A (Garden) Snake Charmer
or about the absurd lightness of objects in the artof Şakir Gokcebağ – Marta Smolinska
THE WORK of the Turkish artist Şakir Gokcebağ is marked by an unique sense of humour, joy of life and a skilful presentation of the absurdity of objects of everyday use. This character of his oeuvre is on the one hand part and parcel of the idiosyncrasy of contemporary Turkish art in general, and on the other hand stands out of this art because of an absence of overt political undertones.
The present-day work of Turkish artists and artists of Turkish descent has been very expansive and visible on the world’s art scene for at least one decade. According to Rene Block, a seasoned expert on this art, still in the early 1990s contemporary art in Istanbul was in practice nonexistent1. Today the situation is dramatically different because of the substantial number of galleries in Turkey that specialise in contemporary art. Moreover, Turkish artists make use of the media and techniques common around the globe, such as photography, performance, installation, and video. It seems that the artists who have emigrated from Turkey and are active abroad very oft en raise topics related to migration and questions of identity, developed somewhere at the intersection of cultures and the clash between the East and the West. Their art moreover oft en addresses questions of conflict and prejudice, which can be seen in the artists’ manifesting their open opposition to the authoritarian Turkish regime and in their un-masking and overcoming the cultural or political taboos that still linger in Turkey. While Turkish art originated in calligraphy and ornament and was later influenced by French art, it seems that today, as indicated persuasively by Rene Block, we can identify in this art aesthetic radicalism and political commitment as well as some kind of biting irony2. When in 2009 the Centre Pasquart in the Swiss town of Biel showed work by ten Turkish artists, the exhibition was called “Seriously Ironic”. In her review published in Der Bund3, Alice Henkes high-lighted the characteristic traits of this art, namely the use of modern media and a critical social stand.
Where does the work of Şakir Gokcebağ stand on this general background? The artist was born in 1965 in Denizli in south-western Turkey. Between 1987–1990 he studied art at Marmara University in Istanbul. In 1991 he received an art scholarship in Salzburg, and in 1995, as a DAAD scholarship holder he continued his education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf, where the following year he was granted the Markus Lupertz Award. At present he lives and works in Hamburg, exhibiting mainly in Germany and in Istanbul. We can therefore say that Şakir Gokcebağ lives and works in a zone between two cultures, tapping each of them for what inspires him at a given moment.
As to his inspirations, they are first and foremost everyday reality and the objects around us. Despite being a migrant and a nomad, the artist does not focus in his art on the question of migration but openly admits that what fascinates him the most are everyday ob-jects that invariably harbour a potential creativity. In an unpublished statement he stresses that what bothers him is the plain, tedious, cliched, and repeatable human environment. Consequently, Şakir Gokcebağ tries to overcome those aspects via a change of the initial context of a given object, invariably, however, in a manner which allows the audience to recognise the object despite its change of nature and therefore to observe its clash with its initial identity. As the artist himself admits, he aims to stir the perception of the audience so that each person who has seen his exhibitions might perceive their own immediate environment diff erently and treat it as a potential field of creativity. Life is to become more colourful and more intense if we become sensitised to the apparently uninteresting reality. Those who comment on his art refer to the beauty of the mundane and to the poetry of the everyday, pointing out the prime significance of what is hidden behind objects4. Belinda Grace Gardner, for instance, observes that the artist has the skill to release the magic in the mundane5.
No doubt Şakir Gokcebağ’s work shows the biting irony that Rene Block referred to. Focusing on commonly accessible objects, dislodging them from their usual functions, the artist off ers them a new life in surprising configurations. He makes use of garden hoses, trouser belts, clothes pegs, brooms, buckets, umbrellas, carpets, shoes, slotted spoons, rosaries, electric wires, plugs, and even reels of toilet tissue; he seems to be able to turn any subject he encounters into art. Moreover, he uses irony in his titles, calling his photographs featuring motifs of sliced fruit and vegetables piled to form regular structures and ornament “Cuttemporary Art”. The very title, then, is a reference to contemporary art, to the activity of cutting, and to the temporal and fleeting nature of the motifs shown. In this context they evoke the vanity symbolism of fruit in Dutch seventeenth-century painting. An installation composed of clocks whose hands are arranged to make up a square is called “Times Square”. One other title, “Allreadymade”, naturally brings to mind fi rst of all Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made, and second of all Ellsworth Kelly’s idea of already made6 ; Kelly chose ready motifs from the surrounding environment and thus in his paintings he was free from the compulsion to compose. Şakir Gokcebağ, in turn, using a double “l”, offers a pun that points to everything that has already been made. Thus the artist seems to be stressing that he can be inspired by virtually every-thing, any object that attracts his gaze and that provides him with an impetus to create something new. Rene Block emphasises that the anti-academic character of Şakir Gokcebağ’s art is its asset. George Maciunas, a leading Fluxus artist whose award was granted to the Turkish artist in 2012, would have been overjoyed, according to Rene Block, seeing the innovative and humorous alienation of objects of everyday use7. Michael Glasmeier, one of the main interpreters of Şakir Gokcebağ’s art indicates that we deal here with an intriguing merger of the fol-lowing traditions: Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, the Surrealist metamorphoses of objects, the Constructivist approach to object colour and form, the Dadaist principle of editing and of criticising the commodity character of things, rooted both in pop art and in Postmodernism8. Marcus Graf observes in his turn that Şakir Gokcebağ uses the idea of ready-mades as a starting point of fundamental signifi cance9. According to this art critic, the artist is not limited to pure translocations of objects but invariably subjects them to all kinds of transformations: he cuts them, fragmentises, bends, combines with other objects, multiplies, etc. Graf, calling the artist a master of references, similarly to Michael Glasmeier provides a list of probable sources of inspiration that are significant for Şakir Gokcebağ’s stand: he borrows the ready-made from Duchamp, the critical irony from Dadaism, the absurd psychological dimension of our world of objects from Surrealism, the emphasis on geometry from Bauhaus aesthetics, and the sequence and serial production from Minimalism.
