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Ahmet Öğüt
Hotel Résistance
Nov 25, 2017 – Jan 28, 2018

Something is yanking these men around, tearing at a pant leg, pulling at sleeves. Three bodies are under attack—but whoever or whatever is attacking them is invisible. Cast in bronze, the three figures, smaller than life size, stand on pedestals in the gallery’s upper space. Frozen images of an instant of violence whose causes remain unidentified, its victims anonymous. Are they heroes? The basic facts emerge later in Ahmet Öğüt’s exhibition, the artist’s first gallery show. On another floor, three police dogs, also bronze casts, are on active duty in the service of brute state authority. We understand—dog bites man, police violence versus individuals. Öğüt quotes an iconic motif from the global visual memory of protest, but he has dismantled and dispersed it across space and time, confronting us squarely with the blank of our ignorance of the causal interconnections. Only by roaming the space and remembering can we perhaps assemble the parts into a bronze “monument in motion,” as Öğüt puts it, one that does not know its heroes and commemorates the many who are being who are being yanked this way and that.

 

That motion carries us forward. The protest motif and the address to the observer as a subject with agency, with a body and a brain, with his or her own power and impotence, inform the unfolding exhibition. Embedded in three pedestals are models of landscapes on a scale of 1/100. We peer down into mud-brown building pits for major construction projects in China and Switzerland. So-called “nail houses” stick up in their centers, those lone holdouts perched on a tooth-shaped mound of topsoil. For the time being, an entire construction industry must organize its excavation and other activities around them because the owners refuse to sell, move out, play along. These, too, are monuments to the protean everyday resistance all over the world, amid a political and economic climate that encroaches upon people’s homes and bodies. Imitating the lettering of the nearby Hotel Renaissance, the residents of the nail house in Zurich mounted the word “Resistance” on the façade of their home and defied those who wanted to tear it down.

 

Öğüt researches selected cases of resistance to political and economic bullying, identifying similarities, delineating typologies, and translating them into patterns or condensed forms. But his focus is less on critique than on the subject’s latitude to chart a course of action that diverges from what seems bound to happen yet is within the range of the possible. And where action seems impossible right now because, if worst comes to worst, it might prove fatal, the artist, who was born in Diyarbakır in 1981 and now lives and works in Berlin and Amsterdam, does not settle for a culture of remembrance or gestures of protest: involvement in the action, he wagers, still reveals options that arise from antagonism, from contention, contradiction, and jeopardy.

 

In the basement gallery, Öğüt’s animated film United intertwines the fates of two protagonists who were killed by police tear gas grenades during public demonstrations. In 1987, twenty-one-year-old Lee Han-yeol became a martyr of the South Korean protest movement. Enes Ata, just eight years old, died in 2007 when, on his way home, he became caught up in a clash in Öğüt’s hometown of Diyarbakır. The film opens with manhwa-style renditions of the moments before the two characters’ deaths in the streets—then they reappear, in a buoyant mood and very much alive, to share advice on how to protect oneself during future tear gas attacks. In a transposition of the scenes of the events and the sites of their public representation, the artist screened the anime about Enes Ata in South Korea and the story of Lee Han-yeol in Turkey. Each death is singular, and yet both align, across the time-space continuum, with the international recurrence of the murderous same and its apparatuses. In 2015, South Korea approved the sale of 1.9 million canisters of tear gas to Turkey.

 

In Öğüt’s most recent video production, Inside the Fortress, which premieres in the exhibition, architecture becomes the visual medium for a tricky political narrative. When he was nineteen, Öğüt was hired to help manufacture an architectural model of the famous Great Mosque of Diyarbakır, doing wage labor as a painter on the illusion of a replica of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed structure that is now in the Miniatürk miniature park in Istanbul. In 2016, Öğüt goes back to film “his” early work like the virtual setting of a fantasy or shooter game, combining the images with fragments of sound recordings from heavy combat during round-the-clock curfews that turned the historic Sur district inside the Diyarbakır Fortress into a war zone in 2016. We hear an assassination being foretold, followed by a report of a shooting during the curfew. Finally, the minaret appears, barred by a police cordon. Cut to closing credits.

