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Social Surrealism: Historical-Materialistic Theses on the Mystery of Art

Sezgin Boynik »

a. Theses

• Art begins with the translation of structural norms of the social material that it is dealing with into its own norms/language;
• Art is a materialist social fantasy based on lack;
• Art's epistemological difference (situated beyond history, the ecstasy, the fantasy etc.) stems from its construction of knowledge and society as a contradictory and conflictual field;
• Art's difference does only exist when the time that it has constructed, avoiding insularity, does become materialistic;
• Even if the concept of the strange is deemed socially-driven and art theory and practices regard surrealism as a deadend and a confusion, the forms that are in circulation are always psychological;
• Art is an absolute construction, since all outside/external materials (society, psychology etc.) are included in its own system as a construction

b. Surrealist Object

The purpose of this article is to develop historical-materialistic theses on social surrealism based on two artists from Turkey. So we need to represent the subject that we are dealing with in the above theses (that were just summarized) with tangible works of art. Or rather, we need to expose the surrealism in Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin and Ahmet Ögüt's works. Here, we need to closely look at Ögüt's work Exploded City, which is surrealist par excellence. However, if we at least look at a negative critical review, we can read Exploded City as a sign of superficiality, as an aesthetic show produced in the language of mass media tools that does not fully explore the concepts that it introduces and that also does not sincerely employ the intellectual resources that it draws from. According to this review that was published in Bidoun, Ögüt simplified the notions in Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" and the tension and violence between differences and sameness in Calvino is "slightly piqued" (Krasinski 2010: 138) According to Jennifer Krasinski, who wrote the review, this "slight pique" is based on the artist's lack of interest in forming a common language amongst the inhabitants of "exploded city" whose different socio-cultural and political infrastructure has been infused into the buildings. Krasinski’s critique is based on the elementary principles of "relational" sociology: it imagines society as a construction that works and insists on placing this society as a representation into art. From this perspective, Krasinski's criticism cannot see the social surrealism of Exploded City, which is its principal distinction. Because in this installation, what brings the buildings that have been destroyed through conflicts together (their suture, conjunction) is not the expectation of a relationship and a communication that could be realized among them. On the contrary the work suggests that this relationship can be formed only as a construction, an impossible construction. Thus the buildings (the social material) that are under the impact of a conflict cannot be represented as a conflict, but have been employed as a conflictual field that has been reclaimed as such because of surrealism. Thus, Exploded City is not a surrealist reality work, but a social surrealist work. It is important to self-critically point out the fact that the assumption conflict corresponded to a political notion formed in history is wrong. I state this and refer in particular to the reading that I made for the Venice Bienniale catalogue; it was in Venice where the work was exhibited at first.

I have to say that the article entitled “The Difficulty to Make Politics with Buildings” – despite my establishment of the relationship of this installation with surrealism and the impossibility with reference to Max Ernst's theory of collage – has necessarily been limited to the boundaries of the relational science of sociology as a result of my attempt to measure whether this relationship is a permanent one by the representation of the material used in the installation (Boynik, 2009). Even though the material of this analysis was conflict (political conflicts, or rather political conflicts as a result of class conflicts), it problematized under which conditions the conflict was represented or whether it was represented correctly (it was about the conflict in Yugoslavia), apart from mentioning the representation politics that “social surrealism” tries to avoid. The social surrealism of Exploded City does not consist in its representation of conflict, but in its complete transformation.

