The guest of the October issue of Narratives Interview Series is artist Hakan Gürsoytrak with whom we talked about the starting point, process, and meaning of his works. His comprehensive answers are as poetic and fluent as the language of his paintings, which touch the agenda and present a layered narrative. We hope you enjoy reading.
“As the city ages, the new cannot go beyond being the ruins of dreams. Even though there is no longing for the past, there is no hope for help from the new either.”
You have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Department of Painting. Besides, we know that you graduated from the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, the Department of Public Administration. Two different areas. How did you decide to switch from Public Administration to the field of art? Could you talk about the advantages and disadvantages of this situation if there is any?
Since we are starting with Şişli Siyasal (Marmara University Faculty of Political Science), I invite you to Ulus; partly because you are from Ankara. Take Bentderesi behind you, from there a blue minibus leaves in every direction. It is a vertical line drawn for the capital city, towards Keçiören, Ulus, Sıhhiye, Kızılay, Bakanlıklar and Çankaya, in the middle of which is the Zafer Bazaar with second-hand booksellers and the exhibition hall that smells of Gazi. Zafer Bazaar is the place where I visited an exhibition for the first time. The line including Kolej, İncesu, Cebeci, Mamak, Hamamönü and Ulus is the other line in which Mülkiye (Ankara University Faculty of Political Science) is located right in the middle.
I took drawing lessons, especially with crayons, from Lütfü Günay, but what I had in mind was Istanbul. I started the Faculty of Political Sciences (SBF) with pre-registration, Şişli Siyasal was behind the Coca-Cola factory in Bahçelievler. The name was Political Science but changed after YÖK (Council of Higher Education) was founded. Public Administration is the institutionalized form of modernism; law, economics, and accounting. In this superstructure institution, modern state theories are examined. Public sphere was already an issue back then and September 12 had just happened. Schools were supposed to be the places where ideas about what is and what should be are discussed. However, for example, “History of Civilization” by Server Tanilli would also be useful to an art student. I also loved to follow sociology classes. I attended the classes by our sociology teacher Prof. Dr. Mübeccel Kıray who was doing field studies. I am lucky. Marginal sector, collapse zone, suburb were the concepts that I heard from her. She used to explain feudal and capitalist relations of production through cities, towns and metropolises. She made me see the effects of modernism on space.
I was doing my homework on foreign trade policies of underdeveloped countries. But as I drew on all of the unlined white papers which I took to make a fair copy of my notes from my readings, I decided to go to the Academy. First of all, it is learned to be a good viewer.
As a result of the uniform status quo of the academic and commercial résumés, I wrote another one including that I read Homer on the municipal buses of the Bostancı-Bakırköy line, referring to the years when I was walking around the city with books in my pocket. Between the centers and centrifugals of modernism, there are also off-center nooks where imaginary ideas cling. Vanishing points emerging from the shadow of the vertical. To be the grass that sprouts from the curb. Lunatics, vagrants, guardians, drunkards, gamblers, shamanic saints. Widows and insanes. Hisar was the open-air hospital of the coup days. The captain I knew was also from Hisar. You might know him from “Tabutta Rövaşata”, perhaps from the stories of Sait Faik. The fisherman who randomly earns his daily bread from the sea neither has his eyes on the table of the sultan nor does the sentence of the master, the landlord. Along with the radar, not only fish but also randomness of the Bosphorus was caught. Istanbul in the eighties; there was a possibility that after all, troops would eventually withdraw to the barracks, and by chance there would be hope. At the time, I didn’t understand why there was a real estate agent in Dudullu, in the middle of an empty field. The second bridge had not been built yet, it was being built. The lands were there. Adile Naşit, Münir Özkul, Kemal Sunal movies have left us with such naive feelings. However, Kafka, Camus… They weren’t enough and the compromise was reached by Oğuz Atay. A feeling of being stuck between the wall and the mirror.
“Memories have become, and still are, our materials that are stored in drawers like memory boxes and used when needed, taken out of their hiding places.”
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “There’s Nothing Left for You to Think About”, From the series “Let’s Get on with It”, Diptych, 2007.
When a loader comes to your street and blows up your asphalt; it is possible to deduce the archeology of the political history of your neighborhood even to Byzantium by looking at the layers of the asphalt, concrete, and cut stone poured on your path as a promise on each election period. I would stop and watch the people watching the excavation. There were so many idlers with spare time. Laziness, leisure. Freeloaders waiting shop owners, the crowd of men in front of doors. Boredom and idleness. Charles Baudelaire is still popular, not because he wrote it that way, but because he wrote something that was already like that.
Memories have become, and still are, our materials that are stored in drawers like memory boxes and used when needed, taken out of their hiding places. They also carry their own deformations with the intervention of the mind. I guess images are like that.
Both schools are on Modernism. I looked at the effects and responses of these theories and philosophies on individuals and society. Education at the Academy, including conceptual art, claimed to be modernist, albeit abstract or figurative. Architecture and engineering should be added to these, as well as graphics and textiles. Modern utopia is the beautification of life, the union of art and life. Life is art, art is life. I turned to the contradictions that appear when looking at the equivalents, implementations and results of these theories in life. Contrasts are one of the basic principles of art. Those who exist and those who do not. Tragedy, drama and irony. Imagination and reality. The graffiti “The dream is Paris but the reality is Eminönü” should be quoted here.
What was the benefit of studying there? I saw what I couldn’t be, what I couldn’t do. I decided to become a painter.
When we see your paintings, we dive first into the charm of the paint and the way it is applied perfectly. There is something that suddenly awakens us from this state of immersion: The realities of Turkey. These are the indicators of cultural, social and political factors surrounding daily life. Like the discourses in the details of your work “The Square”, the bureaucratic state in your work “Kamu Görevi”, or the images, which also makes us suspicious, in your work “Kıllanan Adam” from “Alaka” series, displayed in the exhibition “Clandestine” by the curator Francesco Bonami at the 50th Venice Biennale. Could you mention your formal language and critical representation, which strengthen the irony in your works and drag people in?
