An interview with Aslı Çavuşoğlu

Gordian Knot. 2013. Ceramic. 19¾ × 11½ × 11 in. Courtesy the artist.

The past is a foreign country, but the present requires a passport too. For Aslı Çavuşoğlu, among the most perceptive artists to emerge in Turkey this decade, objects, images, stories, and even individual colors only make sense when seen across time, and yet no gaze on the past can ever be impartial. Her art deliberates not on history as such, but the uses we make of history — how the past becomes a myth, informs an identity, obscures an injustice, forges a nation. That historical commitment has only grown more urgent as the secular protests of 2013 fade in memory and Turkey endures war, terrorism, contested elections, and now a failed coup and vicious crackdown.

Çavuşoğlu was born in 1982 in Istanbul, where she studied cinema. We met this summer on Stromboli, the volcanic island in Italy’s Tyrrhenian Sea. On our first night there, July 15, our phones started pinging: the parliament in Ankara had been bombed, the president was on FaceTime. Three days after the coup attempt, Çavuşoğlu came to the house I’d rented, a bottle of wine in hand, and we spent several hours discussing archaeology, media, and the escalating censorship in Turkey’s art scene. She speaks English with an amiable lilt; she laughs often; her engagement with the past is gentle, exploratory; the momentousness of the coup attempt is as yet unfathomable. We have not revised the text of this interview to reflect recent developments. Since our lunch, the Erdoğan government has shut down more than 100 newspapers and broadcasters, sacked 2,500 judges, dismissed every university dean in the country, and suspended nearly 80,000 civil servants.   × Jason Farago

You were born in 1982, two years after the last military coup. Do you remember anything about how you came to learn about Turkish history — through your parents, or through school? Do you remember how that history was taught to you?

I wasn’t aware of the previous military coup until the age of 15, when I started to think freely, independent of my family. My parents never shared their opinions with me about the 1980 coup. My father comes from a very small town on the Black Sea, called Fatsa. In Turkey, everyone asks you where you’re from, and they are usually not satisfied with “Istanbul.” They say, “No, but your parents, where are they from?” I would say that my father was born in Fatsa, and then Turks of my father’s generation would ask, “Are you a communist?” I didn’t even know what communism was. Why are they so bothered that he’s from this town?

And then you start getting into it. I was part of this leftist organization at 15 — I didn’t last long, it wasn’t for me. It was hierarchical, and I was expected to dress in a certain leftist woman way, in fatigues. It was ridiculous; I was listening to Nirvana, I was a grunge fan, I wore T-shirts and dark makeup. But in this organization there were certain banned books in circulation. The covers were wrapped in newspaper. I remember one of these books was about Fatsa, which was the first and the last communist experiment that happened in Turkey. It was completely forgotten; it was forbidden even to write about it.

Fatsa, the town your father comes from, had an early experiment with participatory democracy. It was crushed just before the coup.

It was like a trial run. They ran this semi-autonomous state for almost eight months. The prime minister at the time said the government should focus on Fatsa as the most dangerous thing. The general military coup happened in September, and this trial operation in Fatsa happened in July. They terrorized this little town. Official numbers say that they killed 50 people.

Was your father there?

No, he was gone. But we still have relatives in Fatsa.

Your film In Different Estimations Little Moscow (2011) revisits this suppressed history, but in fragmentary form.

I wanted to reflect the way I gathered the information. People didn’t speak to one another, and everything was in pieces. All of these people who experienced it had different memories of what had happened. Those who were jailed were rejected in society when they returned to this little town. Nobody gave them jobs, so they had to emigrate. People my age and younger had no idea what happened. Nothing. But I found the library of this one really prominent guy who had refused to burn his books, and there was the banned book I had read in Istanbul when I was 15, still wrapped in newspaper.

This work required an unearthing of narratives that were never written down, but, more frequently in your art, objects rather than stories seem to be the way in. In The Stones Talk (2013), for instance, archaeology serves as the frame for national and historical concerns.

I’m really suspicious of the mechanisms of national identity building. First, the archaeological museum: you enter in prehistoric times, and as you walk through the galleries, you become part of an evolution that ends with the glory of the contemporary nation-state. What were the selection criteria? That was my first concern. And the whole process of building Turkish national identity under Atatürk is also a very curious case.

The Kemalists wanted the young Turkish republic to suppress an Ottoman past. And now the Turkish government lays claim to a 5,000-year history, and refuses to lend to the Met and the Pergamon. The Stones Talk seems to explore the objects that fail to be absorbed into those political projects, or that resist them.

