Köken Ergun and the art of anthropology
Artist Köken Ergun- photo: Kürşat Bayhan
The first extensive solo exhibition by Turkish artist Köken Ergun, whose videos are uniquely informed by both anthropology and empathy, is currently on display at Kunsthalle Winterthur in Zurich.
Ergun’s work explores many separate but closely intertwined social issues, from nationalism to minority communities. The earliest work in his current exhibition, “I, Soldier” (2005), can be interpreted as a subtle criticism of nationalism and “a form of exorcism” through the ways in which it rejects the remnants of many rituals a citizen of the Turkish Republic is exposed to during their lifetime.
In the video, an adamant speaker dressed in a military uniform gives a speech about his devotion to Turkey and the Turkish military in a stadium during the celebration of the state’s annual Youth and Sports Day. Scenes of a young boy, also dressed in uniform, are juxtaposed with the speech, and it is hard to figure out whether or not he is listening to the content. Turkish viewers will surely be reminded of the endless hours of such speeches they had to endure on every nationalist holiday while growing up. The heavy helmet the boy is wearing makes it hard for him to see his surroundings, and when he finally cranes his neck up to the sky, it is not clear whether he is moved by the speech or just wants to look at the colorful red and white smoke display in the stadium.
Journey to video works
Although Ergun was interested in acting for several years and received a professional theater education, he later decided to focus on video works. The reasons behind his decision to quit acting were closely connected to the harsh process of Westernization imposed on Turkish society by the governing elite in the Republican era and beyond. The deficiencies of the continuous imitation of Western cultures that is engraved into many aspects of Turkish daily life — especially those of the Republican bourgeois milieu in which he was raised — became obvious to him at a young age as he traveled the West.
“In the acting workshop I attended under Robert Wilson during summers in New York, many people from all around the world were bringing something of their own to the table, be it their dances, foods, jokes or ways of eating. When I couldn’t offer anything, it demoralized me a lot,” he says in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, adding that he then realized that he wanted to find “something authentic,” rather than “mimicking something else.” This search eventually led him to spend time with many different marginalized communities, such as Turkish immigrants in Europe, Filipino workers in Tel Aviv and İstanbul’s Shiite minority.
Rather than the rituals imposed from above by the state, Ergun’s work with such communities centers on rituals that create their own “temporary state.” He approaches these communities with a sensitivity inspired by his ongoing work as a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Berlin’s Freie University.
Wedding bells and promised lands
Between 2006 and 2008, Ergun participated in more than 50 Turkish weddings in Germany for his video titled “Wedding.” “During a wedding, in that limited time period, there is a great deal of interaction and a cultural interlocking, a climax occurs. The effect of that climax continues in daily life after the wedding, but it lessens in time and that’s why you need to have more weddings and dance the halay every other week. In such a ceremony, a significant togetherness takes place, and it results in its own set of rules, the rules of the community,” Ergun explains, noting that all of this happens behind closed doors and that only members of the community are allowed inside.
In 2010 the artist went to Tel Aviv to shoot “Binibining Promised Land,” which documents a beauty contest organized by and for Filipino guest workers. Like Turkish weddings in Germany, the contest is also a ritual that serves to remind a specific community of its home and create unity among its members. Reflecting the aesthetics of a standard beauty contest show on TV, the video underlines the importance of the representation of one’s own culture for the members of an immigrant community. Such contests are quite widespread in the Philippines, but the one we witness through Ergun’s camera also provides a small glimpse of the bitter realities of these “guest” workers; the event is staged at a Filipino club located in a bus station, and one of the contestants, when asked in the interview round “What would you ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if you had the chance?” answers confidently, “To extend Filipino people’s visas.” The exhibition also features an installation of magazine covers published by Filipinos living in Israel, and three interviews with the organizers of the event accompany the video work.
Both “Wedding” and “Binibining Promised Land” provide an intriguing look into the rules these communities construct during their rituals. The reception of gifts — elaborately recorded in writing by a large table of men, in the absence of the bride and groom — from wedding guests and the dresses the Filipino contestants use to represent their own regions are determined according to these rules. But beyond this more abstract observation, Ergun’s work also allows the viewer to see the small details of the community, such as a teenage girl watching the dance floor, a small child blowing a bubble with her gum, a woman screaming to support her favorite model or a contestant having a hard time answering a question on Israeli-Philippine relations.
