Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Bienal: Part 2

On Saturday, we went to Beyoğlu and Karaköy for Bienal exhibits. As I explained in my last entry, most of the installations are inside the city, not in a museum or a special venue but in the old mansions and köşks and historical buildings that normally are all boarded up or somehow else impossible to enter. A living part of Istanbul that makes the city and her past as much on display as the art. Each piece and place reflects and echoes some of the fear and darkness of the past, and of the present.

In Beyoğlu, we found an exhibit in a Greek mansion built in 1915. The artist has carved into what looks like slices of trees Armenian symbols and placed them in the ceiling. You lie on yoga mats on the floor and look up at them. The symbols are especially known by local "treasure" plunderers, for when the Armenians were driven out of their villages, they often hid their belongings somewhere in the landscape--or so it was believed--and marked or mapped out the location with these symbols carved into rocks. There are snakes and hawks and scorpions and ghostly figures marching in a line. The house itself is abandoned and dilapidated. You can wander all the floors. The walls themselves are works of art--layers and layers of colors painted one over the other and chipped and rotted and decayed.

Down the road from the Greek mansion, is an empty parking garage scheduled for demolition by the demolition-obsessed city government. Not that it's an architectural wonder or anything--just a vast empty gray space in which an exhibition consisting exclusively of sound has been installed. Clicks and drips and heartbeats and echoes of car noises fill the empty space. A blue collar place about to be gentrified into a upscale mall or hotel.

Down on Bank Street, a few Bienal exhibits are houses in the Salt Gallery, set in the gorgeous 19th century Neo Classic Ottoman Bank designed by Aléxandre Vallaury.

In the basement is an installation called "How Did We Get Here" about the censorship of books and life following the 1980 coup. It echoes what we are going through now--as journalists are attacked on the street, ordinary people are arrested for insulting Erdoğan during discussions in city parks, and a new campaign of coup-era nationalism has been revived resulting in war in the East and mob attacks on Kurds in the West. Among the titles censored by Turkey's military on "moral" grounds are Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the Plague by Albert Camus. The hatred of knowledge and science and intelligence and enlightenment is absolute.

In one section, artist Hale Tanger has reconstructed an apartment from the 1980s--complete with radio blasting military news and children's notebook filled with nationalist slogans and praises to Atatürk. All the rooms are Spartan, black and white, military clean--except for one. A small door leads to a closet full of hidden things--costumes, jeweled mirrors, colorful yarns. Soul and imagination and play stay cowered in the back.
Playing with the toys and costumes in the closet
In the Istanbul Modern, we see a young man with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down to his belly angrily approaching the young student workers one by one. "How dare you put something in this place that the State does not approve of!" he rants at one girl near the entrance. He spends at least an hour stomping from sign to sign, looking for the word "Armenian"--and every time he finds it, he harangues the nearest Bienal worker. It's almost a performance in itself. Will he come back with a mob and attack someone, burn something, kill someone even to deny there are killers in Turkey's past? Was he sent here by some government agency or just lone freak?

The angry young defender of the State

He hates this: A scroll painted with the crimson derived from an Anatolian insect. The secret of extracting the dye is known only now in Armenia. Drawings with the dye gradually give way to a more modern, industrial red--the red of the Turkish flag that blocks out the organic color of the past.

He hates this: a painting by an Australian, Vernon Ah Kee, who saw in the "violence in Turkey's East" a parallel with his government's oppression and massacres of the Aborigines, particularly the Palm Island riots of 2004.

This installation by Sonia Balassanian--an Iranian Armenian--particularly enraged the young man. It is tuff stone from quarries just over the Turkish border in Armenia, across from the ruins of Ani. Each one resembles a head and seems to recall the deportation and murder of Istanbul's Armenians in 1915 as well as the beheadings in the Middle East today. The man tells the young girl manning this installation, "You people have turned this place into a house to worship the Armenians and insult the motherland!"

Another exhibit takes the abstract economics data--graphs, charts, projections, and uses everyday materials to turn them into three dimensional forms. A rainbow colored pattern of sticks are the annual work fatalities in the coal industry, a three dimensional web of colored wire is a graph of industrial pollution over time. They are beautiful, and as Delal says, when I look at them, I get a strange feeling at the front of my forehead, like a part of my brain is developing that wasn't there before: the abstract ideas turned into math, turned into pictures, turned into toys.

One last exhibit is in the museum library, a thought experiment by Lebanese artist, Marwan Rechmaoui. It represents the kind of "partial censorship" prevalent in the world today, where the choices look like they are there, but nevertheless are not--a perfect metaphor for Turkey, where we are constantly being told by the government how free everything is and yet drowned in censorship. the library book shelves are covered with a clear plastic wall. In each section there is one slot where one book can (with difficulty) be pulled out and read. You can see all the others, but not touch them.

