Conversation between Ahmet Ögüt and Berin Golonu, published in Fillip Magazine, Isssue No 14, Summer 2011

Between the Scaffold and the Ruin

Ahmet Ögüt & Berin Golonu

Originally commissioned for the Pavilion of Turkey in the 53rd Venice Biennale, Ahmet Ögüt’s installation Exploded City (2009) depicts and collapses various catastrophic events from around the world into a single sculptural form. Scale models of buildings and vehicles destroyed by terrorist bombings, ethnic conflicts, and military attacks of the last two decades are brought together in an assemblage that resembles the structure of a modern city centre. Exploded City renders these buildings and vehicles intact, and depicts them in their state prior to their destruction. The resulting structure resembles the model of a shiny new city, much like a World’s Fair diorama that offers a propagandistic vision of progress.

Manifesting French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage,which refers to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of sources, Exploded City merges a series of symbolic sites from myriad nations and cultures into one structural unity, producing an impossible spatial proximity and temporal simultaneity. Even though the visibility of these sites has been ushered in through catastrophe, the fact that Ögüt has used media photographs of these buildings to build his models reflects the understanding that this visibility is always compromised, abstracted and removed from its actual context through its media representation.

A legend supplements the sculptural components of the installation and lists the buildings’ names, locations, and dates of destruction. In addition, there is a textual narrative that further interweaves past, present, and future into a complicated and problematic unity. This textual narrative draws from the magical realist tone of Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, based upon the tales Marco Polo tells the emperor Kublai Kahn about the cities he sees on his travels, cities under the emperor’s rule that the emperor has not been able to visit because his empire is so vast. In Ögüt’s narrative, Polo describes how Exploded City’s residents are aware of these buildings’ impending fates yet choose to inhabit the city nonetheless. The catastrophic events of the recent past have yet to occur, and are held in suspension, in a perpetual present that looks to the future for some sort of release. The emperor, who gains knowledge of the past, present and future through Polo’s narrative, is thus forced to confront this dystopic vision of a city and a people under his rule, a city that lives under the constant threat of obliteration.

Berin Golonu: I see Exploded City as an assemblage of specifically chosen events that attempts to represent a vision of global conflict. This piece was originally commissioned for the Pavilion of Turkey at the 53rd International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Was there a certain narrative you wanted to convey about the history of the Turkish modern state for the piece’s original context of display? Perhaps a revisionist history of Turkey’s modernization project or a comment about the lacunae in the sanctioned, authoritative historical narrative that is taught in Turkish schools?

Ahmet Ögüt: I was trying to create a closely studied history of Exploded City without getting caught up in the discourse of the sanctioned authoritative historical narrative. My hope was to present a social montage by tapping into individual memory. The buildings I chose to include in Exploded City have an open-ended makeup. For example, it’s important that the structures themselves are somewhat anonymous looking. The events I chose to include occurred from the 1990s to the present, and the buildings I chose to include are semi-public. There are, of course, many other buildings that fall into these criteria that could have been a part of Exploded City. The destructive events documented in Exploded City are caused not by a single ideology but by a diverse range of motivations. Some of these incidents were brought about by civil wars, others by international terrorist activity, regional conflicts, ethnic conflicts, or religious clashes. I find it is important not to relate these conflicts to only one cause. Exploded City is an open-ended structure in which a diverse array of ideologies converge. We need to examine this diversity in its full complexity. The recent history that our individual memories can access have potential, yet they can also be manipulated by the status quo, by what we are collectively taught to remember. For example, coming face to face with the recent history of Turkey means doing so only through a big lapse in time. The laws that have been in effect for many years turn the recent past into the distant past. In other words, recently lived history is shelved and the process of coming into contact with history becomes a delayed process. This delay or lapse in time not only erases critical actors from the scene but also erases them from a social memory.

BG: Can you give an example of how recent history has been delayed in Turkey?

AÖ: For example, the Saturday Mothers of Turkey, including the 103-year-old Nana Berfo, have been searching for their lost children for years. During Turkey’s military coup in 1980, Nana Berfo’s home was raided and her son, Cemil Kirbayir, was arrested. She hasn’t heard from her son since. But she still holds out the hope that he may return to her one day, and for thirty years she has kept her door open in case of his return. I don’t see this prolonged wait as a helpless or moot gesture. Nana Berfo has turned this memorializing ritual into a part of her daily life, and thereby fights against the fact of forgetting that occurs over time. For the residents of Exploded City, reliving and remembering what is yet to happen in the near future similarly becomes a part of their daily ritual, and as hopeless as it may seem, they persevere in their struggle.

