound film. In Kutlug’s stumpy version, it’s a monument to the ordinary people affected by big events, those marginalised, left out of the grand narratives of history.

Ataman first left Turkey to study film-making in California and still makes feature-length film-festival pieces – most recently 2009’s well-received, British-financed “Journey to The Moon” in which villagers on the Black Sea coast in 1957 are duped (for their votes) into thinking a spaceship factory will be built on their patch. Eventually they make a moon rocket of sorts out of the minaret of their mosque. The whole thing is placed at one remove by a device of today’s intellectuals discussing this supposed past event. It’s not Disney, for sure, being all about the Western influence on old Anatolia, but it follows many of the conventions of cinema film. On the other hand, there are all the video and other works for galleries, like Column, plus he has produced gallery versions of “Journey to the Moon” as well as the movie. How does he regard himself now, I ask – movie-maker or installation artist?

“If you’re talking about film-making in the industrial, classical sense, then obviously I have two jobs,” he says. “They are completely separate from each other in the way that you conceive them, finance them, structure them, bring them out, how they establish a relationship with the viewer. It’s two different ways of talking. But from an artistic point of view? Then I think I’m a film-maker, period. Every film-maker is an artist. I think of my installations as film also.”

He has filmed himself – blindfolded, staggering barefoot across a desert. He has also taken other people’s English home movies and spliced them together with Michael Nyman music: a deliberate act of working outside his familiar references, to some extent investigating the roots of the culture of his English partner whose job takes him to posts around the world – hence, next stop Islamabad. London, however, is essentially his main workplace in exile, so to speak.

There’s another side to his work, however: the physical manifestation of what he does. It’s not just light flickering on a screen, or multiple screens. He has various ways of presenting film, such as a roomful of old (always old, CRT-type) monitors arranged with an assortment of equally old chairs and tables. As if the faces and the voices were people conversing, or talking across each other, in a room. That’s what he did for his 2004 Artangel installation, ‘Küba’, in an abandoned Royal Mail sorting office in London. There you encountered 40 monitors, thus 40 people talking, 40 narratives: who you stopped to watch and listen to was up to you. But the setting, the ghost-inhabited raw concrete room with its junkshop furniture, became powerful in itself. In the same way, ‘Column’ is as much a solid object as a multiple image piece, its monitors mimicking the blocks of stone of ancient ruins.

“I’m always interested in how things are constructed,” he says. “How identities are constructed, how communities are constructed, how history, geography, art is constructed.” In the case of “column”, the piece adapts according to the space it is built in – it has just come from Zaha Hadid’s Stirling Prize-winning Maxxi art museum in Rome, where he struggled to find a place where it wasn’t upstaged by the architecture. No such problem in the temporary enclosure of Frieze. But what about all those silent people staring out of ‘Column’? The films were shot in an ancient Armenian village once destroyed by an earthquake. The subjects range from seven to 70, all standing in front of walls. As a film-maker, how did he direct their muteness?

“I told them,” he says, “To talk to me with their eyes.”

Kutlug Ataman’s exhibition “The Enemy Inside Me” runs at Istanbul Modern, 10 November 2010 – 6 March 2011.

Text © Hugh Pearman, images courtesy of Kutlug Ataman/Thomas Dane Gallery. Küba images courtesy of Artangel. Portrait of Ataman by Okan Bayulgen. Expanded version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, 10.10.10.

Links

Kutlug Ataman’s ‘Institute for the Readjustment of Clocks’: http://www.saatleriayarlamaenstitusu.com
Ataman’s “Küba” for Artangel: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2005/kuba
Ataman Turner Prize nomination interview on Tate Channel: http://channel.tate.org.uk/media/26599091001
Thomas Dane Gallery: http://www.thomasdane.com
Frieze Art Fair: http://www.friezeartfair.com
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