In the Italian high school is a film by a director from Inner Mongolia and a video by a German-Turk making a journey across Bulgaria to explore how the Ottoman past is remembered. From the top floor, glancing out the window toward the courtyard, you can see the vast ruins of the dilapidated French orphanage, now hidden behind other buildings in Beyoğlu. It's symbolic in itself--showing how behind the city's facades are gigantic relics of a past erased or purged.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wandering the abandoned mansions--the Bienal on Büyük Ada

I had a dream when I was a freshman in college, the culmination of a lifetime of recurring dreams of haunted houses. I wandered lost inside a wood mansion, full of stairways and panels in the wall, and rooms within rooms. I could feel there was something else in there with me, something unseen. Up and down stairs, empty rooms full just a second before I entered. I opened a panel in the wall of the living room and climbed down a narrow step into a basement room with a fireplace. Removing the bricks of the fireplace revealed another room. I knelt down and peered in—the feet of a chair, a dark red carpet. It was also fire-lit and I knew that whatever presence I had felt waited there. I crawled through and woke up.

I like art that raises a question in your mind that your rational side can’t answer—only an image, only an experience can provide some kind of release. The Istanbul Bienal has several exhibits this year among the crumbling mansions and köşks of Büyük Ada. The exhibitions and venues work together to weave a spell. When the exhibition disappoints, the house takes over.

A break in the old crumbling stone wall. You wander left and down toward the sea through thick wood—oleander and acacia and fig and palm. There’s a break in the tree and the red ruins of a köşk—red brick, red rust, the ruin of red blankets ripped up in the debris.

            It was once the Yanaros Mansion—a richly extravagant köşk overlooking the sea. İzzet Paşa, who conceived of the Armenian massacres under Abdul Hamid II was it’s original owner. Had he stood in one of those ruined windows and looked out toward the Asian shore dreaming of the killings to come, of the blood? 

The house passed to Trotsky, who wrote his history of the Russian revolution here, "It has been four and one-half years. I have the strange feeling of having my feet firmly planted on Büyükada." At sunrise, he would from the peer where the strange sculptures now stand in the water. White animals with mirror images of one another built in sea trash, rotting on their backs. The dead, the ghosts, the land of monsters, of demons and invisible presences breaking into the world of the living.

The tall ginger-bread towers of the Rizzo Palace jut up over the trees—of all the houses this is the one that most resembled the ones in my dreams. On the wooden porch is the small of long years of neglect and rickety old furniture. I catch the reflection of a woman in a dusty window overlooking a fly strewn table.

Sound feels the house. Speakers on each floor that makes the walls seem alive. There’s a dark basement, a narrow stair. You can peek into the ruins of a kitchen, a bathroom, a study, a broken window. A white curtain still flutters over a white dust window. There are roof tiles on the floor made in Marseilles, France. On the top two floors is a video. When I first look, a digital naked dead man is wandering a field of white, muttering “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” When I last look, he is on a bed in a house that suddenly collapses beneath him into a black void.

I followed one woman as she peered behind a blackout curtain into the ruins of a bedroom—high ceiling, blue curtains, broken furniture and dust and a giant mirror with a French inscription, delicately carved woodedn frames.
“Muazzam!” she whispered. And something else waiting in that room heard her, something that no one had recognized in a century.

The Cihannuma—the World Viewer—a red tower with a 360 degree window that sticks up into the blue sky from the Mizzi mansion. Mizzi was a Maltese businessmen. His son, Giovanni, brought a telescope up into this tower and spied on all the islands and city and sea.

Inside is a “sound” exhibition. Susan Phillpsz has taken photos of a shipwreck and placed recordings of undersea noises all throughout the empty rooms of the stone palace. You stick your head through a crack in the wall and there’s the metal parts of an old Nazi ship and the sounds of something metal on metal banging relentlessly against each other under water. The light pours in muted through the stain glass windows. One of the stray dogs had wandered in.

The art of ruin, of things crumbling away into time but fat with ghosts, hidden spirits and monsters and demons folded in quantum pockets among the rubble. A draft of air caught coming through the autumn wood, a cold memory, the rust, the remnants of the face painted in the wall, rain-washed and snow washed over hundreds of orbits around the sun and flaking off into the dirt.

