“I’m always interested in how things are constructed. How identities are constructed, how communities are constructed, how history, geography, art is constructed.” – Kutluğ Ataman
Ataman uses documentary tradition to get his point across, but at the same time he is revealing the misconceptions about truth and objectivity in documentary narratives, as well as the layers of meaning and reality in other media. From an interview with Saul Anton for Artforum, 2003: “Talking is the only meaningful activity we`re capable of.” Thus spake Kutlug Ataman when we met in New York recently. This is such a true statement, and one that I’ll carry with me as I work on my narratives.
“All my subjects feel like natural extensions of myself. I don`t do a film with people just because they`re interesting, but because they have the same problems or obsessions I have. That`s why I can talk to them so easily and why the works feel as though I`m having a conversation with myself.“ This is how he gets so engaged with his subjects and how they open up completely to him. This is perhaps why artists like Goldin and Clarke have been successful documenting their own circles of acquaintance, and possibly why I remain an outsider – both as foreigner and as non-disabled person in my current work.
“…the artist appropriates and questions modes of aesthetic intelligibility in Western art practice to represent the other: documentary, ethnography, photography, film/video, Renaissance painting, frescoes, domes and columns.” (Cakirlar, Cuneyt Aesthetics of Self-Scaling: Parallaxed Transregionalism and Kutlug Ataman’s Art Practice, Critical Arts, Critical Arts Projects, 2013)
On the Mutual Art website, Ataman discusses his film project semiha b. unplugged, 1997:
“I started to shoot the first Turkish opera singer, Semiha Berksoy, who was then ninety-four years old. She had been left behind as opera evolved in Turkey during the twentieth century. What`s fascinating is how this caused her to begin constantly changing her identity, rewriting and reinventing herself, constantly fighting to stay on stage though she wasn`t wanted anymore. For me, this is a metaphor for death.”
This idea of changing identity and assuming roles is repeated throughout a lot of Ataman’s work, and I think this has a lot to do with the gender debate, and the Butlerian notion that gender is something which is created by the individual without any particular reference to avatars.
“I wanted to engage the whole `60s discussion of objectivity in documentary and to make the point that it`s impossible to make an objective film. By making semiha b. unplugged almost eight hours long– it`s about an entire life, after all-I wanted the audience to have to return to this piece again and again without ever being able to see the whole thing, and to be forced to make their own Semiha out of the fragments that they do see.”
“Through her confessions, fabrications, embellishments, and reminisces, the Turkish opera star tells not only her own story and but also the story of Turkey from the Ottoman Empire to the modern state.”
From Ataman’s website: “The viewer can not help but accept the presented reality as it appears on the screen, trying to make sense of the blurred area between fiction and reality… The artist’s aim is to lure the viewer into questioning his or her own passive position by doubting and questioning the reality of the presented documentary information.”
By using a documentary format, Ataman is making us accept the work as a ‘truth’, but since the central character is reinventing her life with varying layers of fiction, the real truth is hard to fathom, and thus the whole idea of documentary and biography being in any way truthful are highlighted:
“I have always been fascinated by how people fictionalise their lives, how they tell stories and act them out. In one way my work is a documentation because I am actually filming people. But my works are always once removed. There is never an illusion of reality. The viewer can always see the hand of the puppeteer, so to speak, whether it’s the machinery, my voice or my face reflected in a mirror. I don’t want people to sit back and eat popcorn and watch a story, I want them to be challenged.” (RA Magazine, Winter 2004, p 55)
“…what about all those silent people staring out of ‘Column’? The films were shot in an ancient Armenian village once destroyed by an earthquake. The subjects range from seven to 70, all standing in front of walls. As a film-maker, how did he direct their muteness? “I told them,” he says, “To talk to me with their eyes.” A Turkish artist making a film with Armenians?!?
