Vahap Avşar Interview
Second Exhibition, ARTER (November 2010)

Pelin Uran: I would like to begin our talk with “Last Drop” project. Let’s start with what it means to you for “Last Drop” installation, first exhibited in 1995 at Ankara Train Station, to be exhibited again, 15 years later, at ARTER, considering that the perception of a work of art undergoes a radical change depending on where it is shown, as well as the events that took place at the first exhibition, and how it was decided to display the same project at this exhibition.

Vahap Avşar: The issue of where a project is to be exhibited is definitely an extremely important one of context. Therefore, this is a very good example: there, “Last Drop” was clearly brutal. Moreover, when I first set it up, the marble slabs, a huge train station built during the era of the Republic… Putting such an object right in the centre of an area through which mostly provincial people passed had a two-pronged brutality. First, the location was not an art venue, and because of the materials I used, the work was not something that resembled art. So it appeared as if it were an object accidentally left or forgotten by a passenger going by as he went about his daily activities. It was kind of like what it would be like today if a large package were left on the subway and panic ensued. But a known object, put somewhere as if it belonged there, naturally created a fierce reaction. That’s one facet. Then there is the historical or contextual one, the matter of physical or public sphere. Historically, it was a time when war with the PKK in the east was at its height and every situation was viewed suspiciously. There was always this apprehension or fear anyway, particularly in Anatolia or when going to the eastern part of Turkey from Ankara. So, even if people who fancy themselves as artists, those who come to see art, do not read it mostly in this way, I, in some way, want it to be read that way. There are a couple of ways these works can be read; there are a couple of layers to them. One of these is the reason that there is a red liquid there, i.e. a reference to “blood”. The train station director, too, read it in this way and had it removed…

Pelin Uran: They had it removed at the train station? Didn’t they know what was going to be exhibited?

Vahap Avşar: The train station direction initially gave permission but then rescinded it. They gave us permission to hold an art exhibition. The station already has an art gallery. It is located in a separate building outside the station. Innocent paintings and the like are exhibited there seldom if ever. We also realised that these kinds of things are difficult and first got permission to hold the exhibition in the gallery. Then we received authorisation to do an installation inside the station. The administration gave us permission, knowing that we were going to put up statues and paintings. But when they saw the work and all that directness and sizes and interpreted it superficially, they got angry and, after the opening, at night, they took down all of the works and destroyed them.

Pelin Uran: I was just going to ask that. When was the opening? Because you said that people apart from those in the art world had seen the works. But if the exhibition remained open for only a day …

Vahap Avşar: Actually, we stayed open one night. We got set up in the afternoon … let’s say that it took up till evening to get set up … then we held the opening. Because we were tired, we didn’t take any photographs. A day later, when I came in the afternoon, it had been dismantled. My work and Selim Birsel’s work... He had a work that resembled people lying on the ground, life-size figures of people made with graffiti-coated papier maché lying curled up on the ground. It looked more like an abstract statue; if it had been put in a museum, it would have looked pretty innocent, it had no violent aspect to it at all. But because they –his and mine– were on the train boarding platform, they got mad and destroyed them. This shows that they were correctly read. Our objective was also to have them read like that.

Pelin Uran: When exhibited at ARTER...

Vahap Avşar: What happened when it was exhibited here? To tell you the truth, it was never exhibited again. When I saw that they had been destroyed and bins stacked on top of one another, I left them there and did not pick them up. That project died there! We had no chance of exhibiting them again. The curator of this exhibition, Emre Baykal, really wanted the project to be exhibited (again). But I wasn’t sure; would we do it? How would it be read in this context?.. It could be read within the context of a retrospective exhibition, but I wasn’t certain. However, someone wanting a project that had been thrown out and been torn into pieces seemed like a good opportunity to me; I wanted to try and I wanted to exhibit it once more.

Pelin Uran: But do you think that exhibiting “Last Drop” at ARTER, and thereby acquiring the status of an object, involves a problematic of any kind? Given that even the most transitory works, documents not even created for the purpose of art, as well as radical works become neutralised in a setting that turns them into art...

