Leylâ Gediz, Cocoon, 2009, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 39 3⁄8". From “Positive Space.”

Leylâ Gediz, Cocoon, 2009, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 39 3⁄8". From “Positive Space.”

“Positive Space”

HIV emerged in Turkey in the 1980s, and people infected with it were soon stigmatized by Turkish politicians and newspapers alike. The aids epidemic unsettled boundaries between public and private and pushed Turks to openly discuss sexuality. HIV remains a public health challenge (the number of Turks living with HIV increased from 672 in 2011 to 2,844 in 2017), but until recently, Turkish artists had remained tight-lipped about the disease.

In 2009, nearly twenty-five years after AIDS first turned up in Turkey, Leylâ Gediz painted Cocoon, a portrait of a friend who had just been diagnosed with HIV. This work, which has been in a private collection for nine years and was on public view in Turkey for the first time in this group show, depicts a moment of silent desperation. The hunched figure’s gloom seeps into the surrounding colors; globes with the staff of Aesculapius inside them float in the background. Gediz’s groundbreaking painting was the most historically resonant work in “Positive Space,” an exhibition that treated the AIDS epidemic as a cross—generational trauma, showcasing responses from artists of different ages and sexual identities, and pondering whether HIV can find a space of articulation in Turkish art.

Curiously, the show opened with Elmgreen & Dragset’s Powerless Structures, Fig. 19, 1998, rather than a work by a Turkish artist. Installed at the entrance, two pairs of Calvin Klein underwear and Levi’s 501 jeans left viewers to puzzle about their wearers, who appeared to have fled the scene. Their absence, which kick-started the exhibition, raised questions about agency, erasure, invisibility, and death.

A presentation of writer Serdar Soydan’s archive and research brought together newspaper clippings, books, and brochures about Murtaza Elgin, a Turkish talent manager who was blacklisted in the wake of his HIV diagnosis in 1985. Chilling headlines warned against those who provided lodgings to the misfit. Even those who considered attending his funeral in 1992 were ostracized, and his body was buried in a lime pit. Such responses may explain, to some extent, the subsequent lack of forthrightness in artistic circles.

Sifting through private archives is one way to fight public condemnation. Ardıl Yalınkılıç’s Dear Mom, 2018, drew on a 2012 email correspondence between the artist and his mother. Yalınkılıç had annotated the printed-out emails so that the apprehension he felt then, as he underwent two HIV tests (the first positive, the second negative), was intertwined with present anxieties about its expression. With its specificity of time and tone, the email thread appeared eternally unalterable, but Yalınkılıç countered this sense of immutability by, as it were, hacking into his textual past with his handwritten commentary.

Another tension, between the containment of HIV-positive blood and its presentation, defined Ünal Bostancı’s Blood Makes Noise, 2018, constructed of bubble wrap with blood inside some of the bubbles spelling out a line from a Suzanne Vega song: BLOOD MAKES NOISE AND I CAN’T REALLY HEAR YOU IN THE THICKENING OF FEAR. The first word, BLOOD, we were told, was spelled out with real HIV-infected blood, and the rest with synthetic blood. This meditation on the bond between the verbal and the material brought to mind Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978): The violence of the language and metaphors employed for HIV both defined and surpassed the effects of the epidemic. Voices were muted, artists were forced into silence, and only now are they bursting the bubbles.

The show concluded with İz Öztat’s Untitled, 2018, a triangular stainless-steel knife. In the Third Reich, gay men were forced to wear pink triangles, and in the 1980s ACT UP turned the symbol upside down, claiming the symbol in their struggle for recognition and an end to the epidemic. Öztat’s triangle, uncanny under a red glow, alluringly untouchable and strikingly simple, carried the torch of Gediz’s pioneering work and may inspire others to explore novel forms of reckoning with HIV.