texts

originally published in the Frieze Magazine (online) on 24 July 2012

Ahmet Ögüt at Delfina Foundation

by Roma Clemie

‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Read once, Samuel Beckett’s most famous aphorism appears reassuring, as though he is teaching those readers of his late novellaWorstward Ho (1983) how to force a smile. Read again and yet again, however, and your cheeks begin to ache as Beckett’s language folds inwards, trapping you in its rhythm. It’s a seductive loop, gallows humour at its finest. But if you are doomed to lose is there any chance that your actions can still resonate?

The three short films that comprise Ahmet Ögüt’s solo show, titled ‘Or Whistle Spontaneously’, attempt such a feat. The short video Things We Count (2008) reveals a haze-haloed panorama: beneath a mountain range in Arizona, hundreds of disused US Air Force planes are grounded in formation. The camera tracks at eye level, as a disembodied male voice counts in an incantatory blend of English, Turkish and Kurdish. Such slippage in language transforms the integers into a roll call of things unseen and unsaid: images of Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers, civilians and the dead appear, sequentially, in the viewer’s media-saturated imagination. The planes are broken metonyms; where once they would have served for military power now they stand for all the waste of war.

In the minute-long animation Light Armoured (2006), pixellated rocks are lobbed by an off-screen assailant at a military SUV, the stones ricocheting and falling to the ground with a satisfying ‘thwunk’. The jeep might be occupied or it might be unmanned, either way, the assault goes unnoticed – no scraped paintwork or bonnet dent is left as testament. Try again. The stones keep coming in a closed-circuit loop of logic that betrays the transience of a gesture both absurd and pleasingly puerile.

If the interlocutors in Light Armoured remain anonymous, then Oscar William Sam (2012) – an easily cracked cipher for Occupy Wall Street – invests the act of naming with cryptographic significance. An outstretched arm gestures and identifies protesters milling in and around Zuccotti Park, the OWS movement’s camp, days before the site was violently disbanded by the NYPD. ‘Lisa, Jason, Marie, Nancy’, the soundtrack intones in a faintly amused manner that bridges the conspiratorial and the revelatory, surveillance thinly disguised as camaraderie. 

Naming undermines the Occupy movement’s mantra, ‘We are the 99 percent’. The sum of the collective is splintered into a rabble of individuals – far easier to dominate – as overtly illustrated in artist Tania Bruguera’s crowd control performance Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008). Ögüt’s floating hand points, cocked like a rifle, and picks off protesters one by one; if Light Armoured has the look of an arcade game, then Oscar William Sam takes the format of an old fashioned shoot-em-up. Still, there is no evidence that the names supplied are real, no suggestion of what game the artist is playing or which side he is on.

No matter. In each of the videos Ögüt presents a situation in which the motivation of the protagonist is enigmatic. The tasks performed – counting, stoning, naming – appear futile (both in terms of their limitlessness and lack of consequence) but as gestures they are poignant, subversive and bitingly funny. ‘Or Whistle Spontaneously’ invites you to make a noise, shrill or tunefully, to yourself, even if no one is listening. It is an invitation to agency, which, surely, is at the root of all forms of resistance.