Gülsün Karamus­tafa "Etiquette 
(The Taming of the East)


September 23, 2013

Etiquette Hero <i>Etiquette (The Taming of the East)</i> (2011-2013) “A Promised Exhibition” SALT Beyoğlu, 2013
Etiquette (The Taming of the East) (2011-2013) “A Promised Exhibition” SALT Beyoğlu, 2013
Codes of etiquette, of good manners, politeness and of being “proper;” the do’s and don’ts of a community, a society, a school or a household, could be accepted as a given, a structure that is understood within the context of time and place. By their very nature, such rules of cultural and social grace are often considered to be innate, or at least instinctual and hence in the past went unwritten. The first early conceptions of accepted etiquette that were noted down were court codifications. Later, books on the topic began to be published in relation to good business policies, as markets and trade routes grew and became more established. A larger market for “manuals” appeared only when travel became much more common and people preferred or needed to acquire locally accepted rules for dining, meeting and communication, in order to ease themselves into an unfamiliar societal system.

The book Gülsün Karamustafa came across in a second hand book-store in Istanbul in 2010 is yet another transferal of such codifications. It is an adaptation of the French book Pour Bien Connaitre Les Usage Mondaine, originally printed in Paris in 1910 by Pierre Lafitte et Cie for the Femina Bibliotheque. The adapted book is written in Turkish with Arabic letters, because although its printing took place after the declaration of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the legal announcement that saw Turkey adopt the Latin alphabet occurred in 1928. Hence the book is somehow trapped in time and in an Oriental enigma. It attempts to apply the rules of the West in tone and imagery; yet is literarily, and for the eyes of non-Arabic readers, visually composed within the history of the Ottoman Empire and the East.

This conundrum that exists when the Orient meets the Occident and the shifts in desire and perception – between the yearnings for either Oriental fantasy or Occidental modernism – which fall in and out of favor and context throughout a certain period in history, have greatly intrigued and influenced Karamustafa’s artistic practice. In particular her interest in how this period represents women and informs their conduct has surfaced in several works, including those that use Orientalist paintings as a source such as, Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies (1999 – 2000), fragmenting / Fragments (1999) and From the Outside (1999). Karamustafa’s discovery of such an “elastic” object as this book, which focuses on a modelled notion of etiquette (that is at once both a construct and engineer of the pull between East and West), became the perfect tool for Karamustafa to speak about the idealization of Western attitudes in the East within her installation Etiquette (The Taming of the East).

The author of the book, Abdullah Cevdet (b. 1869), trained as a doctor and graduated from the Royal School of Medicine of the Ottoman Empire. He was clearly a radical figure who felt close to the Westernization movement and together with his friends was the first to systematize specific modes of thought after the administrative and political reforms (Tanzimat) of 1839 in the Empire. As Karamustafa notes: “Within the context of the adapted book, the author defends the argument of Westernization of the East by all means. He takes it as a class distinction and refers to all details of the Bourgeois life style, even giving advice about the behavior of the chambermaids and the stableman. This makes the publication unique within other examples of books for good manners on keeping up with the West, which were printed in quite a number during this period, when everything was changing rapidly in the history of what was an Empire and was becoming a Nation.”

Karamustafa cannot personally remember the lessons on etiquette that she received while at school in Istanbul. Yet they did take place – as a school friend reminded her while talking about the development of her work Etiquette – on deportment, dinner manners, social skills etc. Karamustafa’s forgetfulness of such teachings is not surprising for someone with a profound sense of personal direction, development and independence. And yet as Karamustafa is quick to point out, this life that was being taught was the same life she was immersed in, and not one that she was forced to accept as others perhaps would perceive.

Another work Anti-Hamam Confessions (2010) speaks in a similar vein. The film revolves around a series of images of an old Istanbul hamam, but the first-person voice-over describes Karamustafa’s lack of ever having visited a hamam in the city. For her and her family, washing at the hamam has been an outmoded practice for decades. Hence, the high-society propositions of conduct displayed in Cevdet’s book cause Karamustafa to respond in many different ways. The composite of Arabic script and the “Western” portraits that illustrate the book are a contradiction in and of themselves; at the same time they are seductive, somehow naive and therefore quaint, but also shocking in their pretension. Dealing with such a complicated narrative, but without, by any means, attempting to be politically correct, Karamustafa plays with these codified systems, their application and imposition.

