MAKE/DO originally appeared in SMBA Newsletter No. 117 (NL/EN)
By Moosje Goosen
In The Social Life of Things, the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues that ‘even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context.’(1) With this in mind, let’s consider the life of, say, a bucket. Despite its matter-of-factness as a mobile container for carrying water, wall paint, or—as seen from child’s eyes—sand on a beach from point A to B, in everyday life an upside-down bucket can become a makeshift hat for someone who forgot his umbrella in pouring rain. Did the bucket fall short of its purpose? Did this person fail to recognize its proper use?
If this is the case, then the series of photos and pencil drawings that comprise Ahmet Ögüt’s Mutual Issues: Inventive Acts (2008) is a collection of shortcomings and failures. A man crosses a flooded street with stools attached to his shoes; someone else takes a ride in a chair that sits on his scooter; and yet another person is balancing on two ladders, stacked on top of one another. Ögüt’s drawings are lit by a do-it-yourself system of cloth hangers with fixed light bulbs, reminding us both of Man Ray’s Obstruction mobile, and the improvised furniture of a student’s home. The objects in these series become anti-hero stage props in a talent show for the clumsy. Just as in Buster Keaton’s comedy of mechanical gags, you are not quite sure who steals the show: inanimate things come alive and turn against us, or instead, become partners-in-crime in the build-up of a slapstick moment. We wait for the instant where things turn wrong—when the tea-seller stumbles over his feet-on-stools, when the ladders collapse. But Ögüt carefully chooses his moment: his drawings are isolated fragments on plane paper; his photos scripted snapshots. Ögüt transfers his observations of street scenes in Istanbul, to an act that lacks its original context. What remains, for us viewers, is the moment between a successful effort and potential failure, somewhere between absurdity and hope. In this regard, Ögüt is methodological in his approach: his practice is one of ‘make’ and ‘do’, an active and creative response to everyday occasions of power, capacity, and the lack thereof. ‘My basic observation,’ Ögüt remarks, ‘is that if there is no existing structure or potential conditions that have already been grounded in a place, then the structure invents itself using the existing possibilities and impossibilities in that location.’ We cope with what we lack, we make do with what we have. It’s an observation, no more or less: Ögüt won’t predict or theorize the outcome of his well-observed, seemingly absurd events. Instead, he shows that potential failure is an effort in itself.
Ögüt’s solo show ‘Informal Incidents’ is all about the effort of action; whether futile, in vain, or surprisingly urgent; whether passive or active (Ögüt divided his show at SMBA into two chapters, ‘Active Acts’ and ‘Passive Acts’). In Ögüt’s pseudo-documentary videos, photos and drawings, in his slapstick performances and role-play, an act is never a dead end road. Vehicles—often-used motifs in his work—navigate as actors or victims, in an allegory of, and critical response to, a society that is constantly in the making. In the video Death Kit Train (2005) a red car slowly enters the frame, a bit too slowly to appear natural. A few moments later we realize that the ‘motor’ of this slow movement is not the car itself, but a man who pushes the car, backed up by another man pushing the man who pushes the car, and many more who push those in front of them. Here, we find an obvious reference to Pieter Bruegel’s Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, although Ögüt’s video is void of the latter’s inevitable moral punishment to such a foolish act. On the contrary: in Death Kit Train, something moves forward, does not fall into a ditch, and steers off that moment of sheer laugh. The car transcends its use, and as a failing vehicle it becomes the motor for a motor; a MacGuffin to keep things rolling; some ‘thing’ that, quite literally, drives the plot and generates meaning along the way.
Many of Ögüt’s work, indeed, reflect the absurdity of Hitchcock’s story of the MacGuffin. As one may recall, it tells the tale of two train passengers, wondering about a package in the luggage rack. ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,’ one of the two says. ‘…an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ says the other, to which the first responds: ‘Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!’ Hope might constitute our belief in the absurd and the impossible—whereas irony, as the writer David Foster Wallace once put it, is the song of a bird that has come to enjoy its cage. In that sense, there is nothing ironic about Ögüt’s work, for he doesn’t tell a story of being trapped. Ögüt prefers to look for the gaps in an imperfect system, in ‘an area that is under 23 hour video and audio surveillance’ (2009). In a lost hour, we can redirect our chances; reconsider our options, and the world will never be the same. Power works slowly, at times as a rusty machine, and therefore, Ögüt’s work is certainly also about timing and being one step ahead. In Somebody Else’s Car (2005) he performs a ‘vandalistic’ act of altering two cars, without the owners’ permission, using readymade paper cutouts. In the fragmentary narrative of a slide projection, we see two cars transform into an Istanbul yellow cab and Turkish police car, respectively. We don’t know what happened in the split seconds in between the slides: we can’t tell if Ögüt had to hide for passers-by, or whether the car owners appreciated this practical joke. The strength of this work is in the fragment, so that the moments-in-between become empowered with the prospect and opportunity that Ögüt himself acted upon, armored with paper and tape. Light Armored, (2006), works in the opposite direction: this animation of stones being thrown at a Land Rover, recalls those early dull videogames that seem to go on forever without end. The car is not affected by this play of hit and miss, but that doesn’t prevent the stones from being thrown: a passive act, but an act, indeed.
Finally, we could add an unnamed third chapter to Ögüt’s show, of those things ‘missing in action’. Ögüt’s latest work, Punch This Painting (2010) is a self-portrait of the artist that will only be exhibited (and possibly punched at) when successfully auctioned at a special event at SMBA. In another work, there is an ongoing counting, in Kurdish, Turkish and English, of retired fighter planes at an airplane graveyard in Arizona’s Sonoran desert (Things We Count, 2008). And then there is (isn’t) Guppy 13, purchased by the artist in Illinios and shipped to the Netherlands to become a stand-in prop in a Bas Jan Ader ‘experience’ across the IJ. The Guppy 13 boat is the model of Bas Jan Ader’s ‘Ocean Wave’ in which he attempted to cross the ocean, where he eventually disappeared. This stand-in stands out in its absence: in the spirit of Bas Jan Ader, Ögüt’s Guppy 13 got stolen recently, in Amsterdam waters. On view at SMBA is the police report, as a sad but honorable reminder to this double ‘escape’. Apparently, Ögüt’s works also have social lives of their own.
(1) Arjun Appadurai, 'Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,' The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Appadurai (Cambridge, 1986).