Introducing Ahmet Ogut originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Modern Painters
Introducing Ahmet Ogut
By Steven Henry Madoff
In the warm afternoon light of a summer just rising, a simple box with a plunger to detonate explosives glints in the public plaza adjoining the Kunsthalle Basel. A thick yellow cord is attached to the device. Why not follow it? After all, the detonator doesn't look too real, and the cord leads up the street, into the museum, where an equally cartoonish pile of dynamite sits like a minimalist heap-something between a Carl Andre and a Robert Smithson-with an overlay of slyly political commentary. Welcome to Ahmet Ogut's world.
Ogut, 27, is from the small city Diyarbakir , where he studied painting in high school and college, and he found himself at a very early crossroads as a graduate student in Istanbul. 'Painting was really different from the way I was feeling,' he says, talking on the phone from Amsterdam, where he is finishing a residency at the Rijksakademie. 'I didn't know how I could express myself anymore on a canvas. I was always having trouble with the background, so I thought I could be a painter without a canvas.'
The background was obviously more than a painterly issue. It was a matter of finding illusionistic depth inadequate to inscribe the political space of the world. And like all art students in places far from the perceived artworld centers, he was reading stacks of art magazines, consuming aesthetics and attitudes, while he looked intently at the previous generation of Turkish artists whose work spoke at the intersection of conceptual art and social need. In the two years since he received his master's degree from Yildiz Teknik University, in 2006, Ogut has shot forward at a sprint, making videos, animations, drawings, photographs, sculpture, books, and installations. And word has spread. Istanbul, Helsinki, New York, Vienna, Malmo, Ljubljana, Santa Fe, and Berlin have all seen his art.
Ogut's work is an explication of the rights of the individual and the expression of those rights in the face of the requirements of the state. The consequent struggle to make do and live with a sense of self-will sets into motion what might be called game-life. In game-life, the players improvise a way to assert and confirm their rights as they negotiate the social field of daily existence. In Turkey, under the gaze of the state, Ogut sees the invention of alternative means to live as a game that is as endlessly creative and exhilarating as it is tiring, or dangerous. That risk brings tension, amusement, and gravity to his art, giving it a disarming and often funny charge. His inventions are off-kilter, in keeping with the necessities of the life of repressed and impoverished people reacting to the will to impoverish and the will to subjugate-state policies that leave society in its condition of want.
What Ogut's pile of dynamite signals is his gamer's strategy, using a playful format to present the effects of the politicization of life. 'I use this child's way of seeing the world,' he says, 'so that at first the work doesn't look so dangerous. It allows you to come a little closer, and then you understand that the stories are not that nice.' At the Kunsthalle there was, for example, his and Sener Ozmen's 2004 Coloring Book, in which reversals and perversions of normal situations are drawn with the simplest of outlines, waiting to be cheerily filled in-a woman on the floor with a boy looming above her about to crush her skull, or children watching a couple kiss on television while the parents avert their eyes.
Transformations fill Ogut's art; he often uses the mechanism of irony to create a schism between appearance and meaning. In his video Somebody Else's Car (2005), he played out the action of selecting two cars at random in a parking lot and changing their appearances with details he applied at hectic speed, turning them respectively into a taxi and a police car without the owners' knowledge-a game of displacement, of reimagining each citizen 'transported' into different roles that mordantly pun on 'driving' the people, as the taxi driver does and as the police who terrorize and control in a repressive regime also do.
Still, on the other side of monolithic control are precisely the small interventions of game-life and comic resistance, which Ogut unfolds in the civics lesson he calls 'Mutual Issues, Inventive Acts' (2008). In this series of photographs and drawings, we see people in different cities deploying uncommon means to get by: a man straps his feet to two stools to cross a flooded street; two women share a long winter scarf as a communal act that satisfies need; another man, perched on a little motorbike with a big sack on his lap, moves without the help of a moving van-all improvisations that engage the ludic imagination to make the hardships of daily life manageable, even amusing.
In Ogut's inevitable logic of play, ironic meaning can be taken to the point of material literalism. In his recent Ground Control (2008), created for this year's Berlin Biennial, the symbolic weight of the piece is embedded in its material: Ogut paved a tar road from the street into the entry gallery of the KW Institute. The power of the Everyman, presumed to have been subsumed by the power of privilege, is playfully returned by Ogut's rerouted access road. Dislocation and relocation, improvisation and rehabilitation, absurdity and the regeneration of community are all here-in other words, the themes and strategies that have quickly become Ogut's signatures.
This is where Ogut's work apparently likes to land-on a border where many artists who live in repressive places find themselves, whether Franz Kafka, Komar & Melamid, or Milan Kundera. In Ogut's hands, irony is the craft of defiance with a comic face. His goal is to rebalance the idea of power, replacing submission with the possibility of personal rights, relocating sovereignty in the individual to legitimate his or her own relationships in the realms of private life and the polis. 'What makes me interested is the political background,' Ogut says. 'But the possibility of someone else's political background is just as important. Things look different from different places. It's like me. I'm living in the European Union now, but I'm coming from Turkey. The pain of where I come from doesn't go away for me because I'm in Amsterdam. It's strange what happens with geography-one hundred meters apart the world can be totally different. It's mysterious, it's a joke, it's a tragedy. That's what I want in the work, these different levels that make possibilities appear.'