Vahap Avşar: This is a theoretically difficult situation. But if we think about it within the context of this project, having a chance to redo it was important, despite my prediction that it would change and become different. And it did change and it is being read differently. But I didn’t decide to do that project in 2010. For example, today, in 2010, I would never have made something like that. It’s meaningful because It refers to “Last Drop”, which was made in 1995. If it had appeared on its own or been done today, there would be a very different reading. This is also a function of a museum or exhibition hall: when you display an old work, you display it within a particular context. It has a history, name, where it was previously shown, what it is … Above all, because such a tragic misfortune befell it, it acquires meaning through its story.

Pelin Uran: Instead of repeating the same installation, what other format do you think would have been possible? Or, what if there had only been documentation?

Vahap Avşar: There is only one photograph of the 1995 work –it’s dark and you can’t make out what it is exactly. Everyone had one photograph taken on a small camera we had. That’s why repeating it has significance. Otherwise, I agree; when a project is redone, its meaning changes, too, when its context is changed. What you say is completely correct. Because it is temporary, its brutal stance has been completely transformed into an innocent one, it has changed.

Pelin Uran: Let’s touch on the concept of the exhibition at ARTER. When institutional critique first appeared, it encompassed works that, in particular, highlighted museums and galleries as institutions. While it later became more generalised, this was initially a consequence of Modernism’s tendency toward self-criticism. As far as I know, while “The Crying Boy”, one of your works displayed at the Second Exhibition, was an instance of tacit censorship not originating from above and which created consensus among different groups, “Cancel” and “Last Drop” embodied censorship that was entirely top-down and unique to Turkey. By the state… The first one includes a censorship coming through the image of the army and soldier, while the second, a censorship of what the works connote. “The Alps”, on the other hand, was a work that remained completely within the limits of the world of art and focused on what could be considered art. You have preferred to carry out what is generally meant by institutional critique. Were you interested in the idea of conducting a reading via ARTER, the institution holding your exhibition?

Vahap Avşar: Let me thank you… A historical question. Because when Emre Baykal mentioned the idea of an exhibition to me, he was at a very early stage of conceptualising it. He said, “I want to hold an exhibition on institutional critique,” that was all I knew then. Moreover, he wanted artists to work through commission. This was an interesting situation for me, especially since I had not had this chance in Turkey. I immediately started working and showed him a few sketches. There were two projects that began to crystallise but, unfortunately, we were unable to do either of them.

Pelin Uran: Why couldn’t they be done?

Vahap Avşar: The first required finding a deaf-mute barber, creating a pleasant barbershop setting, with a functioning mirror and old chair, in a corner of the exhibition hall, and having a barber work there when the exhibition was open. A sign reading “Free military haircut” would be placed outside. Whoever wanted could go inside and get a military haircut. Because explaining anything to the barber or asking him any questions would be limited I thought that something interesting would occur there, an interesting issue of sanction. You’re offering something for free but the expression “military haircut” also has a metaphorical meaning. I’m after this kind of tension. I’m using the luxury of providing people something free institutionally; as an artist, I’m taking that luxury and giving it, a service to people…

Pelin Uran: But something that comes with a condition…

Vahap Avşar: With one condition, making people think. Why a military haircut? What does a military haircut look like? When you asked the barber, what kind of dialog would there be? A person comes and sits down. When you said, you cut too little, you cut too much, what would happen with the barber?

Pelin Uran: Of course, there would be no communication.

Vahap Avşar: There wouldn’t be. Taking this concept as my point of departure, this was one of my strongest projects. It was a performance thing –and one that did not have a clear outcome. I did not know what would happen or how it would conclude. Emre liked this idea, too, but, unfortunately, we were unable to carry it out. The second project is my video project called “Oral Report”. You have seen it at the exhibition, haven’t you?

Pelin Uran: The exhibition at Rampa?

