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Differentiating Curatorial Practices in Turkey: the Political Dimension of Art Documentation

Ilhan Ozan »

The exhibition It was a time of conversation (2012) at SALT brought together archival materials of three exhibitions from the first half of the 1990s. In 1993, Number Fifty / Memory/Recollection II was curated by Vasıf Kortun at building #50 in Akaretler/Istanbul. Kortun and the artists decided to close the exhibition after the banner of the exhibition was replaced by the poster of the Turkish Democratic Party. In 1995, GAR, part of the “Taboos and Art” symposium organized by Sanart at the Ankara Railway Station, was shut down after two days by the station administration because the administration thought the exhibition demoralized society. In 1995, Globalization – State, Misery, Violence was curated by Ali Akay at Devlet Han—at the time, the studio of Emre Zeytinoğlu and Müşerref Zeytinoğlu, in Beyoğlu, Istanbul. The peculiarity of these three exhibitions derives from the fact that they had initiated new curatorial approaches by carrying the exhibition to the controversial sites outside the current conventional places in Turkey such as the Atatürk Cultural Center, State Art and Sculpture Museum and galleries.

While these three exhibitions represent a particular new approach to curatorial practice in the 1990s by bringing the traditional exhibition structure to an ultimately new platform, It was a time of conversation points out a new direction towards which curatorial practice is currently evolving. It was a time of conversation reevaluates the period using the archives of these exhibitions in terms of artistic practice and the concept of the curator that was just beginning to emerge in Turkey. Accordingly, these two kinds of exhibition-making indicate the transformation of artistic practice in Turkey in the last two decades.

The main difference between these two artistic practices is the transition from artwork to art documentation. Boris Groys draws attention to the relationship between art and life in terms of art documentation and modern politics—more precisely and conceptually called biopolitics as coined by various thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben. In the traditional sense, artwork, whether it be painting, readymade, or installation, is conceived as embodying art in itself by making it present and visible regardless of its medium. The artwork always has an external reference and refers to something else other than itself such as objects in reality, or certain political subjects. It cannot refer to art by nature of being art itself. On the contrary, art documentation that can also be in the form of painting, readymade, or installation, does not present art but only documents it. Therefore, art documentation is by definition not art; it only refers to art, so art is not present and visible but rather absent and hidden.[i]

In such a context, what does art documentation designate? What is its relationship to the artwork? While an exhibition through art documentation may refer to artworks, it may intend to make them present and visible again by a way of recollecting them. However, there is also another side of art documentation that I think is present in It was a time of conversation. First of all, an exhibition through documentation does not necessarily have to make any past art event present. It does not intend to produce an artwork, so art does not appear in the form of an object, or performance that is shaped by a creative act and requires a contemplative gaze for reception. In this case, art itself becomes the practice of art as such. Consequently, the identifying characteristic of art documentation is neither making present a past art event nor the intention of a coming artwork. It is rather a form of reference to an artistic activity[ii] and thus exploits artistic media within the art space to refer to life itself and to artistic life by presenting it indirectly.

What is the meaning of art documentation in today’s artistic practice? Does it have political connotations? If it does, in which ways? If we look back at the three exhibitions in the 1990s, we see that they were all politically motivated artistic actions and that the exhibition practice was conducted through a dialogue based on the collaboration and the exchange of ideas between curators and artists. E. Zeytinoğlu, the artist in Globalization – State, Misery, Violence, says that the dialogue started by the visit of Akay to his studio and eventually led them to the discussion of ‘globalization’.[iii] In these dialogues, there were two basic aims targeted: the attempt of giving art an interdisciplinary form and the critique of Kemalism.[iv] These two aspects of artistic intentions found reflections in the curatorial structures of these exhibitions that Akay curates Globalization – State, Misery, Violence as a sociologist; GAR is curated by a collective initiative of artists; Kortun curates Number Fifty / Memory/Recollection II as an art historian and invites intellectuals and academics to the conversations held during the exhibition. The exhibition spaces used by these three exhibitions had appeared as the territorialization of such ‘conversations and dialogues’ as stated by Kortun.[v]

This is from where It was a time of conversation departs. Let’s consider a work, ‘The Memory of the State’ by E. Zeytinoğlu in Number Fifty / Memory/Recollection II which was reproduced approximately after 20 years for It was a time of conversation. The work displays a number of black file folders placed next to each other on a shelf which is framed with neon. This artwork explicitly refers to a political issue by taking the archival method of the state as an external reference. Such an archival model and political issue evokes a term, biopolitics, in terms of bureaucratic and technological documentation which includes planning, reports, and statistical inquires. Although the work refers to such a politics in the former exhibition, in the latter, it merely functions as a document used in order to indicate the same aspects of current politics. However, this time, artistic practice is also using the same medium with modern politics: documentation. That is how art refers to life today in a different way than simply as the reference of an artwork to life earlier in art history. Documentation, here, rather gains a crucial importance for art, “producing the life of the living as such: the documentation inscribes the existence of an object in history, gives a lifespan to this existence, and gives the object life as such – independently of whether this object was ‘originally’ living or artificial.”[vi]

