Shortlists offer thematic selections from AAA’s Collections, including overviews and annotations by invited contributors. The following shortlist by Merve Ünsal looks at artist books in Turkey that wrestle with narrating the unnarratable.
The artist book is a medium one seems to encounter often in Istanbul—there is an artist initiative dedicated entirely to collecting artist books (BAS), a “laboratory” for artist books that intermittently meets to make dummy books for artists (Book Lab), a collective of artist book collectives that organise pop-up events (Bandrolsüz), a photo book fair (FUAM), and art book days (border_less). This is not a coincidence. In financially and architecturally precarious hubs like Istanbul, there is an inclination towards mediums like the artist book, which can be produced and shared with relative facility. There is also a tradition of peer-to-peer networks that contemporary practices stem from, like the self-published magazines of the early 2000s and exhibiting at artist initiatives supported by the founding artists. Many of these magazines, which remain crucial resources today, were published by individuals or artist-initiatives rather than publishing houses. For better or for worse, the absence of public funding bodies, institutions, and archives has fostered generations of artists able to self-initiate, self-publish, and self-exhibit.
There is also a sensibility of working with artist books that can be traced to the 2010s in Turkey. The struggle to build and sustain narratives amidst the political, social, and cultural histories of Turkey—marked by coups, ruptures, and promises of often dramatic ideological shifts—have produced works that deal with the inability, or the desire not to narrate. The structural weaknesses of narrative gave birth to forms that not only expose those weaknesses themselves but also articulate without narrating.
For artists in Turkey in the 2010s, the artist book has served as a site of narration and self-historicisation, a public space to tell stories that were untold or undertold. Through this medium, collectivities of dialogue form tentatively across times and spaces, building a cooperative resilience through the pages of these artist books. It is thus possible to interpret this tendency of artist books as an adaptation that can shift as quickly as narrations tend to shift in the particular case of Turkey. The artist books below use speculation as a method of remembering and narrating—each a record of the tenuous relationships between images, texts, and the printed page—building on the tension that can exist between these acts.
There are some shared urgencies and artistic strategies in this selection. The slippery nature of photography is a topic explored in one form or another by many of the artists—employing photography not to produce narratives, but to debunk the nature of the medium to support and to create narratives. The parafictional appears as a strategy that exposes the vulnerabilities of the tendency to create narratives that are just not there. Perhaps most strikingly, the artist books below use fragmentation and fracturing to their advantage, claiming it as form and content. And I don't think it is a coincidence that all of these artists were born in the late 70s / early 80s, coming of age when mono-causal narratives of Turkey were rapidly disintegrating—visibly and openly.
İz Öztat et al., Tö, self-published, 2017 [MONS.OZI]
Self-published in 2017, Tö is a rendition of the “collaboration” between İz Öztat and Zişan. The book focuses on the story of Zişan, a queer Ottoman woman, channelled spirit, and alter ego who only appears for the viewers through fragments of her archive. The dialogic and ongoing nature of this relationship could, on one hand, be connected to Turkey’s not having officially recognised the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The sociocultural history of Turkey is haunted by the genocide, as Öztat channels a subject whose story is recognisably interlinked with this contested narrative. Through and with Zişan, Öztat works with the inabilities of history and language to articulate catastrophe, as Zişan has a life story filled with self-conscious gaps. Despite its overlaps with the genre, Öztat has steered Zişan and their collaboration away from the parafictional, instead choosing to disown infrastructures of narration as far as possible; the incomplete narratives, the lack of details in the story, the element of bodily performances, and the emphasis on collaboration through Öztat produce an ongoing dialogue.
Öztat’s artistic practice points to the epigenetics of praxis, relating artists across time and place. As I wrote in my own forthcoming artist book, Where Does It Hurt, “If genetics is nature, epigenetics is figuring out how nurture works—you do not pass on the scar from a surgery to your offspring, but the trauma of a famine might permanently alter the way in which your genes are expressed.” Öztat’s work, then, leads me to wonder: if trauma is passed on from generation to generation, can artistic practices that deal with traumas never start anew? This book can be interpreted as a genealogical work that adapts ruptures within history through its very content.