Vahap Avşar: Yes. I had not done it then. I explained to Emre that I wanted to do this project. This was also changed later; they said that it could not be done, I guess because of the curatorial structure of the exhibition, the work’s scenario and its relationship to the other works. Meanwhile, we were getting together regularly at Platform, and I pulled various projects out of my archive. One of these was “Cancel”. In the end, Emre said that “Cancel” would fit well with the exhibition. Afterward, I was doing an oil painting entitled “The Crying Boy”, which he also said would work well in the exhibition. We decided on the two of them. Shortly before the opening of the exhibition, he called me and said, “I’ve been thinking… could you do ‘Last Drop’ again?” That was also a work that came up at the last minute. I mean, these are not projects that I suggested, but rather ones that the curator suggested to me. Because the first two projects we planned unfortunately did not work out…

Pelin Uran: Can we talk a bit about the imagery of “The Crying Boy” and the significance of the paintings “The Alps” within your personal history? About your interest in painting and how it has developed since your childhood?

Vahap Avşar: Yes. I come from a family with limited resources. The truth is we started getting newspapers and books at home toward the end of primary school. And I remember when I first saw paper and pencil; I was around 5 or 6 years old and I was very excited. I remember beginning to draw designs. My father was a very talented man; he could do anything; he was an inventor. But he had no education. He was a man who had grown up an orphan on the street. His head and hands worked well together. I must have gotten something from him, and as a child I was very curious. Once I got a hold of paper and pencil and saw that I could draw a figure, I began to draw like crazy. Later, my cousin, Şükrü Karakuş, enabled me to see for the first time how an oil painting was done. Before then, I had no idea that there was such a thing as oil painting; I was ten years old when I began painting on canvas for the first time. I got a prize then for a design that my teacher had submitted to a nationwide contest in Turkey. This was in 1976; I was 11 years old. After that, I stopped going out. I spent all my time at home painting. I began doing oil paint reproductions, postcards, just about anything that I could get my hands on…

Pelin Uran: Entirely at home for the time being …

Vahap Avşar: At home, there was no one who understood painting. My cousin moved away and he was studying at a school for teachers, and it was far anyway. When his mother noticed, years later, that I painted, she gave me his old paintings. That’s how I devoted myself to painting. At the same time, toward the end of the 1970s, the anarchy and political events in Malatya were very violent. We were living in a good neighbourhood. Because of my father’s talent, our economic situation was rather good; nearly every year we moved into a new house in a better neighbourhood. But my destiny was clear. I was at home obsessively painting, and the street had become dangerous. There were events and, because of our ethnicity, things were a little more critical. When my relatives and neighbours saw my paintings they liked them. First, they would ask “would you make one for me, too,” and then I would calculate the cost of supplies and they would pay me. I was almost doing them for free. Later I discovered that I could make money selling them and so I started to sell them. Terror had become increasingly fierce and, because our house was stoned, we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t live there anymore and moved to Izmir –it was thought to have a more liberal, moderate political climate. We moved in 1979 and in 1980 came the coup. I continued painting …

Pelin Uran: How old were you?

Vahap Avşar: I was 16 years old. I was a sophomore in high school in Izmir and it was really bad. There was constant right-left conflict and police intervention, so we missed a lot of classes. We didn’t have any maths or English at all there. I failed because mine was a better school. After that, I quit school and decided to paint professionally. I found a gallery and showed them my work; the man liked them and began giving me orders for Alpine landscapes. In any case, I had talent and experience. Later, I got into doing still lifes and family portraits from colour photographs. I left home at 17.

Pelin Uran: Were you making enough from your paintings to support yourself?

Vahap Avşar: Yes… and there was discontent at home; everyone was very unhappy that we had moved. Everyone except for me was homesick and felt completely uprooted. I was the only one who was okay. A place like Izmir was more inspiring; there was the sea and something called a museum and a place called the Izmir Museum of Art and Sculpture. Even though it didn’t have an extensive collection, I would go there constantly and do reproductions of the paintings there and make money. Actually, what I had done was leave school and become an artist. This lasted three years. Initially, I worked for a gallery and I opened a place myself called Galeri Avşar. I would paint and hang paintings on the wall and customers would come in and buy them. I had a great place to work. But after a while, when I went to the museum and began visiting the annual State Art and Sculpture Competition Exhibition, where I saw works by painters from the Academy, Ankara and Istanbul, and I was introduced to abstract painting, hyperrealist oil paintings and social realist paintings, I began to get confused. I came to realise that art did not simply mean beautiful landscapes. I decided that I needed to attend the Academy. But to do this, I first had to graduate from high school. I continued working at the same tempo, painting at night to earn a living and studying during the day to complete my final year of high school. I was preparing to take the exams at Mimar Sinan University, when I heard that a Painting Department had been opened at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Dokuz Eylül University and that it had a good teaching staff, so I took its exams.

