This text is an updated version of the original as printed in Metropolis M, June 2005
Single acts and subtle plays
by November Paynter
A shroud of ambiguity and the unexpected hovers over the work, resolve and character of Ahmet Ogut, one that tempts enquiry, rather than providing answers. With it comes a self-assurance that is not arrogant, or overly ambitious as seen in some of the work produced by artists from Turkey that came to local and international attention during the nineties, rather it hosts a personal and although often humorous, an earnest perspective. The country's younger generation of artists, of which Ogut is one, are not working with a single medium or in a specific genre; instead they have learnt to remain open to the potential of a diverse practice, one that also includes collaboration. This has given Ogut and his contemporaries the freedom to gain confidence in experimentation without assuming an end product before the process of creativity has begun.
Ogut had not ventured beyond the region surrounding Diyarbakir in the East of Turkey, the city of his birth, until he was 17 and this first journey took him to Ankara to study painting and illustration at University. One of his earliest works Halisaha (2002) sets a poignant scene for his interest in performance and role-play, an ability to shift tradition and location, and an understanding of the sense of community formed by games. In Halisaha (which literally translates as carpet field, but means astro-turf) Ogut transferred a carpet, a symbol and literal element of his home in Diyarbakir, into the centre of a football stadium. A photograph of the carpet's temporary placement exists as the art work, but it was the actual performance of taking the carpet from its private setting to lay it out for display in a space created for an audience (although at that moment significantly absent and therefore merely implied), which produced a temporary interface loaded with enquiry. The act's candid irony with Ogut's gentle touch as its referee, grants a dexterity that clearly references specific issues important to him as a Kurd, while at the same time picking up on similar ambiguities present at any threshold that exists between two cultures.
Another local game Okey is the subject of several of Ogut's works of the same period Okey is a man's game, played with numbered chips and as popular as backgammon all over Turkey. In places like Diyarbakir it consumes time in tea shops, often for the unemployed of whom there are way too many due to the war and the war-like situation that stopped any semblance of a functioning economy. In his youth, Ogut and a friend set up a small business, which prided itself in the restoration of Okey chips to 'as good as new' by repainting their embossed numbers for pocket money. When invited to participate in the exhibition Under the Beach the Pavement in Proje4L Museum in Istanbul at the end of 2002, Ogut recognised a familiar division between his pocket money-making activity and that of the Okey players back in Diyarbakir with the dual-location of the museum, which sits right between the financial district of Levent and the residential working-class district of Gultepe. His desire was to define and demarcate an invisible, but understood line of division, as well create a link between these two situations. In order to locate an element of one site subtly into the other, Ogut went about collecting chips from the community in Gultepe (this time without charge) to renew within the museum. On the opening night of the exhibition he sat alone at a desk painting the chips, doing a job he knew well and that performed multiple references for himself, having been a lived reality of his youth and a symbol of multiple cultures living side-by-side, albeit in ignorance of one another.
Ogut's encounters with harsh political reality are also subtly acted out in his frequently-produced short videos. Three works made in this vein are What a Lovely Day (2004), Cut it Out (2004) and Death Kit Train (2005), which all propose imaginary scenarios for real situations of cause and effect. What a Lovely Day depicts the playing out of a situation where the police stop and search a young man. Undercover police, such as the ones portrayed in the video, exist in Ogut's memory as a catalyst for assumed guilt and the fear of potential violence. His video is as much a re-enactment of scenes he has heard about, as it is a performance of his mind racing forward to conjure a future situation on seeing the tell-tale white car known to contain such police.
In Cut it Out a young man, who we assume is from the USA, sits on the floor in a pair of pants printed with an American flag motif. Posing as an Iraq posted soldier he curses the war, the people involved, the pointlessness of it all and numerously repeats the phrase 'it's a lost cause, I want to go home' seemingly confused. Throughout his rendition he continuously breaks down in laughter, as if high and excessively nervous of a reality and seriousness he cannot express. On two occasions flash frames appear momentarily exposing two men dressed in the apparel of terrorists fed to us by the media. They first stand behind the boy, posing as if guarding him. On the second occasion all three appear dead. These split-second insertions jerk the viewer to look beyond the boy's bewildered contempt to the more sinister reality it refers to.
A common, banal act is featured in Death Kit Train (2005). At first a standard modern car is seen slowly driving across the screen from right to left. As it progresses a man pushing it from behind comes into view and the story changes. But then another man appears behind the first, and then another, there are perhaps maybe four, or eight. In fact the line of men is infinite, and this natural task becomes a reference for those in the workforce that perform mundane and often unnecessary manual labour and the many more that remain unemployed.
The subtle tension embedded in these works gives way to a more whimsical touch in the photo performance Somebody Else's Car (2005) and animation Light Armoured (2006). Commissioned for the 9th Istanbul Biennial, Somebody Else's Car combines performance and slide projection to offer a capture frame recording of an actual event. The 'set up' consisted of Ogut converting, without the owners' permission, two found cars. The first car is transformed into a taxi and the second into a police car by the simple application of tape, coloured paper and hand-made signage, all with remarkable dexterity and finesse. Although this act took place as a work itself and the result left a series of sculptures in the car lot (the owners would return to find their cars in their new state), it was not encountered by any but the lucky passer-by. In respect of the surreptitious nature of the performance, when exhibited the slides halt their recount once the act is complete and there is no hint of the spectacle of the owner's reactions on their return.
Ogut's works are all gentle in this sense, they do not aim to create drama, are not contentious and his references are generally subtle enough to avoid provoking a reaction. Yet in August 2006, the local police division censored his video Light Armoured (2006) after twenty nights of its public screening on Yama's plasma art space. Ogut's short, looped animation shows a camouflaged Land Rover being hit by insignificantly small stones that one by one bounce straight off, a comic gesture that was deemed to be provocative and critical of the Turkish Military.
It could be that in their simplicity, Ogut's drawings, like his animation, are the works that are most clearly critical of national structure, and its forms of power and control. The most poignant and endearing example of this is the collection of drawings in Colouring Book, produced with Sener Ozmen in 2004. This simple paperback book contains a series of line drawn scenes adapted from childhood memory. Each outline references complex issues related to religion, rural customs, the spectre of war in the region, and the image of Ataturk as a national symbol. When exhibited the books are made available free to take away and disseminated. Sometimes the pages are plucked loose and it is possible to colour them in, there and then. And, most intimately, the simple black outlines become etched in the viewers' memory, like bright light sources that burn on the retina.
While Drawing Book is essentially a blank canvas of two artists' imagined recollections, each one gamely waiting to be coloured in, added to, modified, or scribbled out; Ogut's recent publication Tarihte Bugun (Today in History) similarly reveals changes in society and the bias of perception and yet does so in the reverse. Parodying the format of a regular newspaper column, the series of stories in Tahrite Bugun are all factual events taken from the Turkish media, but re-illustrated with an artistic impression, one that often appears surreal and strangely dislocated from the described event. But, by bringing these charged moments together and giving them new life so that they are no longer relegated to invisible archives, Ogut allows these stories to again perform, to span time and place in an internationally spoken language and become as much a part of today's news as they were of yesterday's.