The Real Must Be Fictionalized In Order To Be Thought*
Jacques Rancière, “Regime Change: Jacques Rancière and Contemporary Art” Artforum International Magazine (March 2007) 255.
Asli Cavusoglu Catalogue Essay (2011)

I like Andrea Fraser’s writings, especially the ones about institutions. In these essays, Fraser argues that the institution is inside all of us and that we cannot exist outside of ourselves. Therefore, it is not a matter of being against the institution, but accepting the fact that we are the institution. At this point, it is a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.

Her statement urges me time and again to consider what it means to be an institution-self, and therefore to reflect on the forms of practice I value. In actual fact, I realize that the forms of practice I reward change due to my understandings and misunderstandings about life, and therefore my perspective continuously shifts. Accordingly, the best way for me to write about the work of an artist that I value, one like Asli Cavusoglu, would be to elucidate on my shifted, and still shifting, perspective via her work.

From the very start, I was interested in artworks that had definite and head-on political leanings. The appeal of artworks that used documentary material or took a head-on political approach was also related to my interest in works that tended to deal exclusively with reality. Furthermore, it had to do with the differing proportion of the political to the personal in the place where I was raised. According to Frederick Jameson, the political and poetic have gone through a radical split in the so-called Western world, as a result of which political commitment has been re-contained, psychologized and subjectivized (Frederick Jameson ‘The Third World Intellectual in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,’ Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn 1986) 69.). Yet elsewhere, as Jameson points out, and for a variety of reasons, even if a work seems private and invested with libidinal dynamic, it relates unavoidably to a political dimension. Even though Jameson’s observation helped me assess my relationship with particular artworks per se, I was struck more by The Book of Disquiet, which I was reading at the time entirely by coincidence, in which the phenomenal Portuguese author/poet Fernando Pessoa discusses the state of not being able to live anything other than reality, and the boredom of imagining only the probable. His clear, straightforward and yet strong commentary made a big impression on me, but I still did not allow myself to take this statement in and imply its revelation in my curatorial practice.

Back then, I already was thinking about the potential and relevancy of fiction within the socially and politically engaged realm. Could fiction really be imperative in terms of empowering politically inclined works? Was the creation of a fictional world escapism, or could it be politically engaged in its own way? Were fiction and reality mutually exclusive? Around the same time of these self-assessments, I had my first studio visit with Asli Cavusoglu. Even though I was still rigid about my preferences, and her works were completely different from my interests, I without doubt recall being attracted by them. Why was that? Where did those works fit within my black and white world? The two works that I remember most of all were her thesis project, Bir Turk Doktoru: Omer Ayhan and the Billboard project, both of which were produced in 2004. Omer Ayhan is an 11 minute single channel video mimicking classical, dull, made-for-TV documentaries shown on the national channel (TRT) back in the 90s. These documentaries served to honor genius Turkish personages scattered around the world. The title refers to the protagonist, a fictitious doctor played by an actual one, who is renowned for finding a cure for the so-called deadly disease “nortonomy”. The disease damaged the brain cells and caused amnesia, and according to this fictitious documentary, it was mainly spread in the States. The dialogue between the professional broadcaster and Omer Ayhan, which make up two thirds of the documentary, is beyond comprehension due to its medical terminology. This specialization of knowledge, which the public is able to track only through popular culture, predetermines the fact that questioning the information is not an option; it must be believed. Cavusoglu’s Billboard project, on the other hand, deals with the propagation of film media in a different way. It consists of the installation of fake film posters on 18 different posts in Istanbul, each chosen by the artist. The graphic on the poster, a patchwork of images gathered from the internet, left no doubt about the genre of the film. The poster announced that Dominance of the Shadow, a horror movie positively reviewed by the Washington Post, would be shown in theaters soon. It also offered information about the invented director “Lou Benneth” and his previous movies. A remarkable part of the project was that the dissemination of the poster did not have any illegality to it; the artist did not circumvent the bureaucracy, but rather worked within legal bounds and finally managed to install the posters. Their life span differed from place to place, some remaining visible for years. The fictitious sphere, for both of these projects, became a critical playground for investigating commonly accepted notions surrounding the fast and widespread circulation of information.

Reflecting on her work, I came to realize that fiction not only draws one into an imaginative universe; it also allows the person the experience of seeing from multiple perspectives. While eschewing explanation, her fictional works allow the spectator to interpret and make varied readings of the story. As I was encouraged to scrutinize the potential of fictional works as a tool for critiquing life in general, I started to vigorously follow the work of Cavusoglu. I remember seeing Islands, from 2005, an installation consisting of five drawings each accompanied by an individual story, and photographs of 10 three-dimensional models of the drawings. These model islands were produced from basic materials, such as plaster and polystyrene. Cavusoglu launched the islands into the sea and photographed them drifting on the water. She focused her attention on the role that islands have within history, including all their associated legends and myths. The common denominator that linked Cavusoglu’s fictitious islands was that they were very well-described, both geographically and environmentally, with a full description of their surface area, vegetation and so on. She also merged the rational aspects of geography and economics with the more utopian, fanciful characteristics often associated with islands. Then came the work Steve, Macy, Gabriel, Michael, Donna, Ally and Others in 2006, which complemented Islands. It is a series of 60 images borrowed from a data bank normally used for printing and advertising generally relating to issues of beauty, health, business, and relationships. After re-painting these generic images, Cavusoglu juxtaposes them in series along with bizarre individual stories that bear no relation to the premise of the images. The work invites a confrontation with images that have long been instrumental in seducing consumers with simple solutions of eternal beauty, youth, happiness, and success. In deconstructing these generic images, she questioned how these qualities are usually projected.