Pelin Uran: What you did then, painting on the street or in your home, and then selling your work in a gallery is different from what you are doing now, exhibiting it as Vahap Avşar. Looking at “The Alps” at ARTER, one sees nearly all of the debates in art history over the past 50 years –original and replica, avant-garde and kitsch, high and low art. Do you think that these debates are still significant and that they are still important today? What do you see when you look at “The Alps”?

Vahap Avşar: When I look at them, I don’t think in terms of original/replica; they are mostly autobiographical. In some sense, I have engaged in the archaeology of my own personal art after returning to art after a 10 year interlude. I saw the images I had drawn with such great pleasure as a child had been lost. I found a box containing hundreds of drawings of one of these pictures –The Crying Boy. That was an autobiographical thing for me and I got very excited. I asked myself what I could do with them… Photographs could be taken of them, an installation set up, or a video made. I chose to do an oil painting. And of course it touches upon the replica-original problematique, but what I was concerned with was the one of high art-low art. These were, certainly, not high art; for instance, the person called Amadio who did “The Crying Boy” did it at the beginning of the 1970s. It’s obvious that he was a commercial painter, but his painting became a sensation all over the world: it was hung in every home, truck, bus… But why, despite all this, have we never considered it art? It’s what artists or persons who have studied at the academy and are familiar with art history call ‘kitsch’, isn’t it? I’m not making this argument –or saying that it was or was not art; but after searching autobiographically for one of the paintings I did during my childhood and finding it, I realised that I had encountered sociological material. Turkey has gone through such a period. For thirty years these kinds of paintings have been very popular. It was a period that established our visual world and they were paintings that were seen everywhere and were recognised by everyone. What is interesting for me is that there are many different stories and hidden meanings in the work. And that is: Why did these disappear? Why were they called ‘kitsch’; in both Europe and the rest of the world they were categorised as ‘kitsch’ and put to one side; fine, but why did they disappear in Turkey? Because of the Internet, people began to stop sending one another greeting cards.
When I went after “The Crying Boy” again, I met with censorship in various locales and times. I found that interesting. How was it that such an innocent and simple image could be imbued with this much political significance? How could it become so dangerous and damned? Because this was interesting to me, I wanted to do this project. As I said, I could have done it in various ways. If I had done it as an installation, would it have been more successful? I don’t know, but, on the one hand, I wanted to paint; in other words, it was a matter of returning to childhood. Because what happened in childhood was an event, or phenomenon, unique for me... Something that happened to me… of being a child painter, the issue of commercial art… I felt the need to take it up and repeat it. In the past, my works never exceeded 50x70…

Pelin Uran: The dimensions of the ones at ARTER have really grown.

Vahap Avşar: I increased their size because they are no longer something to be sold in a frame but rather to be exhibited in a museum. It is clear that this was done for high art. The ability to take the material of low art and place it in a museum… I could do this because of this exhibition. What is this? For me, a work of art not only has its own intrinsic quality; it also has contextual significance, which depends on where it is exhibited. And this gives rise to a discussion of a chain of ideas. This has nothing to do with the quality of the painting or how well I painted it; it has no relationship to this at all. Expanding its size and conveying a very specific point, but putting another object in front of it, the issue of replica –that of kitsch… I think that it’s a symbol of all that I had to deal with concerning the art of painting when I was a child. It’s a means. The discussion we are having right now today has become like a means, too. I mean, in this way, a part of that period is being recorded and, in a sense, is enabling people to think and be informed about it.

