Fikret Atay

When I first saw Fikret Atay’s work almost two years ago at Büro-Friedrich in Berlin, I was immediately impressed. His videos struck me as at once strange and familiar. When I saw them again recently at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf, the contrast between familiarity and strangeness was even more pronounced, and I realized that it is precisely this feeling of contradiction that makes these videos—by a Kurdish artist from Turkey—so fascinating and attractive.

In the video Fast and Best, 2002, teenagers perform Kurdish folk dances. The video shows only their legs clad in jeans and sneakers or boots, moving to the rhythm. Boys’ and girls’ legs indistinguishable, they step back and forth to the rhythms of traditional Kurdish songs that everyone knows in the city of Batman, in southern Anatolia, where Atay lived until recently. Like his other videos, Fast and Best was recorded with a simple handheld camera. Likewise, in Rebels of the Dance, 2002—the title is a reference to a TV dance show popular in Turkey, “Sultans of the Dance”—two boys, in a sterile ATM vestibule, sing and dance to simple Kurdish dance songs that play one after the other and ever faster, ever more rhythmically, and, of necessity, in their own invented language (Kurdish was outlawed in Turkey in the early ’90s). Now and then one of the boys stands up and, looking somewhat bored, dances quickly past the ATM; then the other does the same. A simple performance makes one conscious of the contrast between the ATM as a sign of international capital versus the folk song as a symbol of the local. “I have no capital to defend,” says Atay, “but I do have culture.”

In Bang Bang, 2003, four children dressed in jeans, T-shirts, and sandals, and armed with plastic guns, act out a shockingly real-looking gunfight around abandoned train cars. Yelling, crawling on the ground, and hiding behind cars, they stage a fight that has all-too-real referents in a region where armed conflicts between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish military were nothing out of the ordinary. In Atay’s video, two of the children overpower their little foes, shoot them at point-blank, and then strike a victory pose.

Tinica, 2004, the most recent work here, shows a teenage boy making a set of drums from a plastic bucket and some tin cans used to store oil. The scene is set in the evening twilight on a hill overlooking Batman. At the end, the boy lazily kicks his tin-can drums down the hill. The cans fly apart, roll down the slope for a while, and finally come to rest among the garbage at the bottom. “I live in a town,” said Atay in his contribution to the 2003 Istanbul Biennial catalogue, “where it is practically impossible to produce art. I get more pleasure from producing art in the context of the impossible than I would producing in the metropolitan context.” That biennial led to Atay’s discovery, and today he lives in Paris. It’s hard not to wonder what effect this will have on his work—this move to a place where art is merely possible.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.