BG: You make an important statement in your interview with Önder Özengi: “we should all take the initiative by individually constructing narratives that can exist in parallel and allow for a rhizomatic notion of history.” As the author of the piece, you have assembled your individual narrative by choosing which events to represent and which to leave out. I’m wondering to what degree your installation allows the spectators’ individual narratives in?

AÖ: Yes, if looked at it from other points of view, Exploded City can take many different shapes and forms. The factor of time is also a very important frame. When I started constructing the piece, it was the end of 2008, the beginning of 2009. If I were to undertake the same project today, a different range of buildings would be included. That is why Exploded City’s borders are somewhat defined by the time period in which the project was conceived and constructed. But rather than conceiving it as a closed city, it may be more accurate to see it as a city that is in a constant transformation according to day-to-day needs and developments. Although I don’t think that each viewer should physically add new buildings to Exploded City, I do believe that Exploded City takes the form of a differentiated tale or story in each viewer’s mind. I know for a fact that certain viewers who lay eyes upon Exploded City have experienced some of these buildings and their destruction from a much closer perspective than I. Though rare, I have met viewers who have experienced some of these events firsthand. Given such a reality, I see myself as someone on the outside looking in. The more I listen to them recount their stories and experiences, the more meanings Exploded City accrues for me.

BG: Have you considered displaying Exploded City in one of the urban locales in which the represented catastrophes occurred, where one of the buildings represented by the model structures may have originally been situated? Mumbai or Bogota, for example?

AÖ: I don’t have complete control over deciding where the piece will be displayed—it is very large and costly to ship, which affords certain limitations for display. But I think that it would be important to be able to test how the piece would be received in one of the locales where one of the events depicted took place. I hope I’ll get the opportunity to display it in such a context one day.

BG: Exploded City has since been presented at two other venues, one in Berkeley, California, and one in Munich. Have you found that the contents of the installation have acquired new meanings in other contexts of display? Venice draws a truly international crowd—and perhaps Berkeley and Munich contain this cosmopolitanism as well—but I’m wondering if you have noticed different meanings and/or narratives attached to the events you have chosen to depict, depending on the specific context in which the piece has been displayed?

AÖ: The profile of the viewers can change depending on which city the piece is displayed. This allows the project to be read from entirely different perspectives. I was particularly interested in finding out the reactions of American viewers. In the past, the first reaction I received from many Americans was the question of why the Twin Towers were not included in Exploded City. Whereas in the past, I had explained my true rationale—which was that the Twin Towers’ inclusion would have overpowered and eclipsed all the smaller buildings in the installation—in more recent months I preferred to say that I’d simply forgotten to include them. For the viewers to engage their time-lapsed individual memories with the structures, I had to choose somewhat anonymous looking buildings. In other words, these were buildings that would only be recognized by viewers who belonged to the countries, regions, or contexts in which the events they represented occurred. In a context like the Venice Biennale, where viewers hail from all different parts of the world, it was easier for viewers from different contexts to trigger dormant memories through their engagement with this installation.

BG: This project brought to mind some of Jacques Derrida’s ideas outlined in his book Writing and Difference, in particular. Derrida’s project is to discern the absences within the presence of any assemblage, archive, or record of history through the act of deconstruction. You mentioned that many Americans who look at Exploded City first discern the absence of the World Trade Center towers. It’s funny, but for me, looking at Exploded City is similar to the feeling I get when looking at the skyline of New York City with the iconic towers missing. Their absence is a kind of presence that refuses to disappear. Do you think such an omission, in effect, can strengthen the memory of a presence?

AÖ: Yes, the Twin Towers have been etched into our memory to such a degree that their silhouettes are still in our mind’s eye, even though the buildings themselves are gone. Their status as icons prevents the memory of their presence from disappearing. On the other hand, I’m more interested in those thoughts that lie in the inner reaches of our memory, those remembrances that are less defined, that are less easy to recount, that more easily come and go. That’s why I chose another American building that was destroyed in an attack, an attack that lies in the shadow of 9/11 and risks the threat of being forgotten: the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that was destroyed in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. This was the largest terrorist attack in recent American history before 9/11. It’s also interesting that the attack was executed by an American. Even though this event and this building hold a place in the American consciousness, it’s not an incident that is easily recognized in other parts of the world.

BG: I noticed that you lowered the installation’s ceiling in Munich so that some of the visitors have to crouch in order to view it. Can you talk about your motivations for this structural alteration?