Tö is one part of a three-part work: a sculpture, moving image, and publication. Zişan’s paths cross with that of the Acephale—Acephale, a public review published by Georges Bataille five times between 1936 and 1939, as well as a secret society, deriving its name from the Greek for “headless.” Since the Acephale group is sworn to secrecy, whether Zişan was present in their last meeting of 1939 is unclear. Quoting Zişan’s autobiography, Every name in history is I and I is other, Tö traces the possibility of the encounter between Zişan and the Acephale. Presented autobiographically, Tö addresses a moment in the gathering Acephale when intestines were used to call someone from beyond to the meeting.
Tö’s publication is an attempt to produce its own language. By using intestines as a material in the sculpture that is then referred to in the book, the viewers/readers are confronted with the potentials of their own physical demise through the written notes of a woman who could have been. Through Tö, Öztat thus points to the interactions between publications over time, as well as the tentative histories built through the medium. The tension between the public review Acephale and the secret group Acephale is not dissimilar to the collaboration between Öztat and Zişan of externalised clues pointing to internalised voids, absences, and shared secrets.
Sevim Sancaktar, Eyelids, two friends two foes, Istanbul: Fail Books, 2019 [MON.SAS17]
Sancaktar tackles image-making as an act of fluid remembering. This series contains studio photographs that show constellations of an unnamed photographer’s slide-holders. The eponymous series of clinical still-life photographs featuring birds-eye views of empty, marked-up slide-holders are in Tetris-like arrangements. Arrows, notes about light, and circles and rectangles scribbled on the clear plastic windows all refer to absent images.
Creating a new vista from these voids, Sancaktar deals with these frames that no longer host images but rather function as referents. Sancaktar highlights the tension between the freezing act of photography and the flickering, subjective nature of viewing these constructed, fragmentary images. Sancaktar’s various (re)configurations and the recurrence of some of the slide-holders across multiple photographs point to the constant realigning and reshuffling of images to construct new forms. By only using the frames of images, Sancaktar self-reflexively points to the act of framing and claims her position as that of a framer. The artist’s creation of gaps, between the original and the copy, between the past image and its current reconfiguration, point to the inevitable fallibility of memory; but for Sancaktar, the act of removal and diminishing can nonetheless frame the fluidity of remembrance as our memories are formed. Adapting the mono-perspective of the Bechers, it is possible to link Sancaktar’s motivation with the Bechers’ “new topographic” movement, building a new visual language through absent images. When narratives and archives of images fail, is it possible to claim these failures as a topography of absences and produce narratives through these absences?
By incorporating a tab that must be removed in order for the book to be read/looked at, Sancaktar draws attention to the conscious act of seeing—and subsequently, the irreversible nature of narrating. Once told, it is very difficult to untell. The inclusion of a fictional story in the artist book points to the multiplicity of stories that the photographs could be holding. Through a very specific formal approach that employs and unsettles the mechanisms of photography, Sancaktar looks at the role of photography in historicisation processes and utilises the frames as a stand-in for the authors of those processes. Sancaktar's book reads as a narrative of narratives, reproducing, reorganising, and reforming absences of images.
Fatma Belkıs, gidenler & kalanlar [not yet available]
Fatma Belkıs’s two books can be interpreted as two alternative responses to the way photography purports to convey a truth despite its subjectiveness. “Those Who Left” [Gidenler] has very tactile qualities—upon seeing the book, one wants to touch and hold it, to marvel at the craftsmanship that went into creating its binding, to engage in a more extensive interaction with it. This book of photographs is an object of veneration and admiration, complete with leather binding and the word “Gidenler” written in gilded letters. The well-known family album aesthetic is at play before we have even opened it. The photographs in “Those Who Left” are black-and-white, square, framed, placed on the right side of the pages. The photographs, all portraits, appear to be taken in different places. The faces are blurred, which seem to be the result of some minor act of photographic violence. The aesthetics of the high-contrast photographs and the obscured faces produce a tension—this blur is the only connection between these people.
