The Stage as a “Living Concept” in Turkey’s Performance Art

Janice K. Johnson

ISTANBUL and ESKİŞEHİR, Turkey — In a windowless room in a museum in western Turkey, performance artist Ata Doğruel is living in complete darkness: a continuous blackout for 40 days and 40 nights, interrupted only when a candle-bearing visitor enters his chamber. In an audience note posted outside the entrance, the artist asks his guests to “please make yourself at home.” Sitting on a sofa next to Doğruel as he writes in his journal, while watching other visitors’ flames flicker around the room, the austere setup takes on a sense of warm togetherness, reminiscent of a nighttime vigil or a neighborhood bar during a power outage.

The ongoing performance, “Light Source,” at the Odunpazarı Modern Museum in Eskişehir, is Doğruel’s “social experiment to see if we are still taking care of each other,” according to curator Simge Burhanoğlu. A growing grid of candlelit Polaroid portraits tacked to the wall attests to the visitors who have heeded his call to “please be my light.”

The artist’s spare and isolated conditions evoke the global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also stand in stark contrast to the very public, unrestrained performance art of a different era in Turkey, a period highlighted in a concurrent exhibition in Istanbul. The 90s Onstage presents a broad array of performances dating from the late 1980s into the 2000s through photographs, posters, videos, and other archival materials.

Inside that show’s main venue, Salt Beyoğlu, visitors can watch video footage of a fake robbery being staged in Halil Altındere’s “Miss Turkey” (2005) or two members of the Kumpanya theater group engaged in a heated public argument in “What Is It This Time?” (2002). Both performances took place on the street right outside the ground-floor gallery space, something that’s nearly impossible to imagine happening in Turkey’s current political climate.

Ata Doğruel, “Light Source” (2022), performance, OMM (photo by Gülbin Eriş)

That street, the busy pedestrian thoroughfare İstiklal Caddesi, was once known for its lively demonstrations. These inspired Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt’s “On the Stage,” a choreographed performance the artists created in 2010 based on the movements of protesters as recorded in newspaper clippings from the 1990s. Today, İstiklal is permanently patrolled by heavily armed police and goes into complete lockdown at the slightest hint of political unrest, such as during a recent marking of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

The 1990s were a time of major political and economic upheaval in Turkey, including a currency crisis, violent conflict, corruption scandals, and short-lived coalition governments. But artistically it was a dynamic era, burning with a DIY, collectivist spirit epitomized by interdisciplinary, artist-led productions like those highlighted in The 90s Onstage. These include the Serotonin exhibitions (1989 and 1992), a series of live events held in abandoned industrial spaces in Istanbul, and the Assos International Performing Arts Festival (1995–99), created in collaboration with locals in a rural Turkish village. 

A refreshing eccentricity and sincerity exude through the show, reflecting a time when few opportunities for institutional backing — modern and contemporary art museums didn’t even exist in Turkey until the 2000s — left artists to create their own stages and fostered an emphasis on personal expression and community building.

Still from Chapel of Change’s (Mary Salem and Rainsford) performance The Sleeping Water, Assos Performing Arts Festival, 1997 (photo Nurgül Polat, courtesy SALT)

Still, the art world wasn’t without its pretensions back then, as demonstrated by the show’s documentation of two cheeky stunts that riffed on the herd instinct and desire to be at the “in” event, regardless of what that actually is. Unable to find a gallery to exhibit his paintings, artist Taner Ceylan created a secretive, exclusive — and entirely fictitious — event to draw viewers (“Monte Carlo Style,” 1995), while visitors to Orhan Cem Çetin’s “A Photograph Exhibition” (1997) arrived to find bare walls — and then became the subject of the show they were waiting for. 

Other works displayed in The 90s Onstage have eerie echoes in more contemporary political actions. Photographs of people standing motionless in a public square, in Kumpanya’s “Still” (1999), recall the “Standing Man” demonstrations of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Meanwhile, photographs of performers wrapped in burial shrouds, in Moni Salim Özgilik’s “Not Thinking of Death” (1989), bring to mind the fervent supporters of current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who sometimes don such garb to signal their willingness to die for the controversial leader.

Such correlations may speak to the fluidity of the stage as “a living concept,” as described by Salt programmer Amira Akbıyıkoğlu, who included examples from music videos, TV shows, and sporting events in her wide-ranging exhibition. Public performance may be more difficult to carry out in today’s Turkey, but a new generation of artists is finding its own ways to connect with audiences, creating online stages and intimate in-person ones, as Doğruel has with “Light Source.” And just as small flames of solidarity impart a sense of hopefulness to his somber quarters, The 90s Onstage leaves the viewer with the distinct conviction that the stage will continue to be reimagined.

Ata Doğruel, “Light Source” (2022), performance, OMM (photo by Gülbin Eriş)
Assos Performing Arts Festival drawings (photo Jennifer Hattam/Hyperallergic)
Still from Sakarya Destanı [The Legend of Sakarya] by Moni, Ankara, 1988 (courtesy Salt Research, Moni Salim Özgilik Archive)
Still from Köm-ür, choreographed by Aydın Teker as part of Serotonin II, 1992 (courtesy the artist)

Light Sourcecontinues at Odunpazarı Modern Museum (Atatürk Bulvarı No. 37, Odunpazarı, Eskişehir, Turkey) through December 17. The exhibition was curated by Simge Burhanoğlu. The 90s Onstage continues at Salt Beyoğlu (İstiklal Caddesi No. 136, Beyoğlu, Istanbul) and Salt Galata (Bankalar Caddesi No. 11, Karaköy, Istanbul, Turkey) through February 12, 2023. The exhibition was organized by Amira Akbıyıkoğlu.

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