On the quay, we end our day with food. The Arab tourists are everywhere. The station for the horse and carriages is behind us somewhere. You can hear the clop of horse feet. the place is a hole in the wall, but crowded with locals. They serve piyaz and köfte only--it's amazing. The crowds, the food, the sunlight--we are out of the spell of the old mansions.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Two portraits of Istanbul--another mini photo essay

Recently, I've need to reminding of what's special about Istanbul, but even in the midst of the best of the city's charm, there are reminders of what's happening around us.

Beyoğlu, Europe

There's a new cafe just down from Galata tower, right in the middle of the "music han", the section of Beyoğlu devoted to stores that sell musical instruments. It specializes in Black Sea food, and the people that work there speak Laz, a dialect of Georgian. Instruments hang on the walls, kemençes, bağlamas, curas. I enjoyed a glass of red wine as Delal reads the news. Across the street is a bookshop playing old Moody Blues with a rack of art books in Georgian, French, German, Armenian and English. There's a book of fables in Kurdish. A Turkish biopic of the band Jethro Tull took a prominent place on one of the racks.

As the Moody Blues plays, behind us, two blond Americans sit down with an older dark complexioned man. A few seconds of eavesdropping give us the situation. One of the Americans is doing an interview, the other translating from Arabic. The third man is a Syrian refugee. I pick up pieces of his story over street noise, some of it also lost in translation (At one point, a near five minute conversation becomes one sentence when transferred to English.)

He fled the fighting in Syria to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he'd worked as an accountant and made good money, enough to save several thousand euro. Then, for reasons I couldn't catch, he decided to go to Europe through Turkey. Running from ISIS maybe? So far, he'd made the attempt three times--twice by sea and once by land. Each time he'd been robbed by the men who had agreed to take him. The last time, deeming the sea passage too dangerous, he'd paid 4,500 euros to be taken over the border into Bulgaria. The smugglers had bungled the job, they'd been caught and sent back, and of course, they refused to refund his money.
At Çınaraltı "Under the Sycamore" in Çengelköy

Çengelköy, Asia

I meet Delal down by the water and we walk past the Greek church and up the hill. Two Ottoman köşks lean into each other over the road, the windows of the two cumba touching. On the wall of one is a faded portrait of Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish flags hang everywhere. A couple of covered women dressed all in black walk by laughing.

We wind up the hill. Cats stare at us from walls. On the cement someone has written in Kurdish, "Biji Amed!"--Long Live Diyarbakır.

Up and up. This doesn't seem like the city we know--too green, too many trees. On the left is a steep swath of weedy wood, filled with fig, chestnut and peach trees and at some points the crumbling ruins of Ottoman mansions. Wild flowers dot the empty lots. At one point, there's a graveyard on the ledge that promises a view of the Bosphorous and the first bridge. We cross through the gate and are stopped by a guy standing outside a white car. It's unclear if he is a caretaker, a guard, just some nosy local.

"You can't go any further," he says. "It's forbidden. This is the President's land now."

He points to an area just up the road surrounded by a tall fence.

"We just wanted to see the view," we explain.

"There's a nice one," he admits almost apologetically, "But it's forbidden to go there."

We trace our way back down. A cat hisses at us from a top a kiremit tile. On the gates to one of the mansions is a knocker shaped like a Chinese dragon. We find a serious of cafes along the cobblestone back streets, one decorated with old furniture and antiques. They serve wine at delicate tables outside on the sidewalk. At a büfe on the corner we spy a bearded man in a turban preaching to a table full of young boys. He's talking about death. We don't stop. We don't want to draw attention but I keep hearing that word. Ölüm ölüm ölüm.

At one point, I ask an old man if he knows where there's a mosque.

"You have to go to the bathroom," he says smiling knowingly.

I nod.

He grabs my elbow and starts to walk me in the direction of the sea.

"There's a public restroom, just down there."

He's so full of sympathy that I think he must have just had some horrible toilet-searching experience. Delal says this area still has the spirit of the old Istanbul. We watch the sunset by the water, sailboats and yachts and fishing boats pull up to the seawall.

We enter one of the cafes and sit at a pretty bay window. I order green tea. It takes a second to see, hanging over the doorway, a pastel drawing of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned in the Aegean trying to flee to Greece.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Photo Essay--What I Found in Karaca Ahmet Cemetery

Today, after a visit to Zeynep Kamil hospital for some routine blood tests, I decided to walk home through the Karaca Ahmet Cemetery—a necropolis big enough and sprawling enough to get me halfway to our apartment by winding through its graves for an hour. Here is what I found.

