Neriman Polat, Barikat 1 (Barricade 1), 2015, ink-jet print, 39 3⁄8 × 78 3⁄4". From the series “Barikat” (Barricade), 2015.

Neriman Polat, Barikat 1 (Barricade 1), 2015, ink-jet print, 39 3⁄8 × 78 3⁄4". From the series “Barikat” (Barricade), 2015.

Neriman Polat

Neriman Polat’s photographs, videos, and sculptural installations explore the links between self-discipline, self-presentation, and imagemaking. In the 1990s, Polat worked as a teacher, a job that acquainted her with Turkey’s high schools, and, especially early on, children were the locus of these investigations. The photographic diptych Untitled, 1996—the earliest work on view in “Mührü Kırmak” (Breaking the Seal), a recent presentation of the artist’s makeshift videos and photocollages from 1996 to 2019—comprises a pair of ID-style photographs of a red-haired teenager. The two photos are nearly identical, distinguished only by the direction of the teen’s gaze: Anxious and alienated, she looks in a different direction in each picture, as if apprehensively considering her own image in the adjacent frame. Similarly, Durum Duvarı (Situation Wall), 1997, is a large (approximately six and a half feet tall by twenty-five and a half feet wide) digital print of a grid of fifty-two ID-style photos of nine kids. On their faces, which we see from different vantages (straight on, from the left, from the right), we can read moments of anger, boredom, and shame. Polat’s teaching career also inspired a series of video works: The ninety-nine-second Kendi Gerçeg˘inden (His Own Reality), 1997, superimposes five images of a boy, borrowed from Durum Duvarı, showing him with eyes closed, then looking in different directions before staring at us, as if representing his conflicted identity. In voice-over, a male speaker coldly describes assigning a new identity and reality to the boy, whose stolid, restrained physical presence suggests the loss of agency children experience in Turkey.

The majority of works in the show dated to the 2000s, when Polat collaborated with the artist collective Hafriyat, whose members challenged Turkey’s gallery system and entrenched orthodoxies by staging outspoken group shows in their Istanbul exhibition space. During this time, Polat pondered Turkey’s transformations under Islamist rule, as she still has reason to do today: In the thirty-two-second stop-motion video Uçan Halı (Flying Carpet), 2017, two working-class kids on an oriental rug fly away from an urban scene, where the presence of a mosque and two housing-project buildings represent the government’s alliance with religion. The work’s simple, naive aesthetics echo the world of the kids it depicts. Living in neighborhoods that are becoming gentrified, they are the left-behinds who dream of an elsewhere. 

Over the 2010s, Polat’s attention shifted to the private sphere, and she began to set her works in her Istanbul apartment. The photograph Özel Güvenlik (Private Security), 2013, depicts a woman reclining on Polat’s bed. Bare-legged, she wears a security guard’s jacket and shirt, clutches a police baton, and holds a pair of handcuffs and a pistol in her lap. In Turkey’s new era of aggressive privatization, the police state has apparently colonized our most private domains. In the “Barikat” (Barricade) series, 2015, also set in Polat’s apartment, a young woman fights to protect her space: One photograph shows her hunkered behind a wall of pillows and quilts, pointing a machine gun at the apartment door. In another, the same woman is seen off-guard, lighting a cigarette behind the barricade, her gun resting nearby.

But Polat’s subjects attempt to flee this world, too. In the split-screen video Es¸ik (Threshold), 2013, doors and hallways are passages to freedom. The five-minute-long piece consists of six episodes, each showing a different woman leaving her house carrying an oversize black backpack—it might hold her life’s belongings. In the adjacent gallery, the backpack itself appeared as an art object, a symbol of having crossed the threshold. In Turkey, more than 2,600 women were murdered over the past decade, in most cases by their partners. In depicting spaces of confinement and tactics for female emancipation, Polat has found a fresh, confrontational new way to take stock of patriarchy and its ills, and not only in Turkey.