The Grotesque Truth – 2017
The painting Conclusion and Then Rationalization (2017) shows a bulldozer on a white background. It is shaped like a toy with headlights for eyes. There’s no driver but instead a book with leather straps buckled to the radiator bonnet. An over-sized arm – the hand in a long, black glove – protrudes outwards and upwards from the side of the machine, from its engine compartment, and with a firm grip is swinging a withered foot – two toes missing – like a flag or projectile launcher. Real objects, portrayed by using colour (acrylic and oil pastel) in a picturesque rather than photorealistic fashion, and with clear contours, are put together in unrealistic ways. In the same way Frankenstein created his monsters, here too objects and body parts are assembled in distorted proportions and produce a nightmarish effect. The massive black fist looks brutal spinning the bare, severed, rotting foot around by its overhanging skin. Rather than being steered by a head, the arm’s action is associated with a machine with destruction and disposal functions. And rather than being operated by a human being, the bulldozer is controlled by a book of laws that is sealed by straps – which render it unalterable, or ineffective – and tightly screwed to the annihilation machine. This monster, which is comprised of disparate parts, and which appears to be moving out from the picture in our direction, thus becomes an inescapable threat. In Conclusion and Then Rationalization, Memed Erdener is lamenting “a demolition of a culture gathered in a thousand years”. The withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster, in the words of Lebanese thinker Jalal Toufic, finds its equivalent in Erdener’s paintings in the fragmented, mutilated, fetishized representations of the human figure. It is about the loss of continuity, the curtailment of basic rights and the corruption of values. Another painting in this exhibition that we can use as evidence of the significance of the hand as a metaphor for state power is Hand of the State (2017) in which a hand is reaching into the picture from above. The arm of the jacket has a bluish, traditional herringbone pattern with two ochre-coloured buttons. You can see the cuff of a white shirt underneath the jacket with a gold watch peering out from underneath it. Up to this point, the depiction is realistic. The hand merely looks deformed on first take, then you realise that the four, same-sized fingers sticking out to the side are depicted as penises with the suggestion of scrotums where the thumb should be. The colourful composition and fragmentary, deformed depiction of the body, reminiscent in its flesh-coloured and bulky motifs (such as shoes, feet, and hands) of a late Philip Guston painting, again shows authoritarian state power in a different light. The drawing entitled Master of Thieves (2017) also has a gripping hand, this time growing out of a face where the nose should be, the face’s black eye sockets reminiscent of a skull.
The arm of the state, the foot of the people and a demolition machine. Or is it the state abusing the population, turning them into willing executors? The mechanism of repression is a topic that Erdener presents in his long poem Beauty of Bigotry, which, together with a painting of the same name, gives the exhibition its theme. This painting (acrylic and oil pastel on canvas) depicts two different-sized figures in front of an erotic-red background. The title of the picture can be read – like an advert for a brothel – above the smaller figure. The figure on the left is a column of bluish-white spheres that get smaller the higher they go; the figure on the right, under the title, is a misshapen lump. Each figure is standing on a single stiletto heel. Various paraphernalia suggest degrading sexual practices that in turn can be seen as a metaphor for the abusive nature of state power vis-à-vis the people.
Another painting, They Used A Girl Hitchhiker As the Decoy (2017), shows a green-yellow structure that on the one hand looks like a mosque with dome and minarets and on the other hand a factory with smoking chimneys; or a city model with a honeycomb of flats, although the organic shapes also make you think of living organisms, particularly the minarets, chimneys or pipes that lead into feet with painted toenails walking in a circle in stiletto heels. Red-yellow blossoms grow out of the pipes, the traditional tulip images corresponding to and symbolising the female power of attraction. Pencil-drawn soldiers in camouflage gear are visible as a background pattern around the colourful, clearly delineated foreground figure, the circular movement of which is echoed in the soldiers shooting in all directions. The story takes place on a single spot: the four feet are going round in a circle, so no new path is trodden. It is like a loop, a frozen idea, in Erdener’s words “a kind of bigotry”. The soldiers defend the status quo – and hamper progression.
Although the painting is discussed above in terms of foreground and background, no illusion of space is created. A spatial impression is only evoked in one drawing, Put Your Foot Down (2017), in which the pencil-drawn background, particularly the street cobbling, is in perspective. This impression is annulled, however, by the unrealistic, colourful foreground figure, namely a very high and very pointed black stiletto shoe with a red sole (reminiscent of the expensive women’s shoe label Louboutin) with something indefinable and difficult to interpret gushing forth from it, which triggers uneasy feelings. There appears to be a very thin line between women’s pleasure and pain. The black-and-white background depicts a large group of people holding photos in front of them. It is a media image depicting the 600th demonstration by Turkey’s Saturday Mothers in 2016, an event that attracted several thousand people. The protest movement, which was launched in response to the 1980 military coup, has long outlived its original inspiration, namely the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo protest in Argentina. Here, as there, it is mothers’ protest against the disappearance of their sons.
Beauty of Bigotry is Erdener’s first solo exhibition in Berlin, which, in addition to a series of paintings and oil pastel drawings that have all been specially created this year for the exhibition, also includes a selection of objects, his objets trouvés, from previous years. Similarly to his drawings, Erdener’s three-dimensional works are also composed of unrelated parts. Ready-made items from the flea market – such as horns, forks, knives, sockets, prescription lenses, coffee pots, stirrups, epaulettes, doll arms and döner kebab scoops – are put together with leftover material into new, sometimes anthropomorphic shapes (e.g. Famulus (2016) and Sin is Sacred (2014)) that evoke various associations in the beholder. Utensils are sometimes assembled in a type of cause-and-effect chain: the stirrups, knife, horn and coffee pot in Desire and Pressure of Will (2015), for example, are arranged in such a way that influences and dependencies become clear. In the text Erdener attaches to the work, he asks about the role played by love: “Can we, with Eros’s help, wake from the nightmare ruled by the tyrant or the State, in other words, Thanatos? Can we be freed from voluntary servitude through love? Is desire the guerrilla that will bring down the State?” The stirrups, knife and horn as male and, to a greater degree, military attributes are the leverage used to pressurise willing parties into service. Submissive servitude, debasement to a functional object, is also portrayed in Famulus.
Erdener’s artistic process is based on the linking of individual parts, each one a pars pro toto, symbolic of a larger mental and emotional context. A doll’s arm stands for a doll, small person, toy, as well as fragility; horns stand for the assertion of priority; and (sound) funnels for enforced initial or output support. Each individual part of this type of collage featuring ready-made items and fragments is a cipher that, in connection and association with other ciphers, constitutes a new and mostly critical, ironic meaning. Erdener’s style brings together Surrealist and Pop Art characteristics. Alienation, combinatorics and metamorphosis, which are associated with Surrealism’s basic principles, are the characteristics of Erdener’s works, as are elements that can be seen in Philip Guston’s late paintings with their very dark pictorial motifs, e.g. the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. This secret society was a threat to Guston’s Russian-Jewish family in 1930s and 1940s California. His portrayal of it nonetheless has humorous features to it.