What further unites these people is that they left—each turning of the page appears to testify to this. The type-written, one-page letter squeezed inside the book intensifies this cult aesthetic, establishing a relationship between the viewers who are there, the readers, and those who left (without actually revealing who these people are). The mystique of the leather-bound volume is formally supported by the letter that seems to say: You could understand this story if only you spent enough time here.
“Those Who Stayed” has a completely different aesthetics as an object. Sewn-binding, zine-dimensions, rectangular-framed photographs at upper halves of the pages. The photographs show close-ups of statues which do not seem to be aware of their “solid”ness; they give the impression that they pose from different angles. These carved-stone pieces, which we look at partly to satisfy our voyeuristic instincts, seem to tell us something about photography itself, the moment it freezes, the decontextualisation. “Those Who Stayed” evokes emotions similar to those you experience when you take a photo of your lover—as though they cease within that moment, in that posture, that feeling. And maybe the ideal subject of photography is the stone, because a stone never complains, it never moves, it is relatively easier to do the white balance than human skin.
Belkıs’s two-volume artist book appears to respond to the question of what keeping a photographic record means. The two-part response, reinforced by the particular forms of the books, contain the contradiction of photographic narratives—even within the relatively linear forms of books, the contrasting stories of absence and presence playfully point to the alternative motivations for narrations.
Metehan Özcan and KartonKitap, Illustrated Information: Appendix, self-published, 2019 [MON.KAR7]
This book is an “Appendix” in book form to Metehan Özcan’s body of work, Illustrated Information. Özcan uses found images from old issues of magazines, his own photographs, and photographs from other sources interchangeably. A previous “version” of this work was exhibited in 2013 in Istanbul; Özcan had created superimpositions of images from different sources that were exhibited alongside matrices of photographs, thus dismantling hierarchies of images within the exhibition format. Using found images, collages that appropriate illustrations from various sources and photographs Özcan had taken himself, the book presents a map-like, indexical guide.
The idea behind Illustrated Information is to trace the book design on its way to becoming a “book.” The work is based on Özcan’s practice of gathering his images on a wall’s surface and recreating randomised layers of the definitions found in the original encyclopaedia of Illustrated Information—five 100x70cm-sized, sixteen-page sheets have been treated as if they’re “walls,” with images juxtaposed on these surfaces. The book, and its design, are revealed after these five sheets have been folded, cut, and placed onto each other as pages. Thus, it was not the book that was designed, but rather the condition “before being a book.” Illustrated Information is a record of a specific material condition created by the designers. The book has been enabled to create its own visual language with a method based on a “calculated randomness.”
The methodology of Illustrated Information is true to Metehan Özcan’s method of making work—treating images as raw material that are then worked and reworked. Destabilising the processes of selection and composition, Özcan looks at images in relation to each other, recognising their latent potentials as tenuous testaments of moments that were. The object of the book serves to add another layer of interpretation and legibility to Özcan’s images, as viewers are never able to see images in full. The white space between the images hold shifting relationships as the book becomes the stage on which images tease each other, producing an experience of reading that employs the ephemeral as a modus operandi.
Gözde Türkkan, Pay Here, self-published, 2010 [MON.TUG]
Gözde Türkkan often works at the intersection between the documentary and personal narrative, looking at the underbelly of marginalised groups or situations, and inserting herself into the images. With Pay Here, she takes this effort a step further by producing a handmade book that feels and reads like a diary. The book opens with an image of brightly coloured curtains that appear to reek of cigarettes through the pages of the book—the composition of Türkkan’s images call to mind sensations that could not possibly be in the images, and yet they linger. The use of the flash and the flattened surfaces of the photographs claim an aesthetic that is forensic in the amount of detail it reveals, and the content is often raw and personal. There are naked bodies, pieces of food, backs of people’s necks.