An exploration of Ashura
Another of Ergun’s studies of communities somehow set apart from the broader society in which they live looks at the Ashura ceremony in İstanbul’s Halkalı neighborhood. In the year 61 according to the Islamic calendar, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, İmam Hüseyin, was martyred in the battle of Karbala. Shiite Muslims all around the world commemorate his death on the 10th day of Muharram. The Caferi community in the Halkalı district of İstanbul organizes a ceremony every year that attracts thousands of people. “For years, I had been seeing the posters of a horse covered in blood at that time of the year. In 2009, I went to the commemoration and was deeply moved by it. It was again about rituals and also about immigrants. The Caferi community lives in a ghetto, out of the city, and they have their own order. For instance, there is no bank in the neighborhood. There is only a PTT [Post, Telephone, Telegraph] office, just to pay the bills.”
Following his first visit to the Ashura event, which takes place in the Zeynebiye neighborhood, Ergun contacted members of the community and showed them the photographs he took during the event and told them he wanted to film the next ceremony. An important part of the event is the play written and directed by the Zeynebiye Youth Theater recounting the murder of İmam Hüseyin. The script is first recorded by professional actors and actresses in a studio and then dubbed over the performance acted out on stage by the ordinary members of the community on the day of Ashura.
“This voice-over theater play was extraordinary. Everything is written and recorded beforehand, and all of it has to happen in 42 minutes and 12 seconds. It is fantastic. The actors are not real actors; they are bakers or carpenters in the neighborhood. The börek seller could be İmam Hüseyin, for instance. They don’t want to bring in professional actors because they cannot understand the real point. The important thing is not the acting part; an actor would do it for money and not feel it. If they cannot feel it, then they cannot make the audience feel it,” Ergun explains, stressing that a professional actor would hate to hear such a thing since this is precisely the point of acting.
Amongst Turkey’s predominantly Sunni Muslims, the event is known mostly for its ascetic, and sometimes bloody, rituals. Many people, and especially the media, are interested in the event for the dramatic theater performance and to look at crying headscarved women participating in the Ashura ritual. “They look for blood. I am not interested in it. I am interested in what it contributes to the human. Some see their ‘other’ in this ritual, some become hostile because of the blood. For me, it is not blood of brutality, but of purification,” Ergun stresses.
In his fieldwork for such videos, Ergun has developed close relationships with many members of these communities. “I have more than 100 Filipino friends on Facebook. Rather than being a person who comes, shoots and shows what he has to other people, I keep going to these places over and over even after the pieces are done,” he explains, adding that sometimes even the artwork loses its importance due to the power of such experiences. “Why should I turn all this into an artwork, I ask myself. I lived this, it was a very special thing, how am I going to reflect it, I think,” he continues.
The artist’s intimacy with his subject was also evident in his work “Ashura.” He was present for all the rehearsals of the play. “Fifty percent of my work is the communication, trust I built with them — of course, together with the tea and treats we have. It is an extraordinary energy. When you are among these people, you don’t want to go back to İstanbul. After that communal beauty and warmth, the city, full of individual depression and melancholy, feels strange. I experience this a lot. When you take a bus from Ramallah to Tel Aviv, the world changes entirely,” he says, noting that he has not experienced the warmth he felt among the Caferi community anywhere else in İstanbul.
In addition to the immense amount of time he puts into preparing to film his videos, Ergun spends just as much time editing the final product. “I work very slowly. I edited ‘Wedding’ over one and a half years, for instance. Since I do not work with storyboards, the editing is extremely important. I use one-tenth of what I shoot because the important thing is catching the perfect moment that summarizes everything,” he says.
“Whether I like the outcome or whether it is beautiful is not the point,” the artist emphasizes. “There is an experience there, and it is quite modest. I am very much impressed by that modesty, which we forget nowadays. We give a lot of credit to beauty. I am thrilled by communities in which faith is powerful, and by faith I don’t necessarily mean religion, I am talking about something more abstract. In the modest communities where individuals are not at the forefront, faith is so powerful.”
Currently based in Berlin, Ergun gives workshops on video at several institutions, such as the Doha Film Institute and the International Academy of Art, Palestine. A catalogue titled “Who Am I Anyway,” featuring three interviews with Ian White, Elmas Deniz and Oliver Kielmayer, accompanies his current show, which will run through Nov. 20 at Kunsthalle Winterthur. The artist also has several Internet blogs featuring many visual and written documents about all of his works. For more information, visit indexofworks.com and www.kunsthallewinterthur.ch.
Rumeysa Kiger, İstanbul
First published here: Today’s Zaman