Histories and Monsters: An Essay on the new collection exhibition of Borusan Contemporary, “Water Reverie”

6 April 2021 Tue

I see stares all day long, sundry stares 1
Bakmalar Denizi, Edip Cansever

Published in 1970, “Dirty August” was the ninth book of Edip Cansever. Appearing four years later as a guest in the program, “Edebiyat Dünyası”, 2 presented by poet Ahmet Oktay for TRT, Cansever commented apropos “Dirty August” and expressed his intention “to bring poetry in equilibrium with the amplitude of history and the immensity of nature.” He said that he aimed to transform the mundane into extraordinary in his book. Cansever considered this undertaking as the only course of action to tackle history and nature. What eventually emerged was the atmosphere of a quasi-implicit legend. 3 “Water Reverie” was one of the poems included in this book; now, it lends its title to Borusan Contemporary’s new exhibition curated by Necmi Sönmez and constitutes its backbone. I will try to explore the exhibition with respect to the positions Cansever has designated while outlining the book and stay within the confines of the map he has drawn.

When the high-pitched voices of the Eurasian scops owls mentioned in Cansever’s poem begin to reverberate in the sky, that is to say at night; if you happen to pass by the Yusuf Ziya Pasha Mansion, where the Borusan Contemporary Art Collection is displayed – which is unlikely so long as the curfews continue due to the pandemic – you may watch the images projected onto the undersides of its balconies. This video installation is actually an animated version of the photographic work, Bosphorus Fish Play No.8 by Boomoon, produced in 2018 when he visited Istanbul upon Borusan Contemporary’s invitation. The visual abundance of the work embodies the new exhibition’s core essence, which consists of water and light. I will revisit, in another context, this work that paints the reflections of the Bosphorus like an enchanted brush on the building’s façade.

In the 360-degree shot of the exhibition, I roamed around like a ghost that springs up and down between different floor levels as it pleases, wandering between empty corridors, desks, and stairways; a ghost that has the ability to see each floor with a bird’s-eye view to boot. As much as it sounds romantic, this was all happening while staring at a computer screen. In one sense, I could not help but think that this ghost-like stroll was very consonant with the Yusuf Ziya Pasha Mansion, which had been called “haunted” in the neighborhood because of its unfinished construction at the time. My pleasant, virtual tours helped me to find the itinerary I sought. I am certain that each visitor would opt for utterly different paths and that there would be different works one would like to view, given there are roughly 60 works in the show, selected from the collection.

Three of us
The virtual tour, which commences with the “Doll House” view, showing the interior of the building, swiftly takes you right in front of Iván Navarro’s work “Shortcuts.” Recalling Cansever’s verses, “There were three of us and the three of us outstretched / Into the past, like three separate days 4 , this is an installation that Navarro created using yellow, red, blue neon lights and mirrors. With the re-enactment of curfew ensuing the second wave of the pandemic in Turkey; as I watch the empty boulevards from my window not with astonishment and an odd sort of tranquility but with dreariness this time; and as I involuntarily witness the ostensibly legit authoritarian versions of 21st century bio-politics, I think about Navarro’s work “Order” that gives the impression of stretching out to eternity, like all his other works do. Contemplating on this word, which implies both “command” and “regularity”, has made me realize why the hidden delight I felt at the beginning of the very first curfew turned into a feeling of guilt over time.

The fact that Iván Navarro’s work is a fundamental element for the exhibition is reinforced with the installation of Peter Coffin, which is projected onto the walls of the empty corridor right next to the lift. Circles in the three basic parameters of RGB color system, namely red, green and blue, dance and overlap on the white walls, producing numerous new colors. As I look at Coffin’s circles, I could not stop my mind from diverting to a verse in the poem, “Kaybola” by Cansever: “Poetry is something made; round, red, broad.” 5

This enigmatic answer, perhaps given to the question “what is poetry?” that Cansever consistently encountered in the revisionist literature milieu of the day, contains the cues of how he defended poetry. I do not consider the “Water Reverie” exhibition separately from this defense. I would like to follow the traces of how Cansever positioned poetry alongside history and nature while I explore the upper floors of the exhibition. In order to do this, I will proceed with some arguments based on the theories that Manuel DeLanda has asserted in his book, “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History” 6 , instead of taking the lift situated right by the corridor.

