Conversation between Ahmet Ögüt and Murat Alat, on the occasion of theThe “Black Diamond” project at the Eindhoven Van Abbemuseum and ARTER in 2010

Genuinely effective institutional
critique is only possible by
allowing ourselves to be exposed
to contempt together and by
getting ourselves dirty

The “Black Diamond” project opened at the Eindhoven Van Abbemuseum(1) in July 2010 and its presentation in the Netherlands continued when it was adapted for ARTER. “Black Diamond” aims to test the dynamics of the relationship between an institution, its budget and its visitors through providing a valuable gift to participating visitors. The project consists of several sequential stages. In the first stage, a piece of wall at ARTER (the institution) was removed and replaced by a precious diamond. In the second stage, a specially prepared floor area of the institution was covered with nine tons of coal and the piece of the institution was thrown among and concealed under the coal. In the third stage, visitors were offered an opportunity to enter this area by appointment to search for the concealed piece of wall for a specified time.

For those visitors who simply wanted to see the diamond, a map with a series of logical steps was prepared and visitors following these directions could locate a telescope, through which they could see the diamond. If during the exhibition a visitor should succeed in finding the piece of the institution, that person could return it to its place in the wall and keep the diamond. If no one found the piece of the institution during the exhibition, the diamond would be deemed unrecoverable and it would remain forever in the wall of the institution. At 18:36 on Wednesday, 2 December, five days after the exhibition opened, Ümit Sarigül and Ahmet Can Bayrak found the piece and claimed the diamond.

Within the context of institutional critique, I see “Black Diamond” as research performed on structures engendering the value of works of art, and I believe that it is a self-reflexive endeavour and an inquiry into the media used in your own production. Moreover, this project draws attention to the discrepancy in value between a diamond and coal, which has the same chemical composition. Do you think the visitor’s attention is held by a market predicated value and its allure or, rather, some intrinsic value?

Ahmet: What we mean when we say ‘value’ is crucial. First, my intent is to investigate the means through which a work of art could be emancipated from its speculative value.  Put simply and succinctly, my question, derived from Marx, is this: What are the use and exchange values of a work of art? Let me begin with exchange value. According to Marx, in order for a product to be considered a commodity, it must be ‘exchangeable’ within the economy.(2) Similarly, Adorno says, “no object has an inherent value; it is valuable only to the extent that it can be exchanged.”(3) Quite naturally, when we look at a work of art today, its ‘exchange value’ is not only maintained but that value may rise exorbitantly. I recently enjoyed watching a parody of this in the 2006 documentary Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollock?(4) The documentary tells the story of Teri Horton, a truck driver who buys a painting from a second-hand shop for $5 and who later realises that it’s a Jackson Pollock. While important museum and gallery experts reject the authenticity of the painting, Teri calls in Peter Paul Biro, a forensic art expert, to authenticate the piece. Working like a crime scene investigator, Peter Paul Biro establishes that a fingerprint lifted from Pollock’s studio and one on the back of Teri’s painting are the same. However, art experts are still not convinced of the authenticity of the painting. Despite this, Teri receives offers of up to $9 million, which she rejects since she does not want to sell the piece for less than other Pollack paintings. The naked truth here is not whether or not the painting is a genuine Jackson Pollock. As long as it isn’t ‘exchanged’ on the market, which is controlled by powerful hands, it will have no value. One of the first to make this critique was Hans Haacke.  In 1975, Haacke followed the trail of “Les Poseuses”, a painting by Seurat, from 1888, when it first exchanged hands, to 1971, when it was acquired by Heinz Berggruen. Haacke presents the circulation and the transformation of the economic worth of the work chronologically through documents and leaves interpretation up to the observer. We, too, as observers, see how profitable this work of art, which exchanged hands 11 times, was to the companies and legal entities who owned it at various times.

Let’s continue with the question, “What is the use value of a work of art?” I went to the Ankara Museum of Painting and Sculpture to see original Picassos that had been recovered from an art smuggling operation. I looked at four Picasso paintings that still had crease marks down the middle. A short time after I saw them, I heard that they had been removed. In fact, we learned, they were forgeries. Which do we prefer: genuine paintings that, for a variety of reasons, are stored in museum depots, or replicas that give viewers a chance to see them up close? I believe that the use value of a work of art is realised only through a process whereby it is actively experienced (mentally or physically) by a viewer.

Murat: When I attempt a parallel reading of “Punch This Painting” and “Black Diamond”, it seems they are similar structurally as they are both works programmed to self-destruct. It seems as if they are quietly and unobtrusively erasing themselves from the institutional structure in which they are included, leaving only a few archival documents surrounding this emptiness. Can we characterise these works that self-destruct as your resistance to art institutions? And, further, where do you see yourself or ‘the artist’ within this institutional structure?

