Friday, September 14, 2007

Backstage With Kutlug Ataman: A Video Artist In Search of Adentity

September 14, 2007
This interview demonstrates that there is a great will by Turkish intellectuals to unearth Ottoman Turkey's past. I think this is healthy for the country and in effect it will enrich it. It is therefore a big disappointment when the politicians do not follow their example and become hostage to the nationalistic sentiments of extremists.
The style of Turkish video artist and film maker Kutlug Ataman is deceptively simple. He points the camera at his subjects; they talk.

But in the process, layers of identity are peeled away, making us witness to a bare human life. Mr. Ataman, born in Istanbul in 1961 and a graduate of UCLA's film school, caught the attention of the art scene in 2002 with his work "Küba," a video installation on 40 screens portraying the marginalized residents of a shantytown in Istanbul. The work, which was short-listed for the Tate museum's Turner Prize, revealed a self-constructed society in the middle of Istanbul.

"Semiha Berksoy Unplugged" (1997), one of his most powerful pieces, is about an isolated and strange 90-year-old Turkish opera singer, a diva who tells stories of her glory days in outrageous makeup. "Women Who Wear Wigs" (2000) focuses on four people: A political activist branded as a terrorist, a Turkish journalist with cancer, a female Muslim student and a transsexual prostitute -- all have their reasons for wearing a wig.

Mr. Ataman's latest piece is "Testimony," on display at the Istanbul Biennial, running until Nov. 4. In it, Mr. Ataman interviews his Armenian nanny, Kevser, who was brought into the family by his great-grandfather after her family was killed in 1915. The work raises one of the most controversial issues in Turkey's history. Armenia says the Ottoman government orchestrated a genocide of the Armenian population during World War I. Turkey denies that what took place was a genocide, arguing that thousands of Turks also died in a brutal conflict.

Mr. Ataman says the work is about him as much as it is about Kevser, allowing him to share his doubts and confusion about what happened to the Armenians.

The artist's works are found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in Miami and the Sammlung Goetz in Munich, among others. A commercial film, "The Novel of Two Young Girls," brought him the Golden Orange for best director in the 2005 Antalya Film Festival.

The artist spoke to Ezgi Basaran earlier this month at his studio in the Nisantasi neighborhood in Istanbul.

Q: Why do you work in video?
I come from a film background, and that is the only way I know how to express myself.

Q: What are you trying to achieve?
Art is there to ask questions. I never see my role as getting any answers. I am not interested in any messages or precooked answers. I am more interested in questioning in general. So after viewing my work, if people leave the room with a question mark, then I have achieved my goal. I am the kind of artist who grows with his viewers. What's really important to me is the dialogue between my work and the audience. I sometimes receive some readings of my work that I haven't initially intended, which is really surprising and inspiring.

Q: What about your process? Do you work on ideas in your head for a while or start shooting right away?
You can never start shooting whenever an idea comes into your mind. It has become more and more difficult to produce video art in Turkey. Partly because the art market is not readily accepting video as a commodity. In Turkey, there is only one institution that comprehends and produces video art. If you are a painter, you do your work, then put it on display and you sell it. The case is different if you are producing a video. You have to raise money before you even start shooting -- like when you are doing a movie. So the institutions should buy the piece before I produce it. I have no difficulty working out this pre-sale deal with European and American institutions. But in Turkey it has not evolved to that degree yet. They do not understand why they should pay for the art in advance. It has become almost impossible for me to continue doing my art here because I don't know how to manage all this.

Q: You focused on women in "Semiha Berksoy," "Women Who Wear Wigs" and now with Kevser in "Testimony." Do you like to tell your stories through women?
I don't always tell them through women. In the works "Küba" and "Paradise" [which questions the idea of Orange County, California, as paradise], there are more men than women. I guess in the beginning of my career, I was attracted to the idea of how women construct themselves in front of the camera. And I think women are generally more talkative than men.

Q: How did you decide to do a piece about Kevser?
I kind of revisit different phases of my life. For my work "Paradise," I revisited my 15 years of life in California. Doing a piece about Kevser was revisiting my childhood, something I was planning to do for a long time. She had this identity that was kept like a secret in the family. It was this one big issue that disturbed my conscience. She died a year ago, right after I did the shooting of the piece. It was sad.

Q: What's the story of her being brought into your family?
We don't really know. There's just this myth that my great-grandfather adopted her because her entire family was murdered by [what my family called] the "bandits." That's the only thing I know. She was never a maid, but more like the manager of the kitchen. She took care of my father, then my aunt, and then me.

Q: The name of the piece is "Testimony." Whose testimony is it?
In Germany, closure has come through historians and the Nuremberg trials. In Turkey, we have a lot of discussions about what might have happened in 1915. On one hand there's the Armenian diaspora saying it was genocide; on the other hand you have the extremist Turkish view that suggests nothing ever happened. It is a big mess for everybody. For the health of the Turkish society, we need closure on the Armenian case, no matter what. I have the right as a Turkish citizen to know the uncontested truth.

For a long time we couldn't even talk about the subject, because it was a taboo. What I am saying is this has to be discussed and talked about. Through my piece, I am contributing to the discussions. If you look at my past works, you'll see people giving testimonies of their lives. This one is different. This piece is my testimony as a Turkish citizen more than my Armenian nanny's.

Q: What does your nanny tell us in the piece?
Kevser can not tell anything to us; she is too old and demented to tell. And even if she was coherent, I doubt that she would tell the truth about what happened to her family, because she has been trained not to for all her life. This is the ironic part about the piece. Her being confused and not talking about the subject is an allegory to Turkish society handling the Armenian problem.

Q: Some Turkish artists and writers, such as Orhan Pamuk, who raise the Armenian issue internationally are said to be "seeking fame" and are criticized for "selling out." Do you think that happens in contemporary art?
I have never marketed myself that way. If you are pointing out a very genuine problem in your culture and still have people accusing you of "selling out the country," I don't know what to say. What do they suggest? To shut up?

If I were an American artist, criticizing the Bush government for the Iraq war, would I be accused of selling out the country? I don't think I would.

Q: As a gay contemporary artist, have you received threats?
I received threats when I was doing my first work about gay people. Now I don't, because I stopped doing gay films, not because I am abused, but only because I am done with the subject. But it would be unfair to say that if you are a gay person, you'll be threatened in Turkey. The country was not ready for my work back then; it was too early; that's all.

Q: How do you think the Turkish art scene will be affected by the latest elections, in which the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party won the presidency?
This government is the most liberal government that I have seen through my existence. I don't share the worries that secularists have. I don't think Sharia is coming because [this party] is in power. I went to the beach the other day. There were three women swimming with their hijabs. My British friend told me that it reminds him of the Victorian era. I think what Turkey is going through right now is that for the first time it is able to create itself from within.

Q: What do you think about the motto of this year's biennial -- "Not Only Possible But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War"?
I think in today's world it's such a great political act to say there has to be optimism. I have always been an optimist myself.

Q: What are you working on now?
I am a little bit tired of being called controversial and bold. I am 46 years old, and I'd like to reflect the fun in me -- I am a really funny person, you know. I'd like to do an entertaining movie, a box-office, commercial movie, and probably pursue an academic career, giving lectures and helping out young artists.

The name of the movie that I am working on right now is "The Coat." It's a really nice and fun movie for a general audience. It doesn't involve politics at all.

For more information on the Istanbul Biennial, see

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Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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