That fail to be chosen. Archaeology is a super political thing. It starts with the fundamental question of how do you know where to dig, and why do you dig there. You have to have a slight idea of what you’ll find before you start. You have a preconceived idea of all the findings, and how they will relate to history.

One of the first archaeological digs in the new Turkish Republic was very close to Ankara, so they could reclaim the new capital as a historically significant center. And then at the borders with Greece and Syria. So they could say: We found all of these objects, and we are their inheritors. It was a political tool. The first leaders of the Republic sent students to Germany to study archaeology. A country that had just come out of war sent people to train as archaeologists.

The installation replicates almost six dozen artifacts that were unearthed in Turkey and deemed “non-significant.” Unworthy of display. Where did you find them?

I have a very good friend who runs an archaeological dig at the border with Greece. I visited the excavation, and I also worked a bit there as a photographer on the dig. It was kind of like a holiday for me, but I also like that phase of archiving, and I wanted to observe how they classified things. That was where I discovered that 90% of their discoveries, probably even more, were going into storage — because what they found was not beautiful enough, or didn’t depict certain figures, or didn’t express the full structure of the initial antiquity. Scraps.

The other feature of that work was its grammar of display. The reconstituted antiquities —
they’re made of bronze and ceramic, but also rubber and foam — were on plinths of various heights, and the system of numbering was obscure.

The hierarchy of the objects. When you go to the museum, the objects are displayed on plinths, and the ones at eye-level are considered the most important. Or the curators place objects on a ziggurat shape, with the most important work at the top…

…and then there are the poor vessels and mosaics condemned to the “study collection.”

It shouldn’t only be archaeologists making these judgments. They are like police officers. I am not advocating treasure hunting, but it makes me think about who has the right to dig and to interpret the past. Each individual is capable of that. There’s not only one way to read it. What I really want to do, instead of giving a set narrative, instead of a fixed thing, is let the audience figure everything else out and deconstruct the entire idea of national identity. They can have their own feelings, and their own interpretations.

As an artist in Istanbul, or even as a student, did the historical museums have any importance to you?

No. My mother would take me to Topkapı Palace or Dolmabahçe Palace, but you could never imagine they were once inhabited. They are like statues. You cannot really move through them — you have to go through with a guide. For me, the very idea of the Ottomans was vague, like they never existed. Maybe it’s because my family is from a secular part of Turkey. Going to the mosques or hammams, any architectural feature that was related to the Ottoman period was neglected.

Whereas the current government’s soft Islamism has gone hand in hand with a rediscovery of the Ottoman past. Didn’t Erdoğan want schoolkids to learn Ottoman Turkish?

Of course, they have another conception of who the Ottomans were. I think it has nothing to do with history. It never has anything to do with history.

I was in Istanbul last summer for the last biennial, in which you exhibited a series of exquisite paintings on paper that, obliquely, speaks to Turkey’s relationship with Armenia [Red/Red (2015)]. It was a tense moment, between the two elections of 2015, and an awful war had begun in the east of the country. Did you think, before or after, that you would face any censorship?

No, I didn’t. Censorship in Turkey is never direct. They never tell you, “You are doing something wrong, and we don’t want you around.” I did have some doubts whether my work might get censored when I showed it this year in Qatar. The curator there avoided mentioning that the ink I was using was discovered in 1915, the year of the genocide. But I never use the word genocide.

The question doesn’t come up. It’s only about your collaboration with a professor in Armenia, one of the few people left who still know how to extract this delicate, wispy pink ink from an insect that makes it home in the river between the two countries. The paintings don’t in any explicit way speak to the events of 1915, or the hundred-year debate over what exactly happened.

Because I know Turkish people. I know how they tune out when you say the word genocide. Just one word. Also, I had the chance to visit Armenia, and they were looking at me, my friends and all the people I met, to see if I would ever utter the word or not. It’s just a word, and it’s so small to describe what happened to these beautiful people of Anatolia. I believe it’s genocide, it’s my own political view, but in Red/Red that’s not the subject.

There are specific biological facts about the [Armenian cochineal] insect that lives on the border between Turkey and Armenia, living in the roots of a certain plant. Only within that plant can it exist. That’s why all of the paintings are of flowers and insects, and how they need each other. The color of Turkey is bright red, blood red. It was interesting for me to see two different reds: one is completely replacing the other, as if the other never existed. Because the knowledge of how to produce this Armenian red ink has been completely lost. You can still see the traces of the color in frescoes, for instance in Ani, this old Armenian town, that just became a UNESCO heritage site.

