A review of the art exhibition, "Deep Current"Review
The history of the Princes' Islands hasn't always been one of idyllic journeys. The fact that this simplified version of culture has endured for so long is what attests to the violence inflicted on these small communities in the past, and has always been indicative of larger trends in Istanbul. By violence we mean a symbolic order of things obviously larger than force. It can mean force, but also neglect, historical falsification, and ultimately disappearance. The poverty of metaphors available to drive this message home in Turkey becomes apparent when one visits the group exhibition “Deep Current”, housed at the Theological School of Halki in Heybeliada and organized by the Princes' Islands Marine and Sports Club Association. We see this poverty in the apparent easiness with which many in the public, and even the art press, have read the exhibition simply as a meditation on environmental change.
It is true that there are obvious clues pointing in this direction. The fishnets collected by Alper Aydın from the sea floor of the islands and transformed into a large sculpture on the garden of the theological school, and the installation slash ecosystem by Sibel Horada, hosting and sustaining endangered live corals (transplanted form the nearby islands of Sivriada and Yassiada where intense construction activity and land-sedimentation is taking place, to the more remote Tavşanadası, are indeed informative about the present, and therefore, very current. It becomes necessary, however, to rethink the depth of the relationship between nature and culture in such a fragile environment in order to glimpse the kind of motion encompassed by a current, this body of water or air moving in a definite direction, rather than staying in one place or moving in circles. The presence of a historical, or even ghostly space is mediated by Hera Büyüktaşçıyan (“Fishbone” III-V), a native of the islands, connecting the apparent symbols of nature through a series of sculptures, within a larger narrative.
The documentation of the association's activities opens only the first layer, where the otherwise touristic space of the Princes' Islands is also revealed as a rich water ecosystem with a deep-seated relationship to the sea, sea-faring and fishing, even though nearly all of the beaches are privatized with little regard to local laws, and the fishing culture is nearly dead through a combination of pollution, industrial fishing and lack of political will. One may begin asking the question of what role these art installations play in the classrooms of an educational institution and why are these classrooms empty? A question, in fact, often asked by visitors. After its original 1844 building was destroyed by an earthquake, the current building was inaugurated in 1896, to house one of the Orthodox world's most reputable seminaries. This new building carried on the tradition of a library initiated by Metrophanes III in the 15th century, showing the complexities of a region mentioned by ancient historians because of its copper mines and then infamous in the Byzantine era as a place for exiled dissidents.
In 1971, once the Greek-speaking community of Turkey had been decimated in three successive waves—the independence war, 1955 pogroms and the Cyprus crisis—the Turkish government shut down all the foreign schools in Turkey. Although they all regained a mixed public/private status later on, Halki stayed shut down, for what is now known to be a political gesture, aimed at punishing minorities. When Büyüktaşçıyan installed her fishbones in the abandoned classrooms, it wasn’t a banal reference to a fishing past or even to survival alone, but to a rich history, both ancient and modern, intersecting the natural and the historical worlds. When a fish bone is stuck in your throat, you can't speak, and similarly, when you're prevented from speaking, or even learning, your mother tongue, your existence becomes partly ghostly, but not altogether immaterial. The shipwrecks from history surround us all the time, and in the debris of what is left behind by the waves, we find our bearings alongside the shorelines, accumulating deep time, waiting to be awakened.
The fish bone is also a fossil, so that when the bones are set on the desks of the empty classroom that you can't enter and are visible only from the window, the remoteness of the past speaks to us with clarity, in order to reveal all the present dangers. The current environmental fragility of the islands is also, ultimately, a consequence of an ongoing history of displacement, expropriation and redistribution. The development frenzy that characterized Istanbul in its post-1982 neoliberal era didn't leave the islands untouched, even though they had been under protected status. This only meant that development was slow and haphazard, while infrastructure was never upgraded and the only sources of revenue would become mass budget tourism and hospitality. The recent destruction of the island of Yassiada by economic forces without a clear plan is chronicled in Horada's “Migration Wave”, with the transplanted corals, making us aware of how difficult it is to sustain life in conditions of captivity, and the degree to which the very basic chemistry of a fragile environment is near impossible to reproduce.
And yet the same happens in the realm of culture. Once something has become uprooted, it is very difficult to replant it; the context has been damaged and the root might not survive. This is the history of every migration, and yet, sometimes there's still a space of possibility. A current is also a highway of memory, articulated not only through language, but also in obliqueness. This is something almost obvious in the history of Istanbul, where the rich palimpsest can be read in any direction, always revealing layers of history in the stratigraphic record, regardless of the destruction – whether it was conquest or earthquake. The transition between the fishnet, and the fishbone and the coral, is not a sequence but a juxtaposition. The story, just like any fictional narrative, can be accessed from any point in time, but the economic and environmental realities of the islands are not any kind of ambiguous narrative. They're as objective as our lack of faith in the world. It is sheer fact without transformative effect.
Contemplating Aydın's “Unwanted Guest”, it seems to me as if the central topic of “Deep Current” isn't motion outward, but motion inward, and the very concept of hospitality, or rather, both hospitality and hostility. In a country where it's always been difficult to live with others, and where hostility has been understood as a matter of course rather than seen as the consequence of a boldly exclusionary notion of citizenship, how do we sustain ourselves and others? What kind of work would it take to feel at home, and to make others at home too? Whose home is this? Is it really true that the people who once sat in these classrooms just left the country for a variety of reasons, as it is popularly said? When the coral dies, marine life becomes more barren, and the fishermen need to turn to menial work, slide fast into poverty, the archaeological record of the fish bone disappears, and the fishnets sink to the bottom of the sea. In this water ecosystem, everything is interconnected, and when just one of the elements is missing or damaged, the cycle is incomplete. It is the same with the history of peoples.
Hospitality, or providing shelter for the stranger, is not a consequence of the global order created after the wars of the 20th century, but one of the most ancient ideas of the Near East, translated into myths and legends in all our ancient cultures. But what kind of hospitality is this, with hotels but without places of abode, of refuge, without sanctuary cities and the right of asylum? “Deep Current” thrives in its duality of nuances toward both past and present, imagining a continuum between our history and nature, but keenly aware of the disappearing public domain. The conversation turns to poetry, in order to safeguard the voice of the disappeared. The conversation between Aydın, Horada and Büyüktaşçıyan seems at times muted or whispered from far away, and therefore incomplete. But it is only then that language can begin again, once it had been thought lost forever. Walking through the empty rooms of the school, an overwhelming feeling fills the air: This corpse is still fresh.
If you like this article, please consider becoming a Patron and contributing to the work we do here at The Mantle.