“Not Easy, to Save the World in 90 Days”


“Born in Batman”: Gallerygoers have surely cracked a grin at this line on wall labels for Fikret Atay’s work. In the video Batman vs. Batman, 2009, Atay has finally addressed the comical name of his hometown, situated near Turkey’s border with Iraq. The video features Hüseyin Kalkan, the mayor of Batman, as a superhero who takes David Nolan and Warner Bros. to court over the ownership of the name Batman—hoping to invest the winnings to ameliorate social problems in the downtrodden Turkish town, an enterprise doomed to failure. Atay sheds light on the local politics and problems of southeastern Turkey, a region that seems to have nothing to lose. Such are the sorts of issues addressed in “Not Easy, to Save the World in 90 Days” at the project space Tanas, founded by René Block to showcase the production of critical art in Turkey, and, in the case of this exhibition, above all outside of Istanbul. Most of the artists presented in the show have Kurdish backgrounds and come from southeastern Turkey, from cities like Mardin, Diyarbakir, Kaman, or Şirnak. Not surprisingly, the traumatic situation of the continuing, twenty-year-long Kurdish civil war is reflected in a number of works. Erkan Özgen’s video Adult Games, 2004, for example, shows a group of children running around on a playground, but oddly all of them are wearing black ski masks, a reminder of how they might be viewed from the outside: as potential terrorists.

The subject of community—much talked about these days—plays a central role in these works: The works ask how we define community and how it is held together, while also addressing the breakdown of taboos and traditions and pondering the meaning and purpose of revolution. Servet Kocyiğit’s Everything You Heard About Turkish Men Is True, 2009—the letters that make up the title are colorful little crocheted doilies mounted on canvas—is a grimly generalizing commentary on the traditional patriarchy and contemporary machismo, which is elevated to a strangely playful pastime in his video Shake It ’til It Drops, 2007, showing five uniformed men holding a belly dancer up in the air, shaking her to make her elaborate costume tinkle as she submits to the proceedings with a smile. Cengiz Tekin does not exclude women from his critique of the dominance of tradition in his photograph Free Kick, 2005, which shows a soccer player about to take a free kick in front of a wall formed by the traditionally clothed members of a devout family. And in confronting authoritarian traditions and nationalist politics, Nasan Tur has taken revolution to the point of absurdity. Time for Revollusion, 2008, his photograph of that misspelled slogan being applied to a wall by a graffiti artist, along with his “Demo Kits,” 2009, luxurious kits for creating manifestos for demonstrations that include fancy types of wood and silk cloth along with spray cans featuring a minimalist design, declare revolt to be a farce, an illusion that can be marketed as part of a lifestyle package.

Block, who by his own account “was always fascinated by what happens on the margins,” has put together an insightful show that presents artistic responses to authoritarian structures and an entrenched political situation. By including ten male artists and not a single woman, the show may demonstrate the difficulty of finding female artists in the Kurdish periphery, but it would have been better if the creation of a one-sided roster of artists did not undermine the critical approaches favored by the artists themselves.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.