In order to reveal the surrealism in Hüseyin Alptekin's works, what really has to be done is to analyze the personal relationships in which the peculiarities are most obvious and the narratives that form around these relationships. Besides, when we look at the book on Alptekin published by the art center SALT, we see that these personal and odd relationships are mentioned quite often in the interviews selected by the editor Duygu Demir and in the texts that the artist wrote himself. The society that is the building material of Alptekin's art can be designated as a fiction that consists of strange places and strange people intersecting at strange times. The whole surrealist operation of the artist is based on this flux of experience. We can follow this experience back to correspondences that form the basis of the experience of modernity with Charles Baudelaire; all avant-garde art and especially surrealist art are based on this method. But the surrealism in Alptekin's art isn't apparent as the result of having a strong connection to this historical avant-garde; his surrealism results from the fact that he puts the construction of society through a transformative process. Thus, the surrealism in Alptekin has a materialist existence. It's particularly important to insist on this; because the concept of correspondence is only difficult to explain in a rational way and it is often explained by mystical and Jungian concepts (such as synchronicity). According to these, the coincidences that seem to have a strange harmony, not only indicate the existence of a divine plan, but also play a conceptual role in a wider scheme. From a theoretical perspective the argument of such a mystic correspondence consists in the fact that the unity formed by the various elements requires a specific resemblance deep underneath the visible differences between these elements. Slightly exaggerated we may claim that this mystical view is a new age version of the specificity in Laclau and Mouffe. But it is also possible to talk about an atheist, or rather a materialist correspondence: we are referring here to an operation that considers the unity (and suturing) of different and opposite elements not as a spontaneous and random phenomenon formed with the help of specificity, but as the forming of a construction that is capable of uniting these discrepancies. In a little while we will mention some of the theoretical and practical results of this method. In order to show Alptekin's method, one could draw “cognitive maps” (Jameson, 1990) of the correspondences that he mentions as “facts” and present a materialist analysis of these randomnesses. [In his interview with Evrim Altuğ, Alptekin discusses the map of these “facts” in detail (Altuğ, 2007)]. But I think it would really be necessary to show how these surrealist encounters in Alptekin's work are marked by language. Studies in linguistics can help us a great deal in understanding the artistic specificity of the materialist structure of ideology. The surrealism of Alptekin can most obviously be spotted in the conflicts based in language. Another surrealist (or “fantastical lyrical”) example similar to the construction of “Bal-kan” is what Alptekin calls the “soapstone”.

The soapstone is only an intermediary used to transfer a memory with the aim of remembering a possible shape. In fact, there is no such thing as soapstone (it is just the most solid state, the stone-state of soap that wears itself out as it cleans: the hardest state of soap and the softest state of stone). The soapstone creates its own semantic discourse because of its own nature and function (Wittgenstein) (Alptekin, 2011: 51).

When this philosophy of language is analyzed thoroughly, the relationship of Alptekin’s surrealism with society and politics becomes directly visible (especially with regard to the concept of violence).

c. Social Constructions

Now we need to talk about the question how the social surrealism in Alptekin's and Öğüt's works differ from each other. Their difference is constituted by the fact that their art systems include the society which they transform as different constructions. How can it be possible to give evidence of the social differences between two social surrealist tendencies keeping in mind the theories we advocated so far, or rather without requiring a sociological explanation. We would like to find an answer to the question of how the society is incorporated in art as a construction. In order to comprehend that, we need to return to the theme of modernism, which was repeatedly mentioned.

In order to analyze the problem of modernism in the construction of society from a completely theoretical standpoint without subjecting it to a sociological relational explanation, it is not sufficient to assert that modernization is a theoretical construction, because even then we would have to define the object of this theoretical construction. Yet we need to define the object of modernization and this object is the time. When Alptekin's and Öğüt's social constructions are problematized with regard to the concept of time, it's possible to position the mystery that is the object of art within a completely historical-materialist frame.

In particular, the attempt to relate Hüseyin Alptekin's art with the concept of time will be denied by the people who know his work well. Because it is rather assumed that Alptekin's works are usually referring to the concept of space. The installation titled Heterotopia (1991–2007), which is considered to be one of his most significant works, is seen as a surrealist narrative of space; and Michel Foucault's text with the same title, which has made this term well-known, is the single theoretical text included in the book about Alptekin. As a result, it will be difficult to comprehend the existence of the object of time in his works without first explaining how the concept of heterotopia functions in Alptekin's works. Regardless of the viewpoint, the surrealism of Alptekin most closely resembles Foucault's third principle of heterotopia:

The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space, but perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden (Foucault, 1986: 25).

The form of social surrealism is based upon this principle. But as Foucault points out, the fourth principle of heterotopia argues that this surrealist setup is completely related to time.

Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time – which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time (Foucault, 1986: 26).

Therefore we suggest to replace Alptekin's concept of heterotopia by heterochronia.

