Music to the eyes

‘Plurivocality’ at Istanbul Modern

By Victoria Khroundina | August 5, 2014

As it celebrates its 10th anniversary, Istanbul Modern is exploring the history of visual art in Turkey and in the surrounding region. From January to June, Neighbours examined contemporary art in Turkey and neighbouring countries with close historical, political and/or cultural ties. The latest exhibition focuses on the relationship between visual art and music.  

Plurivocality is curated by Çelenk Bafra and Levent Çalıkoğlu, the museum’s chief curator, and brings together paintings, sculptures, videos and installations by 18 important contemporary artists in Turkey. As you can imagine, the exhibition is a noisy affair, with sounds and music emanating from every corner. But the organisers have managed to isolate parts of the large exhibition area and provide separate rooms where the more raucous videos and installations can be properly appreciated. 

A prelude to the show is ‘Repertoire’, really a mini exhibition in itself. It explores the role of music and the visual arts from the late Ottoman era through the early years of the Republic years up to the 1980s, with a timeline of prominent artists and composers, the last caliph Abdülmecid’s famous painting ‘Elegy’, a piano belonging to the most renowned female Turkish composer Leyla (Saz) Hanım (above) and a video of Semiha Berksoy, one of Turkey’s first opera singers, reciting Nazım Hikmet’s 1957 poem Son Otobüs (The Last Bus).

Sarkis, ‘The Scream of the Sainte Sophie’, 2011, oil on tambour, 47 x 8 cm, courtesy of the artist and Gallery Nathalie Obadia

Above the doorway into the main exhibition space, a work by Sarkis is the first part of the conceptual artist's three-part installation paying tribute to Edvard Munch’s venerable painting ‘The Scream’. The work holds a special significance for Sarkis – he took up painting after seeing a reproduction of the ‘The Scream’ in Istanbul in the 1950s. In the series of paintings inside, Sarkis uses colours from Munch’s work to create replicas of the screaming face on paper. But in the ‘The Scream of Sainte Sophie’, he virtually ‘performed the scream’ – as he applied the oil paint to a tambourine – the strokes made small sounds not dissimilar to tiny screams.

Hussein Chalayan, ‘I am Sad Leyla’, 2010, sculpture, 173 x 45 x 45 cm, two-channel video installation, colour with sound, 7’ 17”, courtesy of the artist and Galerist

The artist and fashion designer extraordinaire Hussein Chalayan (profiled in Cornucopia 20) lends two works to the exhibition. The above centres on music as a cultural form. The multi-layered installation features a sculpture of the Turkish pop singer Sertab Erener, whose lips digitally appear to be moving. Unusually for her, she performs a classical Turkish song, ‘Üzgünüm Leyla’ (‘I am Sad Leyla’), which we can hear through the speakers. In the background, we see a video of an orchestra playing traditional instruments. Erener wears a fashionable costume designed by Chalayan. With all these elements combined, the artist aims to reflect on the influences of diverse cultures and identities on both the creation process and the performance of a musical composition. I think it is a marvellous and ambitious work.

Füsun Onur, ‘Prelude’, 2000, installation, courtesy of the artist, photo: from the archives of Yapı Kredi Cultural Activities Arts and Publishing

The veteran artist Füsun Onur (who currently has an excellent retrospective exhibition at ARTER; read more here) offers a work that is both simple and abstract. The notion of rhythm is a major theme running through Onur’s oeuvre and this example comes from a series in which Onur uses domestic items to comment on notes and composition. ‘The raw materials of music are notes,' she says. 'Alone, these don’t mean anything. But, when arranged with rhythm, they become disciplined and gain significance, turning into so-called tonal extensions. My raw materials are no different than that of visual arts: square, rectangle, dot, line, big forms, small forms – a rhythmic extension of forms. Taking everyday materials, I wanted to discipline them and give them a meaning they did not possess before.’

:mentalKLINIK, ‘French Kiss’, 2014, double French horn, lacquered brass body, rose brass, lead pipe, four mechanical-link tapered rotary valves, engraved valve caps, geyer wrap, 81 x 54 x 31 cm, courtesy of the artists

The Istanbul artist duo :mentalKLINIK, known for their reactionary art, installed double French horns immitating the shape of a snail’s shell. The title is a wordplay both on the ‘Frenchness’ of horns and on the French kiss – the lip-to-lip horns in this work share an intimate closeness. Historically used as a communication device due to its ability to produce powerful sounds, in this instance, the artists place the instruments so close together that they can’t produce any sound. The intimate nature of human encounters and the processes of communication and interaction are thus highlighted.

Ferhat Özgür, ‘I Can Sing’, 2008, video, colour with sound, 7’, courtesy of the artist

In his emotive video, Ferhat Özgür employs an iconic song to comment on a country caught between modernisation and tradition, between Islamic identity and Western culture. The video, shot in Ankara, depicts an Anatolian woman standing among the debris of a modern housing development. In traditional attire, the woman moves her lips as if singing, but instead a man’s voice is heard singing ‘Hallelujah’ by the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Apart from its references to Christianity, ‘Hallelujah’ is an everyday exclamation used in Western society to express joy and gratitude. By placing the female figure in contrast with the male voice and the traditional attire in contrast with western popular music, set against a backdrop of urban transformation, Özgür’s video presents conflicting feelings of grief and joy and of approval and resistance in the face of change.

Semiha Berksoy, ‘Fidelio (Ludwig Van Beethoven)’, 1975, oil on hardboard, 244 x 122 cm, Semiha Berksoy Opera Foundation Collection

A whole room is reserved for the late opera singer Semiha Berksoy. A biographical wall outlining the artist’s music and art career is presented alongside five of Berksoy’s oil paintings. Produced between 1975 and 1987, these paintings draw their titles and inspiration from masterpieces of opera performed by Berksoy herself. The above shows the painting inspired by Beethoven’s only opera ‘Fidelio’. Arias sung by the artist blare from the speakers, allowing audiences to fully appreciate Berksoy’s talents. The room attempts to show, as summarised by the curator of this section, Rosa Martinez, Berksoy's ‘life as a work of art’.

The exhibition runs until November 27, 2014.

Main image shows a part of Merve Şendil's 'The Underscore Project'.

Posted in Contemporary Art, Exhibitions, Music and Performing Arts
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