Kutlug Ataman

BAWAG Contemporary

The show's title could have come from Bob Dylan's melancholy poetry: “A Rose Blooms in the Garden of Sorrows” is a phrase that sounds like scratched vinyl. The Turkish filmmaker and video artist Kutlug Ataman a resented three recent works addressing social and sexual identities. A politically engaged artist, Ataman continually crosses the border between the cinema and the museum, the past and the present, the virtual and the politically relevant—and, finally, between reality and fiction.

Semiha B. Unplugged, 1997, a remarkable 465-minute video, is a portrait of the Turkish opera star Semiha Berksoy. At over eighty years old, she is as flamboyant as one could hope and performs for Ataman's handheld camera like there's no tomorrow—think Courtney Love, fifty years from now. Her lips are slathered in rouge vulgaire, her cheeks in radiant pink. In black underwear and a skin-tone body stocking, Berksoy is a primal force, created for the klieg lights of a trashy bedroom stage. The singer, who lived through the transition from Ottoman Empire to modern Turkey, performed in New York, Paris, and Berlin, and whose career ended when she was accused of being a Communist, is the embodiment of the rebellious woman, a diva who transgressed, with relish, the norms of society. In Ataman's film she displays for us the unfettered freedom that has informed her persona. As she speaks, real experiences and personal mythologies run together. Ataman has justified his refusal to differentiate the two: “The most important thing about documents is that they not be inventions. My films, though, are both inventions and documents. For me, the driving question is, how do you say the truth that is between quotation marks?”

In Never My Soul, 2001, a portrait of a transvestite,the main character, Ceyhan Virat, plays himself, albeit with a script produced beforehand with the artist. The work is a montage, a product of the editing room, and while Ataman's manipulations are subtle, they lend biography an aesthetic perfection that has one hoping, in the face of the brutal truth, that it is all a mere fiction. The title of the work is a reference to a catchphrase of Turkish melodrama, “You might take my body, but never my soul,” typically shouted by a woman at her rapist. Through Virat, Ataman reports, mercilessly, on the existential dramas and brutalities played out at the margins of society.

Women Who Wear Wigs, 1999, a four-channel video installation, is the piece most at home in an art context. Four women explain why they wear wigs: a transsexual, a cancer patient, a Muslim student forbidden to wear a veil at her secularized university in Turkey, and a putative terrorist for whom wigs are disguises. The individual stories are woven together in an ideological panorama of identity production, repression, and gender-bending.

Language is Ataman's true obsession. In his video reports, as the words of the protagonists pour out, storytelling and listening seem more important than watching. Language affects and permeates the images, linking personal vicissitudes to broad political questions. The Bawag Foundation presented Never My Soul on six small monitors in berths furnished with reclining chairs. This easy-listening display format was a subtle hint that one should pay attention to words in this endless flow of subjectivityfrom the most marginalized niches of this world.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.