I wanted to make paintings where endless stories are told in illusionary spaces that the audience knows and can walk around with images that are familiar to them. I did not want the glory and monumentality of the paintings to have an overwhelming effect on the audience. I used familiar images for paintings that the audience can participate in and relate to.
My design has a block-based construction. At least that’s how I trained. Construction is the rational relation between form and composition. It is the construction of mass form, space, and depth. Both abstract and figurative examples can be seen in modern art. Idealized figurative examples are often monumental, while abstract examples are utopian or mystical; they are close to power and government, that is, they are political. Because perfection includes magnificence and sublimation, we use it in the terminology describing these two derived from the ideals of classicism and neoclassicism. The sublimation and monumentality, the mass and dimensions of the form, and additional drama and atmosphere push the audience to a distance where the complete wholeness is perceived, keep them at that distance, fix them on a point of view, and make them watch with their head up. This is true whether it is a monument or a plaza. Glory, majesty, prestige. Perfection is the status of the superior mind that analyzes and establishes. As long as one knows the letters, sounds, words and sentences of the forms of expression, the ideas hidden in the structure and subtext of this spelling are also perceived. It was necessary to detach the perspective and proportions from the distance that directs and fixes the audience, to ensure that the distance between the audience and the canvas is closed, and to break the overwhelming, hegemonic structure of the “work” on the audience.
First it was necessary to give up the central figure. You have to arrange the environment of the single figure according to it. But, I started to draw every form, figure and image inside the space with their surroundings, analyzing from back to the front. In order to serve a single idea, it was necessary to abandon other ideas, that is, to lose the hierarchy between images, to value a brush stroke as much as a figure. Instead of poses and postures, I considered moments and movements, and analyzed them in groups. The number of figures increased and there occurred abundant figures turning into crowds.
Crowd! Moreover, the state of walking in the space where you get lost when you enter and become a part of it, the time flowing with the crowd. The kisses left by passers-by, the state of being the viewer, not the one being viewed. It is the characteristic of the crowd: The eye does not know where to look. Georges Perec said, “The gaze that keeps in mind the games of light and shape that appear and disappear everywhere.” This was naturally followed by being multi-directional. Like the hills of Istanbul, for example, the fact that the horizon line is constantly changing enabled the loss of a fixed point of view, the use of reverse perspective when necessary, and the enhancement of linear perspective in many directions. Then, while going into the crowd towards an alley that opens into nooks, lost children’s toys are discovered as trophies on the way. If creativity means creating something that does not exist, on the contrary, it has become a habit, a passion to look at what is in the alleys from the top of the sky to the bottom of the ground, that is, to search with the intention of discovering. It is changing, of course, like everything else, the environment is constantly changing. As the city ages, the new cannot go beyond being the ruins of dreams. Even though there is no longing for the past, there is no hope for help from the new either. So, what remains is only “now” which is always lost in the past. Result is a constant state of walking that leads nowhere and getting lost in the whirlpools of the mind as if getting lost in the side streets. This must be the reason why I have never made pastoral cityscape paintings. Now, the irony is that, as I write this, I am describing yesterday.
“When you think of the figure, the human form often comes to mind. However, even if there are no human figures in it, for example, paintings of interiors or a painting of a tree in the countryside are also figurative.”
I painted so many trucks, as well as transmission towers and street lamps that shine on their own bases. When you think of the figure, the human form often comes to mind. However, even if there are no human figures in it, for example, paintings of interiors or a painting of a tree in the countryside are also figurative. The depictions of certain items give the audience the character of that place, describing whether it is a street or a hall. I made “Samsun’s Ashtray” by imitating the states and postures of the people in “The Raft of Medusa”. Here, I took as reference the still life I created using the cigarette butts that I smoked and put out one by one in the ashtray. This painting became a humorous copy of the impressive romantic fiction of Gericault’s painting adapted to the present – in which human emotions and cigarette butts are replaced.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “Ashtray”, Oil on Canvas, 150×200 cm, From the series “Hafriyat I-II”, 1996.
I’m talking about the two-dimensional geometry of the modern building blocks which I carry by compressing them into the frame of the canvas in such a way to form borders – nowadays these are pronounced as “artworks”. In other words, I’m mentioning the paths opened on the grass with the steps of the ones waiting in the early morning to go to work on the E5 or between, inside, above and below highways, bridges, viaducts. About the uniqueness of the chickpea and rice cart. I dreamed of setting a precedent for the plastered second story built over the store at the first story, for the satellite dish next to the carpet hanging on the balcony of the brick-walled story, for the concrete pediment of the story above it, for the crooked architectural geometry of the buildings that carry the shoots of the additional story that will rise next year.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “On the Highway”, Oil on canvas, 80×200 cm, 1995.
Iconography was already in my area of interest: Inscriptions, signboards, posters and graffiti, street placards, no parking signs on tin plates, emblems, pennants, pictograms, marks… Dada is on the street! Trucks and street lamps. Newspaper pages and news photos suited this approach quite well. Anticipating that the “signature” next to them would be included in the iconography as well as them, I did not place my signature on top of a printed news photo commentary.
I calculated using small figures and choosing the size of the canvases according to the size of the figures inside. They turned into works that seem small even though they are large in size, inviting without putting pressure on the audience. I’m guessing that the charm you’re talking about stems from this invitation. I did not use perfection and charm to describe my own paintings.
“At exhibitions, I sit in a corner and watch those looking at the paintings. I observe how they move back and forth towards the surface of the painting from the vantage point where the whole picture is perceived, and sometimes up to the tip of their noses.”
I tried to do some work that I wanted to achieve photographic objectivity, but it didn’t work, I failed. I couldn’t even paint flat. Rather than the perfection of what I did, the inexperience of what I failed to do attracted and guided me more. Making, breaking, and repeating. To make room for error. Instant existence, irrational, absurd, and nonsense results. On the other hand, some parts of the canvases are not completed; there is always something left unfinished and uncertain. Sometimes the space becomes abstract, sometimes the figure becomes blurred, simplified and fragmented. Speed and movement, both in space and form, create the idea of time about the moment. The viewer knows as much as he or she remembers. The painting is completed as much as it overlaps with the images of time and space in the viewer’s memory, that is, it is completed in the mind of the viewer.