Karaca Ahmet is one of the largest cemeteries in the world. It stretches a distance of over three miles, all the way from Üsküdar to Kadıköy, with pieces and patches broken off by highways and high rises. It dates back, according to Turkish sources, to the Arab siege of Constantinople--the last one ending in 782. It is thought that some of the soldiers from that campaign are buried here. Because records are sparse and the place so old, many graves remain anonymous or layered over by more modern ones or forgotten in weed and cat invaded forgotten corners. Among all the relatively modern graves you find pieces of ancient headstones cracked, broken or falling down between modern ones. Some estimate that there are millions of people buried here—a city of dead just as crowded and cramped as that of the living. I found this pile of head stones pushed up against the side of a recently purchased family plot. There were cracks in the ground beneath them with carved stone showing through--these newer graves had been lain over older ones.

The cemetery is like a labyrinth. For the most part, the graves are so thick, you can't fit through the paths that wind between them. In a city dominated by construction and skyrises and miles upon miles of uninterrupted apartment blocks, Karaca Ahmet is another dimension of green and quiet. There are firs and figs, pines and persimmon trees. In this picture you can see how closely the plots are placed. To get from one to the other you have to walk along the marble borders.

Parts of Karaca Ahmet have been "confiscated" by the city four times starting in 1917. Roads, apartments and stores have been built over cemetery land, and thus you will find patches of graves hidden behind a tekel or in the middle of a residential neighborhood, disconnected from the main body of dead but still clearly once having belonged to them (which also means scores of apartment blocks are built over the dead) This head stone was isolated behind a crumbing wall at the edge of a line of apartment blocks stretching all the way down to the sea. From the turban, you can tell it most likely belonged to an imam or a religious official. All the graves in this area bear turbans, but this one is unique in that dozens of snails had gathered beneath the brim. Was their some special magic or hikmet to this man? All over Anatolia people flock to the graves of these holy men believing some kind of power still hovers over their graves. The snails were a sign.

The turban on the tombstone at the front of this photo indicates the man buried beneath was part of the Imperial Council--the Divan-i Humayun. 

At one point, footpaths and debris give way to large brick-lain avenues that cross between "islands" of graves. I followed one down a hill until it was met by another. At one corner of the crossroad was a police box, at the opposite corner a pair of graves in white marble and gold lettering. A large crowd stood in front of these headstones, hands uplifted in prayer. Surreptiously, I crossed in front of them and glanced at the names, Ahmet and Tenzile Erdoğan, the parents of the "President". People were walking backward as they left the area (it is disrespectful to turn your back on someone holy). A bus passed by filled with women and parked just down the hill. They unloaded, about 30 of them, and walked two by two down to the graves of the Erdoğans. Women had to pray from behind a small wall, just out of sight of the men and there the bus passengers gathered, opened their hands and began to recite the Fatiha. I didn't want to get too close. Even when I took this picture, the guards came out of the police box and stared at me, hands on their hips, until I walked away. I doubt anything would have happened but the increasing threats to those who "disrespect" Erdoğan and the degree of worship I saw here led me to err on the side of caution. You can see the graves just to the left in this picture.

There are many graves of famous people throughout the cemetery, dating back all the way to the conquest. This grave belongs to Yusuf Nabi, "A Great Figure of Turkish Literature, Poet from Urfa" according to the inscription. He was a divan poet whose work often criticized the state and society in general. His pen name "Nabi" comes from the Kurdish "na bi" which means "Let it not be".

At one point, I took a short cut along the edge of the cemetery where it runs next to the highway. In a patch of weeds I found this flower--which, though you can't tell from the photo, was half the length of my forearm. The blossoms were so large and heavy that most of them hung toward the ground. Only this one managed to sit erect on the vine.
There is construction along the cemetery borders with the E5 highway. I took a picture of the road through a broken storm drain. It lay on the edge of a construction site that looked like it had dug into a portion of the cemetery grounds. 
Through a crack in the wall, I made my way back down into the cemetery. Here was another patch of Ottoman graves sticking up from the middle of modern ones. Toward the end of the Ottoman period, it seems that pictures started being placed on gravestones. The photo on the second picture belonged to a young naval officer.

The cemetery is still in use and many famous men and women from the Republican period are buried here. This is the grave of actor Ismail Hakki Dümbüllü. The inscription praises his contributions to the art of theater. He was one of the last represenatives of the traditional Ottoman theater style called Tuluat, a kind of folk theater based on improvisation of well-known stories. You can figure out why they crowned it with a red turban from this film clip.

One of the more recent graves is that of Serkan Acar--a defender for the Fenerbahçe football club (soccer) in the 70s. 

Much of the cemetery is now the dominion of cats. Old ladies sometimes set bowls of food among the tombstones. 

I left the cemetery around the Acibadem bus stop where the road emerges and leads to the Nautilus Mall. There, on the edge of the sidewalk was this modern reflection of the ancient Ottoman headstones.