After this discussion we arrive at the issue of original and copy, or production and reproduction. This subject has already been examined for a long time; and it is more problematic since the work of Zeytinoğlu is a readymade by nature. But let’s leave this subject aside. When Walter Benjamin discussed the loss of aura of the original in his well-known essay he basically did not explore the disappearance of originality but its replacement.[vii] Today, we are far beyond the ‘retinal art’ and the material distinction between original and copy has disappeared a long time ago. The differentiation thus rather depends on locating certain things in a certain context, which is directed by narration. Therefore the distinctive characteristic of art documentation is formed by its discursive dimension that can turn a copy, or reproduction into an original by means of documentation; by narrating the conditions of its emergence.

So the discursivity of art documentation becomes the distinctive feature of artistic practice in establishing the relationship between art and life today, but in a completely new context. The potential of a discursivity in exhibition making might develop to a form of critical inquiry into the operating conditions and processes of social and political life and its value-systems as producing new knowledge and meaning in contemporary art. In an interview, Antonio Negri states “there is continuously giving meaning to artistic experience and considering an event or fact at the historical level and clarifying, with such obviousness, what its meaning is – that is what art is all about.”[viii] The invention of meaning and new ways of interpretation via documentation in “the field of exteriority” potentially raise the materials to the status of objects of discourse.

As the last point, I’d like to remark on the subject of the archive. SALT, as an institution model, presented It was a time of conversation under the division ‘Open Archive’ that hosts exhibitions of archival documentation. Although the word ‘archive’ has become quite controversial today, it would be misleading to confine it merely to the present time and the objects recollected. It is another question when an archive starts and ends, but it is a historical fact that the archive has a close relationship with the present and future as well as with the production of knowledge. As Derrida argues “archivization produces as much as it records the event.”[ix] The archive is shaped by social, political and technological forces.

The archive is not “the library of libraries” as Foucault argues, nor is it “the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past.”[x] Foucault analyzes the archive through “the system of discursivity” that establishes the possibility of what can be said. He conceives of the archive as discursive formations that define their own truth criteria. This notion emphasizes the relation between knowledge and power over the archive. Therefore, giving access to different forms of knowledge by opening archives to the public and to see archivization as an infinite process are two important aspects of the idea of an open archive.

The practice of the art documentation, as represented by It was a time of conversation for a documentary exhibition model and culture and an art institution model as represented by SALT that defines its mission as “to explore critical and timely issues in visual and material culture, and cultivate innovative programs for research and experimental thinking”[xi], point out a transformation in Turkey from the early 1990s to the present by proposing new ways of exhibition making. In this transformation, the concept of the independent curator has been replaced by institutional curating today. The discursivity of the artistic practice is taken over by institutionalization, which presupposes a different kind of collective work than in the 1990s, though it does not ignore other possible forms of exhibition making. In this way, discursivity has the capacity to turn reproduction to production, and vice versa. The practice of art documentation has been using the same tools with regard to the current politics in modern society. This practice may develop strategies of resistance and the inscription of a social memory that is also shaped by the archive.


[i] Groys, Boris, Art Power, MIT Press, USA, 2008.

[ii] Groys, Boris, Art Power, MIT Press, USA, 2008.

[iii] Zeytinoğlu Emre, Conversation: Ali Akay, Selim Birsel, Vasıf Kortun and Emre Zeytinoğlu, 03.03.2012, Salt Galata.

[iv] Akay, Ali & Kortun, Vasıf, Conversation: Ali Akay, Selim Birsel, Vasıf Kortun and Emre Zeytinoğlu, 03.03.2012, Salt Galata.

[v] Kortun, Vasıf, Conversation: Ali Akay, Selim Birsel, Vasıf Kortun and Emre Zeytinoğlu, 03.03.2012, Salt Galata.

[vi] Groys, Boris, Art Power, MIT Press, USA, 2008.

[vii] Benjamin, Walter, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, deutsche Fassung 1939, in: ders., Gesammelte Schriften Band I, Frankfurt am Main 1980.

[viii] Negri, Antonio, A Conversation with Antonio Negri; Community Art: The Politics of Trespassing, herausgegeben von Paul De Bruyne and Pascal Gielen, Valiz/Antennae Series, Amsterdam, 2011.

[ix] Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, übers. v. Eric Prenowitz, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996.

[x] Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, übers. v. A. M. Sheridan Smith, Tavistock Publications, London, 1972.

[xi]!/en/43/about-salt_break/ (12.04.2013)

İlhan Ozan

İlhan Ozan lives and works in İstanbul. After completing his undergradute in the department of Sociology at Marmara University, he wrote his thesis about art and politics in MA program in Philosophy and Social Thought at İstanbul Bilgi University where he graduated in 2012. His field of academic study includes philosophy of social sciences, social change and culture and philosophical perspectives on art and aesthetics. He is more specifically interested in the historical constitution and transformation of art in which he conducts his researches through a nominalist perspective.

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