Ahmet: Yes, there is a similar construct in both projects. I have to explain this correctly: I am not resisting institutions as such but rather the control mechanisms in the institutionalisation of a work. These control mechanisms transcend institutions. I believe the viewer can engage in a real experimental process vis-à-vis the work and not in a mere metaphorical exchange. Rather than abandoning this process to particular centres of power, I prefer to leave it to the viewer. Prior to taking action, basic questions need to be asked: When is a work of art finished? Is it when the artist puts the finishing touches on it, or when it is displayed to the public or after it has formed a relational experience with the people who come to see it? Actually, this process extends beyond these stages. “Black Diamond” is completely recyclable in nature. Both the diamond and the coal is part of this recycling process. While the diamond has a particular market exchange value, the coal has a clear use value. “Punch this Painting” is in a slightly different position. I set up “Punch this Painting” so that it would continually strike at its own meta-value and exchange value. Contrary to other works, it is a work that is constantly renewed through potential blows. It is a work that will never be renovated. I call this process “reverse renovation.” In order for the work to self-actualise, there are conditions such as its continually being worn away and the person or institution owning the work consenting to this. As you know, this work was sold at a private auction held last summer in collaboration with Christie’s. The precondition was that the buyer consent to the work being hit by anyone who wanted to do so and that it be exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau in Amsterdam. I want to mention two other works that criticised the internal logic of auctions. Cesare Pietroiusti and Paul Griffiths performed a work entitled “Paradoxycal Economies” at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in 2007. At this performance, designed as an auction, what was up for auction was money itself. In other words, regardless of how high the bidding went, that amount of money would be chewed, swallowed and then excreted by Cesare Pietroiusti and Paul Griffiths, and then, after being exhibited, would be delivered to the buyer. I also have to mention Christian Jankowski’s “Strip the Auctioneer” project, which was held in 2009 at Christie’s auction house. The auctioneer conducting the auction took off almost everything he was wearing – jacket, shirt, shoes and socks, etc. – and presented them for sale. Finally, the auction gavel he used was put up for sale. As in the examples I have given, the collaboration between the artists and institutions certainly is a natural process. To raise this collaboration to a genuinely critical level, artists must cleverly conceive their works. If art institutions or the art market want to internalise a work in one way or another, the artist should make the process of categorising as complicated as possible.

Murat: I’m puzzled about what it is that compels visitors to “Black Diamond” to enter a coal-filled room and search for a tiny piece of stone until they drop from exhaustion. I don’t know if what motivates the visitors is the market value of the diamond, being part of a work of art, or the allure of shovelling coal for an hour and impersonating a coal miner. The piece that you removed from the institution’s wall leaves behind a space and what the visitor does is try to find the section to fill this space.  It must be remembered, too, that the space has been filled with a diamond by the institution to motivate the viewer. In your opinion, what kind of empty spaces does “Black Diamond” leave to its participants?

Ahmet: While there are many factors contributing to motivation, what we do know is this; going into the room behind a panel of glass and shoving coal for an hour is not something everyone can do. The viewers outside may see shovelling coal in a room behind a panel of glass as humiliating, but those voluntarily participating in the experience pay no attention to this and confidently enter the room. In a country like Turkey, where 20% of society makes 50% of total income, it is inevitable that most of the rest should place its fate in games of chance. Therefore, that the “Black Diamond” has been jam packed since it opened is as we expected. As Can Yücel said, “The lover we sink the better,” “The more atrociously we smell, the better.”  The truth of the matter is that artists use ‘humiliation’ in which they themselves play the leading role, as a kind of strategy. There are many projects, such as David Hammons’ “Bliz-aard Ball Sale” (1983) in which he sold snowballs he had carefully lined up, or Mladen Stilinovic’s “Potatoes” (2001), where he tries selling pieces of cake on a secluded place frequented by no one. These types of projects come from a practice that approaches the commodity value of works of art critically. These are actually modest examples of the transformation of ‘humiliation’ into a strategy of resistance. In “Black Diamond”, I devolved this role to the viewers. The viewers voluntarily become a part of this performance. In fact, the piece was found in five days. Genuinely effective institutional criticism is only possible by allowing ourselves to be exposed to contempt together and by getting ourselves completely dirty.


1. Black Diamond - Het Oog 3, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven,  Holland, 4 July-31 December 2010, Curator: Remco de Blaaij. The diamond could not be found in Eindhoven. The artist and curator jointly decided to donate the diamond at Van Abbemuseum to the young artists Sarah Gerats, Isabela Grosseova, Noor Nuyten and Lauren von Gogh in support of a project in South Africa called Black Diamond.

2 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, Chapter Two: Exchange

3 Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry.

4 Who the Fuck Is Jackson Pollock?, Director: Harry Moses, 2006.