Pelin Uran: I think it is important that you emphasise what is autobiographic about these works because only looking in terms of high/low art or original/replica is somewhat unproductive. Your project “Cancel”, which is a readymade, is next. You mentioned that you had obtained the archives of a publisher. Did you remember the postcards of the project “Cancel” or did you come across them for the first time when you bought the archive?

Vahap Avşar: I knew all of the postcards; I remember each and every one of them. The soldiers… they were everywhere, but I never painted them. For some reason, I made replicas mostly of oil paintings. There probably would not have been much demand for an oil painting of a soldier anyway at that time. But later, they were lost; there aren’t any at all right now. I know that, but I also know that one day they disappeared; and I also have a feeling that they disappeared in the middle of the 1980s. And I found them, but they didn’t all fall in my lap just like that. They were not packaged, categorised and set aside in the archive. The archive moved many times. They were thrown here and there; it was a big mess. As they were categorised, hundreds of images accumulated but there were not hundreds of “Cancel”... There were only about 20 of the photographs of that soldier.

Pelin Uran: It’s the same soldier in different positions, isn’t it?

Vahap Avşar: For the most part, it’s the same man. Let’s say that 12 are the same man; 8 of them are of 3 or 4 different men, but his has been done/staged extremely uniformly and professionally... It’s obvious that this man is a model. The others are pretty haphazardly shot, photographs taken of a real soldier. They have been ‘cancelled’ as well, but they aren’t very interesting... When I show them, everyone says, “Ahhh, these used to be very popular.” Besides, there is an identification tag in the envelope, for example, “10 thousand printed in 1970,” “20 thousand printed in May 1980.” In other words, 40-50 thousand of these were printed. But I was unable to solve the matter of ‘Cancel’ written on them. I went back and found the printers and they said, “When the military was raiding publishers and printing shops and confiscating banned publications, they raided our printing shop and said that they had taken these because they were banned publications. They loaded them on trucks and destroyed them.”

Pelin Uran: Was it only that printing shop that printed these postcards?

Vahap Avşar: There were 2 or 3 printing shops. There were two large printing shops, 2 or 3 in Ankara and Izmir, but the largest printing shop in Turkey was this one. And these are the best, the most iconic of anything you can imagine; all kinds of iconic, social realistic, and panoramic pictures of Turkey reflecting the project of Westernisation.

Pelin Uran: Is the printing shop closed now?

Vahap Avşar: It closed in 1998 and its archive is almost entirely destroyed. The works from “Cancel” were from 1983. It was beyond my wildest dreams but I noticed that they had fallen on top of the repository. I spent two months categorising them. I had no time or resources to scan them, so I tried to record everything in my mind as I saw them; for example, I see a postcard, I separate it, three days later I find another postcard, I match them up and it takes two hours to find where I put it. There are roughly 15 categories: social realistic, village society, villagers, village life, etc. There was one category that constantly got bigger: the “other, nothing” pile. Actually, some really good works came from there: the works in “Cancel”, for example. In any case, because I had planned on finding “The Crying Boy”, I was going to do something from “The Crying Boy”, fine, but the next project was “Cancel”; there were so many different readings within “Cancel”, I felt I had to do it.

Pelin Uran: I couldn’t consider not using the pictures in “Cancel” anyway. Now I want to ask a few things about the break you took from art. For a while I took great interest in writers suffering from the Bartleby Syndrome –writers who experienced a profound rejection of the world. The writers who become unable to produce again as a consequence of negative motivation or a loss of interest in everything. Of course, my aim is not to liken your situation to Bartleby, and it’s good that you have returned; but I want to ask you how you made the decision to come back after ten years. And, as long as I am asking, why ten years? Did you ever think during this time that you would never produce again? How did the desire to return to creating art return? Or perhaps it was never lost… Can you mention the differences or similarities in your outlook at that time and now?

