Volkan Aslan, En İyi Dileklerimle (Best Wishes), 2019, two-channel video projection, color, sound, 7 minutes 55 seconds.

Volkan Aslan, En İyi Dileklerimle (Best Wishes), 2019, two-channel video projection, color, sound, 7 minutes 55 seconds.

Volkan Aslan

In March 2018, Volkan Aslan—an artist known for his tongue-in-cheek ready-made sculptures and thoughtful essay films on city life—began a correspondence with Elif Kamışlı, the Istanbul Biennial’s exhibition manager, to share experiences and ponder Turkey’s oppressive state of affairs. The two pen pals, both in their mid-thirties, had witnessed art patrons and colleagues imprisoned or exiled during the traumatizing purge that followed the attempted coup in 2016. The letters show the writers feeling drowned in Istanbul and articulate a shared sense of being left behind. The correspondence became the basis for a book, published in 2020 under the title En İyi Dileklerimle (Best Wishes), which also included the script and storyboard for Aslan’s 2019 video of the same name. In the nearly eight-minute two-channel video, the centerpiece of “Stay Safe,” Aslan’s most recent exhibition, a young woman strolls around central Istanbul while addressing in voice-over an unspecified correspondent. She expresses her frustration at street abuse and catcalling, the cancellation of LGBTQI+ pride marches, and a daytime raid by a SWAT team that she witnessed (the subject of the raid remains unclear). “A lot of people I really liked either left the city or they are thinking of leaving,” the woman muses. Intercut with her ruminations is footage of two ceramic figurines, a pair of tigers and a deer, being carried along Istanbul streets. The film captures the angst-filled silence of a city besieged and oppressed. From riot cops to groups of men shooting air guns at colorful balloons by the Bosporus, a depressive mood defines the imagery, which culminates in a scene filled with tear gas and security police who stop the traveler in her tracks.

Ölüye ağlayamayan insanların huzursuzluğu içindeyim (I Am troubled like the People Who Cannot Weep for the Dead), 2018–21, a cycle of three videos placed on different floors, observes three mourning individuals washing roses under tap water. The fifteen-second clips loop seamlessly, imbuing the works with the feeling of a meditative ritual for the unspecified losses the washers hope to process. No political context is offered. The roses are differently colored, and the hands of the mourners are of ambiguous gender, inviting viewers to imagine and interpret. Shot and shown on monitors in a vertical format, these tombstone-shaped videos raise questions about responsibility, agency, and reparations in a country that refuses to acknowledge the catastrophes that punctuate its history, including the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

A different facet of water, its healing power, was at the heart of Su (Water), 2021, an architectural intervention for which Aslan affixed a blue-tinted plastic film to SALT Galata’s roof window. Bathing the building’s atrium in blue light, which seeped all the way down to the book-lined entrance floor, tweaking SALT’s color scale through a simple gesture, the work suggested an alternative way of seeing. Accompanying this intervention was Manzara (Scenery), 2021, a cardboard mock-up of a wave. That piece derives from the series “Concern,” 2005–19, based on 490 found felt figures that tell the story of the New Testament. After scanning and digitizing these forms, which were originally used in Jamaican Sunday schools, Aslan printed them on paper in bunches of one hundred. He then cut out these hundreds of prints during the 2020 lockdown, the act functioning as a healing form of meditation. The clumsily cut out and dramatically enlarged wave carries echoes of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, signaling radical change while inducing a feeling of breathlessness—an imperfect and perplexing metonym of a playfully layered exhibition.