At exhibitions, I sit in a corner and watch those looking at the paintings. I observe how they move back and forth towards the surface of the painting from the vantage point where the whole picture is perceived, and sometimes up to the tip of their noses. I am talking about the illusory space in the painting, namely the real space in which the canvas is located. As a matter of fact, “Refrigerator”, “Vitrin”, “Phis-kos Series”, “Warnament” and “Hatırsaz Tayyare” became the installations as extensions of this idea. The audience could pick up the canvases in “Refrigerator”, and “Phis-kos” caught the eyes of the audience. “Tayyare”, however, was watched in the sky of Istanbul, my friends or anyone passing by got into the painting and took their own pictures. I could include all of my friends in my frame. On the other hand, a table was set with pleasure on “Warnament” over which we sit side by side.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “Refrigerator”, Installation, From the exhibition “Local Paradise”, Diyarbakır, 2006.
Detail from “Refrigerator”.
It can be described as a district, a living space has come out of the dictionary. Just as in your question, in the collective exhibitions of “Hafriyat”, we created some common social spaces like how a social issue was started from a canvas, by leaving the exhibition walls established with similar ideas that we shared side by side. In “Hafriyat Karaköy”, this area was shared with others like a ground, a platform. Then, I participated in and organized social exhibitions such as “Where Fire Has Struck”, “Yüzde Yüz Barış”, “Zaman Aşımı”. We still continue to organize collective exhibitions with friends. Sometimes we make “Mistakes”.
Even though I apply different variations that evolve over time, I draw both space and forms, by hewing with gradual patches from the first coat of paint that I roughly applied. There are either calculated beginnings or random attempts. In these cases, music is indispensable; abstract and dominating the space, flowing and intangible time and rhythm. A kind of ecstasy, trance. Attraction comes from the root of attract. It also depends a bit on the mood, which music can easily guide. Beats based on brush strokes turn into expressive traces. I also mean the brush strokes required by the subject, such as character changing, impersonation, and substitution. Atmosphere. Windows through which the abstract painting breathes, surfaces pushing each other back and forth. Sometimes a wall, a clogged surface, and sometimes a mass scattered from the lining, or a transparency as light as a tulle, or an unabashed abandonment. Searching for light in color by hitting over and over. Painting the light from dark to dark, light to light, and color to color. Shadow and light games. I must also say that, among the spaces and forms, I especially love to use the reverse light that I get from the lining of the canvas.
Sometimes very intense and permanent, sometimes temporary and momentary. Traces through contact. The place that the error finds. Swollen paint, a light leaking through the poured plaster, brush strokes made with short movements of back of the hand, and side of the palm. It is sometimes a waving to someone far away, and sometimes a push it back to the distance it should be. Brush strokes that have been patched and incorporate everything around them. Walking back and forth from the inside to the outside of the studio with short steps. Maybe dancing. What I am referring to is not an abstraction derived from the tangible state of forms, nor is it coloring the inside of the line; I would say that it is painting one after the other, expressiveness or expression that moves from the abstract to the tangible. A kind of restlessness, pleasure or mental state, which I describe as the brush strokes required by the subject, gets clarified with the phases and images that come from the lower layers of the painting which become increasingly concrete. Redoing the gestures I made on the previous floors, partially by covering to make them resemble the image in the photograph I took. It is the sacrifice of the layers of paint covered by the line of the photographic mind at the last layer and of the individual gestures corresponding to the subjective expressions to the necessity of expression. While looking at the photograph means restraining this quality, I leave some brush strokes, paint and layers as breathing surfaces that I describe as windows. I bury what is my own between the layers of the paint. I see the surfaces that I hide behind windows as my emphasis on being multi-layered and therefore on different aspects of personality. I make the details on the last floors with the rhythm and emotion of the changing music, as if someone else is doing it. When appropriate, I activate different narrative languages especially among figure groups, and use mass form and superficial two-dimensional forms, expressive and abstract deformations, transparent linearity, illustrative approaches from cartoons or comics, side by side with artistic modelling.
These days, however, even when buying a pair of slippers, the customer is put in a music mode.
“Every day, I would collect newspapers, keep them waiting in a corner, then take the scissors and scan the pages. My eyes would shine; I would spend my hours, my days. I even found some used as wrapping paper.”
The train is passing, I look out of the window. My book, my notebook, my camera, my wagon, restaurant, beers on my table. Going between Istanbul, Ankara, Eskişehir. Paris Spleen departs from Ankara Station and Meram Express from Nazım’s Haydarpaşa Station. It connects the center to the countryside and the countryside to the center. I take frames from the window, photos are flowing incessantly. I shoot as long as the reel is sufficient, until the High Speed Rail was invented, before the disaster… Four albums of analog photographs were displayed under the name of “Building” in the exhibition “İmalat Hatası”.
Every day, I would collect newspapers, keep them waiting in a corner, then take the scissors and scan the pages. My eyes would shine; I would spend my hours, my days. I even found some used as wrapping paper. Although not as much as before, I still collect photos that I cut from newspaper pages by pasting them on the straw papers. With this disconnected state of them from the page, they get rid of their subtitles and become open to different readings. I keep them in files by classifying them according to their subjects. For me, they are sort of found objects. As time passed, they multiplied and thus turned into an archive.
You asked about “The Square”. I can say that it was my longest work. I intended ten years ago and prepared three canvases to come side by side. After the Tekel resistance, I took out the archive that I collected in shoe boxes. I started to draw, to place them on top of each other, side by side, or rather, to stack them. I started in a hurry, after four years, it ended on the road, like needlework. I wanted their details to be complete and become readable. There were also other demonstrations that I downloaded from the internet, which I was especially looking for. I also included demonstrations from other countries. They formed a history of the working class and its acts for a period. There is a vein where these images never end and flow constantly. The enthusiasm and joy I witnessed in the two May Day celebrations allowed in Taksim were in my mind. Some of the demonstrations in the archive are touching commemorations: Aggressive. Some of them are like village theater plays turned into cities and actions: Quite peaceful. I started it before Gezi, but was able to finish afterward. It’s not like the reciprocal arrivals and departures or the scattered rows of people waiting in the queue that I tried to explain when talking about the crowds above. It became a painting of a “mass” arranged with pieces collected from different movements and demonstrations.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “The Square”, Oil on canvas, 220×495 cm, 2014.
