Cengiz Çekil


Born in 1945, Cengiz Çekil is widely regarded as a founding father of Turkish contemporary art. Perhaps because he has spent most of his life outside Istanbul, however, the art establishment in the country’s most cosmopolitan city has mostly overlooked or ignored him. René Block and the curatorial collective WHW skillfully inserted a few of Çekil’s more incontestably brilliant works into the fourth and eleventh Istanbul biennials, respectively. But according to the curator and critic Necmi Sönmez, who wrote the text for the artist’s only existing monograph, “Cengiz Çekil remains the least known, least documented and [most] concealed artist (of Contemporary Turkish Art)” in the recent history of art in Turkey.

This rare solo show of Çekil’s work included paintings, sculptures, installations, and prints, but—as its curator, Vasif Kortun, noted in an interview—it merely scratched the surface of the artist’s practice. In wildly disparate media but with remarkable consistency, Çekil draws on the sensual, tactile effects of piled-up accumulations of cheap, low-tech stuff, in order to coax seemingly incongruous meanings from commonplace materials: transforming construction supplies, fluorescent lights, electrical cables, and fabric into somber funerary slabs in the sculpture Clandestine Light, 1987, for example, or manipulating nothing but melted candle wax and charred wick into a soulful expression of pain in the “painting” on cardboard Waxing, Etching, 1976.

The installation Towards Childhood, Since Childhood, 1974, consists of a dozen glass Coca-Cola bottles, each turned on its side, tied to a bed of twigs, and rigged to a battery-powered light. The bottles were arranged on the floor in four neat rows of three. The name of the piece immediately keys in a nostalgic reading of the work, and indeed, these objects are related to the kinds of contraptions that Çekil made as a boy. They resemble bricolage-style boats, or message carriers made with a bit more mechanical ingenuity than the usual glass container stuffed with a missive, corked, and flung out to sea. But the cables, lights, batteries, and electrical tape that crown the objects give them a sinister cast, evocative of the moment when rudimentary gasoline bombs or Molotov cocktails adopt the technological sophistication to become more damage-inducing improvised explosive devices.

Çekil made the piece in 1974 for his first exhibition, “Réorganisation pour une Exposition,” which was staged in the basement of a Paris café a year after the artist graduated from L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Taken in that context, Towards Childhood, Since Childhood suggests a deep sense of foreboding about a stark rise in political violence at the time, notably in Turkey itself, which for much of the 1970s was convulsing through one traumatic military coup after another, each replete with deadly street protests, assassinations, and terror campaigns from Right and Left.

Several of the works on view here multiplied their meaning in the process of being revisited, and many were restaged or even radically altered: Smashed into Pieces, for instance, was originally executed in 1998 as a site-specific performance for which Çekil enlisted live models, cast their limbs and torsos, and arranged the resulting molds on squares of white fabric stretched out across the floor; but here, the artist wrapped 288 fragments of the gold-leafed molds in aging pages of newsprint and crammed them into utilitarian metal shelves. As a result, Çekil’s show didn’t come off as a by-the-book retrospective, nor did it seem like an overly dutiful tribute. Instead, it came across as a sustained and engaging conversation among and between the works themselves, with much to be gleaned from them still.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie