One of İstanbul's newest art spaces, Galeri Manâ, located in an old building that once used to house a gristmill in the Tophane quarter, is currently home to an exhibition of paintings and a video installation by artist Murat Akagündüz.
In his show “Cehennem-Cennet” (Hell-Heaven), Akagündüz takes on the concept of “Yurt Gezileri” (travels in the country) -- a project by the Turkish state during the late 1930s and early '40s in which the government assigned a number of Turkish artists with the task of traveling to certain provinces in Anatolia every year for periods that varied between one-and-a-half to three months and in return commissioned them paintings of provincial life in Anatolia. The project, which ran from 1938 to 1943, yielded over 650 paintings by 48 artists, who at the time traveled to 63 provinces in Anatolia.
Akagündüz, a founding member of the artist collective Hafriyat, puts those assignments and the resulting commissioned paintings under the spotlight in “Cehennem-Cennet,” which runs until April 28 at Galeri Manâ. The artist sees the “Yurt Gezileri” project as a milestone in Turkey's modernistic cultural policies and bills the project as “modernization conservatism.”
Akagündüz recently spoke to Today's Zaman about the “country travels” and the modernist idea behind the project.
1. What question marks has “Cehennem-Cennet” answered for you?
This project started after I got an invitation from the Ankara Galeri Nev in 2007 [to put on an exhibition there]. I have always been interested in the implementation and the results of the Yurt Gezileri project, which I see as an important milestone in Turkey's modernist cultural policies [during the early years of the republic]. I am still interested in the topic, both as an academic and as a way of looking at the tradition [of art in Turkey].
2. Everybody is interested in those paintings. What do Turkish art circles have to do this much with those paintings?
We are speaking of an aesthetic choice shaped by the central [authority]. And it can also be billed as a huge social engineering [project]. … The process was like this: In the first year, the artists were sent to Anatolia through highly liberal choices. However, a majority of the paintings that were produced in the first year were rejected, even censored and not showcased. Later [the state] chose artists who would produce paintings of the kind that [the state] was asking for because in order to build its own cultural heritage the republic [state] needed pictures that would idealize the republic and the image that was being built upon post-revolution Anatolia. The [paintings] were even described as “Anatolian landscapes with a Bosporus flavor.” But of course during times of World War II many corners of Anatolia were suffering. … So the truth was actually different [than what the state wanted the pictures to portray].
4. Great pressure to conceal the truth?
That pressure in fact needs to be looked at from two angles: first, the pressure from the central [authority], and second, the artists' approach to the matter. The artists' personal choices of tackling the truth were very different [from each other] both ideologically and aesthetically. Some of them wanted to idealize the republic. But considering the way art connects with reality, the distance [between the actual situation and what was portrayed in the paintings] unintentionally grew bigger. In fact we don't know anything about the censored paintings. This is a massive amnesia.
5. Was there a great deal of conservatism involved in the process? An ironic kind of conservatism aimed at preserving modernization?
From a present-day point of view, yes, there was modernist conservatism involved, but this was because in Turkey whenever we speak of modernization … we almost always add Westernization in the mix. … Right next to the concept of “modern” there are way too many drives that have been prioritized as concepts. … In Europe, [the definition of] modernization began to change during postmodernism. The reason was because Europe believed modernism was turning into a conservative [concept] and the postmodernist approach in fact takes on this issue. This means the West started to discover the deficiencies and flaws of what it called “modern” through its own experience and thus began an ideological [re]organization, ending up in the postmodern era. This transformation might have had numerous reasons, but for me the most important of them all was the [social] classification in modernism. … Even to the point of social engineering. That's why the modernist mind was capable of creating a Nazi Germany. Whereas postmodernism works quite the opposite way.
… Anthropologically, Anatolia was one of the last bastions of the Neolithic Age. While looking at the modern, the future, the contemporary and the West, we do not see, learn and try to find out about what kind of a cultural heritage is lost behind us.