Baris Gokturk: Public Secret
On ViewHelena Anrather
September 25 – November 22, 2020
Public Secret, the current solo exhibition of works by Baris Gokturk at Helena Anrather, presents a series of canvases displaying fragmented fiery landscapes, layered and scratched like an old street bulletin board or a peeled subway poster interrupted by the array of images underlying it. One can imagine oneself seeing a shadow of an explosion, the silhouette of a burning house, while other surfaces are harder to decipher.
The photo images are transferred through what looks like a bulky grid system, focusing the viewer’s eye on surface layers and texture while the image lingers between abstract shapes and representation of an event. Sometimes it is hard to decide whether a detail is relevant in reading an image or is just a superimposed shape or a flaked-off piece of material.
Fires_Riot_008 and The Field (both 2020) are the first two works one encounters when walking into the space. The former shows a transferred image of a fire curving through a dark backdrop. Behind the fire, one can make out a figure wearing a light helmet totally obscured by flames.
In The Field, a big smoke cloud at the center of the image looms behind oversaturated fireworks, obscure enough to also look like something more sinister. A strong white scratch is raked through the center of the image, partially painted and partially flaking off of the surface.
Looking at the works in the show, one can see where the image stops, but not where the scene does. The images crop and tear so that space becomes contested amid fuzzy shapes of persons, buildings, objects, and the amorphic forms of fire and explosion. The pieces become pure surface, not only in their intense textures that mix overexposed whites and missing chunks, but also in their mimicking of a “weathered” material, as if the same violence that they depict was also inflicted on them. Or perhaps their content is so combustive that the surface could not possibly contain it without visible strain. This is most apparent in Fires_Riot_005 and Fires_Riot_005_B (both 2020), in which a fire-engulfed house seems to perish in the distance, while a strong diagonal line cuts through the frame. The house is almost entirely deformed, giving in to the bright yellows and reds surrounding it. The blacked-out earth, taking as much as half the lower canvas, is dissected by the markings of the transfer grid that bleeds the same fiery yellow and red through its cracks.
The transferred scenes feel strangely familiar, stringing a visual line between the ocean of images that floods the feeds of news media and social platforms. The works evoke a sense of anonymous chaos, a constant stream of nervous energy that runs through computer screens and smartphones—from the protests in Minneapolis to the street demonstrations of Minsk, from California fires to the Amazon forests burning.
In the press release, the artist recalls the different waves of protest that affected his perception of public unrest, including the Occupy Wall Street movement, BLM, and the Gezi protests in his home country of Turkey. It feels strange to think about how similar all of these images are, how they change in scenery but repeat in language and action. This is particularly so for those of us watching protests far from our countries of origin, as Gokturk did watching the Gezi protests from his New York studio, observing our political selves expressed through other people’s bodies.
The street fires of Gokturk’s paintings become a unifying tool of both hope and despair, building a language of civil unrest across international boundaries. Authoritarian language echoes similarly in replying to these protests, reinventing them into combative zones of criminality. One can recall Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling the millions of protesters who demonstrated throughout the country “a handful of looters” who “destroy the shops” and “cars of civilians.”1 Trump similarly used “looters” and “terrorists” to delegitimize Black Lives Matter protests,2 and Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko referred to the massive protests demanding for his resignation as “unemployed criminals”.3
Police and military crackdowns would later produce the brutal images that these protests are associated with. The moment of clash between institutional power and the protester’s body emanates freedom, urgency, and oppression all at once. Layering such tensions onto his canvases, Gokturk lingers on these obscure fragments of civic outbursts, volatile and paralyzing all at once.
- Associated Press in Ankara. “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismisses Turkey protesters as vandals,” The Guardian. June 9, 2013, theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/09/recep-tayyip-erdogan-turkey-protesters-looters-vandals. Accessed 18 October 2020
- Paul Leblanc “Trump shares letter that calls peaceful protesters ‘terrorists’,” CNN, June 4, 2020, cnn.com/2020/06/04/politics/trump-letter-protesters/index.html. Accessed 18 October 2020
- Isabelle Khurshudyan, “Belarusian-style revolution means cleaning up after protests and stopping for red lights,” The Washington Post, September 23, 2020 washingtonpost.com/world/europe/belarusian-style-revolution-means-cleaning-up-after-protests-and-stopping-for-red-lights/2020/09/21/d02c292a-f37f-11ea-8025-5d3489768ac8_story.html. Accessed 18 October 2020