Istanbul

View of “Sarkis,” 2017. From left: Lances of San Romano, 2017; Stained Glass Atelier N.4, 2016; Respiro Autoportrait N.2, 2016; Kintsugi 3 (for Dmitri Baltermants) with camouflaged Leica I, 2014. Photo: Hadiye Cangökçe.

View of “Sarkis,” 2017. From left: Lances of San Romano, 2017; Stained Glass Atelier N.4, 2016; Respiro Autoportrait N.2, 2016; Kintsugi 3 (for Dmitri Baltermants) with camouflaged Leica I, 2014. Photo: Hadiye Cangökçe.

Sarkis

Dirimart

View of “Sarkis,” 2017. From left: Lances of San Romano, 2017; Stained Glass Atelier N.4, 2016; Respiro Autoportrait N.2, 2016; Kintsugi 3 (for Dmitri Baltermants) with camouflaged Leica I, 2014. Photo: Hadiye Cangökçe.

Sarkis deals with signs of living and living signs. It is not unusual to hear that his light boxes are kept lit beyond an exhibition’s opening hours, or that he agonized over a brief planned power cut for the maintenance of Respiro, his installation for the Turkish pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Not simply the caprice of an established artist, these particularities stem from his decades-long engagement with memory theory, which took center stage at this show, “Ayna” (Mirror), cocurated by the artist and Ceren Erdem.

For the occasion, The Treasure Chests of Mnemosyne, the 1995 anthology on memory theory edited by Sarkis and art historian Uwe Fleckner, was translated into Turkish for the first time, and guided the eclectic hanging. The exhibition itself was a multilayered tribute to Aby Warburg’s efforts, especially in his Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–29, to prove the persistence of Pathosformeln (pathos formulas) in representations across centuries and civilizations. Here, as with Warburg’s famous “memory panels” in Atlas, Sarkis juxtaposed works from various periods—often featuring artifacts or photographs from different times and geographies—along the whole span of the walls, ceiling to floor, in an attempt to capture humankind’s Leidschatz (treasury of sufferings). For him, the endowment of form enables an accumulation of memories, thereby allowing images to retain a mnemonic charge. The artist does everything he can to keep moments, sentiments, and reflections alive.

This inclination seems to materialize in Sarkis’s recent adoption of kintsugi, a Japanese repair method for ceramics that does not hide the cracks it tries to fix, but highlights them as marks of beauty. In Kintsugi 3 (for Dmitri Baltermants) with camouflaged Leica I, 2014, for example, a golden lacquer line of repair stretches diagonally across a World War II–era photograph of Soviet soldiers hiding behind the wall of a half-destroyed house. They are warily surveying the scene outside while the photographer (intentionally or unintentionally) freezes them in the same frame with a vase of flowers, miraculously still sitting atop an upright piano in the wrecked interior. The artist’s “stitching” of the photograph with kintsugi, and the addition of a contemporaneous camouflage-painted Leica (one can imagine that it might be the camera that took this picture) heralds a future togetherness that will preserve the memory of the photo’s fractures, just as signs of life like flowers on a piano denote the ultimate return of better days.

Gun Metal 4, 1974, on the other hand, surprisingly suggests that erasure can be a way of fighting the disavowal of memory. When the artist got hold of a propaganda record by Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the ultranationalist Front National, he sanded the vinyl and recorded the sounds of his intervention. Seeing that the action of sanding turned the black material a grayish color known as “gunmetal,” commonly used in camouflage, he painted the album’s cover and sleeve the same color. The centerpiece of the show, Bismarck in lipstick, 2017, similarly disarms another troubling object: a maquette of the WWII German warship Bismarck that Sarkis found in Istanbul. Entirely covered in lipstick, the maquette stood on a mirror, laid horizontally on cinder blocks, that covered one-tenth of the main gallery space. The brilliance of the work is contingent not only on Sarkis’s feminized, anti-macho understanding of productive negation found in the clichéd cinematic combination of lipstick and mirror (which almost always emerges in moments of crisis or revelation), but also on the ship’s relation to two monumental neon works on either side of it, Lances of San Romano and Flares?!, both 2017. These works hung high up on opposite walls; the former outlines the spearheads from Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano, ca. 1435–40, as the latter traces the squiggles of flares from an unknown battleground sky. Thus, wherever one stood, a travesty of Bismarck, in full makeup, appeared to effortlessly cruise over centuries of war making. Sarkis, himself an unfailing empathy machine, is invariably resolute; as he confided to me at the opening: “The Belle Epoque is now over. . . . It’s time to get back to work.”

Gökcan Demirkazık