These works tend to create a fictitious sphere in order to explore the disinformation blended into the information of everyday life. By foregrounding aspects of fiction and disinformation, Cavusoglu is able to create a critique of social and political life without necessary recourse to head-on political lexis. Besides, using humor as a key strategy in almost all her works, she blurs the line between fiction and fact, favoring fiction as a more imaginative and creative way to encourage thinking about her subject matter.

I was perplexed. On one hand, dissatisfaction with the conventional view of reality – meaning, for instance, the mass media’s daily barrage of ‘reality’, or information about tragedy, disaster, human rights violations – made me reflect on the position of art and the artist. On the other hand, it encouraged me to reassess the relevance/irrelevance of information in the arts. Why was I insisting on obtaining information and knowledge through art? How could I distance myself from that? Why was letting my imagination travel so hard? Why did Cavusoglu’s work affect me? Reflecting on these issues and trying to link these reflections to my inner consciousness took years, however this intentional effort changed and shaped my approach in a different way.

I do believe that art is social in the sense that it has its roots in a given society and even despite itself must relate in some way to its prevailing conditions, or to their negation (Situationist International, “Response to a Questionnaire from the Center for Socio-Experimental Art” in Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, ed. Will Bradley and Charles Esche (London: Tate Publishing, 2007) 126.). However, art is also the form which allows things to be perceived differently from how they are usually imagined in everyday life. It can reflect on what may have been, on the fictions between what is seen and what is said and what is done and what can be done (Jacques Rancière,The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2000) 63.). This aspect of Cavusoglu’s work, namely this fictional space used in order to broaden the perspective, was my main interest, and would last for years. She does not reveal the most palpable and visible political aspects in her works, but rather the more subtle and invisible ones; they delineate the shape of the present with economy of means, minimum gestures, and small signs. Since the employment of a variety of perspectives and evaluations, or their reversals, is embedded in the realm of fiction and so in the work of Cavusoglu, it allowed the minor things to be seen and imagined differently. To the extent that fiction disrupts the relationship between the visible, the sayable and the thinkable without necessarily stating this disruption outright, her work became political (Ibid., 63.).

Then I came across another work, Magnificent Seven from 2006, which is less well known but nonetheless crucial in order to understand the root of Cavusoglu’s work, and where it springs from. For this project, she created an artistic initiative in Kadikoy, a neighborhood on the periphery of the art scene in Istanbul that has always been associated with alternative music culture. The project was very much inspired by Fernando Pessoa, who wrote with no less than 81 heteronyms. Pessoa stated that an artist has no obligation to adhere to one character, because the greatest artist was the one who most minimally defined him or herself, and wrote in many different genres in the midst of conflicts and inconsistency. This statement gave Cavusoglu the idea of creating seven fictitious artists for the initiative. She not only delineated all the features of these characters, but also produced their artworks in such a way that the works were very much in line with the specificity of their characters.
Moreover, starting the initiative in Kadikoy, which had essentially no existence in the visual art world, was a way to mock the centralization of the artistic circle in Istanbul. In so doing, Cavusoglu proposed fiction as a more imaginative and creative way to suggest possibilities for thought about the conception of some event, person, or the art world situation connected to actual human life.

Magnificent Seven can be seen as a bridge between her previous works and a new type of work, one in close relation with her interest in literature. TAKIP, a book project from 2006, was born from Cavusoglu’s interest in written language. For this project, she chose to work on phrase books, books that are considered to provide the tourist with all the necessary information to communicate. However, in reality, the one-sided information in these books permits only a monologue rather than a dialogue. Upon reading and re-reading them, the absurdity and awkwardness of these books inspired the artist to produce something entirely different from their purpose of use. After selecting two Turkish-French and one Turkish-Japanese phrase books, she set herself the task of writing a story while letting the phrases determine the genre, which developed into a detective story. Including solely the exemplary sentences in the books, the main plot revolved around an Algerian-French protagonist, his precarious situation creating the suspense. The other book project CAIET DE GEOGRAFIE from 2006, was a twenty page pocket-size book produced as a result of her two-month residency in Iasi, Romania. The title referred to an old-fashioned geography book commonly used in the country. CAIET DE GEOGRAFIE combined Cavusoglu’s drawings with texts. She used the same strategy of Steve, Macy, Gabriel, Michael, Donna, Ally and Others, but to different ends. In contrast to expectations, the drawings and the story accompanying them do not compliment each other, but rather exist independently. The uncanny co-existence of the two create an oscillation between fiction and non-fiction which mirrors that of everyday life. With this project, Cavusoglu defied common expectations of an artist in residence coming to an ex-communist country and having something meaningful to say. CAIET DE GEOGRAFIE acknowledged the fact that one cannot say something significant about a place where only a brief amount of time is spent, and in which one is too distanced to understand anything with enough profundity.

All in all, Cavusoglu’s inclination towards the freedom of fiction as opposed to the reality of the news allows her to see a variety of possibilities. Her essential concern revolves around exploring the possibility of maintaining spaces of play, discovering how to produce forms for the presentation of objects, and organizing spaces that defy expectations. Thanks to her interest in literature, she applies humor, absurdity and irony to the extent that allows them to establish different possibilities for the world. The modesty of her works challenges and parodies modern methods of distributing information, while capturing the absurdity of life. Most of all, however, by varying and reversing perspectives and judgments, Cavusoglu’s work allowed me to see and imagine things differently. May be it was only a coincidence, I do not know.