Fatma Bucak, Damascus Rose, 2016–, roses grown from grafted cuttings, dimensions variable.

Fatma Bucak, Damascus Rose, 2016–, roses grown from grafted cuttings, dimensions variable.

Fatma Bucak

Fatma Bucak’s twelve-panel mosaic A Tree, 2022, depicts tightly intertwined branches and a splintered trunk that resembles two people embracing. It would read as an overly sentimental plea for the environment, and one stripped of particular context, if not for certain material details: leaves veined with ash, blighted wood in place of roots, and grayish slag in the background. The artist cobbled together the work’s twelve gridded panels from detritus she collected in Turkey after last year’s unchecked forest fires, a disaster that prompted intense criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an’s government. Employing regional flora and fauna—some of them endangered—as vessels of critique, Bucak collapses politically charged cycles of birth, death, and rebirth in the region into a single work. A Tree compares a symbolic image of the previous and future growth of Eastern Anatolia’s forests with its current condition, represented by the debris incorporated into the mosaic.

“While the Dust Quickly Falls,” Bucak’s first solo show in Germany, moves fluidly across installation, video, and sculpture, her choice of media signaling each work’s political context. Black Ink, 2019, is a typed text describing the composition of the ink used to print that same text: gum arabic, water, ash from the remains of a Kurdish book, and soot from a burned Kurdish-language publishing house. Although the print explains how Bucak achieved a “fine, glossy ink” with a “uniform consistency,” the actual words are faded or erased to the point of near illegibility. Thick glass protects the framed print, as though the faintness of the words was itself a sign of fragility or evidence of prior injury. The works appearance opens an affective space outside of the text’s vaguely neutral tone, which implies a sense of neglect, if not erasure, that one might read between the lines.

Processes of decay establish a critical throughline in the exhibition, linking a wide range of political conflicts. To make An Interlude, 2022, Bucak collaborated with Bettina Bein-Lobmaier, an expert in medicinal herbs, arranging potted plants from around the world on rows of industrial steel shelving. The installation doubles as a green space for visitors to enjoy and as a form of botanical storytelling. Bitten, yellowed, and spotted leaves are visible on several of the plants, which during my visit, were wilting under the glare of naked lightbulbs. Each relocated specimen is housed in a generic black container, like those used to transport plants from nurseries to new homes. The containers indicate the boundaries of a temporary space, arbitrary and prone to change. In the harshly lit, clinical environment, the installation evokes the sterility of waiting in faceless immigration offices—an apt analogue for the process of human displacement.

If the show hovers on the brink of pessimism, Damascus Rose, 2016–, shifts the focus to potential strategies forward after crisis. Six years ago, Bucak began grafting damask rose cuttings from Syria, where the civil war had virtually halted the flower’s cultivation and export, onto local species in Germany, Italy, and Turkey. On display here are two of Bucak’s cuttings, which are tended by staff and, unlike the plants in An Interlude, are flourishing in their new environment, with abundant pink petals and dark, glossy leaves. Their almost obscenely sweet, musky fragrance envelops the viewer in the makeshift greenhouse. The heady perfume, for which the damask rose is renowned, lingers in the air, marking territory, conjuring old memories, and feeding new ones. Bucak’s conceptual move is this distinctive scent, the plant’s immaterial double. It wafts across the gallery and connects a sensory experience to the rose’s past and present, its traditional connotations of love and beauty, as well as to histories of political unrest and migration.

Like its signature fragrance, the roses offer us a few lessons: that individual cuttings cannot survive on their own; that growth depends on steady care; and that nature’s rhythms—seed, bud, blossom, humus, ash—are inseparable from our own.