One of Ataman’s works is called The Four Seasons of Veronica Read, and shows a year in the life of a hippeastrum bulb grower from Harrow, the work is projected onto 4 screens (a representation of the petals of a flower) that viewers can walk around in a circle:
The seemingly mundane is made into something apparently exotic, as Ataman says in an interview for RA magazine: “One of my obsessions is how we deal with exoticism. When I made the Veronica Read piece in 2002, lots of curators were coming to Istanbul and were attracted to work that catered to their perception of the exotic. I have a problem with Western artists and curators who think they are entitled to say something about other people’s reality. So I mimicked them by doing the reverse.” (RA Magazine, Winter 2004, p 54)
By turning our ideas upside down, Ataman forces us to contemplate our own stereotypes. He says he does not choose interesting characters, but rather sees his films as more of a process of talking to himself, an extension of his own occupations or obsessions:
“I always work with people I have a relationship or a connection with. A film always starts with my own obsession. l have no special method – it’s almost as though I’m asking questions I’d ask myself.” (ibid, p 54)
In this sense his work can be seen as a kind of autobiographical exploration, a self-directed interrogation. By projecting his films onto multiple screens, allowing the sounds of people’s voices to bleed into one another, Ataman’s work becomes fragmentary and somewhat confused or cacophonous, and this is deliberate: “To me, this implies democracy- everybody’s talking but nobody can communicate.” Bakhtin’s heteroglossia.
As one reviewer put it: “…every aspect of his installations is designed to convey only a partial sense of identity – not just Ataman’s, but that of the filmed subject’s too, which is as much as one can ever hope to get.” (Martin Herbert, Screen Therapy, Art Review, February 2003) This partial sense of identity, or a fragmentary mini-narrative is what makes Ataman’s work truly postmodernist in essence.
For the piece Women Who Wear Wigs, Ataman interviewed four women who wear wigs for very different reasons:
One of Ataman’s subjects is a woman who was pursued as a terrorist, and was therefore forced to live part of her life in disguise. Another is a well-known journalist who wears a wig to conceal the hair loss that resulted from chemotherapy. The third, her identity protected by a completely black screen, is a devout Muslim student banned from wearing her traditional headscarf in the classroom because of Turkey’s secular laws. And the fourth is a transsexual prostitute and political activist who had her head shaved when arrested by the police. (From the artist’s website)
The installation has the four women speaking at the same time, and Ataman explains the reasoning behind this: “I really wanted those competing voices in order to point out how these narratives compete with each other for space – each trying to have its own say. Each story shoulders the other.” Just as in real society, people compete for attention, for space. As Milan Kundera wrote, “All man’s life among men is nothing more than a battle for the ears of others.” (1979, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)
Although the reasons that the women discuss are very different, it becomes apparent that as well as having wig wearing in common, they are somehow connected to each other (and to Ataman) through broader issues concerning gender, identity and oppression in Turkey.
“By juxtaposing these four stories, Ataman creates a delicate yet searing portrait of identity as defined by carefully defined factors inside and outside ourselves. The disguise of a wig has enabled each woman to simultaneously hide and enhance selected aspects of her identity, establishing a mutated self marked by the conflict between social stereotyping and personal myth-making.”
This idea that identity is not something fixed, but something that we can put on and take off, change as the mood suits us rather like our clothes, or as Judith Butler would have it, our gender. With the wig, there is a real object that is intrinsically connected to the identities of the four women. Although they apparently wear the wig for personal, religious or other reasons, it is really the demands of society that force them to adorn the hairpiece, since without the wig their identity would be compromised within the larger community. For Ataman, there is also a certain sense of identity being external to the individual, something that is apportioned by the outside world:
“…I do not think identity belongs to the individual. Identity is like a jacket. People you never see will make it and you wear it. Identity is something other than you, outside of you. It is a question of perception. You can be aware of it and manipulate it, play with it, amplify it, or mask it for infinite reasons.”
In this sense we are never really possession of our own identities; perhaps making films where people are permitted to tell their own stories is a way of enabling people to reclaim their identities, or at least to have partial control over them for a certain amount of time. I think this is my main goal with my current project, since the disabled people are themselves challenging societal stereotypes and being given the chance to let their voices be heard.