The Mortar
In his book divided into three parts, Manuel DeLanda probes into the distinctive flow of matter and energy, which is shaped by the will and whim of history over the course of an approximately thousand-year period. Although his analysis of the world civilizations in bulky categories like Western, Islam, Chinese, and Indian, and his treatment of the interactions between these civilizations in a narrow extent are quite problematic, the book covers thought-provoking theories. By focusing on the Western civilization in his narrative, DeLanda reviews the urban, institutional, and technological forms free of deterministic approaches and naïve notions of progress. In other words, he strives to emancipate his arguments from the teleological ways of thinking, in which the end is predetermined. DeLanda addresses the principles of thermodynamics and Darwinism in the introduction of his book, which presents the essentials of scientific history in a critical light. These theories, which are respectively based on the ideas of reaching the thermal balance and ideal design, are deemed as flawed by DeLanda, given they indicate the end of history in one sense by accepting a single historical outcome. According to DeLanda, all definite forms, which will help us understand the history of the West, are hidden in the potentials generated by the flow of matter and energy.

Eelco Brand, X.movi, 2012.
Single channel digital animation.
Courtesy of the artist and [DAM] Berlin.

Eelco Brand’s seemingly familiar but outlandish landscapes are encountered as video animations in endless loops at various locations between the third and seventh floors. These five works, 7 the titles of which are composed with letters and raw video file formats, virtually blend the mortar of the exhibition. In the second chapter of his book, constructing his narrative on the flesh and genes, DeLanda reminds that the hybridization barriers 8 are essential for the consolidated gene accumulations to evolve into a species. 9 Brand creates his universe, in which the artificial and natural uninterruptedly intertwine with one another, precisely at this spot, where these barriers are surpassed. The alienating images we find in his hyper-realistic nature simulations, produced by means of digital tools, continue to take on meanings. 10 The viewer is left alone with the stalks of mushrooms, which scatter their caps in the air in “WT.Movi”; the blooming of flowers without petals in “FR.Movi”; and the venom green and dark petrol blue colored jellyfish swimming through the air in “QU.Movi”. Dispersing its seeds of light to the ground, the orange irises conjure this verse of “Water Reverie”: “We swam all day, from island to island / Thinking of nothing. Only / Toward evening we gathered a bouquet of blue irises” The last work of Brand, “X.Movi”, located on the seventh floor of the building, presents the viewers a strange fruit that grows in seconds to resemble a ripe tomato, only to rot and lose its color, dangling from its branch like a deflated balloon. This fruit falls on the ground like a fluid-filled sac by gravity, as it were dripping the last droplet in the exhibition’s mortar.

The Fourth Floor
DeLanda aims to generate a novel materialism in his book, “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.” While constructing the methodology of this materialism, he repeatedly mentions that Fernand Braudel’s method and theories are among his most important references. Delanda’s configuration of historical narratives in thousand yearlong time frames – which is rarely seen in the literature – might be considered as a constrained application of Braudel’s concept, Longue Durée.

In his book “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II” 11 , which is published in 1973, and which is still a source for debates, Braudel takes the Mediterranean not with its frontiers we’ve been taught in elementary school, but as a geographical concept with its inland seas, and deems the Strait of Istanbul as part of the Mediterranean. 12 He was of course not yet informed of the hypothesis known as “The Black Sea Deluge”, first published in 1997. Although no consensus has yet been reached, the theory suggests that the Strait of Istanbul had been formed approximately 7550 years ago, when the rising seawaters of Mediterranean reached to the Black Sea, which was a lake back then. 13 Nevertheless, it is possible to think of this recent discovery together with Braudel’s Longue Durée concept, which envisages embracing the transformative effects of the times before written historical and archeological records with different scientific disciplines.

On the fourth floor of the building, we now find the original Laserchrome print of the “Bosphorus Fish Play No.8.” With this work depicting the jellyfish, the first known animal of the planet and the perpetual play of light on a waterway, which was formed thousands of years ago, Boomoon visualizes Cansever’s verse, “water’s image is water 14 in photography.

In his interview with Ahmet Oktay, Edip Cansever has said that his journeys to the Mediterranean have been influential for developing the approach that distinguishes his book, “Dirty August” from his earlier works. Fernand Braudel uses the expression “urban monster” 15 for Istanbul as per the city’s intense and consumption-based relationship with its hinterland. I do not know whether there is a counterpart of this expression in Cansever’s poetry. However, on the mezzanine level, which is accessible through the fourth floor, we find photographs from the “Counter Skin in Recklinghausen” series that Tatsuo Miyajima produced in the Ruhr region, which deserves the monster attribution for other reasons.

Tatsuo Miyajima, Counter Skin in Recklinghausen 3-4-5-6, 2008.
Lambda print, each: 47 x 63 cm.

