Whitehot Magazine

October 2012: In Conversation with Kutlug Ataman

Kutlug Ataman, English As A Second Language, 2009. Two-channel video projection. Installation view from Arter, 2011, Istanbul.
Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

On November 1st, Sperone Westwater will open Mesopotamian Dramaturgies, a show of four videos made by Kutlug Ataman between 2009 and 2011. This solo exhibition also marks Ataman’s first in New York City since the winter of 2004. This juxtaposition is significant since Ataman has since turned to address the growing cultural barriers that have developed in the West, following the events of September 11, 2001 that took place about 9 months later. The artist’s home country of Turkey and its people become the subject of his videos due to the fact that this country is located at the intersection of ancient and contemporary cultures, mediating age-old tradition with the fruits of technological advancement.

Turkey is, moreover, the middle-point between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. As the singular ancient bridge, this country connects Armenia, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia to the East with Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary and Greece to the West. Kutlug Ataman’s new work turns on these cultural and political ironies while revealing the continued loss of old mores that Turkish citizens experience in the shadow of the West’s advancing globalization, despite the seeming virtues of Turkey’s international location. In “Mesopotamian Dramaturgies,” Ataman features imagery such as the rush of water-falls, projections of hand-written texts and spoken words to capture the essence of communication barriers that still persist.

Whitehot Magazine recently interviewed Kutlug Ataman about the geographical and cultural differences that underscore his work as well as the relations between East and West.

Jill Conner: What and where is Mesopotamia today?

Kutlug Ataman: Geographically speaking, it is technically between the rivers of the Euphrates and the Tigris. This definition may shift slightly looking at varying angles, politically, socially, economically, etc. but yes, Mesopotamia is still there. There is also a La Mesopotamia north of Argentina, on the border with Brasil. It is also in between two rivers but quite tropical. It was established as part of a botched operation of establishing Israel there at some point. I am not sure if it was called La Mesopotamia before. But it still is fascinating to see how romanticism and politics can redefine geography and history.

Conner: Does this cross-cultural region in Turkey maintain any characteristics that are identical to its historic past?

Ataman: It is a geography that is in constant flux. The people and cultures are still there, some on the verge of extinction and some surviving. And there are also the newcomers - relatively speaking the newcomers - such as the Turks for the last one thousand years or so.

Conner: Contemporary Western culture has grown from the strengths of Mesopotamia as well as ancient Greece and Rome. What are the differences today?

Ataman: I think we now live in a quickly shrinking world and in many ways we can claim that all cultures on the planet have increasing effects on each other.

Kutlug Ataman, Journey to the Moon, 2009. Black-and-white photographs; 1 of 11 images, 12 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches.
Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

Conner: The United States recently celebrated 50 years since President John F. Kennedy made a rousing speech with the aim of landing the first man on the moon. Neil Armstrong also passed away on August 26, 2012. What is your video Journey to the Moon (2009) about?

Ataman: It is about four Turkish villagers who have aspirations of going to the moon, and how the villagers deal with them. It is not a true story, but I have very respectable opinion makers and voices of authority that offer evidence to my story, which then becomes very convincing. I guess you could say that I experimented with an already experimental format, which is mockumentary.

But the real point of the work for me is how even an extremely fictional story can suddenly become real when evidence is offered in a "knowing" and "authoritative" style, in the eyes of the viewer. I wanted to question what we call history, and how it can be constructed. Mesopotamian Dramaturgies, is also about our notions of history and geography as constructed realities.

Conner: English as a Second Language, (2011) seems to play off of this typical cultural barrier. However this piece appears to be more performative, breaking the language down into an array of sounds and symbols. What is the connection between English and globalization?

Ataman: English is the official language of the so-called global village. I guess the work can be perceived as a comment on this new language coming into our local realities, as much as the nature of language and communication more generally speaking.

Conner: In November 2001, philosopher Jürgen Habermas gave a speech at SUNY-Stony Brook and explained the tensions between the East and West as a reaction to the growth of secularization that globalization was creating around the world. What are your thoughts on that?

Ataman: All I can report is from my own day-to-day reality in my own region. The tension in Turkey was there due to repression of religious freedoms and a perverted way of secularism exercised by the state, which was not democratic. For the last ten years or so we have seen that disappearing and leaving its place to a more democratic society. The question here is not religion. The question is, whatever was being oppressed is now finding ways of asserting itself. For that reason I am suspicious of the above statement.

In my view, we are now witnessing the coming to the surface of what was undemocratically oppressed for much too long. I see the present as a more rational readjustment and am hopeful of the distant future, though I still foresee huge pain and crisis persisting in the near future. We are still in the middle of this huge social explosion.

Kutlug Ataman, Journey to the Moon, 2009. Black-and-white photographs; 1 of 11 images, 12 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches. 
Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

Conner: The medium of cinema is quite contemporary when compared to painting. Why is this medium the best way to capture the portrait of ancient cultures?

Ataman: Cinema feels more real than painting. But that is only a feeling, an illusion. In the end they are both art forms and, as with anything, extremely subjective. Art does not capture anything other than the position of the artist I am afraid.

Conner: You are currently working on a new movie. What is the title and what is it about?

Ataman: The working title is South Facing Wall. I am not sure if it will stay that way, because I keep changing my titles until the very end. It is a heart-warming comedy about a family isolated on top of the mountains, with a little boy believing that his father will behead him. I see it as a contemporary biblical heart-warming drama with humor, but it's not going to be a comedy.

Kutlug Ataman, Journey to the Moon (installation version), 2009. Still from two-channel video projection.
Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York. 

Kutlug Ataman, Journey to the Moon (installation version), 2009.
Still from two-channel video projection. 
Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.  



Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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