In order to point out the object of time in Ahmet Öğüt's works, we will return to the Exploded City installation. This work is considered to be related to history in numerous texts and the artist's interviews. What makes it possible to think of the buildings that have exploded at various points in time (and in various places) together as a unity, or rather what makes the suture possible, is the surrealist operation that does not suppress the conflicts. From the perspective of time, Exploded City is a surrealist historical suture. Therefore it can distance itself from the empiricism of sociology and present us with a dissident historical narrative. At this point we have to repeat the question we asked about Alptekin's etymology of “Bal-kan”: does a historical narrative which is based on fantasy, remain exempt from the strong ideological wind blowing through the science of history, in other words historicism? In order to answer this question, we need to understand what makes the surrealist history dissident. In one of his interviews Ahmet Öğüt describes the surrealist nature of the relationship of this work with history:

I was trying to create a closely studied history of Exploded City without getting caught up in the discourse of the sanctioned authoritative historical narrative. My hope was to present a social montage by tapping into individual memory (Golonu, 2011).

With the help of an interview Öğüt made with Önder Özengi, we understand that this solution is not a theoretical tactic suggested ad hoc in order to release the tension between personal memories and a non-personal dissident historical narration. In this interview, the artist develops the concepts he uses very clearly and with references to their political forms, and defines the stylistic difference of Exploded City as the “rhizomatic conceptualization of history” (Özengi and Öğüt, 2010). This conceptualization, of course, does not automatically create the “rhizomatic” or “fantastic” effect that's demanded of every work of art. As mentioned in the same interview, this conceptualization, which has the ability to contain infinite and completely opposite information, is dissident to the statement of that history which is inherently presented as authoritarian, oppressive, and unique. As can be seen, because this conceptualization is not subject to a cognitive consensus and operation, it has to express itself as an experience. This condition is well understood by Öğüt: if we want to apply a rhizomatic conceptualization to history, we need to resort to experience as a method:

“In the works mentioned, I tried to create a live experience for the audience by taking as my departure point the facts of recent history and my totally subjective point of view. I believe that such ‘moments of experience’ can act as zones of short-term freedom for memory in a coma. Cinema or theater allows for the live experience (the moment of watching) by re-enacting fragments from history. My desire is to transform the ‘moment of experience’ into a ‘site of experience’ so that the audience can become part of it. By creating a ‘site of experience’, the audience can explore the knowledge that they already possess, namely the memory in a coma.”(Özengi and Öğüt, 2010).

This conceptual condition we have arrived at also has quite a disturbing side: if “social surrealism” is an operation that transforms the society conceptually as we previously pointed out, where does experience come into play in this operation? As anybody would admit, all artistic operations, however conceptual, are based on one or numerous particular experiences. But the difference of “social surrealism” (as a conceptual operation) from the other artistic tendencies is that it translates these experiences into its own construction which it accepts as its own absolute (see the sixth thesis). This operation is the fundamental factor that separates social surrealism from surrealist realism. As we pointed out, these two operations take place in Öğüt's works in parallel, both works such as Mutual Issues that attempt to represent the surrealism of the society (as an experience) and works such as Exploded City, which we regard to be thoroughly social surreal, exist side by side, and sometimes together. Even though Exploded City is based on experience (especially as a “personal memory” as emphasized in the Özengi and Gölönü interviews), in the end the concept of art that we finally see is a completely conceptual construction and fiction. This fact is the disturbing side of this whole issue: these interpretations imply the invitation to experience a conceptual fiction. Öğüt’s suggestion nearly invokes an oxymoron: an experience of concept! What causes this deadlock is that the histories of time that are the objects of Exploded City installation are thought to be related to the past; whereas the time-object of this work is now. The unfortunate past of the conflicted buildings in Exploded City and the politics related to this past do not guarantee that he who remembers them will have a liberating experience. More importantly, most of these buildings are no spatial themes of a suppressed history anyway; most of them are cornerstones of the writing of a suppressive history, whether in their exploded or not exploded states. Thus there is a stylistic problem to make politics with buildings. But because Exploded City does not refer to the past, it takes these buildings further away from the experience and ethics of history: it erects them as an impossibility. What Walter Benjamin calls “now-time” makes it possible for them to be together. Here we refer to Benjamin's XVI thesis about the philosophy of history, which completely opposes the historicism referring to the past and offers now as a radical opportunity:

A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history (Benjamin, 1992: 262).