Vahap Avşar: For me, not doing art was a vital decision because ever since I began painting, I had thought that I would do influential, powerful and meaningful work, that I would do art. Abandoning it was tragic for me. It stemmed somewhat from personal events. Everything I did in Turkey was hampered; there was nothing called contemporary art. I attached whatever I had of myself to a few people who understood contemporary art and worked with them. But later, when I realised that it wasn’t going anywhere… It was a decision I made in angry response to that. This was one dimension. Another was the reality that I had a life in New York. In New York, without a strong ‘network’, it is really very difficult to be an artist. From 1995, I worked for one and a half years as a manager in a bar. All known artists worked like that, but I did not want to do this kind of work for the rest of my life. I’m also a bit impatient… I set up a production company there but we couldn’t make any money out of it. After that I realised that I wasn’t going to do the two together; I had to commit myself to one thing and do it properly. Believing that I had the ability to decide whether I would make a life for myself, which would or would not include doing art, I announced that I wasn’t going to do art –that I wasn’t going to be exhibiting anymore. And then I devoted myself to design and fashion design. I mean, it was a decision resulting from that anger and hopelessness. But, of course, I couldn’t think of never returning. I still ached inside; there had always been such a pain but I decided to act pragmatically and not touch art until I could do it properly –when the conditions were right. My aim was establishing an orderly life, setting up a business, having a source of income, a house and a studio; and then I would do art. And that took 10 years. I thought I would accomplish this in 3-4 years and in five years start from where I left off… but it took a full ten years.

Pelin Uran: One day we’ll talk more about whether the ten years you took off was long, but I think the time you spent to unwind came with a price, which was only appreciated later. The last question I would like to ask concerns a problematique put forth by one of institutional critique’s most important artists, Andrea Fraser. First, because of the commoditisation of a previously radical and uninsitutionalised work of art, the figure of the artist continues to be in conflict with institutions. It’s a catch-22 for an artist with regards to institutions.

Vahap Avşar: Yes, that’s right.

Pelin Uran: But, on the one hand, too, Andrea Fraser says that everyone who produces art is within what is called the institution and we can’t escape from it. So perhaps, too, the real problem isn’t being or not being opposed to the institution. We are the institution. What is crucial is the kind of institution we are, the values we institutionalise and the practices we reward. This psychoanalytic reading is very important to me. And, needless to say, whenever we talk about the institution and our position in the problematique created by the institution, we are denying our role in its creation and continuation. Taking this perspective, what did you value when you returned after ten years?

Vahap Avşar: Interesting… There is the problem of the institution within man himself, in man’s nature and the way he behaves. I can say that’s accurate, in any case, accurate to a large extent. Now, to engage in a bit of self criticism: What is my concern? My concern is getting my thoughts and ideas across in order to satisfy myself intellectually; in the end, this is what the artist does. Why does he do this? He does it for society, to acquire a place in society, to have a say, to make money, for fame… It’s difficult to distinguish them; it is also difficult to talk about them. Of course, there is something in the nature of the artist and art; his highlighting his own ideas, talents and skills... Otherwise, you could be an artist completely living outside society, unrecognised by anyone. The most honest answer is this: ever since childhood, I have looked at the world differently. I believe that I see through a different lens; that I can see images, shapes, events in a way others cannot, in reverse, inside, outside, on top… I have a problem with image. I have a problem with the way of seeing an image and of representing an image. I have difficulties with how they are exhibited by society or various institutions and problems with how they are read. I have always thought that there was an alternative to this and that I had an alternative view. And what I want to do has always been that: to unveil the unseen, the mystical, that which appears to be the case but in fact has an esoteric meaning. This can be redoing oil paintings I did in my childhood, making a video of something… It’s not at all important. What I have always found interesting is not recreating an image or doing an original, but rather rereading images that already exist and are meaningful to culture and society, ones that have been attributed with certain references, to mix them up and reveal their esoteric meanings or perspectives. I am notably in such a position; I have no concern with making money from art or with fame or reputation.

Pelin Uran: Yes, you have such a luxury.

Vahap Avşar: My current situation is much better than before; I can obtain whatever supplies, whatever location I want. So my concern isn’t that; it’s not making money or anything like that. And that means a lot to me… I feel that I can now compete with other international artists on an equal footing. This wasn’t the case before, but in the end, what I want is to do meaningful and proper work, to uncover those unknown, hidden things.