February 17 through April 9, 2022
By ZOË HOPKINS, June 2022
Who might the contemporary Surrealists be? In Istanbul, Turkey, Arter may have found the answer to this question. Spilling out across walls, ceilings, and corners, on multiple floors, the exhibition “ThisPlay” is an unruly child. It is a whimsical adventurer seeking new truths through the absurd and mischievous. The show, curated by Emre Baykal, brings together an impressive roster of fifty-nine artists—most of whom are from Turkey but several hailing from across the globe—to test the limits of childish imagination and change the rules of art history’s proverbial game.
The exhibition is intentionally, deliciously, open ended. The title, itself a play on words (play simultaneously invoking playfulness, performance, and games), does not submit to determinacy. What exactly is the “this” that it is defining? And does play refer to theater, games, or general amusement? The exhibition luxuriates in being all of these at once: it is defined by nothing but its multiplicity and free play. Likewise, the works on view elude definition. They come to us as tricksters, rebuffing expectations, rejecting logic, and refusing to grow up. We encounter glass ladders suspended in the air out of reach, chairs made out of spaghetti, two clocks that face one another and tell time to nobody but themselves. One doesn’t have to come to the exhibition with context to realize quickly that nothing in this exhibition intends to conform to our definitions of “sense.” Instead, they embody Andre Breton’s famous dictum that “the mind, placed before any kind of difficulty, can find an ideal outlet in the absurd.”
Held at the unsparing whim of the absurd, viewers are challenged to submit themselves to new (sur)realities. Over and over, objects are defamiliarized once, and then again. Take for example the work of Finish artist Maaria Wirkkala. For her sculpture installation Backstage (Water Piano) (2009), Wirkkala has removed a grand piano of all of its keys and accouterments and placed it on the floor—corpse like—with its legs up in the air. An inverted and keyless piano is already a strange thing to encounter, but it is made entirely uncanny by the presence of a little zebra figurine who appears to drink water from a cavity in the piano’s underbelly. What kind of world is it when a toy animal gets more use out of a piano than we can? The artworks are playing, and their game—the subtle trick of it all—is directed at us.
Calcifying the metaphorical play that is happening here, games appear as a literal reference throughout the exhibition. Luchezar Boyadjiev’s Endspiel; or The Good, The Bad, and the Lonely features a chessboard that has been stretched out, the usual 64 squares multiplied to the point where it is impossible for a player to reach from one side of the board to another. In Rise to the Score by Bulgarian artist Pravdoliub Ivanov, a basketball hoop—an almost hackneyed icon of athletic games—finds itself penetrated by a massive, upside down palm tree. The work is a laughably, confrontationally absurd assemblage of ready-mades taken to the extreme. The basketball hoop is emptied of its use value—for who can shoot hoops when a tree has permanently assumed the place of the ball? —and the palm tree is similarly mocked as it stands on its head. Here, play is doubled: the literal game that is basketball is made subject to Pravdoliub’s metaphorical and artistic one. It seems, once again, the game is unrelenting.
I have written that the artists of “ThisPlay” are the Surrealists and Dadaists for a new age. But it is not just that these artists are taking up the conceptual mantle of these movements, but also, they are figuring them within the material lexicon of the twenty-first century. While there is a fair amount of sculpture and assemblage, there is a rigorous attention to new media works that encourage performance and participation, as well as kinetic installation, and video work. A contemporary social reality also emerges from the gloss of play. In Turkish artist Erkan Özgen’s video Lost Body (2005), the camera follows a boy’s seemingly disembodied feet as he kicks a soccer ball. It seems we are witnessing an impersonal, universal scene of recreation, that the absence of the boy’s face invites us to imagine ourselves participating in the action. But the video’s fanciful vision of disembodied play is undercut by realities of class: as the boy dribbles the ball, we are guided through a landscape of dirty, impoverished streets, and sounds of struggle. We are watching a dreamlike state of play, but Özgen insistently reminds us that we are also watching a work of social realism, a testament to the material reality of the world at this moment. “This Play” is a game, but perhaps it is one that we must take seriously. WM
Zoë Hopkins is a student at Harvard College, where she studies Art History and African American Studies. She is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and has previously been a Carol K. Pforzheimer Fellow. Zoë has worked in various capacities with Creative Time, Artforum International Magazine, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard Art Museums, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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