Public Space as Court Stage

Matt Hanson

28 Mart 2023

Image1 Sahnede90lar 161022 Web 006 Installation view from the exhibition <i>The 90s Onstage</i>, Salt Beyoğlu, 2022
Photo: Mustafa Hazneci
Installation view from the exhibition The 90s Onstage, Salt Beyoğlu, 2022
Photo: Mustafa Hazneci
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances […]

William Shakespeare
from As You Like It (1623)

The following is an experimental text blending fiction with observation, toward an evocation of experience in light of the Benjaminian aura1 of the exhibition “The 90s Onstage.”

Perhaps the most striking element behind the Salt exhibition, The 90s Onstage, is that much of the work featured does not take place on a stage, or even in proximity to a curtained theater or raised platform (a camera, even a pen, might offer ample dramatization). Its multimedia includes music videos, artist films, television programs, life-size puppets, and other ephemera.

This counterintuitive, curatorial prerogative, whether intended or not, demands a certain order of independent thinking. Salt is posing terms that must be reinterpreted by each individual following their entry. Their doors in Beyoğlu open to a newly historical fantasy of art-making, poetic in the avant-garde sense, where meaning is relative to subjectivity and substance.

Behind the semi-transparent veils of its gleaming, oblique facades there are archival recordings projected from monitors, obsolescent props suspended from the ceiling, and mass amounts of photographs and intertextual references, reincarnated installations, and printed materials plastered on the institution’s walls, posturing with a cacophonous blare of bygone artistry.

The tone is one of remembrance, like a bodiless funeral ceremony, in which, mourners place objects in a coffin in lieu of the actual person’s remains. Because, looking back to the 90s, Turkey is a different country in retrospect. Its public space has shrunk in the last twenty, thirty years.

In and around the 90s, Turkey was a killing field of dreams, where visions of a world with a promising future went to die in the mortuary of life’s insufferable prosaicness. In 1995, Mirkelam ran for dear life, every night, Her Gece [Every Night], howling above the towers of Rumeli Fortress on a cardboard-thin, mechanical path that spun back as he sprinted in place, going nowhere.

In 1994, artists asked folks watching the Beyoğlu Festival to spit in response to the comment made by Ankara Metropolitan Municipality’s Mayor in which he claimed “I spit into such art.” Turkey’s current president won the highest seat in the city that year. Yeşil Üzumler Dance Theater invited witnesses to forcibly eject their saliva out of their mouths to conclude Performance on Mis Street.

Mis Street remained popular, legendary even, and not because it was covered in the mucous of whimsical and willing bystanders. Nearby, the Mardin-born artist Halil Altındere 2, a star risen from the nascent, ash-ridden bedrock of Turkey’s contemporary art scene, made a video, Miss Turkey, in 2005, which still conveys the naive and insubordinate spirit of the late 90s and early 2000s.

Altındere’s video begins with a colorful band of demonstrators in Taksim, holding a wide banner that reads, in Turkish: “Down with the Stupidity of the People.” A stocky man in plain, monochrome beige clothing angrily pulls the sign over his head and disappears into the mob, their unserious mockery merging under the cloudless core of a brighter, younger Istanbul.

Image2 Kumpanya Yineneoldu 2002 Kumpanya, <i>Yine Ne Oldu?</i> [What is it this time?] (2002), performed in front of the Marmara Taksim Hotel, featuring Derya Alabora and Şerif Erol<br />
Photo: Naz Erayda
Kumpanya, Yine Ne Oldu? [What is it this time?] (2002), performed in front of the Marmara Taksim Hotel, featuring Derya Alabora and Şerif Erol
Photo: Naz Erayda

During the 13th International Film Festival, the troupe Kumpanya performed a 25-minute play, What is it this time?, steeped in interactive improvisation and open-air staging. (The video for The 90s Onstage at Salt screens a six-minute excerpt.) Anonymous, the actors argue aloud, with brutal disregard for the field of decorum with which public order is generally preserved. The year was 2002. The turbulent, sociopolitical rage of the 90s lingered.

