Turkish Art Treads a Delicate Line Between Spectacle and Symbolism in Paris, Céline Piettre

7 November 2012

Through January 6, 2013, Paris’s Louis Vuitton Foundation offers a tour through the complex and often polarized terrain of today's Turkish art scene with “Journeys: Wanderings Through Contemporary Turkey.” Works by 11 Turkish artists are on view on the top floor of Louis Vuitton’s Champs Elysées store, while, in very different display, the ground floor windows are filled with Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted floral hallucinations, part of the designer’s collaboration with the celebrated Japanese artist.

The geography of modern Turkey and its representation throughout history are explored from Murat Akagündüz’s landscapes to Gözde Ilkin’s travel journal, Halil Altindere’s postcards to maps by Murat Morova and Hale Tenger. Traditions such as tale-telling and miniature paintings, and their place within contemporary society's fast-paced urbanism, also play a key role in many of the works, notably in Ali Taptik’s photographic foray into deepest Istanbul.

Feminist artist Canan’s superb video tale “Ibretnuma” (2009) uses pieces by Levni and Abdullah Bukhari, two forgotten Ottoman painters, to tell the story of a young woman forced by her parents into arranged marriage, and Halil Altindere’s works depict an astronaut-knight exploring Anatolia (Turkey's historical birthplace, now turned tourist haven). Ihsan Oturmak’s political paintings of discipline and revolution within the education system recall the Turkish people's "reflexes of allegiance."

But though the exhibit explores many of the most divisive issues in Turkey — its traces of successive regimes, vacillation between tradition and modernity, the rights and role of women, and uneven habitation of its territory — many of the works seem to skirt around politics through symbolism, whereas others lean towards expressive theatrics, as with Tenger’s installation of an upside-down globe that lights up and grows dark in a spectacular planetarium. Akagündüz’s “Hell-Heaven” might best embody the hesitatant space between these two poles of representation, with the juxtaposition of an imaginary, historical Turkey (the Anatolian mountains and the Euphrates) and a fearful, anxious Turkey (the eyes of wild birds) viewed on video screens.

Like all exhibitions, this one naturally reflects the vision of its curator, Hervé Mikaeloff (who organized a previous exhibit on Indonesian art on view last year at Louis Vuitton); its picture of Turkish art is, in other words, subjective. Some worthwhile artists have been left out, such as the performance collective Ha Za Vu Zu, discovered by the French public at the 2009 Lyon Biennial, as well as video artist Kutluğ Ataman, and Ali Kazma, who is set to represent Turkey at the 2013 Venice Biennial. Subjectivity aside, we expected more from this guide to the Turkish art scene, whose artistic language (brush, pen, or camera) has thrived with its increasing freedom from academism and ideology, and which, alongside shifting politics and social change, has become ever-more relevant.