On one hand, I had in mind Pieter Bruegel’s depiction of many actions in one scene in his “Netherlandish Proverbs” or “Children’s Games” paintings. On the other hand, the diversity and succession of the occupational groups in the protests reminded the Şenlikname Order or Surname. Only this time, the people do not pass in front of the sultan, but pass through the square where they claim their rights. If I did not remember Cihat Burak among these names, it would be impossible.
If we remember the example of “Jan van Eyck was here”, we can see that the painter takes a kind of responsibility of being a witness in a situation as artists, painters or storytellers somehow carry the spirit of the age they live in. Art has a problem with reality. I would like to think that it is not a coincidence that the movies “Innocence” (by Zeki Demirkubuz), “On Board” (by Serdar Akar) and “Hafriyat” are peers.
I wrote down my thoughts on painting based on photos, especially news photos, with the title of “Photosynthesis”. Despite its examples in modern art, imitation of photography contradicted the values of high art in the nineties. It was against the myth of creativity and the ontology’s premise that “the work of art should be unique”. In the course of time, art has come closed to sociology and archives have created social memory as documents of transformation and this memory has gained value. In the meantime, I don’t think there is a need to remind that neoliberalism’s furious aggression based on rent-profit and its ongoing demolition and reconstruction movements are still on our agenda.
Today, because of social media, recording and reproducing images are parts of everyday life. We do not only get informed but almost witness. It’s an ongoing synchronization of watching the bombing of Baghdad or the planes crashing into the Twin Towers on the TV in our kitchens. The time is as short as the signal from the satellite reaching your device. Memory means keeping things that evaporate in this rush.
Photography is something that is nostalgic as soon as it is taken, a glass curtain that puts a distance between the photographer and the model. When it comes to the news, this distance becomes even more objective. Although the frame can be misleading, the photograph becomes certificatory. It must be the formality of the passport photo that makes it credible since its authenticity is trusted. In a way, the photographer’s testimony is carried over to the viewers’. When they are painted with another repetition, this experience is also reminded to the viewer. When they were painted on small canvases, they became more similar to the news photos. Therefore, they evoke other images that were in the news. Let’s leave the whispers that never come out at the edge of the line for a moment without forgetting the fact of events that have never been in the news.
“Mostly, I was after the situation, not the news. I can say that I avoid traumatic situations. Although I have added satirical details from time to time, black humor, and irony, if it exists, are the things that are inherent in the photograph I am looking at.”
I am aware of making paintings by looking at the news photos against the idealized paintings of models posed in studios, of the performers in Pier Paolo Pasolini movies who are not actors, of claiming the closeness that Werner Herzog establishes with his self-explanatory human documentaries are the situations require precautions like taking a step in Andrey Tarkovsky’s district.
I depicted the third page news in the “Hır” exhibition. I built another exhibition on the given poses. Many of them were scenes colected from boasting pages. I also depicted very ordinary frames, similar to the empty moments in the cinema, where the camera just wanders around. I also liked the abstract ambiguity of the combination of straw paper and tram in bad press and they were always about light.
Mostly, I was after the situation, not the news. I can say that I avoid traumatic situations. Although I have added satirical details from time to time, black humor, and irony, if it exists, are the things that are inherent in the photograph I am looking at. To say that you did it. To say “I am just repeating”. I mentioned that the way of handling is due to the image. Coloring according to the subject is my loneliness by which I am constrained. Pity is humane, but because of that it carries a hidden sign of satisfaction and superiority. I avoid. “Including the eye to the pain.” It turns out that I heard the words in Ali Ekber Çiçek’s ballad, which I used to describe the state of those who are in trouble, just as I wanted to hear them. Every representation is a veil of truth, like a curtain that hides the truth. If a painting is a thing that points out something, the fingertip is not what is pointed out. In fact, there is no need for the night or a pillow, nor to hold your head in your hands to think of it. It is the conscience which compels you, which is carried like a stone on the shoulders, from the foot of the hill to the top of the mountain, and which is carried like a rolling stone again and again.
When it comes to public space, for some reason, I think of a painting of a green space surrounded by tiny fences in parks, with a white metal plate on which there is the forbidden sign. The painting “Kamu Görevi” became almost the opposite of this image. I can say that it is a modern public space formality with an empty center, where all the figures only form a border at the edge of the frame. They call it ruler work. In miniature art, ornamentations are made on the edges of the drawing. Like the simplicity of the bazaar painters, where the gilding of palace art is lacking. I think this painting describes the ideal public space for power. A hierarchical welcoming ceremony with attendants only. I do not prefer to tell the subjects of the paintings. I mostly rip those photos from their captions. I know that information about the news would interfere with the imagination of the audience. Certainly, much better paintings can be made in the memory of Hrant Dink. This painting is made from a photo appeared in the newspaper after the murder.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “Public Service”, 150×200 cm, From the exhibition “Obvious, Local Anaesthesia“, 2013.
When the single and central figure is abandoned, not the subject but the protagonist of the painting is lost or everyone starts to become a protagonist. While saying that it is necessary to need people more than leaders, I cannot help but remember the peculiarities of human beings and doubt what is humane. I expect, in vain, people to believe that they are part of the universe rather than the center of it.
While I was preparing for the solo exhibition I opened at the Venice Biennale you mentioned, I came across a skeptical character in a photograph I found from the archive. We chatted while painting, he was a plumber. He blew up the sewer to remove the marked coins that had been thrown into the police station’s bin. He was holding the dollar bills he found in the septic tank and looking at us. It was not hard to guess what he was thinking there, what was going through his mind. I decided he was a hero. I added the tea and the astronaut into the frame of “Kıllanan Adam” as well. My first contact with drawing was with comics. Comics have an important place in the collective memory of this society. In this painting, I wanted to express the bond I established with comics.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “Suspicious Man”, Oil on canvas, 61×70 cm, 50. Venice Biennale, From the exhibition “Alaka”, 2003.
