View of “Halil Altındere,” 2017. Photo: Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu.

View of “Halil Altındere,” 2017. Photo: Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu.

Halil Altındere

View of “Halil Altındere,” 2017. Photo: Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu.

There could hardly have been a more fitting location for “Welcome to Homeland,” Halil Altındere’s new solo show, than the Sadık Pasha Mansion. Located in a quiet part of the affluent neighborhood of Cihangir, this wooden neoclassical palazzo was built in the nineteenth century by a Polish émigré, Michał Czajkowski, who was sent to Istanbul to establish a colony for his asylum-seeking compatriots. A century and a half later, migration remains a hot-button issue, and it was central to Altındere’s exhibition.

The lower floor offered a comprehensive showcase of Altındere’s most recent body of work, “Space Refugee,” 2016, which takes as its departure point the life of Muhammed Ahmed Faris, the first Syrian in space, who had to seek refuge in Istanbul during the Syrian civil war. Six paintings are based on press photographs featuring Faris’s beaming fatherly countenance. While three of these works were solitary portraits of the astronaut in uniform, the others presented Faris alongside his colleagues from the joint Syrian-Soviet space program. Only one, Muhammed Faris with Family, 2016, revealed his family life, through the reproduction of an ostensibly intimate yet obviously staged living-room scene with his wife and two children. Altındere’s appropriation of a socialist realist style in the execution of these works not only heightens the irony of citing outdated images of progress, but also subtly nods at the fact that these photographs were all sourced from Russian state archives, due to the Syrian government’s suppression of the dissident cosmonaut from all official historical accounts. Likewise, the presence of neon frames—fabricated out of extremely flexible soft neon, the light of which is brighter and more intense than that of the notoriously brittle conventional neon—was not only aimed at lending a retro-futuristic edge to the whole endeavor. This malleability was a material echo of Faris’s inspiring resiliency.

In a twenty-minute newsreel-like video titled Space Refugee, 2016, the artist explored the feasibility of a Syrian colony on Mars, with testimonies from two NASA scientists, an aviation lawyer, and a cofounder of Autoban, an internationally renowned Istanbul-based architecture and design office. He interjects this footage with Soviet-era clips featuring Faris telling his life story, and self-evidently fake scenes of three “astronauts” treading on the Capadoccian landscape—a whimsical stand-in for Mars. The video’s sleek renderings of Martian homes by Autoban, also exhibited as a light-box photograph (Architectural Design for Mars Refugee Colony, 2016), are only marginally relevant to Faris’s unshaken belief in the nation-state system. “Raise your kids by the values and manners of your country and your homeland and keep in mind we will return,” he proclaims during an interview at one point in the video, only to renounce his hopes for an eventual return with another quote: “We will build space and I will go with them to Mars, to Mars where we find safety and freedom.”

The difference in approach between this body of work and Köfte Airlines, 2016, on display upstairs, was indicative of the variety of trickster tools in Altındere’s repertory: Instead of adopting a documentary approach that—albeit playfully—obscures his own role and position, the artist realizes a fictitious scenario from scratch. Getting dozens of refugees to sit on top of a plane emblazoned with KÖFTE (that, is meatball) AIRLINES for a single (un-Photoshopped) photograph, Altındere unconditionally positions the refugee crisis as sheer absurdity. Elsewhere, he appears to observe and hypostatize found absurdities so as to render them visible for the mainstream media’s empathy machine—all for the better, as the world hardly seems to need any new craziness right now.

Gökcan Demirkazik