I must Reconcile Myself to the Inevitability of the Missing Bits


September 7, 2013

Imust Hero <i>Güllerim Tahayyüllerim</i>, SALT Beyoğlu, 1998-2013
Güllerim Tahayyüllerim, SALT Beyoğlu, 1998-2013
Upon entering Maçka Sanat Galery, I see a large black and white print in a niche on the far left wall. At first glance, this partial image that I have access to, seems to be the only thing in the gallery. I recall that this niche, which itself is the only recess that breaks the omnipresent tiled walls of the gallery, had been used by Sarkis in an equally spartan installation a number of years ago. The decision to approach the walls as a site of departure and not as their customary destiny of a support for things, seems to constitute a common syntax in certain Maçka Sanat Gallery exhibitions. Perhaps, a most clever gesture on that front was the artist Esra Ersen’s use of dis/appearance as the concealed memory of the site. She had invited the police detectives to “reveal” the finger prints on the empty gallery walls. An initial reaction of the artist in this space is to call upon the histories of exhibitions and contemporary art spaces that this exhibition cannot refrain from entering in a historic dialogue.

But, are the walls really empty? And, do I see, literally, the whole picture? Who is this young girl in the photograph caught looking at the viewer cheerfully and hopefully? Why does she pose attentively for that camera behind which is someone we may never know. The girl, looks out of a train window. A train on the go, a goodbye image. The train holds a particular weight in this country. The train locates a particular moment of the Republican past (the train with its sleeping coaches shuttling its passengers between Istanbul and Ankara). This particular route brings back a number of successive images that most of us who have boarded it often connect it with some important event: going to visit the father, collectivity to Ankara for a political demonstration, to the invented capital city for things one does in a capital city. But, at least as importantly, the train is a marker of memory that one can never avoid given its critical significance: The train is a collective repository of memory for the industrialized age, and the massive social mobilization it had accelerated. The train took people to work between the centers and the suburbs. Recall, for example, the reoccurrence of it in Nineteenth-Century French painting. H. Daumier’s third-class carriage as a precursor, or its implied absence in the works of the Barbizon painters going to paint in suburbia or out of town, and later the quintessential images of modernity associated with the train and its ethos in the works of C. Monet, and E. Manet. Recall also, the evil it symbolized in the trains to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, as well as the ultimate revisitation of the situation in Lars von Trier’s film “Zentropa.” In thus, the train is also a premonition, a rupture, and a finale.

your Victory
your Hero

Turkey’s memory too is fraught with images of the train and the often produced image of Atatürk looking out of the window of his own wagon, a place where history was being made.

my roses
my reveries

But, how could this young girl’s story –that turns out be a photograph of the artist herself– and her overbearing singularity be interpenetrated by all that? Or conversely, how does the artist looking back on the photograph after many years, allow that history to seep in the picture? When is the girl who she is and when is she another image and another signifier of a constitutive moment and time from which she could neither rescue herself nor wholly succumb to? Atatürk had long died by the time this picture was taken, the year is circa 1950. The radical transition of the country from the regulated and centralized one-party structure to a multi-party experience that empowered the peripheries once again, had already taken root, and the shift towards building roads for cars rather than laying new lines for trains had already taken place.


Upon closer inspection of the picture, installed high above eye level, as if we close upon an altar in a Byzantine church, the niches of which are laden with many holy images, we realize that the photograph is no longer the singular picture of the young girl presented in its initial iconicity, but in fact, a multitude. We see a lady who seems to be the mother evidenced upon the closeness of the mother to her daughter, and another child, a brother. We also notice a hand reaching over and touching the family. The hand forges a unity and closes the divine circle. There is no avoiding the reading of this image as a religious one, not only because of the niche in which it is placed, but also the structuring of it as a holy unit of sorts, however by chance it may be. The image of the absent father, and its thereness. The multiple framings that the artist uses; herself in the window, herself and the family in the wagon, with the father framed out are indicative of the way the social subject is intercalated with the individual.

she cares for
she embraces

Simultaneously, the image fulfills all the predicaments of one of the timeless vectors of popular photography: the family picture. The question remains as to where is this girl looking at? Is it a close relative, a friend of the father who comes to see his family away to another town? What is the reason of her attentiveness to the camera and not to the father as the rest of the family? It is after all s/he who took and made this picture and arrested the frivolous glance of the child. Hence, the photographer is no more or less absent than the father.

in her head
at her age

This inviolable image of hope –a moment that we like to revisit in photographs as if to recuperate a wholeness from the past– an image that we single out from among a plethora of similars to place on a sidetable in the living room, or inserted in the frame of a mirror for daily visitation, to overcome a loss and reassemble things once again, is the result of also an incurable, kitsch reflex.


It is at this very moment that the gallery, we notice, is not so bare after all. The walls and the floors are stenciled with brief two to three liners by the artist. These are rhyming, seemingly senseless texts. Uttered from a marred memory. They turn out to be the amusing wanderings from poems. The memory is marred in the same way that the pervasive culture of poetry too, has dwindled away in this country. It comes back only in pieces. Depending on where you look at it, one of these quips is located on the side of the entrance (or the exit) of the gallery. It reads “concludes leaves.” The departure of the train and a closure of story of the Republic reveals, also a coming-back-to that has constituted a pictorial frame-of-reference in Karamustafa’s one-person exhibitions. Salman Rushdie wrote once that “we are all bastard children of history.” He too, was referring to the histories of the Twentieth Century that had seen perhaps a more fundamental and certainly sanctioned displacements and mandatary exchanges of more peoples than any other time in history, where for the majorities, the exilic and diasporan condition is the norm. It is around this condition of hybridity and porousness that Karamustafa’s oeuvre has spun from the mid-eighties on. The frame of the instant of the photograph triggers a series of situations that the actual thing: a child, a train, a family, a black and white object cannot in and of themselves motivate. In thus, the alarming prosale condition of the work “just a picture on the wall and nearly invisible fragments of texts), hints at sites where the singular and the collective collapse on to each other with all then lightness.

*Vasıf Kortun, 1988