We couldn’t come to the irony, probably because I couldn’t laugh as much as before. Laughter, which great men find frivolous and claim that it is not suitable for neither men nor women, is a sign of joy that resists the harshness of truth. The identity that the proud ones hide behind their sullen faces, as described by Charles Baudelaire, is their fear of the truth that will be revealed when their masks fall. It is the absurdity that cannot be hidden in the seriousness of the suit and tie. Tragedy, drama and irony feed off of very similar contradictions. What Soren Kierkegaard saw in the Apology of Socrates was irony, not tragedy.
Humor is about mischievous characters. It is not a pleasure taken from a sitcom, that is, to brag about someone else’s weakness and humiliation by taking credit for it, and to humiliate the other. It is also the skill of knowing and making fun of yourself when appropriate. Humor is the air current that enables oppressive societies to breathe. So many words and concepts have permeated our language with subtle distinctions about humor. There is a deep corpus of humor from Orta Oyunu to literature, from everyday language to wit and anecdote, from folk tales to comics, from tradition to modern. It is necessary to be aware of the fact that there is a social memory that can reenact the cartoon characters of the Constitutional Era in the comedy movies of the seventies. If we think about the togetherness of Hacivat and Karagöz who are different from but still complement each other, and end up being beheaded by the sultan, we can see clearly that this is an indication of the hardening of the polarization in the society, which became evident with the lout-intellectual separation and ultimately with the blockbuster acts of a single aggressive identity. Black humor is criticism. Intolerance to this criticism is nothing but to be or not to be a disgruntled society. Now I am about to laugh but because of anger.
It is also a sign of cultural schizophrenia in the transition from traditional to modern society.
You often include newspaper pages and city signs in your works. Many of the works in your “The False World” and “Let’s Get on with It” exhibitions can be examples of this. Although these works seem to reproduce a ready-made image, they almost keep the record of the agenda and turn into documents in their own language, much more than a photograph. It gently does not let us forget, it reminds us of many things. Could you tell us your contact with the agenda and your relation with the city?
You are asking about the agenda, what can be said? I am watching as I write these lines. It neither takes the place of those who try to save the souls caught in the flames nor does it bring back the tortoise that has turned to stone. These are irreparable pains and sorrows. Should our hearts turn to stone as well? It sinks into our hearts. Although we do not want to forget, the next agenda adds one more item, it becomes a routine to be surprised. Children are crushing the panzers with their bikes. Indifference, renunciation, and worst of all, getting used to them. My paintings were made of news photos to express this distance. I am changing the broken machine. I’m going out for dinner. I’m installing the new propeller I bought. My hands have been smelling of cheap plastic for two days. It is like the burning smell of Chinese toys made of used plastic. It doesn’t make you smile, it is not able to take jokes or consolation. The irony of life is running away. The drill in the background is constant. There is no compensation. We collect, hold inside and try to cooperate. I predict that their traces will continue to appear even after many years.
Life engineering and perception operations.
I kept the original advertisement “Let’s Get on with It” on the wall of my studio for a time. I pass on to collect my ideas. I collect intentions. Looking away from the high art, when we gaze at subculture, one of its items is pop culture besides caricature. Among them, it was valuable to think about advertisements with their graphic visual designs and texts. I completed two oversize works that I organized as full-page newspaper ads through an adventurous studio process: “There’s Nothing Left for You to Think About” and “It’s Not What You Wished for”. I created a text from the advertising slogans that I chose for the exhibition. It is hard even to imagine!
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “It’s Hard Even to Imagine”, 210 x 153 cm, From the exhibition “Let’s Get on with It”, 2007.
Just as artwork can suggest an idea for the future, the market offers life at once, right now. Social media lifestyle, shop windows, passages are things that arouse desire. How many phones or cars fit in a lifetime. Chats overheard from the next table. Brands and projects set the agenda. A “new” taboo, a modern taboo. Modern but not modernist. When we look at the relations of the “new” with its surroundings, it is necessary to give credit to the meaning of the door to which every development and change open having tragic consequences most of the time.
“Nature throws its real agenda in our faces. We need our own agendas to define what is truly valuable to us and to the environment.”
Ever since Sputnik went into space, the world is a sphere and is surrounded by satellites. Think about it, the Silk Road or something is now on your device. A product, for example a bag, manufactured by a girl in China at the scale of one tenth of a sec per working hour is sold on the other side of the world for many times more than the girl’s annual salary. In classical economics, price and wage are determined through the contradiction of labor and capital. In this theory, considered fixed and stable, consumer preferences have become active within the value function. Brand value and marketing strategies are built on the manipulation of consumption. Lifestyles that are mentioned in the passages, exhibited in high-class shop windows and malls, sloganized in advertisements, and ultimately recommended set the agenda. Let’s call it the construction of desire. There are projects busy with life engineering, and triggering preferences with perception operations. The market rules we know are so dominant that talking about it is no longer any different from Don Quixote windmills. The world, however, does not take this lifestyle anymore. The negative effects of this lifestyle on people and the environment are obvious. Nature throws its real agenda in our faces. We need our own agendas to define what is truly valuable to us and to the environment.
From whence to where! Foreign trade policies of underdeveloped countries are the development models recommended for them. After the coup, at first, these policies were changed and the implementation of the January 24 decisions started. We were in the world market now, and became a part of the global economy. We reached the era of abundance, where all kinds of goods and objects are accessible, and we are now global customers of credit cards. On one hand there are shop windows full of prestige-producing brand objects suitable to everyone’s purchasing power, and on the other hand, contract manufacturing is on the corner. Forks flying in the air with a sense of belonging. In return, pop culture has also taken its place. I’m trying to bring the subject to the culture industry. Considering the academy, festivals, fairs and biennials, all the related authors and painters are in this sector. We love art. We need both to view and to produce it. While we glorify art so much, let’s not forget that art has always loved to be close to money and has been around power. Let’s also remember that the works of the great masters were commissioned paintings made in palaces. While the life stories of artists who suffered in financial difficulties are popular, their work and this aura now belong to the ones who own them. At the balconies and lodges, wherever you turn your head, there are power centers, large and small, long and short, elderly, Napoleonic, otantic, mammalian, with penises, open, close, secret and hidden.
