Sites of Memory

The Arts


What is the meaning of lived space? Space is not simply a geographical location, but rather an extension of the ability to locate ourselves at all. Spaces do not exist before us; we construct them with a gaze which is constantly arrested by it. There are no native spaces, or spaces to be born into. A space can never be a point of origin or departure, because we are the space itself, as we suffer the weight of gravity, and destroy the space as our eyes withdraw into another optic plane. Places are something else, or rather, what can never be had, appropriated. When traveling we have the illusion that places will remain fixed, in snapshots, like our memories, but yet everything is in constant flux. The philosophers of the 17th century conceived of space—unlike the Aristotelian “place”—while marveling at the infinite universe, but still earth-bound by classical metaphysics and the solid physics of Newton.


The ultimate demise of metaphysics and traditional religion in the 20th century caused this closed world to collapse unto itself and reveal space as a question, a doubt, a trace and loss. Memories, after the same fashion, unfold spatially as an extension of our gaze—a third eye, desire, the oneiric, a weak Messianic force—and resemble a collage whose entire composition can be altered by simply shifting around some of the elements. But are all our memories real or are they sometimes an extension of the imagination? This does not mean that they’re false, as the dichotomy of reality is not built around logical truth but experience. Collective imaginaries enable us to present altered memories and historical facts simultaneously as a coherent grand narrative. These myths—often contemporary ones of the political kind—precede histories and exist in a timeless vacuum that endows them with abstract qualities.


A lot of the urban history in the Middle East region has to do with the transformation of physical places into memory lanes cutting through time. Communities of memory—and often also communities of amnesia—are perhaps the building block of political constructions, and story-telling is sometimes more important that the actual deeds remembered and told. Istanbul is one of those cities fraught with endless sequences of memories serialized as snapshots, derived from cultural imaginaries and that only but seldom represents political realities; instead it offers alternatives to it. My earliest memories of Istanbul I realize now, were all fictional, drawn from Turkish director Ferzan Özpetek’s film Hamam (1997) that I had seen several years ago, and that presented the city in the way we would have liked to imagine it: The sensuality of the hamam, a slow visual depth and a certain provincial familiarity and quiet that is nowhere to be found around in the real Istanbul.


In this film, an Italian upscale businessman leaves his native Rome to come briefly to Istanbul to reclaim a property inherited from a late aunt. While in Istanbul he discovers that the property in question is a hamam that his aunt had owned, restored and run for several years in the old quarter of the city and the brief business-like trip turns into a strange journey in which the tragic, the erotic and the imaginary coalesce and blend into a directional present whose temporal index is not the fleeting and passing but rather a collective imagined Istanbul. But when I came to live in Istanbul and I finally had the opportunity of visiting a hamam, it was entirely clean from the references associated with my imagined yet shared memories. The places tend to be either too sanitized to carry any emotional value or too derelict and run down. There seems to be nothing in between. A city proud of its imaginary and fluctuating history and yet bent on erasing its real history.


I hadn’t thought about the hamam until I experienced Turkish artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s installation “In Situ,” in which she stages on soap a recollection of memories associated with the Pangaltı Hamamı that existed in the neighborhood of the same name, where coincidentally she not only completed a four month residency in 2012 at the Interdisciplinary Project Space, but is also her native quarter in Istanbul. A place of origin one would say, but now added to the larger map of urban spaces slated for development. The historical hamam was demolished in 1995 with the promise that it would be soon renovated and a decade later it made its come back as one another hotel in the current economic frenzy of the country since the early 2000s. In the absence of official resources and documentation that comes with evictions and demolitions, Büyüktaşçıyan investigated the different layers of memories, physical and otherwise, traced back to this one singular place.