Etiquette 1 <i>Etiquette (The Taming of the East)</i> (2011-2013) “A Promised Exhibition” SALT Beyoğlu, 2013
Etiquette (The Taming of the East) (2011-2013) “A Promised Exhibition” SALT Beyoğlu, 2013

In Etiquette a table sits as the center-piece and as a structure that straddles two positions – guest and host, those being served and the server, those invited and those who are not. In addition the table sets the most standard tone for a broader understanding of manners. While manners “begin at home” as they say, they are most defined and shared at the dining table and nowhere more so than at a formal, seated banquet. In the installation it seems as if a feast is awaiting the audience, but the table has not yet been “properly” laid, as Cevdet’s book would set out to address. For those who enter the space of the installation there is a sense of unease at having encountered such a disorganized banquet. It is then that the decoration on the plates, menus, glasses and napkins becomes apparent. On every piece of cutlery, porcelain and tableware are printed images and definitions from the found book on etiquette. Lined in gold leaf, with Ottoman Turkish characters, these ornamental additions “impose the good manners of a mundane life.”

Etiquette 2 <i>Double Reality</i> (1987 - 2013) “A Promised Exhibition” SALT Beyoğlu, 2013
Double Reality (1987 - 2013) “A Promised Exhibition” SALT Beyoğlu, 2013

In the first installation of Etiquette (at the ifa Gallery Stuttgart) 36 vividly colored, iron beams that run from floor to the ceiling surrounded the table. The vivacity of their fluorescent coatings for a moment masked any similarity to prison window bars or a balustrade that separates the country home from the wild nature of the garden. Yet such barriers are their reference. They act to contain and separate, a strategy that Karamustafa has used several times before. In Double Reality (1987), a male mannequin, (that Karamustafa found in Terkez passage in Istanbul and bought for his absurd attire – a woman’s nightgown) is placed in a double frame of iron bars that make clear his position (as perceived by Karamustafa), within a certain zone of both real life and the imaginary. These bars are taken as the standard for those in Etiquette and assume a similar role. In Double Reality it is clear that the audience should not enter the frame of the work, yet they could; and the same is implied in Etiquette. How should one interact with this suggestive barrier? Who is worthy of access and who is not? And, more importantly in relation to Cevdet’s book one can ask: “who has the right to classify class and intellect based on learnt gestures and phrases?” Other works by Karamustafa such as You Are Here (1989), a site-specific installation that introduced a physical red line around the Funeral Gate of the Hagia Sofia Museum in Istanbul, again made clear the definition and position of a space, be it mental, physical or referential, questioning definitions and systems of access.

Karamustafa’s reflections on the importation of European taste can be traced in other works such as Burying the Sleep (2001) and Compromise (2004). The former, an installation of two clocks from 19th century Europe positions the clock as a West to East import accepted as a symbol of class, taste and “learning.” Such clocks were purchased in Europe by trades-people to be given as gifts to state offices, or to be hung in public official city-space, where they clearly stated the time-based push of Europeanization upon the nation.

First presented in the exhibition Ethnic Marketing at the Kunsthalle Geneva (2004), Compromise is a series of photographs that question who is entitled or expected to produce their own fantasy, which is in this case an Orientalist vision by a female artist living in Turkey. Karamustafa’s four female subjects recreate understood poses and gestures inspired by the genre of “orientalist” portraiture. They either look straight ahead or avert their gaze from the camera. Within their realm, the clocks borrowed from Burying the Sleep, act to carry the piece on a similar journey – the passage of acceptance of a suppressive form of Europeanization that contains the same bourgeois attitude on strategies of etiquette.

These two works nicely frame the “lost world” that Cevdet’s book can never escape from. While his aim was to translate for all a perceived language of the future, his work instead straddles a whole range of languages, systems, social-appropriations, and clearly derived from a class agenda. With the passage of time his book has become an obscurely decorative and charming object that is trapped by our fetish for such conundrums of the past. In Etiquette the leaves of the book are used to engage the audience via visual appeal, at the same time their re-application challenges their meaning, and as Karamustafa describes, “what is left behind is a structure and a work of art, a delicate thing that is open to interpretation.”

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This is an updated version of a text published in: Gülsün Karamustafa / Etiquette, catalogue accompanying the exhibition, ifa Galleries Stuttgart and Berlin. Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2011
 Courtesy of: ifa Gallery Suttgart.