When that white, blank canvas hanging on the studio wall is done with, return of the labor and the resulting surplus value includes the painter in the producing class as well. What remains after the deduction of the given percentage should be, at least, as much as the full plate put on the table shared in the evening, as well as ensuring this effort can be continued. I know that the people of the next century will also be making their own art. What is the meaning of life without love? “Sine amore, nihil est vita.”
“I chose to look at the city, ok but, I didn’t want to take my eyes off the artificial nature of this culture.”
It is one of the most credible debates of the ancients: How can art be learned, from art itself or nature? Of course, within the rules of art, there are still things to do. However, when nature observation is required, for example, the human body, still life, countryside, seaside or city, then it is the nature I am in. The city center, suburbs, streets, speed, lights, perspective, construction, buildings, music… There are of course memories, the memory of the city, environmentality and ecology of the image, and a network brought by the city. Nowadays, this is very clear that there is another artificial, pervasive nature included in the news within. We constantly look at screens and images, and read the signs. Culture has never been so visual. It’s not just film and photography. Writing, for example, how visual it is. Signs, graphics, pictograms… We are constantly filling in the visual codes that we memorized in and between this digital iconography. I chose to look at the city, ok, but I didn’t want to take my eyes off the artificial nature of this culture.
In the midst of so much talking, ideas and thoughts, a scooter passes by with a syncopated rhythm and a noise like pat pat. You see its ornaments, tassels, stickers, and saddle. You just have to paint it. I have not always worked through photography. This time, I took photos of this figure that was riding a scooter, which I drew one-on-one while waiting for the pickup truck to carry the painting on the street. “The False World” is the “Hafriyat” exhibition we opened in Munich. With the painting, I also brought the Mobylette brand scooter, which had been a model for the painting, to Germany to display them together. It was a good coincidence that the scooter I bought from Eskişehir has the same brand name. I tried to make another painting spreading from the canvas surface to the real space. I also added the common poppy. It’s a pattern I found on wrapping papers. Did I mention that I prefer exploration over invention?
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “Mobilet”, 198x 151 cm, From the exhibition “The False World”, 2004.
Both “Refrigerator” and “Let’s Get on with It” were derived from the shopping pages of newspapers and magazines. A full refrigerator was a popular dream because it was a dream. Since I also prepared my own stretcher bar frames, I made a lot of canvases from the remains. Some were the size of an egg, exactly the same size as the image on them. They were displayed in other refrigerators that I found anywhere that I carried. Other exhibitions I made on “Value” were “Clean Hands” and “Illustrated Phis-Kos (Whispering) Parade”. I turned my eyes to the proud, not the victim. On nine canvases, I painted two figures looking at the audience while gossiping. I also wrote an article called “Short Circuit” on speculation and speculative value. I can describe “Refrigerator” and this exhibition as capitalist truth or realism. As a result of the interest in traditional arts, folk arts and craftsmanship, Metin And’s “Turkish Shadow Theatre” gave a useful idea: The states of showpieces and puppets in reverse and interior light. I also thought about the relief figures in Yazılıkaya. They are in suits, their ties are decorated with patterns. Their blank, white background made them melt on the wall they were hung on. Images were coming towards us. They overflowed from the refrigerator to the wall of the gallery. I also planned to carry out those nine canvases on the street. Levent, Maslak, Taksim, Beyoğlu, Fındıklı and Süleymaniye after a Friday pray. It did not happen, it was just a dream. We could even go to the islands.
While talking about memory, out of curiosity, I devoted myself to some research about what social memory is. Miniature art, folk art, illustrated stories, embroideries, paintings on the walls of mosques and mansions and more. I made under glass paintings of city ferries. While wandering between these objects, images, folk art and kitsch, I came across photographs again. Among the drawings, embroideries and paintings made to be the background for the shootings of travelling street photographers, I was especially interested in the city landscapes. Inspired by these, I made the “Hatırsaz Tayyare” cruising in the skies of Istanbul, which I mentioned above. By this way, another archive was created, some of which was hand-coloured but mostly black and white photographs, with contacts of the ones who passed away and collected from their unclaimed heritage. In the exhibition I prepared with the title “Master Plan, Scenes from Once Upon a Time”, I turned my gaze to the Istanbul of the 1940s and ’50s. This time, I tried to look at the memory of the city by walking around in the first years of the Republic. You know, these years are the ones of modern boulevards opened up to the fields by passing over the past of Istanbul with dozers. I later added to the series by painting the women walking side by side in “Şehzadebaşı” and city hall, “Barbaros Boulvard”, “Vatan and Millet Streets and Amusement Park”, “1. Levent-Ulus, Saadet Blocks”, “Gezi and Yoğurtçu Park”.
As I see the widespread understanding of sculpture in various cities these days, I remember the maps of our regions in the Middle School Geography textbooks and the touristic brochures. How memory becomes kitsch. Whatever you look at, you start to look like it. Just as the past is assumed, the idea of the future can only be established according it. The denial of the veiled things means the burden left on the shoulders of the next generation.
Your works are usually based on photography. However, the works in the 2015 “Dark/Night Watch” exhibition have an approach addressing directly our way of seeing. Can we say that your relationship with photography has changed with these works? Could you explain your relationship with photography and the way you use it before and during this exhibition? What has changed or remained the same?