Her installation suggests both a visual archive and an archaeological site. The work begets the question: How is the work of remembrance to be done? Is this a work of mourning or celebration? The intimate living room-like space at PIST serves not only as a physical place, but as a site where the present is excavated through what is not yet. Walking through the careful archive-like display—of blank postcards—and the imagined Pangaltı Hamamı in its tile-like arrangement is also visiting a public space which yet is intimate. How can a public space be intimate? Contemporaneity makes us often dwell in in-between spaces, abstract and non-descript, whose utility is functional rather than intrinsic and that disappear as soon as we withdraw from them. The constant anxiety over the future turns into a calculation through which the present swallows the future as its own extension and deprives it from its quality of promise. The future is risky because it is predictable.


Public spaces (and by this we mean public square, and not any grand-scale concept of spaces) in Istanbul are often endangered by the aestheticizing of the public sphere into a total realm of consumption clean from historical references. The social and functional dynamics of global capitalism do not rely on foundational myths or narratives. According to Pierre Nora, sites of memory are ought to exist nowadays because no real environments of memory truly exist, which is perhaps one of the reasons why a great deal of research-based contemporary art is obsessed with archives and cultural archaeology. Büyüktaşçıyan’s work resembles a 2006 site-specific installation by British artist David Ward, “Nocturne,” in which a digital projection of the night sky with the Pleiades was projected onto the southern wall of St. Michael Paternoster Church in London. The church is since 1856 headquarters of the Mission to Seafarers, an Anglican charity supporting marines and sailors.


The charity has offices in over two hundred ports worldwide and provides resources for people at sea to contact their families and provides counseling to ease the psychological effects of loneliness, fear, isolation and homesickness caused by long periods at sea. The projection on the wall of the church is but an attempt to bring into the busy cityscape the views of the lonely mariners and sailors at sea in the starry night. Ward plays with symbolic orders of experience: What seafarers long for, city dwellers want to escape. The relation to Büyüktaşçıyan practice has to do with the enactment of an experience which is both intimate and public, and the desire for an imagined elsewhere, theoretically situated in the past but whose temporal framework is past the limits of history. Ward’s starry night and Büyüktaşçıyan’s hamam have in common that they’re both psychic spaces, in which the illusory nature of belonging somewhere and the instability of memory are considered.


Yet Büyüktaşçıyan’s work protrudes in materiality and asks another question: What are or would be the objects of history? Can histories be traced and archived through objects clean from immediate semantic references? The writer Georges Perec is keen to establish a crucial distinction between places and spaces; for him places are always neutral whereas space is by nature idealized, space exists as a reassurance. The idea of the public space itself, as a shared space, is a tale of mutual reassurance that no longer depends on the durability of places. The space is determined not by the content but by what is on the contours, on the fringes. In the case of the Turkish installation artist, it is the trajectory of the soap, the smells, the surrounding geography and the desire to become part of a ritual that is both cleansing and conspicuous, what determines her psychic space. For archaeologists, an artifact being “in situ” is critical to its interpretation because otherwise it does not provide enough information about the cultural setting in which it was created. Büyüktaşçıyan works with the assumption that such native spaces are no longer available, and she feels the need to site them in.


Spaces do not contain memory by themselves, they are memory triggers because we exist in them, we create them, re-create them and destroy them. Our memories are at times illusory, constantly modified by the sheer thereness of a present we’re unable to evade. And when memories are shared—and what is history if not this?—we do not even belong to them, but they belong to us, and the search for a material history that is at the heart of Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s practice, feeds on the sense of contradiction and paradox brought about the internal and the external manifestations of memory. It is the passage of time what leaves traces, but space is always emptied out from its objective content if we’re not experiencing it right then, thus all spaces are psychic and immediate. Space is a form of writing, writing of the most meticulous kind: The sole awareness that remembering is a form of authorship. Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s “In Situ” reminds us of the words of Hélène Cixous: “Listen: Nothing is found. Nothing is lost. Everything remains to be sought.”



Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s "In Situ", on show at PIST / Interdisciplinary Space Project, in Istanbul, from May 22nd until June 15th.



Follow Arie on Twitter @Dilmunite



Middle East, Turkey