 

World heritage site, old town, crime scene: Inside the Fortress lets the gaze scour the exterior façades of a contemporary conflict whose interior spaces remain opaque. If architecture represents something in this film, then a blank once again separates that representation from the events in Turkey the work bears witness to, a blank it does not fill in. In fact, the artist often proceeds like a storyteller whose punch lines lie outside the accounts he gives of the events, although the latter are real and fraught with political significance. His art instead draws us into an observation of situations and conditions that may not be his—they may be those of people we know nothing of—and yet, given the overtly questionable character of the work on display, they become ours as well.

 

Were you in New York’s Zuccotti Park when Occupy Wall Street pitched its tents? Most of us presumably were not. A field of bricks covers the gallery floor, with a blue wall behind it and, on it, the gaze of a camera trained on Öğüt’s index finger. He is on the scene, pointing at individual figures between the protest movement’s tents and identifying them—David, Barbara, Peter. The names are made up, stereotypical, drawn from a list of the 300 most popular first names in the United States. The artist mimics the observation by the FBI—its cameras, needless to say, registered everyone who entered the park and its computers knew the real names of the protesters. But as Öğüt points out, this observation failed to grasp the true point. What united Occupy was the spirit of solidarity born of an anonymity that was always a fiction. The title of his work, Oscar William Sam, quotes the phonetic alphabet used by police: OWS equals Occupy Wall Street. The array of bricks is available as a public square or as a quarry for missiles. Do we walk out onto this dais, do we pick up a stone, do we stand apart? That is up to us.

 

Öğüt’s Laser Box is more explicit in its demands upon the audience. When the Arab Spring reached Cairo, activists came up with the idea of using powerful laser pointers to dazzle the pilots on approaching military helicopters. The artist presents ten of these improvised instruments of resistance in an exclusive box like expensive cigars, and purchasers enter a contractual obligation to give nine of the ten devices to fellow protesters during a future demonstration. The next work likewise challenges the viewer to act: Let’s imagine you steal this poster. Framed posters commemorating Nobel Prize winners who were affiliated with Berlin’s Humboldt University, all of them men, grace the walls of the entrance hall in its main building. Öğüt has printed posters in the same format honoring Angela Davis, who received her doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University. Several of them are available for visitors to take home, and perhaps one will find its way into the school’s gallery of ancestors.

 

Time and again, Öğüt’s work reveals gaps and loose ends that appeal to his audience’s capacity for intellectual or physical action; the artist deliberately forgoes his right to have the last word in the making of meaning. The project Reverb exemplifies this attitude. In 2015, Öğüt invited the London band Fino Blendax to collaborate on soundtracks for his works, an acoustic rereading and musical extension of his creative practice of the past decade. On the occasion of our exhibition, he has brought out eleven of the songs on vinyl; a retrospective in the form of a record. The project underscores Öğüt’s conviction that historical events—including his own work of the past—are never conclusively over.

 

So the representation of yesterday’s events, too, must be continually rethought and rewritten. What was remains embedded in a network of new possible incidents, agents, and powers and their possible collisions. And this presence of the past also pertains to the future. Ahmet Öğüt jettisons a conception of utopia that puts off the departure from today’s dead ends, waiting for better days to come: “Utopia must be emancipated from the future,” as he once put it. To his mind, utopia and dystopia, being stuck and moving forward are the same moment. The current limitations to our imagination are where the political, emancipatory, and indeed utopian instant of a potential transformation is to be found. It is only when all options have been exhausted that a completely different possibility surfaces. Some call that revolution.

Text: Alexander Koch; Translation: Gerrit Jackson; Photos: Ladislav Zajac / KOW