Light! Light is what photography captures. In my drawings, there has always been a reverse light. The tension and contrast between the charcoal and the straw paper created the effect of reverse light coming from inside the drawings. For years, I struggled with conveying this effect to paint. This may be one of the reasons why I like news photos. On the one hand, there is the light on the forms in the photograph, for example, coming from one side. On the other hand, there is the backlight behind the whole pushing the forms towards the surface of the picture. That’s how it was on TV. All digital objects are light sources, but at the same time, the light source of the image they show is different. There are also reflections that we see on the glossy surface, reflected from us on the screen. Like the image that appears on the dusty screen of the laptop.
How I loved the contrast of light and shadow, light and dark! I have used it very often. I sought dark lights in the dark. I wanted to take the light from the light of the lining itself, sometimes with color. Light in light, dark light in dark. The meanings attributed to the dark and the light throughout the ages are things that come from the very basics, even from our instincts. Light and shadow make us dream. Light and dark also construct. Both have an absorbing feature. Far and near.
I made artificial light paintings for a while. I organized the exhibition called “Köşk”, the subject of which was nightlife. For these, I also used photographs and made some observations. I imitated the flickering traces of lights in interiors like movie theatres, nightclubs, discotheques, or in outdoors such as gardens, highways, street lamps, and in the moving image. It was a colorful series in which I also used contrasting colors. In the mean time, they were experiments for reverse light. Then some darker streets, the night and the sounds in the dark nooks, the waves, the stones, the darkness viewed from the nook… A glance towards the road from the back window of a car going in the dimness of the evening. I made two successive series where night and artificial light come together.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “Eyes The Dark”, Oil on Canvas, 165×220 cm, From the exhibition “Dark”, 2015.
Years later, I turned back to the dark paintings as if one night I was returning to home or the studio from the street. My works at the beginning had elegant lines of light peculiar to the night that slightly touching the silhouette of the form. Day by day, these lights have closed, I turned them off. I wanted them to be paintings of darkness different from the night and artificial light. That’s why I named the exhibition “Dark”. I could also describe it as a night watch, the forces of darkness in the street, or a state of awakening from insomnia. I could tend towards a social reading, or talk about the darkness of the current days. I could say that the one who illuminates the night, that is, the one who rules the darkness, is also the ruler of the day. Much as the darkness is empty, it is the stray that rules. A kind of idleness dominated by the underworld forces. A lightness that is as cool as the weight that descends on us in the dark. On my desk, Sami Baydar’s poem is written, the “world” and its pain descend on and permeate us. The evil of the world today is no less than Goya’s witness.
“Although I made themed and expressive paintings, there is very little work that I thematize myself, I would rather hide myself more.”
It is true that this series is not only difficult to photograph but also to print. The devices had great difficulty, but if you pose enough and wait, of course, you can take photos even in the dark. Thanks to the digital retouchings that can be made later, you can darken the images thoroughly. Of course, this is one of the ways to read the series, but my main issue was not about the photoshoot. While I have made paintings of exteriors and streets until now, I mostly painted interior spaces and my studio in this series. Since I really wanted to reach darkness, it was necessary to close those elegant halos of light and to darken the background as much as possible. On the other hand, I struggled with a calmness that corresponded to three percent of the hue scale. I had to change my working hours and renounce the night since the night lighting of the studio caused the shimmers.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “The World At My Table”, Oil on Canvas, 110 x 130 cm, From the exhibition “Dark”, 2015.
When you stay in the dark, the eye gets used to the darkness after a while, adapts itself tremendously, and slowly begins to distinguish what is there. Especially if it knows what is there and finds easily, it looks for exactly what should be there. It continues to seek, even though what should be is not there. It is the adaptation of the mind, not the eye, to the circumstances. It is the mind, not the eye, that wants to see in the dark. It stubbornly waits for uncertainty to be determined, search and search until what it wants to see is visible. Hope teaches patience, there is destiny as well as grief in it. The continuation of the search for the non-existence of what should be turns into the deception and trick of hope. The navigation between what is there and what is not is close to nothing. If there is no trace, what you see is a simple nothing.
Although I made themed and expressive paintings, there is very little work that I thematize myself, I would rather hide myself more. Black is about the seen and the unseen when the extrovert gaze turns introvert. The grief between hope and nothing… It is the representation of my personal grief that I have to express. It is the commemoration of an absence that I know is not there, cannot be. What is not there is now close to poetry.
You are one of the persistent practitioners of painting on canvas, but it seems that this insistent language has changed according to different exhibition forms of some of your works. Could you touch on the exhibition forms of your works “Refrigerator” and “Mobilet”, and your ideas on the relations between material and paint you used in your exhibition “38”?
In almost every exhibition, I mostly do a work on what I plan to do in the next exhibition, and leave clues for myself to follow. But, after the “Dark” exhibition, I stayed and stopped. This vanishing of light has corresponded to the final point. Fortunately, I collect intentions, competition happens by itself.
Bringing together the mat that fills the space between the drawing and the frame, I had designed a series of works eliminating the borders of the drawing and the mat. As ready mats for drawings, I used cardboards, mostly remained from student works, that were cut out in the middle and even left with glue stains on the edges. Since I also used packaging and butcher papers, and fancy, patterned cheap wrapping papers and cardboards, I made a wordplay and named it “Desenli Sergi”. I was in search of an iconography that combines drawing, mat, and frame through collage. Accordingly, iconography is to have the knowledge that a drawing is also an object with signs on it.
I found myself turning my gaze to the consumer society again, while I wanted to protect my own agenda instead of repeating the general, for example, to dream of red and orange.
They want to make an eight-story building immediately when they find even a little empty plot. Every sign wants to be bigger than its neighbors. “Horror Vacui” means the fear of the void. It was necessary to do simple works, even though I made crowded paintings with opposite influences. Culture means the relationship established with things. I wanted to return from the illusory space to the space of real objects by preparing a series in which the objects themselves are used instead of imitated forms. The art in fairs is like making festival movies, providing the opportunity to do some experimentation. I designed to display pieces of mass-produced cardboard boxes, detached from their surroundings, as abstract objects that forgot the body they are part of and their own functions, sometimes putting two or three of them side by side, on stretcher bar like constructions covered with a cloth at the back. Before the simple background of the cloth, they stood still with their own seated weights against gravity. I named the series “38” because I wanted to preserve them as they are without interfering with the objective abstractness of the forms. As such, they formed a surprising resemblance to “Trompe-L’oeil”, an illusion game in which the original and the imitation are confused. But at the same time, the main thing was that the existing geometry of simple objects was linked to the existence of urban architecture, constructions, and old structures next to them with indirect associations. All that’s left for me is to argue with this landscape.
