Kutluğ Ataman, Journey to the Moon 8, 2009, ink-jet print, 11 3⁄4 × 15 3⁄4".

Kutluğ Ataman, Journey to the Moon 8, 2009, ink-jet print, 11 3⁄4 × 15 3⁄4".

Kutluğ Ataman

The works of Kutluğ Ataman blur the line between fact and fiction as the Turkish artist-filmmaker examines his subjects’ self-presentation. Ataman’s own experience flickers at the edges, always present but never the main subject. In the pair of exhibitions “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies” and “fiction”—Ataman’s first gallery shows since stepping away from the art scene in 2013—biography once again held an understatedly central place. In the early aughts, Ataman was a rising star in the art world, with a Turner Prize nomination and a Venice Biennale commission to his name. Then he suddenly withdrew from public life, retreating to a farm in eastern Turkey, where he tended to his livestock. Spread across both of Niru Ratnam’s locations, “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies” and “fiction” read as both a documentation of Ataman’s pastoral activities over the past seven years and a return to his perennial fascination with identity construction.

Ratnam’s main space featured recent works from the ongoing series “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies,” begun in 2009. In the center of the room stood The Stream, 2022, a ramshackle assembly of flat-screen televisions mounted on wooden planks playing clips of Ataman digging in the dirt on his farm, the overlapping audio of his labor creating a cacophony of scratching sounds. Ataman’s sculptural use of television screens recalls the work of Nam June Paik, particularly the latter’s Fire Piece, 1992, in which a mound of char-black television screens play overlapping footage of fire. But where Paik used flames to undermine the television’s status as an icon of domesticity and of the mastery of nature, Ataman constructed an altar to humankind’s cultivation of the earth. The allusions to biblical imagery are palpable, heightened by a stream of water that appears to miraculously flow upward. While the work references Ataman’s move away from the city, his purpose here is not to present himself as a prophet, but to gently juxtapose a narrative of prodigal return with an account of his own artistic evolution.

On a nearby wall, Ataman displayed a selection of stills from Journey to the Moon, 2009. In this sequence of images, the artist imagines a group of Anatolian villagers who, in response to a local politician’s unfulfilled promises, decide to escape their city in a flying minaret. Once again, Ataman’s own history lies at the margins: His family is from Erzincan, the town where the film was shot. Some of the photographs from Journey to the Moon resemble journalistic portraits of the villagers, while others are whimsical fictions: In one photograph, the escape minaret is suspended from two balloons. By merging the aesthetics of seemingly objective documentary photography with a fantastical narrative, Ataman reveals how feckless leaders prompt their subjects to make seemingly irrational decisions in order to survive.

The shadow of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s right-wing populism loomed over the other exhibition, “fictions,” which mined Ataman’s long-standing interest in performances of gender and sexuality. These themes animated early films such as Women Who Wear Wigs, 1999. The photographs in the recent series “fiction [other planets],” 2022, show transgender people walking down a dark forest road—recalling the Istanbul police’s practice, in the 1990s, of arresting trans people and then leaving them naked in a nearby forest in winter. For a forthcoming film that is also part of the series, Ataman asked a group of older Turkish trans subjects to act out oppressions they had faced in the past, specifically prior to a brief period of liberalization that ended with the attempted coup in 2016, from which Turkey has since relapsed. From within this new authoritarian regime, Ataman crafts a narrative that prompts comparisons between past and present subjugation, reminding the viewer of what has been lost in between. As one of the villagers remarks in Journey to the Moon, “Did it really happen, you ask? It happened. I mean there is no lie involved.”