Crossing the borders with two exhibitions in Istanbul

Two exhibitions in Istanbul, present a view of the globalisation of crisis. Even though none of the artists are part of the most recent immigration route from war-torn Syria to the West, their take on identity politics, culture and geography paves the way to overcome the fragmentary nature of the current state of globalism.

The BBC series Years and Years, one of the prominent dystopian features of the recent period in television, inverts the course of forced migration to strengthen its bleak take on current world affairs. To avert the risk of giving any spoilers, it should suffice to mention that the series features a Western character who finds himself trapped in dire situations usually identified with Eastern immigrants. Either aiming to play to the Western audience’s Orientalist fears or make them confront their own privileged status, this story is an indicator of how the view towards globalism has changed drastically in the last decades. First hailed as a precursor to a world without borders in the 1990s, globalism proved to the contrary in reality, with sanctions being ramped up to prevent the flow of immigrants from the underprivileged parts of the world to privileged countries, thus fortifying borders more than ever, as explored in depth by T.J. Demos in The Migrant Image.

Two exhibitions in Istanbul, Palestinian artist Basma Alsharif’s And Therefore A Philistine programmed by Farah Aksoy at SALT Galata, and the collaborative project Up above was fog, down below there was a cloud of dust curated by Golnar Tabibzadeh and Merve Ünsal at Depo Istanbul, present a view of the globalisation of crisis and put forth nomadism as a possible strategy to face its shortcomings. Even though none of the artists are part of the most recent immigration route—from war-torn Syria to the West—that inspired the series Years and Years, these artists’ take on identity politics, culture and geography paves the way to overcome the fragmentary nature of the current state of globalism.

Basma Alsharif, born in Kuwait and raised in France and U.S., is based in Cairo at present, and her exhibition presents the ways in which she comes to terms with her status as a member of the Palestinian diaspora. The title of one of her installations, Trompe l’Oeil, which transfers the artist’s living room in California to SALT Galata’s first floor, explicitly speaks for the whole exhibition with its allusions to the construction of reality. The work, composed of furniture pieces, wall murals and a video, provides the viewer with glimpses of the artist’s daily life activities, as well as the historical context with regards to her diasporic existence as a Palestinian living abroad. While the video presents the artist engaged in her daily life—cooking, caressing her partner, working on archival images—the murals depicting her living room feature details, through which the viewer is encouraged to confront the colonial past of the Middle East, embodied in three photographs hung on the wall and taken from the archive of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), a crucial figure in the history of West’s interference in the region. The introductory text of the exhibition specifically draws attention to Alsharif’s use of these images without permission, a detail echoing the artist’s search for a narrative outside the officially acknowledged accounts of the events that led to the dispersion of Palestinians around the world. 

However, delving into and countering official history is only one of the strategies that Alsharif employs in And Therefore A Philistine: the scope of the exhibition extends further to play with the medium of storytelling to reflect on the diaspora’s relation with notions such as home, borders, mobility and geography. It is revealing how signifiers of time and culture are brought out throughout the exhibition, just to be subverted or distorted later. A Philistine, the installation inspired by and featuring the novella of the same title by the artist, depicts an imaginary journey on the train routes of Haifa-Tripoli-Beirut and the Palestine Railways. Yet the artist complicates her work’s reference to the literary genre of travelogue, by inverting the temporal flow—the story begins in present day Lebanon and ends in New Kingdom Egypt (16th-11th century)—and deforms the related archival material to obstruct their claim to representation. The film Ouroboros, an homage to the Gaza Strip, features intertitles indicating the times of the day, such as “morning”, “dawn”, “evening” and “dusk” without adhering to their temporal order. Inspired by Nietzsche’s concept of "eternal return,” the film renders a circular notion to the timely flow of events, an approach that also informs its representation of space: the journey depicted in the film is devoid of time and space unity. A house in the suburbs of a U.S. city, a backwoods area, a mansion in Europe and Palestine are linked together in such a way that transforms the diaspora’s longing for a home into a type of permanent being, rather than representing their desire to go back in a linear fashion. Hence, Alsharif puts forth the ambiguities of belonging to a diaspora to search for a form of existence outside the borders, cultural constraints and so on.

Up above was fog, down below there was a cloud of dust, which is being exhibited at Depo, also posits ambiguity as its driving force. The exhibition features works by 15 artists from Iran and Turkey who came together in October 2019 for a collaborative project curated by visual artists Golnar Tabibzadeh and Merve Ünsal under the coordination of Aysu Arıcan. The concepts of collaboration and participation take an unprecedented turn in the exhibition as the artists have been encouraged to take the fragile state of their respective geographies into account. The borders pertaining to the notions of body and land are subverted throughout the exhibition, providing the concepts such as agency of the artist, economic instability and national constraints with a slippery ground. Aiming to draw attention to the volatile nature of intellectual and cultural labor, Setareh Shahbazi appoints a different artist, Reyhaneh Mehrad, to participate in the exhibition. The economic instability within the region, which renders the methods such as funding compulsory for artistic production, is also echoed in the setting Şafak Çatalbaş chooses for her video Blue Bird of Happiness: the performer is completely wrapped in a blue suit, recalling the image compositing technique of blue screen (or the chroma key) used mainly in cinema and television to insert image within another image, and is sitting cross-legged in a mall, a prominent symbol for economic globalization. The artist almost creates a human shaped void in the middle of the people shopping, dining or just strolling in the mall. The same posture of a sitting figure emerges in Serminaz Barseghian’s installation To Re-member via cut-out icons that evoke connotations of rigidly-drawn generic figures that one can find in textbooks. These figures gradually lose their contours and evolve into amalgams of limbs that mingle into geography, as if suggesting a transitory relationship between humans and their surroundings. Thus, spatial constructs are rendered meaningless through these artists’ efforts to foster a new type of communication between themselves, and globalization’s attempts to fixate and describe are once again confronted.