Istanbul

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin and Michael Morris, Heterotopia, 1992, mixed media, 98 1/2 x 65".

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin and Michael Morris, Heterotopia, 1992, mixed media, 98 1/2 x 65".

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin

SALT | Beyoğlu

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin and Michael Morris, Heterotopia, 1992, mixed media, 98 1/2 x 65".

Among the works in Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s exhibition “I Am Not a Studio Artist” was a dazzling assemblage of objects including an old-fashioned typewriter, a plastic model of a taxicab, a hammer, a letter opener, rubber stamps, two clocks, four bars of soap, passports, license plates, ledgers, a bottle of rum filled with matchsticks, a bottle of vodka filled with shreds of newspaper, a currency exchange sign in four languages, a calendar, fishing tackle, four bottles of antiseptic, a rusted padlock, a tin of shoe polish, a copy of The Histories of Herodotus, a flyer for a boxing match, and two maps of Istanbul—one perforated with a hole-punch, the other burned with a flame. One of several works titled Heterotopia, the installation featuring both of these maps was made in 1992 in collaboration with the American artist Michael Morris. The pair had met a year earlier in Ankara, where Alptekin was teaching and Morris was on a Fulbright. “There was nothing to do there, in Ankara—so we’d go to the bar and drink,” recalls Morris in the amusing and thoughtful audio files that accompany the exhibition. As the story goes, on one particular evening they drank too much and began planning a bank robbery. But by the end of the night, their talk of lookout positions and getaway cars subsided, and they decided to make art instead.

Before meeting Morris, Alptekin had studied literature and philosophy, dabbled in painting and poetry, and worked as a photographer and archivist. But he had never made art as such before. His collaboration with Morris continued until 1995, when they had a huge fight about art. They never reconciled, but their method of working together remained the core of Alptekin’s practice, whether he was working alone or with others (he went on to establish three collectives: Grup Grip-in, the Sea Elephant Travel Agency, and the Bunker Research Group), until his untimely death in 2007, at the age of fifty. With Morris, Alptekin had rummaged through Istanbul’s street markets for random images, objects, and knickknacks among the cheap goods flooding into Turkey after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their vast collection of things yielded several two- and three-dimensional collages titled Heterotopia, which, after Foucault, alludes to one place containing a multitude of others in the same peculiar space and time. On his own, Alptekin later scoured Istanbul’s poorer districts for shabby hotels named for other cities. These hotels were a far cry from paradise destinations but still somehow took hold of their owners’ imaginations. The documentation of Alptekin’s melancholy urban wanderings became accumulative photo-installations (Capacity, 2003, for example) and strangely disembodied series of signage such as H-Fact: Hospitality/Hostility, 2003–2007.

The most comprehensive exhibition of Alptekin’s work to date, “I Am Not a Studio Artist” included nearly fifty works in collage, neon, video, photography, sculpture, and installation. Some had been lost for years, but were carefully reconstituted from the materials found in what the exhibition’s curator, Vasif Kortun, calls “the organized chaos” of Alptekin’s archive, or re-created according to the artist’s notes. Also featured in the exhibition were five commissions by artists close to Alptekin, including his widow, Camila Rocha, who gave her husband’s library and archive to the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center in 2008. Platform has since been integrated into SALT, a new institution that, in many ways, was conceived precisely to answer the kinds of messy questions raised by Alptekin’s archive, much of which dates from a time in Istanbul’s contemporary art scene when no markets, galleries, or museums took much interest in preserving such materials. The most promising sign of the new institution’s ambitions, however, was not the exhibition itself but the weight, breadth, and depth of the accompanying catalogue, which gives Alptekin the exuberant, penetrating, and uncompromising memorial he deserves.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie