The symbol of the Turkish lira weighs heavily. Its concrete form lays awkwardly over bare, hard flooring. Fake seaweed grows along its inflexible features, in between the double dash and from its straight, rectangular top, down to the end of its rounded tail. It is about half-covered in living matter. The effect is that of a symbol, made to manifest in the substance that maintains its existence. Yet, there is neglect, an unconcern that looms above it like a mist, giving rise to an invasive species of vegetation.
Gökçen Ataman stood above her piece, “Untitled" (2019), and contemplated its conceptual abstraction against its literally concrete presence. A symbol, it seemed, could project an absolute figment of reality, a presence in the world so definite that it shadows all that has come before, and all that might take place. She had only finished installing her first solo show minutes before and was proud and excited. Her gallerist at the REM Art Space, Mehmet Kahraman, walked out of the spare interior satisfied, with a forward air to him.
“We have an urge to cling to new surroundings, and this makes us concerned about creating new living spaces,” wrote Kahraman, in a text accompanying the show, titled, ironically, "Welcome to a Prestigious Life."
"Promised a prestigious life, we are faced with a crooked and unstable city that has transformed into a monotype. Societies should be urbanizing with an appreciation of their history not to lower the city aesthetics.” He went on to describe the “betrayal of history” that, to him, has become contemporary urban life.
Ataman could barely contain her excitement, anticipating her opening the next day. In a way, her emotional relativity to the work she had created stood akin to the introductory series of untitled sculptures by the storefront gallery window. Whether meticulously columned with miniature planks of wood, making for a sort of treehouse on stilts, or having erected stout concrete shells of model industrial buildings, the structures burst with the tendrils and leaves of hedera helix, a long, viny hanging plant.
She divided her exhibition temporally. The future is at the beginning, in which derelict properties crawl with contrasting wildness. In her mind, politics and ecology are part of a continuum within a mass chain of consumption. But it is a linear progression, and like recorded time, has a built-in expiration date. The present, represented by works installed at the back of the show, is fixed in an isolated, closed-cycle of decomposition. The REM Art Space has only one door for guests to enter and exit. It is a fitting dynamic to follow Ataman’s visual narrative.
A time for everything
The future is closer to the past than the present is to either. Hanging on the wall above the largest contiguous installation of sculptures, the Turkish lira reappears. It is caked with tacky, sparkling glitter. A flimsy display of cardboard, painted in the gunmetal gray of concrete is arrayed in stacked boxes, held up with thin wooden sticks. “Welcome to a Prestigious Life” climaxes in the realization of a miniature high-rise fantasy, inelegantly but effectively repurposed to convey her idea. A gilded residential house stands atop, raising the Turkish flag.
Ataman holds a degree from the Department of Sculpture at Hacettepe University in Ankara, where not long before she graduated and where the Frankfurt-based artist duo Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt earned the academic reputation that would drive them to the heart of Germany’s conceptualist art landscape. They have also repurposed currency in their work, such as in their series “Materialistic Paintings” at Dirimart last winter, in which the two diaspora artists utilized various types of metal for different coins sized in proportion to their value.
After growing plants in her home for over a year, Ataman gained indoor gardening experience especially in preparation for her show. She chose to use forest plants, for their uncultivated character. Most of the wood that she has used is found material, also prompting a more unrefined aesthetic in contradistinction with the foundations, walls and the ceilings of sculpted buildings. About mid-2018, she started visiting the REM Art Space with installation ideas. When it came together in October, she felt the installation turned out better than planned.
The main, centerpiece of “Welcome to a Prestigious Life” is a mass of half-constructed projects in the style of Turkey’s state housing programs, known as TOKİ. The architecture is unmistakable, a vision of modernism a la Le Corbusier, essentially detached from the ground, upward and, in practice, isolationist. Her work, particularly when framed as two-dimensional wood-panel sculptures, recalls life in the coastal slums along the Amazonian and in South Asia in places like Iquitos or Ho Chi Minh City.
The projects that Ataman represents in her installation work on TOKİ has a ramshackle appearance, based on her evaluation of Bursa's cityscape. Jenga-like in their uncoordinated, graceless embodiment of urban architecture, a piece lies fallen and fragmented. It is a wonder how they stand. And to add a touch of Turkish humor, she has impressed their surfaces with Ottoman-style geometric patterns as a comment on the pseudo-cultural attractors that would compel buyers from near and far to invest in new, risky developments.
The ecology of postmodernism
For the past five years, Ataman has created new works. Her venture toward her current practice as an artist began when she had a child. Instead of burdening her with domestic duties, the experience has freed her to pursue art. In that sense, while her professional biography is not extensive, she maintains a genuine focus, supported by her education, which she continued after Ankara in Graphic Design at Canada at the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.
Ataman is a naturalist researcher, tramping through the Belgrade Forest in Istanbul’s verdant northwest for the roots, greenery and general ecological ambiance that she seeks, portraying uninhibited overgrowth. And between industrial construction and free naturalism, she also adds a touch of cultural specificity, whether it’s a small evil eye or a painted relief of Islamic geometry. Her work is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “The Elephants” (1948), the witch’s house in the Tim Burton film “Big Fish,” or Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
“In Turkish systems, we always build, build, build, but without infrastructure. We always try to build bigger and higher, with glitter and splendor, but not the most reliable. And we put something religious or nationalist,” said Ataman. “If you think of this as a city that was once there, and then humankind disappeared, but the buildings are still there with the plants over them. If you don’t build infrastructure that’s what happens. It’s a scenario I built.”