Şakir Gokcebağ’s art is based on the repetition and recurrence of one selected element, out of which the artist builds visual rhythms and surprising arrangements of shapes which have noth-ing to do with the original function of a particular object. A sliced garden hose writhes on a wall, rows of shoes with cut-off fronts acquire a surprising dynamism, as if trying to become whole again, umbrellas “perch” at the intersection of the fl oor and wall and look tired, clothes pins make up ladders, baskets or abstract shapes on walls, so-called extension cords, “mesh” into a group that makes up a hybrid “body electric” topped by a lit bulb, reels of toilet paper compose delicate structures that seem almost poetic in their appearance, while trouser belts make up a wall ornament whose graphic
pattern and colour black contrasts with the whiteness of the background. The artist likewise plays with the features of perspective vision, showing anamorphosis in the shape of a chair shadow, cut out of a rug and laid on the floor next to the piece of furniture. All of this is absurd and entices audiences with its lightness and its playfulness. Still, at the same time you cannot miss the power that Şakir Gokcebağ’s installations and objects hold over the gallery venues they are displayed in. They have the property of interacting not only with the imagination of the audiences, but also with the context of a particular interior.
For all its lightness, Şakir Gokcebağ’s work is uniquely “pure” and precise as to its form. Th is art shows a sensitivity to structure and at the same time does not seem calculated but spontaneous, as if created during a play typical of children. This is most likely one of the reasons why George Maciunas, the patron of the Fluxus movement, would have enthusiastically approved of conferring an award named aft er him to this very Turkish artist. In his un-published statement Şakir Gokcebağ defines his own art as funny, poetical and meant to be playful; the experimental approach in itself has become the main direction rather than a path to arrive at some complex significance: “My art is not complicated. I always say: ‘You do not need Gombrich to comprehend my art.’ My work does not contain either too much aesthetics, or too much concept. It contains both to a limited extent. The aesthetic and the conceptual are balanced off . (…) Simple works of art may have a lot of content. You can do a lot of good philosophising also on the basis of simple things”. Coming back to the position of Şakir Gokcebağ’s work against the backdrop of contemporary Turkish art, we can say that despite its simplicity and its a-political stand, its implicitly addresses questions of identity, visible for instance in the frequent use of Turkish rugs. The artist, naturally in a figurative sense, “flies” them like an eastern wizard, merging the East and the West and playing anti-academic pranks on dead serious art critics who read Ernst Gombrich and who cannot bring themselves to approving the stand inspired by Fluxus. In addition, he is a snake charmer, but in fact his “snakes”turn out to be garden hoses.
We can venture a hypothesis that the absurd lightness of Şakir Gokcebağąs art is in-formed also by the unbearable lightness of being,but only in the sense contemplated by the Czech writer Milan Kundera: “The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all”10. Both lightness and absurdity may stimulate imagination to meander in multiple, frequently surprising directions, showing those aspects of reality that remain imperceptible if one is dead serious.
(tłumaczenie| translation Marcin Turski)
1 “Lodowate ukąszenie ironii. O wspołczesnej sztuce tureckiej z Rene Block rozmawia Marta Smolińska / Biting Irony. Rene Block in conversation with Marta Smolińska on contemporary Turkish art”, [in:] Artluk. Sztuka na spad 3 (17), 2010, p. 52-59
3 Edition of July 2, 2009
4 See: Marcus Graf, “Uber die Schonheit des Normalen und die Poesie des Alltaglichen / On the Beauty of the Normal and the Poetry of the Everyday”, [in:] SimplePresent, Saarlandisches Kunstlerhaus, Saarbrucken 2010. See also: Susanne Wedewer–Pampus, “Das hinter den Dingen Verborgene. Zu den Arbeiten von Sakir Gokcebağ”,in: Cuttemporary Art, Kunstverein Leverkusen Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen 2008.All the texts can be accessed at: http://www.sakirgokcebag.com/Text.aspx (accessdate: 30.07.2013)
5 Belinda Grace Gardner, “Freisetzung der Magie im Alltaglichen / Releasing the Magic in the Mundane”, [in:] Spuren, Marstall, Schloss Ahrensburg 2004. Available at: http://www.sakirgokcebag.com/Images/Text/19%E2%80%9CReleasing%20the%20
202004,%20%20ENGLISH.pdf (access date: 30.07.2013)
6 See: Yve-Alain Bois, “Kelly in Frankreich oder Die Anti-Komposition in ihren verschiedenen Stadien”, [in:] Ellsworth Kelly. Die Jahre in Frankreich 1948-1954, hrsg.von Idem, Jack Cowart, Alfred Pacquement, Munchen 1992, p. 12-23.
7 Rene Block, “Ein Meister der Wascheklammern / A Master of the Clothespin”, [in:] Şakir Gokcebağ. Prefix & Suffix, (Ed.) Barbara Heinrich, Tanas, Berlin 2012, unnumberedp.
8 Michael Glasmeier, “Im Denkraum der Dinge /
9 Marcus Graf, op. cit.
10 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, transl. by Michael Henry Heim, New York 1984, p. 6.