Hakan Topal, The Golden Cage, 2022, still from the two-channel 4K video component (color, sound, 28 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising prints on clay, stamps, postcards, and books.

Hakan Topal, The Golden Cage, 2022, still from the two-channel 4K video component (color, sound, 28 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising prints on clay, stamps, postcards, and books.

Hakan Topal

In “Temporary Assembly of Living Things,” Hakan Topal took on Turkey’s multifarious state violence, indicting the perennial tactics of press censorship and police brutality as well as the more recent employment of drones to monitor—and attack—people moving across the country’s borders. Such violence along migratory routes was a focal point of the New York–based artist’s show, which opened with The Golden Cage, 2022, a video that posits birds as transnational creatures and follows, in particular, the northern bald ibis. Called kelaynak in Turkish, this migratory species is said to be the most endangered in the Middle East. Protected by the Kelaynak Reproduction Center in the southeastern Anatolian town of Birecik, the bald ibis colony migrates annually between northeast Africa and the Turkish-Syrian border. When Palmyra, a pit stop on the birds’ journey, fell to ISIS in 2016, the colony faced extinction, and avian experts in Birecik decided not to release the ibises from their cages. One of the video’s two channels, filmed using a drone, shows valleys and lakes in the politicized terrain around Birecik. The second part, shot with a handheld camera and a drone, alternates between an on-screen text proclaiming THE STATE IS NARRATING and shots of birds in flight or at rest around the town. Moving in and out of focus, the camera’s wandering gaze rests on the likes of chickens, eagles, and peacocks in enclosures at the Gaziantep Zoo before drifting to Neolithic statues at the nearby Zeugma and Şanlıurfa archaeology museums. Topal also used the point-cloud technique, which relies on drones and 3D scanners, to produce modeled sections of two of the area’s archeological sites, Karahan Tepe and Göbekli Tepe. Phonetic transcriptions of bird sounds interrupt the narrative flow. The video’s four chapters address the ibis colony in 141 separate pronouncements, impelling the “little bird” to “be your voice” and alluding to the fascination it creates among the local population. The poetic text shows that when the state offers protection through containment, its intentions might not be entirely innocent, but curiously entrepreneurial. Topal’s installation problematized this exercise of representation. How to speak on behalf of refugees and caged bodies? Who is licensed to tell their tale, why, and with which techniques?

Topal collected a wide range of cultural paraphernalia with images of the bald ibis, displaying these stamps, postcards, coins, and antiquated booklets in a vitrine. He also presented piles of clay with phrases inscribed in them: I SAVED YOU, THIS IS YOUR FATHER TONGUE, and other examples of the state’s possessive rhetoric regarding the bald ibis colony. The romanticization of nature and wildlife implicit in these mementos echoed that of nationalism. At the same time, Topal’s cabinet of curiosities gestured toward the role of tourism in the Turkish state’s patriarchal wielding of power, evident in its refusal to release bald ibises from their “golden cages,” exoticizing them in their confinement.

Still Life, 2012–16, a three-channel documentary-based video, also concerned the state’s handling of migratory subjects. It broaches the assassination of thirty-four mostly teenage Kurdish smugglers in 2011 in Roboski, a Turkish village near the Iraq border. A Turkish fighter jet bombarded the group after a drone had deemed them terrorists. In Topal’s extended shots, bereaved family members bearing photos of their dead loved ones avoid eye contact with the camera and look beyond its frame. Topal’s footage of the routes the slain group had traveled is spliced between shots of the grieving relatives, filmed with a static camera, opening up a space at the intersection between photography and death. A man in crimson sitting on his balcony mourns his brother while another relative sits in front of images of a loved one he lost; another, wearing a traditional Kurdish Peshmerga uniform, sits cross-legged on a carpet in a mosque with an impenetrable expression. One scene shows a villager preparing to go smuggling with a mule alongside a river. A group portrait in the village mosque bookends these shots; a restless young boy’s fidgeting accentuates the stillness of the others. Topal’s close-up studies of silent mourners invite viewers to contemplate questions of justice, as if their immobility might stand for a sense of protracted injustice. With these durational inquiries into legacies of confined and annihilated beings, Topal probes the political agency of viewership.