In the 1990s, Erdener published cartoons in satirical periodicals such as the weekly magazine Deli from 1991–95 and he was close to the artist group Hafriyat, which was founded in 1996 and broke away from Istanbul’s commercial art scene to create a forum for free social dialogue in a period of rapid change. The artist is quoted in a text about him by Burcu Pelvanoğlu: “My first school was my family, my second school was that beautiful weekly humour magazine of the 90s, Deli, and my last school was Hafriyat, the art group full of miracles, which introduced me to the concept of the local.” It was Erdener’s time as a cartoonist that resulted in his preference for clearly accented forms as well as the emphasis of linear elements in his other artistic activities. Cartoons require a clear allocation of image and text, which explains why Erdener has also developed into a text artist, as illustrated by the long poem Beauty of Bigotry, in which formal clarity with noticeable rhetorical structures such as parallelism and increases are clearly visible. A lyrical ‘I’ plays the role of all Turkey’s authoritarian rulers and describes the machinations that can be used to subjugate, deceive, anaesthetise and dumb down the population. The footnotes attached to the text reveal the beliefs and analyses to which Erdener refers, for example those of the constitutional lawyer Carl Schmitt, the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton, George Orwell, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who warns of an apocalypse brought about by global capitalism, Walter Benjamin, the social reformer John Ruskin and Tanıl Bora, the political scientist and author of a book on political ideologies in Turkey. The local reference propagated by the artist group Hafriyat is clear in Erdener’s works: some of the ready-made items, for example the knife or coffee pot, are typically local utensils, or, like the silver fork, come from the mother’s household. Criticism of authoritarian systems of rule is not only directed at Turkey however. Erdener sees himself as an artist who dreams up a paradise in which beggars, sorrowful lovers, slaves, maniacs, women and animals, as well as all of nature, come into their own. In his earlier exhibitions from 1997 onwards, Erdener appeared under his pseudonym Extramücadele (“Extrastruggle”), which is also the name he used to author his 2012 manifesto:
I awoke, I realized I was in a rose garden. Right there in front of me, the mind and the heart were chatting, and the ant on the ground was trying to prevent all the wars of the world. The beggar in the cove of a tree I was leaning on had decided it was his duty to destroy the system established by bankers. A crying lover was swearing at numbers and the four arithmetical operations; a slave, his hands and feet in chains, was mending damaged justice. A madman sitting back to front atop his donkey was changing the syllabi in schools according to a book he had written himself, and a mother breastfeeding her child at the exit gate of the garden declared that nature, animals and humans were free.
I left the garden that smelled of roses and began to think: Yes, the mind and the heart should be one. The ant should stop all the wars, and animosity should cease. The beggar should sever the tie between possession and wellbeing, and destroy money. The madly-in-love Mejnun should reconcile love and mathematics. The slave must defeat the tyrants, must determine the sentence and the award, must be merciful, and hand out justice fairly. Teachers should, of course, forget about syllabi. Children should read what they feel the need for, experience the development and maturation of the soul with love, live as they deserve to and die when the time comes.
Erdener dreams of a country in which justice, equality and freedom rule. This dream is reflected in Erdener’s works ex negativo. The impetus of the ‘enlightener’, who, in Kant’s words, induces the emergence of man from his self-imposed immaturity, is noticeable in Erdener’s art. But he also remains sceptical, and this is the seed of the sharp provocation evident in some of his works. His criticism is aimed at all repressive mechanisms, both past and present, and he comes to a conclusion: “Any type of government based on the rule of human beings by human beings is bound to end in injustice, inequity and oppression”. (“From Extrastruggle To Intrastruggle”, 2013). Erdener does not believe in the possibility of anarchy as consequence, however, as he has to admit that “reality, absolute truth”, which in his opinion would be the prerequisite for the functioning of anarchy, “is unknowable”. In the same assertion, which should be seen as a comment on, and continuation of, his manifesto from the previous year, he concludes that the fight needs to be conducted internally (“Intrastruggle”) rather than externally (“Extrastruggle”), in other words the artist’s confrontation with his own work. He talks about the eternal battle between photograph, form, sign and script, which have their origins in various worlds or traditions and now, far away from their starting point, are influencing the globally acting artist who has to find his identity at the point of intersection between various influences so that his work can expose the grotesque truth.
Lotte Laub obtained her PhD at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at the Free University of Berlin with the dissertation “Gestalten durch Verbergen. Ghassan Salhabs melancholischer Blick auf Beirut in Film, Video und Dichtung” (“Revealing by Concealing. Ghassan Salhab’s Melancholic Glance at Beirut in Film, Video and Poetry”), published by Reichert Verlag in 2016. In 2010, she received a research fellowship from the Orient-Institut Beirut and received an Honours Postdoc Fellowship at the Dahlem Research School of the FU Berlin. She worked previously at the Martin-Gropius-Bau and is currently Program Manager at Zilberman Gallery–Berlin.
Translated from the German by Nickolas Woods