“I think of contacts with reality through relations with the object, of things that take us to a dream and make us fall from there to their banal reality. If it is a dream, I fictionalize the remains of the desires, and if it is a desire, I fictionalize what consists of dreams.”
I continued the series with a collage exhibition called “The Hoard”. Collage is funny movements, cheerful in their own way. Some matches each other and come together, and some finds a suitable but absurd place for themselves even if they should not be there. In order to see all six walls of a room in one drawing, it is necessary to open that box and transform it into a two-dimensional form. A method of looking with the mind makes this possible. In other words, it means the use of a different way of seeing based on the mind instead of the familiar, standing, eye-based linear perspective application. When the wings of the cube are opened, that is, when the box is broken into pieces, the two-dimensional forms scattering in front of us become the surfaces that establish the depth of the space in modern theory. In practice, however, these surfaces became the nests in which the objects I stacked took their place by being substituted. “The Hoard” was founded on the idea of replacing abstract spaces and forms designed by modern art as alternatives to reality with concrete ordinary, banal objects. These objects, which are the products of mass production, on the one hand, carry the traces of the mechanical mind, and on the other hand, turn into things that are timeworn and that take on other characters as a result of the traces due to contact. Bodies that both contain the ghosts of the life promises of modern industrial society, that have been abandoned after the satisfaction they gave and that become waste now. Broken tip of a pencil, things, objects… Human is the hidden subject of these because there is no possibility of a life without possessions. The Milan Miracle. In the dreamy communities they formed by coming together, these things followed their journeys from abstraction to concrete, from interior spaces to exteriors, from desires, dreams, and promises to opposite influences, as in dreams. In the grids of the frames, it evoked shapes, large and small, similar to the mechanical structure of objects. When appropriate, interior spaces have turned into the countryside. Outdoor spaces have been transformed into offices, from the luxury comforts of apartment floors to bedroom privacy, buildings, streets, rooms, and windows. They have been transformed into both indoor and outdoor spaces.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, “The Hoard”, Collage on Cardboard, 35×50 cm, 2018.
Cardboards, wrapping papers, medicine boxes, butcher papers, buttons, threads, all kinds of variety store staff, rags, gilding, in short, worthless things. They are ordinary and rough but real things and objects… They have shadows. They make contact with the sense of touch as much as they are seen. They have nothing to do with the lie of recycling. I used them as they are, without transforming them, with the minimal painterly intervention that I avoided, that is, on their own, preserving their meaningless selves. When photographic details, technical drawings, doodles, notes, tickets, prints, user manual instructions, modern signs took their place among them, they became works that are read as well as watched. Their stories are unclear, ambiguous, and multi-focused. They’re definitely not great. Their make-up is pale and they lack allure. As familiar and common as cigarette butts, shoes, and unlabeled detergents.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, From the exhibition “38”, 63×72 cm, Tüyap Art Fair, 2016.
I think of contacts with reality through relations with the object, of things that take us to a dream and make us fall from there to their banal reality. If it is a dream, I fictionalize the remains of the desires, and if it is a desire, I fictionalize what consists of dreams. I attempt to send the abandoned thing when it is done, and the object by removing it from the nobility of the concept in which it is imprisoned to therapy. I try to look at the simplest objects, from a soup bowl and a spoon to a room, a pillow you lay your head in, from the street of the city you are walking through to the stores full of the goods you dream of, from the abstract institutions to the law between people, from the public to the state institutions, to the culture built with useful objects, and to the garbage of civilization. I turn not to shocking surprises or big slogans, which are mostly the business of advertising, politics, and life engineering, but to all the ugliness that remains of them.
The spread of this exhibition, which has a characteristic of including everything in it, to the space by breaking away from the missing square frames has been postponed until the continuation of the possibility. I am glad that dear Evin came to see and accompany us in this exhibition with her joy.
The victors of wars, the winners, have their history written and drawn by chroniclers with praises. There is another history that tells about the grace of hands which plant seeds in the ground, put stones on the pavement steps, hold a pitcher for ablution, put coal in steam, weave carpet, and put a bird on a boat. There is another heavy corpus that tells the stories of people, who have a general definition of “ordinary people”, with a song on the tongue of the beloved, a stone in the grave, and the earth underneath. These have been described in the huge history, but only for two centuries, in the forms of literature, poetry, painting, music, theatre, plays and cinema. Realism is a very general definition, these people wrote their corpus with revolutions, of which they were the losers most of the time. They were disappointed as well as had hopes. It is art, of course, that listens to the monologues of the inner voice coming from here. But the results of these efforts are the painful modern, and the rights acquired before the institutions both as citizens and customers. With a very wide base and a much narrower summit, a pyramid built in this era is a sign of unbalanced sharing.
The field we call social is the institutions built by the modern mind that determine forms. Government, law, economy, commerce, property, health and psychology, education and, of course, art… There are the design of everyday life and fabricated design objects as well as the temples of contemporary art. There are streets, cities and metro stations built by institutional modernism. Now, this modern spectacle has its inevitable contradictions naturally when we see this ordinary man in this social sphere, when we meet him as a worker, official, employee, idle, vulgar or dignitary. Skeptical irony and evil eye are described as criticism. My paintings and I are walking around there. I am torn between my civil service and academic painting. Social issues and storytelling aside, I contemplated the abstract issues in the subtexts of the paintings and the unique adventures of painting as a wonderful instrumental tool. I wanted to do justice to the ironic obligation of placing a retiree, my neighbors with a suit and tie and a mustache, among the academic universal values of high art.
Hakan Gürsoytrak, From the exhibition “38”, 63×72 cm, Tüyap Art Fair, 2016.
Our thanks are due to Hakan Gürsoytrak.
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