As the records of a performance project that Miyajima produced during his visit to Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, these photographs are based on the idea of two strangers painting digits on each other’s bodies. Miyajima constructs his aesthetic by using numbers in a similar fashion with On Kawara, but he does that by experimenting with rather diversified forms. He aspires to reconcile two individuals who had not known each other before, through the performative act he proposes to them. Initially realized in Hiroshima and the Teuri Island of Japan, then on the 38th parallel, which draws the frontier between South and North Korea, the Germany lap of the project is concluded in the city of Recklinghausen, which is located at the northernmost part of the Ruhr Region. What these locations had in common was the fact that they have all been impacted by the bombings that took place in the last year of World War II. Then again, the reason why I deem the monster attribution to Ruhr Region is not because of its role during World War II but because of its coalmines.

Although Germany has already taken up a leading position in green energy production and has drawn criticism 16 because of its extreme dependence on renewable energy sources, the country owed much of its success to coal in its journey of industrialization. In his unusual historical narrative, DeLanda does not regard the industrialization era as a new phase of development and advance; according to him, industrialization is the transition to a bifurcation 17 point, where the existing autocatalytic 18 dynamics, that is contingent upon the negative feedback, evolves into self-sustaining autocatalytic loops. In other words, with the assistance of concepts he borrowed from chemistry and mathematics, DeLanda reckons industrialization as a complex and nonlinear process rather than a culminating point that is reached at the end of a linear course of progress. In this narrative, mass production is but a prominent alternative among many other modes. DeLanda quotes the implicit costs of coal-based economies by the geographer Ian Gordon Simmons, who has substantial contributions to the discipline of environmental history. One of the most significant ecological burdens of the areas surrounding the coal-producing regions like Ruhr is that, even long after the completion of mining activities, lands cave in, thus change the direction of currents streaming to these areas. 19 For his installation “Counter Coal” in Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, Tatsuo Miyajima placed bright red neon digits in a pile of coal, which appeared like embers from afar. Questions regarding the past and future of the coal were hidden in this pile. 

Coal is a product of a mineralization processes among many other different ones, which transform organic matter. While constructing his historical narratives, DeLanda mentions these other processes and reminds that roughly five hundred thousand years ago, a new material came into existence due to the abrupt mineralization process within the soft, gelatin-like organic conglomerates, which were the dominant life forms on earth back then. This new material was bone. The bone enables the living creatures to move freely; it is the resurrection, the return of the supposedly bygone geological period in the organic material; the archeology is recorded with the bones, 20 according to DeLanda. When we skip the fifth floor and arrive on the sixth, we confront a skull. This is one of the moving animations by Pascal Haudressy, created with curvy lines forming the figure and rectilinear lines representing the nervous system. The artist’s animation method, which rendered the soul visible with full figures in the series “Reminder” 21 , or which materialized the biological energy flow through isolated internal organs in the series “Organes” 22 , demonstrates the idea of death in “Skull.” Employed to visualize the notion of “Memento mori 23 across centuries, the skull takes on an unconventional liveliness in Haudressy’s piece.

Water and Light
Thus far, I have tried to explain with examples how the creative force inherent in the inorganic materials has been included in DeLanda’s new materialistic philosophy and to interpret the artworks I have selected from the “Water Reverie” exhibition in the light of these examples. However, as I expressed at the beginning of my essay, I consider the two main elements that constitute the core of this exhibition to be not coal and bone but water and light. As we come back from the sixth floor to the mezzanine level to wander among the works here, we find another work that skillfully merges these two elements.

Hervé Heuzé, Les Abîmes, 2006.
Acrylic on canvas, 129,5 x 115,5 cm.

Hervé Heuzé places at the center of his work a monument made of mesh, which stretches deep in the sea, rising towards the surface like woven pyramids of fishnets, with threads that get tangled as it approaches the light. On the nets are two dragonflies, each with a single wing, puzzling the viewer whether the blue we see in the background is in fact the sea or the sky at dawn. Heuzé unites two abimes, namely those that expand from the surface to the bottom of the sea and from the horizon to the uppermost level of the atmosphere. After this work, where the beaming light appears like a statue, you may salute the strange fruit of Eelco Brand once more and arrive on the eighth floor of the exhibition, which opens up to the sky. Here, you can lend an ear to the exhibition’s last words on light.

Recalling of the verse, “Oh, our happy confinement, / Between the earth and the sky”, the ceiling of the eighth floor is illuminated by the “Ballroom Chandelier Installation” which Keith Sonnier created with curvy fluorescent lights in the bright neon blue, green, yellow, silver and creole pink colors. In an article published in Artforum magazine regarding another exhibition of Sonnier, Donald Kuspit writes that Sonnier’s compositions “have a peculiarly sacramental character, all the more so because their radiant colors cast an auratic spell.” 24 Merging with the sky through the windows that open up to the Bosphorus on this floor, which is reminiscent of a castle’s tower, his auras take on a new form on the walls with the touch of another artist. Jerry Zeniuk names his brushstrokes, which enclose the whole room in pistachio green, crimson red, turquoise and orange colors, as “Istanbul Wall Painting.”

