Whenever I think about Turkey’s complex cultural identity, the particular urban feature of Istanbul, its largest city, instantly springs to mind. A city built on two shores, hanging in the delicate balance between two different continents. These two worlds, culturally distant but physically close, are joined by the grey concrete of the Bosphorus Bridge, which constantly and inescapably obliges the two sides to talk and look each other “in the eye”.
The social fabric of Turkey, incomprehensible to many observers, is one of the most diversified in today’s world. Gripped in an eternal duplicity from which it struggles to be free, it harbours a deeply entrenched ambivalence in which conservative and pro-Islamic authoritarianism – exemplified by the current Erdogan government – alternates with a desire for a more international, secular and modern ideological framework.
This congenital dichotomy constantly rekindles discussion about the cultural, economic and ethnic balance of present-day Turkey, touching on wounds that are unfortunately still fresh, such as the spectre of violence, repression and censorship. It should not be forgotten that since the mid-20th century, the country has experienced the atrocities of three military coups over a relatively brief period of time (1960, 1971 and 1980). These were staged under the pretext of bringing down Islamic-inspired governments in order to preserve stability and secularism. However, not only did these coup d’états fail to achieve their objective of social and cultural reconstruction, but they also regrettably unleashed a wave of ferocious violence that completely destroyed the country’s stability.
The consequences of this complex recent history can still be seen in the internal dynamics of a nation that, even today, is continually undermined by its twofold symmetry and unable to find its own equilibrium.
This is the historical context, with all its ambivalence and conflict, in which the artistic career of Servet Kocyigit, the artist featured in this exhibition, developed.
Born in 1971 in Kaman, a town in Central Anatolia, Kocyigit grew up during the third military coup, one of the darkest periods in recent history. As he himself says, “my teenage years were not spent wondering which latest hair style to choose or seeing who had the largest shoulder pads”. On the contrary, the 1980s obliged him to search for a cultural identity of his own and to understand the controversial cultural reality he saw all around him, as far as this was possible. “We wanted freedom,” continues the artist, “but we didn’t really know what this meant. It took a long time for me to figure it out, and if I have done so, it is definitely thanks to art.”
Art thus became for Kocyigit the “word” with which to freely express himself and the tool for describing the brokenness of his generation, its sense of rootlessness and the increasingly apparent awareness of the vulnerability and precariousness of reality.
Servet Kocyigit captures the collective memory and then presents it in a new metaphorical dimension, where the tenuous balance between perception (in its sensory and emotional aspects) and conception (a more objective processing) reigns. Truth, initially explored in all its tangibility, is inevitably altered and manipulated, leading the discussion towards the search for pretence and disappointment.
The unpredictability of truth and its relationship to the concept of freedom play a crucial role in his recent project entitled, not surprisingly, Truth.
Composed of three large-format photographs (featured in the exhibition) and a video (fig.1), Truth (2011) explores the ambivalence of a society that has lost all its reference points and is compelled to constantly reinvent itself, to the point of touching on the absurd.
A hoard of aggressive cameramen, photographers and reporters is in a continuous state of anticipation as they wait for an elusive celebrity, whose identity we do not know. It is like a surreal hunt for the star, which gradually becomes more and more morbid, to the point of compulsion. Waiting gives way to craving and what at first seemed like a normal media stakeout becomes something obsessive. Yet this obsession never reaches a conclusion as doubt soon arises over whether there ever was any hidden celebrity or if the scene is really all about the absurdity of his or her total absence.
The artist deceives us with the fiction of a precious discovery and then immediately alters its reality, bringing us to the awareness that now, even with the media, the focus is more on the intensity of the scandal than the importance of the event and its newsworthiness.
This identification of the borderline between truth and lies, and between imagination and plausibility, is accompanied by a dialectic often tending towards a measured but constant humour, with a clear symbolic value. This creative symmetry, already noticeable in the project Truth and the installation Coins (fig.2) – in which empty foil wrappers from chocolate coins are hidden beneath an elaborate Turkish carpet – also reappears in the exhibited work Doc, from 2008, set on the banks of the Tigris in the town of Hasankeyf, one of south-eastern Turkey’s historical and artistic treasures.
