PRINT April 2013


Ahmet Öğüt, Across the Slope, 2008, modified Fiat 131, constructed floor. Installation view, SALT Beyoğlu, Istanbul, 2011.

IN 1961, President Cemal Gürsel of Turkey commissioned engineers to design an automobile that could be produced entirely in that country. The first prototypes of the car, grandiloquently called the “Devrim” (“revolution”), were duly developed, and their unveiling scheduled to coincide with the annual Republic Day parade in Ankara. The day having arrived, the president climbed aboard one of the prototypes and joined the procession—but the car ran out of gas after about a hundred yards, as no one had remembered to fill the tank. The incident, which made the president and his car the laughingstock of the nation, forever ended all hopes of manufacturing the Devrim. But it did give rise to Ahmet Öğüt’s Devrim (Revolution), 2007, a wall drawing with an extended caption that relates the whole tragicomic episode.

I cite this work first not because it bears my own name but because it offers a glimpse of an early manifestation of one of the artist’s favorite motifs. Since creating Devrim, Öğüt has often used cars in burlesque fables that explore the sociopolitical context in Turkey and beyond. For example, his installation Across the Slope, 2008, stars a Fiat 131, which was very much an aspirational car for the Turkish middle class in the 1970s. The artist elongated the Fiat’s shape to make it look like an American luxury sedan. The customized car was presented perched at the apex of a mound constructed within the gallery, its disproportionate size evidently preventing it from getting over the hump. Beyond the car, imagery of roads—and, by analogy, of movement and change (or their absence)—is found throughout Öğüt's oeuvre. For his well-received intervention at the Fifth Berlin Biennale in 2008, for instance, he covered a thirteen-hundred-square-foot floor at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art with asphalt (Ground Control, 2007–2008). More recently, he installed a bus shelter that looks like a carousel (Waiting for a Bus, 2011) on a street in Christchurch, New Zealand.

However, no single theme can link all the artist’s works. Öğüt, who was born into an ethnically Kurdish family in 1981 in Diyarbakır, Turkey, and lives and works between Istanbul, Amsterdam, and Berlin, is prolific, and his output is widely varied. If there is a constant, it is political engagement, which in his work is always implicitly or explicitly legible. For an exhibition in Belgium in 2012, he produced a project inspired by a local socialist cooperative: The Castle of Vooruit, 2012, a giant helium balloon mimicking the castle-topped rock in Magritte’s 1959 painting Le Château des Pyrénées—though in Öğüt’s rendition the castle has been replaced by a replica of the Vooruit, an arts center originally built for the working class in Ghent. Some of his projects take an overtly activist tack. For example, in collaboration with the Tate and London’s Delfina Foundation, he recently initiated the Silent University, a platform for the exchange of information among refugees and asylum seekers—an engagement with cultural minorities that evokes the artist’s own Kurdish identity.

If Öğüt’s work has already been compared to that of historic figures like Robert Smithson or contemporaries like Anri Sala, I cannot help, for my part, but see strong affinities with Thomas Bayrle (whose retrospective I am currently organizing at Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art in Brussels). Despite the very different sociocultural horizons in which their respective practices are rooted—the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, of West Germany in the ’60s, on one hand, and post-Kemalist Turkey, on the other—the topics explored by both artists are astonishingly similar: the urban environment, political propaganda, activism, terrorism, and the middle class, not to mention the automobile industry. Bayrle’s Holz Relief Stadt (Philip Johnson), 1999–2000, and Öğüt’s Exploded City, 2009, offer an instructive comparison. Bayrle’s work is a large, floor-based portrait of the titular modernist titan; small model buildings function like pixels, delineating Johnson’s image. Exploded City, presented for the first time at the Turkish pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, also takes the form of a miniature metropolis, bringing together tiny reproductions of buildings throughout the world that have been targets of attack. Bayrle’s rigorously ordered work seems to look back at the Cold War world, where cultural hegemony flowed from political hegemony. Öğüt’s unruly agglomeration of toy buildings poses fragmentation as both a threat and an opportunity. And if Bayrle’s graphic superforms—dizzying images comprising masses of smaller images, such as cars or telephones or Chairman Mao—seem to speak first and foremost to ideology, to the “software” of capitalism, communism, or fascism, Öğüt attends to the hardware, the physical presence of the cars and buildings and roads and people that work for or against global flows of power. The cars may break down and the buildings may float away, but the potential for resistance, for learning, and for change is shown to reside precisely in such stubborn instantiations of the real.

Devrim Bayar is curator at Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, Brussels.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.