Murat Turan

Atatürk's Eyes

If we are unable to read the word written in Arabic script in this work, then probably our first move will be to try to learn what it says under the image of Atatürk. And this is very natural, since we can perceive, at first sight, that the relationship between the image of Atatürk and the Arabic expression in the caption is situated at the centre of the work. The two components of this graphic double, purified of supplements such as colour or aesthetics, and losing no time over any unnecessary endeavour, indicate each other. Extrastruggle often removes such “pedagogical” images that appear to have leapt out of course books from their familiar environments, and enters them into relationships with different objects and concepts. We could then, also imagine ourselves transporting this Atatürk image in the work back into its familiar and secure environment. We could place it in an alphabet book of old, for instance, with the word “Ata” [lit. forefather] below the image introducing the letter “A”. Or it could find itself a place in a military high-school course book, accompanying an article titled “The Leader”. However, we know very well that this image in Extrastruggle’s work titled “Human” has now irrevocably lost its familiar platform. It is doubtful whether it can sustain its educative, instructive, dissuasive functions here –normally fulfilled without hesitation. It now finds itself on the wall of an art gallery, or on the side-column of a culture & arts page of a newspaper- in a sense, it is far from its home. Like René Magritte’s image of a pipe which features the caption, “this is not a pipe,” it is about to enter into a tense relationship with its inscription.
As a viewer of this work who cannot read its Arabic inscription, I would like to focus on the moment that we have not yet found out what the word in the inscription means. The lines that form the letters are not very different from the lines that form the image of Atatürk, they could be considered an extension of the illustration. However, we somehow know that this is not the case. Letters signify a semantic universe, and the moment the word weighs in, the game will change. The fact that the letters in which the word gains expression are Arabic creates a twofold increase in tension. The image of Atatürk seems to be at the mercy of the letters of an alphabet that he exiled from books into prohibition.
I don’t know why I like imagining a moment when I stare at the Arabic letters with an uncomprehending look on my face, and turning that moment over and over in my head. Perhaps it is because I have absolutely no recollection of such a moment. This work, as I guess for many others too, began for me the moment I found out it said “human” below the image of Atatürk. If I am not mistaken, I was actually with the artist when I saw the work for the first time, he perhaps told me himself what it said below the image of Atatürk. The image must have matched the word at that moment, faced it, and nearly clashed with it. And from that moment on, the debate taking place in my mind moved onto a conceptual plane. All other impressions lose their importance –the expression on Atatürk’s face, the fact that the word is written in Arabic- because the word outweighs them. The question from now on will be, “what is the meaning of this pairing (Atatürk = Human)?” Perhaps some will ask, “what is the intention of the person who proposes this pairing?” or even more directly, “is this an accurate pairing?” The answer to such questions is not clear. In fact, they could have various answers that all seem correct, despite contradicting each other: Is Atatürk human? Of course. So, what about this image that has been reproduced so many times at the service of an apparatus of brainwashing that it has been vulgarly deformed, how “human” is it? Difficult to say. Is the artist showing us how far the image has ended up from the human condition –and its own reality? If so, then this is a stance that has realistic and humanistic emphases, it is a criticism of the sanctification of Atatürk as an authoritarian figure.
On the other hand, the painter Bedri Baykam interpreted the approach of the artist as “sinister aggression” (Cumhuriyet, 2005). According to Baykam, the artist is trying to say, “After all, Atatürk is merely human like everyone else.” In other words, by describing him as “human”, this work in a sense attempts to downplay Atatürk’s importance, undermine and trivialize him, and it is all a malignant plot by the artist. I want to adopt Baykam’s perception as a leitmotif and with a little imagination, try to extend it further. By including the Arabic letters that Baykam does not elaborate on, we can add an entirely different dimension to the interpretation: The worry we mentioned previously has become reality. The image of Atatürk is made to confront a form of religious sanctity via the alphabet –which also happens to be the alphabet the Quran is written in- he once excommunicated. The emphasis Baykam mentions, “Human after all!” gains a deeper, more authoritative tone. Immortal Atatürk is being reminded that he is merely a mortal by the eternal and perpetual force itself.
