Dispatch from Istanbul: Replica of the Original, or, The Carpenter’s Workbench

Published July 5, 2019 on Degree Critical.

Installation of Replica of the Original at SALT Beyoğlu, 2019Iman Issa, Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people (2010). Image courtesy of the author.

Objects have stories to tell. Like humans they live and age, serve and suffer. They mean things to others. And during their lifetimes, they become storytellers. An object’s story is an autobiography; it is engraved in its core like a tree’s rings. “How do the life histories of people and objects, which are essential to human action, inform each other?” asks the wall text at the entrance to “Replica of the Original,” curated by Amira Akbıyıkoğlu and currently on view at SALT Beyoğlu in Istanbul through August 18th. This show listens to and recounts the life stories of fifteen artworks by eleven local and international artists who question how personal, cultural, and material histories are connected to and transform each other.

A monument can simultaneously tell stories of appropriation and possession, martyrdom and dictatorship, heroism and nationalism. In “Replica of the Original,” two artists regard monuments and their histories as objects. Welcoming visitors at the exhibition’s entrance is Egyptian artist Iman Issa’s Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people (2010), a long-legged plywood table with two spherical lamps affixed to the top, which intermittently switch on and off. Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s 2011 work The Demolition of the Russian Monument at Ayastefanos regards a monument at the moment of its demolition. A series of six black and white photographs depict the destruction of a monument built by the Ottoman Empire for Russia as war compensation following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The monument was once the subject of the alleged 1914 film The Demolition of the Russian Monument at Ayastefanos, considered the beginning of Turkish cinema. Shot by a film enthusiast officer cadet called Fuat Uzkinay, this film was said to have documented the demolition of said monument on November 14, 1914; yet the footage has never been found, and was never seen by anyone alive today. Çavuşoğlu takes the existing shots and fills in the blanks with her own narrative, one never seen before. Both these works converse with each other as they do with their environment, transforming themselves as their subjects transformed their own meaning. Issa’s installation is ambiguous, intriguing and comedic in its long, overstated title; and Çavuşoğlu’s series is narrative and illustrative. Yet both propose something imagined: their objects’ stories expect a viewer, an interpreter, to fill in the blanks as to what these monuments are and what they mean. Çavuşoğlu and Issa both look at non-existent statues, in Istanbul and Cairo respectively, and envision their own versions of war monuments that brought embarrassment being taken down. This act, imaginary and non-fictional at the same time, urges the viewer to do the same.

Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s, The Demolition of the Russian Monument at Ayastefanos (2011). Image courtesy of the artist. 

If one were to listen to Galata Tower, a 16th century fire watchtower that has become an Istanbul landmark, the bricks would tell the story of a man called Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi, an Ottoman luminary. According to legend, in 1693 Çelebi jumped from Galata Tower wearing handmade wings, and flew from the European coast to the Asian. Hagia Sophia, built as a Greek Orthodox cathedral almost 1500 years ago, later to become a grand mosque and finally a museum, would talk about the Roman and Ottoman empires it had seen rise and fall. The Temple of Jerusalem, if it still stood, would recount the times of Babylon, King Solomon and Cyrus, and all the wars fought under its shadow. Artist Cansu Çakar looks at these structures and sees more than just bricks and mortar—she gives color and shape to the stories of these structures and reconstructs them on paper in the tradition of Ottoman miniature paintings as a style that speaks to the shared history and geography of the buildings. Started as illuminated manuscripts for the use of Ottoman sultans and their court, miniature paintings were for centuries one of the most common traditional arts, beginning around Mehmet II’s reign in 1400s. Generally painted on paper with ink and vivid colors, miniatures were famously small in size, and rendered with great detail. Just as miniatures once did, her three exhibited works A Thousand Wise Men (2016), A Thousand Cubit (2018), and Al-’Arsh of Suffering (2017) in true fidelity all use watercolor, ink, gouache, and gold.

 Mark Dion, Dig Culture, 2011. Photograph from the exhibition. Courtesy of the author. 

Elsewhere, bottles, shards of broken glass and ceramics, horseshoes, copper pots and pans, ancient and heavy measuring devices, scissors, rusty metal nails, bronze cups, and old dusty shovels are arranged in an order on a six-tiered wooden shelf. These found objects, presented like trophies of an archaeological expedition, collectively form Mark Dion’s Dig Culture, an installation SALT commissioned for the inaugural exhibition in its newer, second location, which opened in 2011. A photograph of the work’s initial installation, and a primary sketch made by Dion for the original iteration, accompanies the shelf. Dion’s “excavation” materials are, somewhat like Çavuşoğlu and Issa’s works, imaginary, as they don’t have scientific value. Their artistic value however, lie within Dion’s own storytelling. Dion’s art questions the qualities that make an object “important” in the eyes of history, how the narratives created by museums and institutions dictate these certain qualities, and how these narratives can be challenged. The objects that compose Dig Culture are organized by no specific or scientific method other than Dion’s himself. In “Replica of the Original,” they are organized slightly differently from 2011, their stories changed once more, recited, and retold.

Walking past artworks, I considered how viewers’ pasts would affect the narrative of these objects, and what sort of storyteller an object from my own history could be. An uncanny feeling overcame me when I spied a carpenter’s workbench across the gallery floor, an object that conjured a reminiscence of my own past. It reminded me of a certain place that is a part of my history, Gallery Apel, where I had my first real job. Years ago when I worked there, I came in to work and took my seat daily next to the old, overused wooden workbench that Ms. Terzioglu, the gallery’s owner, used as her desk. The building’s previous owner, an Armenian master carpenter called Armenak had given Ms. Terzioglu several of his old workbenches when she bought the place from him. She proudly and lovingly used that desk, and looked back on Master Armenak’s gesture affectionately. I remembered the stories that charming Ms. Terzioglu used to tell me about him and the building.

Handan Börüteçene, Armenak Ustanın Marangoz Tezgâhı [The Workbench of Master Armenak], 2000. Photograph from the exhibition. Courtesy of the author. 

The installed workbench, except for the fact that it was adorned with three magnifying glasses, looked exactly like Ms. Terzioglu’s desk. The wood was frayed and timeworn, covered in deep, scraped lines and marks of craftsmanship, of labor, of years passed working. The magnifying glasses emphasized these signs of time, highlighting their profundity and diligence. I approached and read closely the caption more than once. It was a work by Handan Börüteçene, titled Armenak Ustanın Marangoz Tezgâhı[The Workbench of Master Armenak] (2000). It was the same master carpenter’s workbench indeed––it could even be the same one. Börüteçene, who contemplates on themes of history and archaeology in her artistic practice, created The Workbench of Master Armenak for an exhibition called “Earth and Fiber” in 2000 at a gallery none other than Apel; and according to Apel’s website, it was the desk of Ms. Terzioglu. What a strange, mysterious history that brought us all to Apel and then to SALT Beyoğlu. All our stories began elsewhere and merged in time. My biography became the artwork’s biography. The stories recited by our pasts, Armenak’s and mine, and Börüteçene’s and Apel’s, echoed in unison. The exhibition realized itself.

“Replica of the Original” remains on view through August 18th, 2019 at Salt Beyoğlu, İstiklal Caddesi 136 
Beyoğlu İstanbul, Turkey.