A huge dam is being built in this area, which will lead to the disappearance of Hasankeyf and the neighbouring towns over the coming years. By a strange irony of fate, these towns, which in antiquity were built and survived thanks to water, and are now outstanding examples of cultural heritage, will soon be destroyed by the very element to which they owe their origin.
Highlighting the paradox of this sad fate, Servet Kocyigit recreates a surreal setting in which a doctor, complete with white lab coat and stethoscope, examines a young patient. There is nothing strange about this except for the fact that both of them are standing in the river, immersed in the water.
The scene, completely removed from its context and transported to the banks of the Tigris, on the one hand seeks to extol the healing and purifying features of water in some Eastern cultures, while, on the other, seems to mock its importance by stretching the narrative beyond any logic.
This ostentatious inconsistency and inclination towards “disturbing” resonances is a regular feature of Kocyigit’s artistic career and defines its stylistic identity, as in his versatile installations entirely sewn by hand: Sunset from 2012 (fig.3), Everything from 2009, and Sometimes from 2005, featured in this exhibition in Milan.
As well as highlighting the artist’s interest in the value of local crafts – all of these works were meticulously hand-sewn by elderly Turkish ladies – they also reveal an essential dichotomy between visual and verbal language. The exquisite quality of the work clashes with a banal, simplistic verbal message to create an obscure rift between the word and the elaborate technic used. The expression displayed in Sometimes, “Sometimes I check the fridge ten times to see if it is really closed”, seems aimed at destroying the symbolic harmony of the entire work, minimizing its value and reducing it to almost a common decoration.
As in the works Truth and Doc analysed above, this installation once more features the exasperation of a paradox that promptly turns the scene around, giving the narrative ever new stylistic dynamics. Servet Kocyigit’s extraordinary talent lies in his ability to interpret the controversial ambivalence of his own time and culture, while surprising us with unique linguistic approaches, which, despite their ironic collision, always manage to create the mimesis of aesthetic proportion.
Together with the expressive codes examined so far, such as the tendency towards a markedly sarcastic dialectic, contemplation of the absurd and the surreal dialogue between truth and imagination, mention should also be made of the key role played by social structure in the creative process of this quite unique artist.
As already suggested in the installation Sometimes, Servet Kocyigit often uses a simple and familiar message, such as the compulsion to check the fridge, to return to themes related to everyday gestures and common habits. In a contemporary world where things seem to have completely lost their meaning, Kocyigit assumes the duty of recalling the simplicity and authenticity of past values, in an almost liturgical way. This tendency can be clearly seen in his two photographic works Night Shift (2012) and Mountain Zebra (2008), both featured in the exhibition.
In Night Shift we see a “balloon man”, a figure that has totally disappeared over the years, while in Mountain Zebra we recognise a donkey beneath the improvised “costume”. The deliberately poor attempt at disguise seeks to transform a meek, docile donkey, a common feature of rural life, into a wild zebra. The result is ironically preposterous and, above all, unnatural, as if to emphasise that some symbols of the past, in their authenticity and credibility, should simply remain as such and be appreciated precisely for what they are.
With his latest works, Orbit and 99 years, both exhibited for the very first time in Milan, Servet Kocyigit gradually pushes the discussion to an even more intense and unusual level of perception than that seen in his narrative journey so far. The artist breaks his conventional expressive boundaries and momentarily abandons his satirical vocabulary to surprise us with a completely new stylistic finesse, capable of arousing a pleasantly unexpected sensory tension.
The installation Orbit and the video 99 years both address the complex topic of the creation of the world and the universal and relational balances that this determines.
Orbit consists of a bucket, like those commonly used in construction work, hanging mysteriously in the middle of a room. From a distance it seems like a normal working utensil, deliberately chosen for its rusticity, but when we go beyond first impressions and approach it, it is found to contain a precious secret, a woollen model of the Earth made entirely by hand. The artist also features the symbolic element of the globe in the video 99 years, this time conceived by a man and a woman, with the male figure offering the wool, and the female rolling it to give it life. This silent but extremely dense creation, suspended in a non-place without time, represents the unique dynamics of the eternal man-woman dualism.
The repetition of the gesture, its slow transformation and the magnetic rhythm are consumed almost magically, giving a ritual meaning to the entire evocation.
We are both participants and spectators of this creation, yet also aware – as Kocyigit has accustomed us – that everything can always turn out to be a deceptive illusion.