Even though this now-time is conceptually a denial of historicism, technically it's pragmatically related to modernism. Particularly because our subject is art, it can prove to be interesting to see how this effect, or rather what's known as a “practice” in popular language, is affected by now-time. We can define this effect by extending it to a discussion of modernism, with the help of a proposal: artistic practice that is open to now-time, sees the conflicts of the state of modernity as an effect that results in conceptual richness. Now-time in this form, in the form it's utilized in art, does point at the end of history; but it considers the time we are in as a point in which the conflicts are most developed. Therefore, when we talk about art today, we talk about contemporary or current art. But beyond that, if we assume that it does not necessarily have a relationship with ethics, now-time is a tendency that's most open to the technological, scientific, cultural and political effects of modernity. Walter Benjamin's “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” just explains the art practice of this now-time: art should be open to all the liberating potential effects that modernity offers. The social construction of the now-time object assumes that the diversity of modernity can be found everywhere and at every moment lived. Ahmet Öğüt's art-ideology is over-determined by the social construction that is affected by now-time. As an over-determination, this effect influences both social surrealist and surrealist realist works of the artist. From the point of view of the narration of history, this social construction considers the liberating effect of modernity as the actual impulse of art theory and practice that's made.

Hüseyin Alptekin's art-ideology is affected by another time-object. Because of this other time effect, the social construction of his art is different as well. Modernization has a suppressing effect in this construction: it makes things, various time points and spaces equal. This is what Susan Buck-Morrs says with reference to the Communist Manifest, “All that is solid melts into air”. This is based on a worldview in which modernism is erased in the streets on behalf of an abstract and cruel one-way progression and contemporaneity (Berman, 1983). But in order to point out the conceptual effects of this kind of modernism, we need to look into Peter Osborne's works in which he analyses the relationship between time, avant-garde and modernity. Osborne’s thesis “modernism as translation” can help us to understand the question of how the construction of society is included in art, or rather how society is inserted into the language of art, which we've been trying to find an answer for from the beginning. Because the real important factor in the inclusion of the construction of society in art is the temporal object of society, and therefore an understanding of how modernity translates into philosophy and art can help us to understand this process as well. Osborne starts with this thesis:

Modernism as a temporal-cultural form is the affirmation of a particular form of time-determination (Osborne, 2000: 57–58).

According to this, modernism is an attitude as a cultural form, or a philosophical attitude, rather than a historical fact. The founder element of this modernist attitude is an operation of denial and radical transformation, as it is in art:

[Modernism] derives its concrete meaning from the distributive unity of its specific instances, as a particular constellation of negation, at any particular time (Osborne, 2000: 59)

This modernist thesis means in practice that this form of a “particular constellation of negation” can not only be found in some moments (such as moments of transition and radical contemporaneity), but also everywhere and at every moment. From this point of view, this philosophical attitude that also invokes Öğüt's time-object, affects Alptekin's artistic practice almost as a world-view, or rather an ethic. In this case, if the modernist form can be found everywhere and at every point in time in which the aforementioned conditions are met, what should be done to discover these and include them in the construction of art? Osborne suggests to consider modernity not as a spontaneous homogeneous formation, but as a heterogeneous distribution of various “constellations”; the quest to find these “differences” makes the operation political and conceptual. It is no exaggeration to say that this is Alptekin’ constant pursuit. He always looks for the forms that constitute the moments of modernity. Therefore we can understand the social construction in Alptekin's works better when we think of heterotopia as heterochronia. It's about bringing together separate and heterogeneous times. As a result, the liberating effect of the now is not conceptually guaranteed by this social construction: each existing appearance of modernity is not equally important, they are important in accordance to the liberating effect that their potential narrations (constellations) contain. We can call this “full-time” by means of temporality.