Tell me about what happened a couple of days ago when the news broke. You were here, under a volcano, in Stromboli. How did you get in touch with people at home, your friends and family?

I came here the same day as the military coup. I was about to miss my flight from Istanbul. There was a big security line, and I only had half an hour, but I made it, with my holiday suitcase of bikinis and towels and flip-flops. It was the first day of this Volcano Extravaganza [a festival organized by the artist Camille Henrot]. We were at dinner, and I heard someone pronouncing my name in a very proper way, a very Turkish way. Who is calling me? It had to be a Turkish person.

That’s how I met Atalay [Yavuz, a Turkish artist], and he said, “Do you have any idea that there’s a military coup happening in our country?” That’s how I found out. Of course, my first reaction was to call my family and friends, from this tiny island. My parents were staying at my house — I just moved to Büyükada [an island in the Marmara Sea, south of Istanbul]. They had no idea, because it’s quiet there and I don’t have a TV.

You and I were at this dinner, on an island hours from the Italian mainland — this supposed escape — and we were watching the coup play out on our phones. It was absolutely bizarre. Did you begin to feel, in those first hours, that you were caught between two bad choices: either Erdoğan or anti-democratic forces?

The first thing that came to my mind was the Reichstag fire. When I saw the images of the parliament building in Ankara, destroyed by bombs, I thought: what if the Reichstag is happening? The problem with Turkish politics, and these political disturbances, is that a lot of journalists are in jail. The idea of journalism has changed in Turkey. There are people who believe something happened, and there are other people who believe it didn’t happen. Everything is based on a halo effect. You lose your perspective, your objectivity. And then you are never after the truth of things.

There’s something very Putinist about Erdoğan’s approach to the media. In print or online, you can let the secularists, the leftists, the Kurds, the kids do what they want. But on television, in mass media, things are quite seriously controlled.

Yes. And he makes the calls by himself, to the owners. He threatens to jail the people who own media channels. I had a project… well, like most of my projects, I can’t realize it now because the circumstances keep changing. They become irrelevant, or not appropriate in an emergency. People would rightly consider it a luxury to think philosophically when people are dying in the east of Turkey.

But in April, I had a lot of meetings with NGOs and journalists, because I wanted to start a publication that featured all of the journalists in jail. To have a monthly newspaper, made only by them. These people represent different political stripes, and they would never be in the same newspaper otherwise. I wanted to get in touch with the journalists in jail, whether they were Gülenists or Islamists or Kurdish — most of them are Kurdish, actually. And the editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dündar, who was also in prison. I thought it would be a good idea to run a monthly newspaper, with equal columns for the Gülenists, the Islamists, the Kurds. Let them say what they want to say.

That would have put you in real danger, no?

Maybe, but I thought it should be done. And maybe the images for the newspaper could be provided by the cameramen and photographers who are in jail, too. Like, from the jail, shot on cellphones or something. I spoke to many people, and then the war in the east broke out. And most people thought it would never be a priority. That it was too naïve. There are people dying, and cities being bombed.

And yet artists are caught up in this too. The closure of SALT’s location in Beyoğlu. The public art that has been censored. You can say that making artworks is a luxury, but you are absorbed into the upheaval and uncertainty. You didn’t face any censorship for the work you did in the Istanbul Biennial, but you could have.

I could still be in danger.

Do you think about that in the studio? Or is it too much? Or, if you start thinking about that, are you automatically making propaganda?

That’s what I want to avoid. There are certain artists who can do propaganda, but I am not one of them. I can only provide evidence, and then audiences can make their decisions, each audience. These are my ethics, although I am not saying other people are wrong.

But yes, I also find it very difficult to cope with all of the breaking news in Turkey. It’s overwhelming. You think about a project, and you work on it, and then it becomes irrelevant somehow. It feels as if you should have different priorities.

This is the classic tension between being an artist and being a citizen — how to work at two different speeds.

Yes. But I am of course a citizen first, and then an artist. For instance, I was telling you the other night about this project with some researcher friends. After all of these closures of certain venues, and also gentrification-related issues about galleries going bankrupt, or artist-run spaces shut down, I was wondering if we could create an archive that would trace the history of art institutions back to the beginning of the Turkish Republic. So we could see what affected what at the very beginning. If we could list all of the galleries, all of the institutions, all of the artist-run spaces, to see the reasons that they closed, whether political or economic. Just to see.