Selim Süme and Özgür Öğütcen, Repetition, self-published, 2015 [MON.SUS6]
Using and manipulating eighty found passport photographs, Selim Süme has created a visual journey in Repetition. Each image was resized and made to fit the page so that, turning each page, the reader sees a different man, with eyes aligned at the same point each time. Creating a horizon line of gazes, Süme’s men all hold that look we recognise from our own passport photographs—seriously impersonal, bureaucratically brief.
The relatively simple process of isolating these portraits from their political and historical context evokes issues of power and authority, and how we position ourselves in society. While probably few countries or contexts would claim to have a casual relationship with bureaucracy, within the context of Turkey, the convoluted bureaucracies inherited from the Ottoman era shifted to centralised bureaucratic processes in the 2000s. Narrating the web of relationships between bureaucracy and surveillance could be considered the modus operandi of this book. The fixed gazes of the subjects, who are unnamed and anonymised, make possible a reversed voyeurism—the men reclaim the power of their gaze while they are made equal, formally, through the monochromatic, treated images, while the reader/viewer has to negotiate the breaking and regaining of the gaze with the turning of each page.
Gözde İlkin, Special Passport, self-published, 2009 [MONS.ILG]
In her practice, Gözde İlkin uses stitching to bring together different types of fabrics. Her use of different textiles is a way of collaging, relating to the often domestically charged spaces of these textiles. Special Passport was created in 2009 during a project titled Reciprocal Visit with a group of artists organised by the artist initiative Apartment Project. The artist kept a journal during a road trip through Georgia, Armenia, and Iran. As the passport became a scene where the international relationships appeared while passing through the borders, the passport became an abstraction—an experience rather than the data enclosed in it.
If we could all choose our passports, what kinds of information would we include? What are the ways in which we could appropriate bureaucracy to serve our own purposes? What kind of a communication does the passport initiate? By using the medium of the artistic book to reproduce her fictional passport, the textures of İlkin’s sewing are visually flattened, and yet the implication of our hands and İlkin’s hands are evoked in a different way. The snapping sound of the threads as İlkin sews—threads that are tight and hold together—remind viewers that acts of coming together could leave behind holes on the very surfaces they inhabit.
İlkin’s is a passport that never had its designated function of serving as an official document, but her desire to interpret this document resonates perhaps even more today. A self-portrait in transition, İlkin’s reproduction is true-to-size, which underscores the ways in which artist books are in dialogue with printed materials already familiar to us. Taking the functional out of this object to critique its often dysfunctional presence in the lives of many, İlkin’s passport plays with the form of the artist’s book to refer to a critical, charged object with a similar form, underscoring the personal, expressive potential of this object that retains its functionality only when it is not marked by the individual.
Ayfer Karabıyık, Failure Cut, Family Graveyard, self-published, 2019 [MONS.KAA]
Ayfer Karabıyık focuses on the suspension that results from repetition—of sounds, images, things as we know them—through the two text pieces she included in Failure Cut Family Graveyard. In a recent reading of the book performed at Depo, Istanbul, in February 2020, these suspensions became even more pronounced, as the repetition of words and sounds in the book are really meant to be performed aloud.
As a listener/audience member, I was completely lost and had a hard time connecting back to the texts she was reading, although I had already read them multiple times. Going back to the texts after the performance, however, I realised the repetition was a strategy she was also using in the writing of the text, which I had not sufficiently performed while reading (instead allowing my mind to skip over the repetitions). Failure Cut Family Graveyard is an interpretation of those moments when words lose their meaning, when we repeat them to ourselves, or when an image starts to become blurry and unclear upon closer inspection. Karabıyık evokes and expands these moments through claiming that suspended moment as a materiality in her texts.