We should, in fact, realize that, for a while now, we have been engaged in quite an unsubstantial attempt to determine intention. The pairing of Atatürk and the word human is objective to the point that it makes you suspicious. It is almost as if someone who is completely indifferent to Atatürk, perhaps an alien, has defined this object with eyes, eyebrows and ears as “human”. And no one can object to that definition of “human”. All debates about Atatürk’s benevolence, evil, success or failure are frozen by this definition: “Atatürk is human”. But only for a certain period of time. Because we cannot remain indifferent to Atatürk the way an alien could. Our positive or negative stance regarding Atatürk, and our sentimental or intellectual knowledge will, sooner or later, kick into action, and force us to discuss, interpret and take a position regarding this work. Bedri Baykam felt the need to add the following sentence to his review of this work: “You see, it is ‘fools’ like me who take offense from the work of this intelligent young man.” I think Baykam, too, was aware that he was facing a work that allowed for different interpretations thanks to the “ambiguity” it contained. Umberto Eco describes modern works of art that precisely fit such a definition as “open works”, and uses this concept to explain the radical difference between modern and traditional art. The ambiguity and interpretability of the work that opens dynamic fields of interaction between the work and the audience form the foundation of the idea of the “open work”. However, it seems as if Baykam is not happy with the fact that this work is open to interpretation. He accuses Extrastruggle of being “sinister” and “mincing his words”. The polysemy unique to modern art exemplified in this work, according to Baykam, is a type of “craftiness” the artist who has adopted the task of drowning and destroying the values of the Republic in conceptual chaos hides behind. On the other hand, if a religious fundamentalist artist had written “Antichrist” below an image of Atatürk, this would perhaps have been considered frank, and applauded by Baykam. This would also be in line with the traditional viewpoint, because as “we” pay tribute to and glorify the image of Atatürk, naturally, “our enemies” would want to take the image hostage and abuse it- as in the YouTube controversy.
The viewers of open works enter into a productive interaction with the work; every viewer can become an extension, a supplement of the work with their experience and interpretations. It seems, in actual fact, that Bedri Baykam too has entered through the open door of the work and lived his own experience; however, he insists in closing the open door behind him. He believes that he, via his interpretation, deciphers the true, evil intention the artist is concealing –this is also the truth of the artwork, according to Baykam- and demands that the artist now also confesses this truth. At the point he wants to arrive at, Baykam’s interpretation will no longer be considered an interpretation, but a truth; and it will overwhelm other meanings and interpretations, rendering them superfluous and impotent. The following words of Foucault are rendered much clearer in this context: “The death of interpretation is the belief that there are signs of something, some hidden essence that is waiting for us at the end of our interpretive journeys. The life of interpretation, on the contrary, is to believe that there are only interpretations.”
When I began to write an article on Extrastruggle’s work titled “Human”, I opened the digital image of the work on my computer and began staring at it. Then I realized that my gaze constantly locked in on Atatürk’s eyes. Yet when I first saw the work a few years ago, I hadn’t paid much heed to the strangeness of the eyes. I was more bothered with the connection Atatürk/human. I think the distortions in the image of Atatürk had seemed acceptable to me, because in real life too, we were surrounded by extremely distorted images of Atatürk –which we tolerated with no difficulty whatsoever. But now I looked at these eyes with a new kind of attention. It was as if the pupils weren’t there, or they had turned white, like the eyes of the living dead in horror films. They could also be the eyes of a super hero, preparing to emit rays any second now. And on the other hand I was still looking at the image, screwing my eyes up, testing whether these eyes were acceptable within a degree of graphic tolerance. Or were they looking to the right? I could not tell for certain. This ebb-and-flow relationship I established with Atatürk’s eyes also indicated the variability of my sentimental stance regarding the image of Atatürk. My attempt to determine his intention by looking into his eyes made me think of the moment a small child focuses on his father’s eyes, anxiously waiting to see whether he would imminently turn into an evil monster or not. The fantasy of a vampire who rises from the coffin he sleeps in during the daytime, wearing his cloak over his shoulders and his eyes turned white, blended with the image of a wise, wronged leader, who looks over his shoulder as if to say, “What are you doing behind my back?” This perception of reverse values revealed a depression where the anxiety of harm and the desire to harm run parallel to feelings of guilt.
Melanie Klein sees potential, and a kind of hope, in depression. The pain we feel when we cannot accept the coexistence of good and evil in our perception of our self and objects also constitutes the first step towards a more realistic perception –a union. Yet, evading the depressive disquietude and suffering brought on by contrasting sentiments forces us to regress towards a paranoid world populated by absolute good and absolute evil objects, the two separated by deep chasms. This, then, is a true regression –because it is a loss of truth.

Translation: Nazım Dikbaş

Click for the painting titled 'Human'