Turkish art history is really fragmented. There is no single institution that has a complete archive. Each time one of the universities or private institutions makes an attempt, there is a change in director, and then they stop. There are pieces of information all over, and they haven’t been assembled. When you look at the art history of Turkey from the 70s onward, you can always see a boom in art, or in the art market, and then a collapse, immediately. Because state-related cultural institutions lost power in the 60s, or maybe even earlier. The state supported artists, but still censored them. It was never free.

A place like Istanbul Modern, for example, is not a state institution. It’s more like an American museum.

It’s like a Middle Eastern museum. They don’t have a board.

But the director is independent.

That’s what they say. There’s an owner, but the owner does not give a budget to the museum for buying art. There’s no independent acquisitions committee. The director goes and says, “I like this work; I think we should buy it.” And the owner says yes or no. This is not really an ideal museum structure. That’s why independent curators who want to become directors can’t last there. Of course, it’s an important place. I don’t want to just shit all over it. But this is really Middle Eastern.

Did you go to art school in Istanbul?

I studied cinema. I was not able to enter art school; I was not able to draw well, so I decided to go into filmmaking. Most of the artists in Turkey did not go to art school. Even Vasıf Kortun [the director of SALT] studied art history in America. A lot of us went to architecture school, or did sociology, psychology. The art schools are really traditional, really technical, and very closed to recent developments and to conceptual art.

In Istanbul there was never a moment with a stable place where artists could show their work. There were always ups and downs. In the 70s there was a private gallery. In the 80s there was a state gallery. Then the state gallery gets closed, or gets hijacked by a different politician. Of course, art doesn’t depend entirely on galleries or venues or institutions. If they cannot find a place, they show it in the streets.

The first artist-run space in Turkey came about right after the foundation of the republic, in 1925, and it was in Gezi Park. On the ruins of a military base that Erdoğan wants to rebuild. It closed down after half a year, because of “gentrification.” They wanted to make the park, so they tore down the buildings. You look at something that happened a hundred years ago, and it’s so similar. This is why I want to have these parallels. This isn’t new. We aren’t the most unlucky generation of this country; it was always like this. All we can do is have our eyes open and see the political and economic effects.

To try to think of yourself in time.

Because if you don’t know the history you are doomed to fail again. That is my concern. When I was doing the Fatsa project, people of my generation didn’t know anything about that time. But then, in 2013, when the protests began in Gezi, there were neighborhood committees meeting in the park, open to the public, that had the feel of the early stages of participatory democracy. If you don’t know what went wrong the first time, you can’t really know what to do now. At least with an archive of art spaces we would be able to trace it back.

Isn’t this a pretty strong argument for continuing to make art, even in the midst of upheaval? If you really believe that there is a historical grounding for today’s events, this makes your work more relevant, not less.

You’re right, maybe. When all of this breaks out, you feel like you have to focus on surviving. These projects feel utopian.

Maybe we can conclude by talking about the future. By the time this interview comes out, will you be back in Istanbul?

I came here with my luggage, but I don’t think I can go back, at least for a month. It appears to me that Turkey is getting very dark. I’m not scared of Erdoğan. I’m scared of this darkness, of feeling hopeless. Maybe I would do much better, not only for my physical being but as an artistic being, with the hope that can only be provided by distance.

You could stay here, I suppose…

I was thinking about the movie Stromboli (1950), with Ingrid Bergman. She comes here running away from the war. She marries a fisherman. Maybe I’ll repeat that story.

Actually, your home in Istanbul is also on an island, a good hour away from Taksim Square. Why did you move to Büyükada? Did you want to escape?

Büyükada is like a haunted place, with houses that were left from Greeks and Armenians. And the house had a beautiful story. There were these Greek sisters. Their father built twin houses for his daughters. Then the houses were sold to Turkish people, to two different owners, and they were separated. My house is one of them. And it felt like Red/Red to me: two histories, separated by a wall. This house found me; it wanted me to live there. You look at the ceiling and there is this fresco, a portrait of the person who lived there. Everything is them. It’s never you. I am their guest, I feel.

Maybe feeling less possessive about where I live is why I feel more free to stay in Europe for the next few months. I can’t predict anything anymore. But I think it’s going to get worse in Turkey. Erdoğan is going to use this opportunity to oppress people. Now he starts with the military officers, and it will spread to university professors. It’s going to be harsh.

But eventually you will have to go home.

Yes. I want to wait a little bit. I cannot really move to tomorrow. It’s still the 15th of July for me.

Jason Farago is editor of Even.