Naz Erayda, who designed the concept and directed the screaming, gesticulating thespians, carved out an uncomfortable, excruciatingly private sphere of activity before the gates of Galatasaray High School and other iconic locales, as children and adults of all walks of life looked on in fascination. Everyone could empathize with the displays of anger. They felt it.

In the spacious foyer of Salt Beyoğlu, the tall columns of the old apartment structure an elevated runway, festooned with video installations. The apparent elegance of the curatorial, exhibition design stands in contrast to the raw, edgy content of the works. Among them, Altındere3 reappears with Who U Looking At?, paralleling Kumpanya’s production in 2002.

Screen Shot 2023 03 28 At 151908 Still from Halil Altındere’s video <i>Ne Bakıyon?</i> [Who U Looking At?] (2002)<br /><br />
Still from Halil Altındere’s video Ne Bakıyon? [Who U Looking At?] (2002)

Who U Looking At? exposed the confrontational, often violent attitudes of the day, when, following the combustible milieus of the 1990s, people were bursting at the seams with uncontrollable aggression. Quotidian exchanges erupted into acts of physical violence by a mere look of uninvited attention toward the wrong person. The everyman was overloaded.

The 90s Onstage bristles with its masses, its material records boiling over the rim of the melting pot of Turkish society approaching and immediately after the turn of the 21st century. The three exhibition floors of the inner-city mansion are exhaustively furnished with installations detailing the life and times of a period in history that continues to leave its mark.

When Salt celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2021 with The Sequential series of exhibitions in Galata to foreground Turkish artists who grew up in the 90s, the intellectual and aesthetic tone was business casual for the local arts scene proper. The 90s Onstage is a worthy successor to the conceptual dissidence of Deniz Gül4 or the scripted satire of Onur Gökmen and Fatma Belkıs5.

In today’s Turkey, the narratives of The 90s Onstage continue. Ample analogies might be drawn between the creativities of Hüseyin Katırcıoğlu, particularly his 1993 project A Trojan Story, with the contemporary dancer and choreographer Korhan Başaran6 whose recent solo works of dance theater, Dido and X, exhibited critiques of shared ancient and religious themes.

Hk Rehearsals of the play <i>Truva Öyküsü</i> [A Trojan Story] (1993) staged in the ancient ruins of Troy<br />
Photo: Levent Öget<br />
Rehearsals of the play Truva Öyküsü [A Trojan Story] (1993) staged in the ancient ruins of Troy
Photo: Levent Öget

Certain subjects overlap in Katırcıoğlu’s Trojan Story and Başaran’s Dido, as the former reflects on the Homeric landscape, whereas the latter picks up where its setting left off to romanticize the Latin epic Aeneid with the angst of modern love. Yet, the solo performance of Dido contrasts with Katırcıoğlu’s “mass theater” program for all-inclusive collectivization.

It is likely safe to say that, with the overhaul of independent media, the political moralizations of Islamist populism, the ubiquitous surveillance of contemporary technology, and the rise of internet introversion, the 90s was, perhaps, a more fertile field for communal acts of participatory theater in Turkey. In comparison, civic space in the 2020s is a muffled whimper.

Following imported curations on Turkey’s history of performance art7, The 90s Onstage is a refutation in the spirit of local self-determination, toward a vitalization beyond nostalgia. And yet, if all of Turkey’s a stage too, its curtain appears half-drawn, its house scarcely attended, and many stand still as mannequins behind the scenes, rehearsing wordless parts, unseen.

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Matt A. Hanson is an art writer, freelance journalist, and book editor based in Istanbul. He has written for Artforum, ARTnews, Artnet News, ArtAsiaPacific, and many other outlets on literature, culture and media. He is the founder of the indie digital publishing platform