Karabıyık works with the ability of text to extend and shrink sounds to produce moments of suspension that are, in turn, reflected in the physicalities we project on to what we are reading. This work serves as a subtitle to the artist’s practice, as she always deals with the fickleness of what we see or sense, stretching-out the words and sounds comprising the narratives of what we could be looking at. This gesture of making visible the artifice of language as a slippery conveyor of meaning transforms this book into a text that one can’t help but return to multiple times, each time deriving different interconnections between the words on the page.
Maria Sturm & Cemre Yeşil, For Birds' Sake, Madrid: La Fabrica Editorial, 2015 [MON.YEC3]
Istanbul has always been a very important city for aviculture, perhaps in part due to its geographical location for bird migration; and there are many diverse social platforms devoted to the keeping and breeding of birds. This book is about the birdmen of Istanbul and focuses on the relationship between the bird and the birdman. The migration story of birds are particularly poignant today as Istanbul’s new airport—a mega project of pride—is built on the migration route.
for bird's sake is an intimate, layered portrait of this relationship that reveals the artists’ conflicts over what they have been observing. Each edition of the book is unique, and they are “shrouded” like the cages in which the birdmen keep their beloved birds. The gesture of “unshrouding” this book, then, becomes akin to the pleasures of voyeurism and possession, which the artists play with throughout. The photographs range in genre—documentary portraits, seemingly instantaneous snapshots, photographs of rooms more akin to still life than architectural images in their precision of composition and understated aesthetics. Through this flow, the artists appear to unravel the process of looking at what is not familiar—they empathise, but they don’t; they understand, but they don’t. This tension builds tenderly over the course of the book, which is perhaps the only one in this selection that creates the narrative experience of becoming implicated in a story previously unknown.
The notion of possession is painfully complicated in the context of Turkey—where all the photographs are taken—as the language around ownership is embedded within the gender dynamics of photography. The female photographers’ gaze not only subverts the traditional male gaze, but also scrutinises the relationship of possession rather than the objects of possession. While this gesture does not by itself transform that relationship, the subtlety with which this act is conducted reveals the nuances of looking, documenting, narrating. The images in this book are throbbing with a sceptical tenderness that I find refreshing.
Işıl Eğrikavuk, Under the Same Roof, Istanbul: British Council, 2011 [MON.EGI]
Işıl Eğrikavuk is an artist who creates, performs, and documents absurd situations that stem from the newspaper daily. Eğrikavuk’s daily is very much inspired and enabled by the media; she previously wrote a column for the now-defunct daily newspaper Radikal, titled Güncel Sanat Kafası [A Contemporary Art Mentality].
Under the Same Roof is different from other titles in this selection in that the focus is the artist’s practice, and therefore could also be considered a monographic publication. I would group it with the rest, however, in that Eğrikavuk’s practice shares many affinities with the other artists here in her manipulation and contortion of what is familiar, weaving narratives at the boundaries of the fictional and non-fictional. The absurd is the material Eğrikavuk pokes at to trigger viewers to ask, "What if…?”
A revealing example is Eğrikavuk’s Infamous Library, a video that narrates the story of twelve people who were kidnapped in September 1980 (12 September 1980 is the date of the last “successful” military coup in Turkey) by an unidentified organisation and held captive in a library for two years. For the 11th Istanbul Biennial (2009), Eğrikavuk turned Infamous Library into a news article and had it published in two national newspapers: Radikal and Hürriyet Daily News. The work later became an installation and is still ongoing. As narratives around the military coups—before and after—are often biased and hazy, Eğrikavuk points to the uncertainty that comes with anything to emerge from that time. It is terrifying, as a viewer, to be uncertain of the fictionality of what one is seeing.
There are two formal aspects of the book that are worth noting: the two languages for the texts—Turkish and English—function separately, as in, you have to flip and turn over the book to access the other language. It is an apt solution for a book whose content relies on the specificities of the languages. The other decision is to include the black screens from the videos, which is a tool that the artist uses to disrupt the flow of information and point to the making of images, adding another layer of self-awareness to the book.
Merve Ünsal is an artist based in Istanbul. In her work, she employs text and photography, extending both beyond their form.