While Osborne sees the principle of modernity wholly as a historical-materialist operation, this view could have different applications. Because this time-object is not open to the liberating effect of homogeneity, it has an inclination towards a strange social constellation (togetherness, articulation) that is formed by the subjective metaphysics of individual “differences”. Maurice Blanchot's definition of “the unavowable community”, which is known to have a strong influence on Alptekin is the best description of this inclination. This concept of community based on surrealist Georges Bataille's writings is described as “the community of things that don't have a community”, or rather it is defined as a community without unity formed by constellations that are identified by their subjective differences. But what makes the constellation of an “unavowable community” possible, is not the historical denials or splits, but rather the effect which Blanchot calls the “principle of incompleteness”. The meaning of this absence of history is this: there's an inadequacy and incompleteness in everything and this state of things makes it possible for them to yield a liberating opportunity. What we need to ask again here, is how the social construction and time-object affect the artistic practice. As we pointed out, Alptekin's social surrealism relies on a method he calls “facts” and the institutional and materialist foundations of which he doesn't deny. But Alptekin's practice is more determined by something, or rather over-determinated by what he calls “being homeless at home.”

“Casablanca, Halep, Rejkjavik, regardless of where, I want to be in another place... Somewhere outside my own context... More or less being homeless at home.” (Alptekin and Muka, 2003)

This being out-of-context really forms Alptekin's art practice. It is the act of a being-out-of-context that is not only spatial, but also chronical, national, tribal; and most importantly this attitude presupposes an absolutely political being-out-of-context.

Translation from Turkish into English by Emre Meydan, Merve Ünsal


Alptekin, H. and Muka, E. (2003), “Being Homeless at Home/Evinde Evsiz Olmak”, art-ist: contemporary art magazine, No: 6.

Alptekin, H. and Morris, M. (2011), “Tabula Zimpara”, in: (ed.) D. Demir, I am Not a Studio Artists – Huseyin Bahri Alptekin, Salt:Istanbul.

Altug, E. and Alptekin, H. (2011), “Conversation with a Man Alone at the bar of the Imaginary Hotel Cosmos Build by Chaos”, in: (ed.) D. Demir, I am Not a Studio Artists – Huseyin Bahri Alptekin, Salt:Istanbul.

Benjamin; Walter (1992), “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in: Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations. Fontana: London.

Berman, Marshall (1993), All That is Solid Melts into Air: the Experience of Modernity. Verso: London.

Boynik, Sezgin (2009), “Difficulty in Making Politics with Buildings”, in: Basak Senova (ed.) Lapses, IKSV: Istanbul.

Foucault, Michel (1986) “Of Other Spaces”, Diacritics 16:1, pp. 22–27.

Golonu, B. and Ögut, A. (2011,) “Between the Scaffold and the Ruin”, Filip Magazine, No. 14,

Jameson, Fredrick (1990), “Cognitive Mapping”, in: Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. (eds.). Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, University of Illinois Press.

Krasinski, Jennifer (2010), “Ahmet Ogut: Exploded City”, Bidoun: Arts and Culture from Middle East, no. 21.

Osborne, Peter (2000), Philosophy in Cultural Theory. Routledge: London.

Özengi, Ö. and Ögut, A. (2010), “Memory is not Dead, But is Often Comatose”, Ricochet#4,

Sezgin Boynik

Sezgin Boynik lives and works in Helsinki. He is Phd candidate in Jyväskylä University Social Science departament. He is working on thesis "Cultural Politics of Black Wave in Yugoslavia from 1963 to 1972". He has been publishing on punk, relation between aesthetics and politics, on cultural nationalism, Situationist International and Yugoslavian cinema. Co-edited reader "Nationalism and Contemporary Art" (with Minna L. Henriksson, Rhizoma & EXIT, Prishtina, 2007), and co-authored book on "History of Punk and Underground in Turkey, 1978-1999" (with Tolga Guldalli, BAS, Istanbul, 2008) Apart from scholarly work he is also active as conceptual artist. Recent articles include "New Collectives" (Retracing Images, Brill, Boston & Leiden, 2011), "Cultural Policy of Dusan Makavejev" (Kino! Journal No. 15, Ljubljana, 2011) "Discontents with Theoretical Practices in Contemporary Art" (Journal of Visual Art Practice 10:2, London, 2011) "Art of Slogans - in two parts"(TKH no 19 and 20, Belgrade, 2012). Art works are installation "On Lenin: Atlases, Herbariums and Rituals" (Anders Bergman Galleri, Helsinki, 2012) and art-book "Counter-constructivist Model" (co-authored with M.L. Henriksson, Labyrinth Press, Stockholm, 2012).

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