AÖ: My historical research on the Museum Villa Stuck and its building yielded my decision to lower the ceiling. A few of my pieces were on display and we were using two floors of the building. One could access the top floor only through a spiral ladder. We lowered the top floor’s ceiling so that up until the top step of the ladder, you got the impression that the ceiling was normal height. After stepping on the last step, nearly everyone hit his or her head on the lowered ceiling. I thought the best piece to display in this room would be Exploded City. As you know, it takes a long time to see and understand Exploded City in its entirety. It takes even longer when viewers read the wall text, which is somewhat lengthy. Lowering the ceiling and forcing the viewer to assume a bent over pose made the conditions for viewing and reading this piece much more difficult. The toy-like appearance of the model city and its maquettes make the installation look extremely innocuous at first, but the subject itself is very disturbing. Under the lowered ceiling, this feeling of safety that comes from looking at a child’s plaything and the feeling of discomfort that comes from being bent over somehow blended together.

BG: Berkeley Matrix curator Elizabeth Thomas offers a thought-provoking statement about Exploded City in the exhibition brochure. She states: “we are made to see these places that for most of us never existed in our consciousness, and how they connect to ourselves, in concrete terms of war or policy and in abstract terms of fear and empathy. In these moments, the variables of distance, speed and time that keep us from knowing these places through our own experience collapse.” She suggests that there’s a kind of generalization of information or an abstraction of knowledge (that’s perhaps exploited by the media) in our ability to understand the scale, magnitude, and effects of catastrophes happening at a remove. Can you talk about whether the physical components of the installation throw this abstraction into relief? I am thinking, for example, about a review I read of the installation after it was installed in Venice. The writer complained that the urban-scape you depicted wasn’t “realistic,” that there were no roads connecting the buildings together in your diorama, for example. Is this lack of realism purposeful, and intended to hold the viewer at a remove?

AÖ: I divided Exploded City into two sections. The first part consists of the installation of the building maquettes. I see this as a three-dimensional archive. Therefore, I wanted to avoid putting elements or objects into the installation other than the buildings themselves. There are no roads, no lawns, no lots, no hills, mountains, soil, or greenery. The only way we can conceive that these buildings may belong together in the same city has to do with their proximity to one another. The second part of the installation is the wall text, which is as important as the sculptural components themselves. In it, Marco Polo recounts his experience of visiting Exploded City, and this text contains all of the elements that weren’t included in the sculptural components, the elements that bring the city to life: the smells or sounds one may encounter in the city; the paths and trails that tie the buildings together; its inhabitants. Every element that may be triggered by our imagination in trying to envision a real city is communicated in the text. While the maquettes may trigger the individual memories of those who may have lived the events from close proximity, the text allows access to the piece for the viewer who may have never witnessed these incidents firsthand.

BG: The textual narrative that accompanies the installation is written as though it was another chapter in Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. In it, Marco Polo conveys a description of Exploded City to Emperor Kublai Khan, explaining that the residents of the city have chosen to stay, even though they know that it is slated for destruction. It prompts questions about the meaning of life under the threat of violence and upheaval. This brings to mind the current uprisings in North Africa, where people are choosing to speak out about oppression and the need for political change, even though they know that it puts peace at risk within their society. Do you intend to equate the actions of the residents of Exploded City with resistance struggles and the inevitability of taking significant risks in such struggles?

AÖ: When one reads about Exploded City as though it were a part of Marco Polo’s travel diary, our recent history is transformed into a city from the future that will come into being seven hundred years after Marco Polo’s lifetime. The concept of time is being put into active use. According to Marco Polo’s impressions, we see that the residents of this city have developed mixed sensibilities. They know the disastrous events that will take place in the locations they occupy. Rather than waiting for the events to happen in a helpless manner, they construct daily rituals for their lives to go on. These rituals involve an attempt to change events that they know are impossible to change. They try to alter fate, even though they know it can’t change. In real life on the other hand, people engage in resistance struggles knowing that there’s a possibility that they can alter events in the future. When you sent me the questions for this interview, the uprisings in Cairo had gained full force. As I write you my answers a few days later, the crowds in Egypt have already succeeded in toppling a thirty-year-old dictatorship regime. Two months ago, no one would have believed this would have happened. At this very moment in Libya, the uprisings calling for the end of Gaddafi’s regime continue, even though there is an effort to violently suppress the crowds. Who knows what else will have happened by the time this interview published.