Poetry of Cansever harbored narration but did not create narratives. In another documentary where his work was discussed, Hilmi Yavuz said that in Cansever’s poetry, appearing as if not narrating accentuates the lyrical side of his poetry, while narrating accentuates the rhetorical side. According to Yavuz, Cansever unites these two with a successful synthesis. 25

The fact that I could apply DeLanda’s discourses in my interpretation of the exhibition in relation to Cansever’s map is indeed connected to this comment of Yavuz. The discourses of DeLanda, who reminds us that illnesses and epidemics were an essential part of the “biological regime” until the 18th century, 26 provide us with many other arguments, which might help us to understand the current historical process and its future. Likewise, it is possible to continue to read DeLanda with Cansever, who remarkably merged the organic and the geological decades ago in his “Yerçekimli Karanfil”, burning in our minds its imagery; who says he can “hear a bone that was cracked centuries ago” 27 and that he has been alive for “thousands, but thousands of years.” 28

In the very same documentary program, Küçük İskender shares his thoughts on the poetry of Cansever whom he loves dearly and says that he sees a prism when he looks at his poems. This prism might be a pyramid, a hotel, a wooden house where women play cards or a building. Cansever’s poetry always has the inclination to turn into something else in its own volume, which is perhaps why his poem “Water Reverie” is capable of infiltrating the whole building, under the curatorship of Necmi Sönmez.

Edip Cansever was a poet of the city. As I said, I do not know whether the monster image that Braudel deems proper for Istanbul has a counterpart in Cansever’s poetry. Yet, Cansever was saying in his poem, “Sığınak” 29 , that we could think of him as a monster if we wanted to, and that everyone would be eventually left with their very own thoughts. 30 The name of the book, which included this poem, was “Umutsuzlar Parkı” 31 Then again, while we are all exhausted as if we have wrestled monsters these days, it is for the best perhaps, if we embraced Cansever’s faith that there’s always a hope, deep within our essence.

1- Translated from: Edip Cansever, “Bakmalar Denizi”, Yerçekimli Karanfil, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2015, p.53

2- “Literature World”

4- Edip Cansever, “Water Reverie”, translation: Julia Tillinghast & Fatma Şahmurat, exhibition catalogue, 2020, p.27

5- Translated from: Edip Cansever, “Kaybola”, Yerçekimli Karanfil, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2015, p.45

6- Manuel DeLanda, ”A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History”, New York: Swerve Editions, 2000.

7- To watch Eelco Brand’s video works:

8- Reproductive isolation or hybridization barrier is biological term that defines all behaviors, physiological processes and mechanisms, which prevent the individuals of different species populations to mate or produce fertile offspring; causing to generate only infertile hybrid individuals.

9- Manuel DeLanda, ”A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History”, New York: Swerve Editions, 2000, p.61

11- Fernand Braudel, “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II”, New York, Harper & Row, 1972-1973

12- Ibid, p.71

14- Edip Cansever, “Su”, Sonrası Kalır/Bütün Şiirleri (Volume 1), İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2019, p.571

15- Fernand Braudel, “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II”, (1st Harper torch book ed.). New York: Harper & Row, 1973, p.273

17- Bifurcation is a mathematical theory usually employed in the analysis of dynamic systems.

18- Autocatalytic reactions are those in which a product of reaction acts as a catalyst and thereby aids in the subsequent conversion of reactant to product.

23- “Remember to die”

24- Donald Kuspit, “Keith Sonnier”, Artforum, March 2020

26- Manuel DeLanda,”A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History”, New York: Swerve Editions, 2000, p.106

27- Edip Cansever, “Ben Ruhi Bey Nasılım”, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2019, s.23

29- “Sanctuary”

30- Edip Cansever, “Umutsuzlar Parkı”, Umutsuzlar Parkı, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2020,p.36

31- “The Desperates’ Park”

İbrahim Cansızoğlu
İbrahim Cansızoğlu, Istanbul based art writer and researcher.
He earned his undergraduate degree at Koç University Economics Department which he attended with full scholarship. He completed Sabancı University Visual Arts and Visual Communication Design Graduate Program with his MA thesis on aesthetics of moving image. At conferences organized by the University of Reading, the University of Hertfordshire and the University of Winchester, he presented his researches based on his thesis. He had a certificate from London Film Academy. He taught in film, visual theory, visual culture and contemporary art at Izmir University of Economics and Kadir Has University. 
He worked at Galeri Nev Istanbul between 2012 -2015. He took on the task of curatorship in independent projects and in the context of Protocinema Emerging Curator Series in 2017. He continues to contribute art magazines Sanat Dünyamız and Art Unlimited with interviews and articles. He writes for the online art platform Argonotlar. 

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