Turkish Artist Brings Audience Into the Process of Performance

ISTANBUL — The artist Kutlug Ataman’s themes of identity, freedom and oppression are being literally stitched together into a performance for an Istanbul theater festival next month, inspired by a road trip that unraveled because of the Arab Spring.
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Thomas Dane, via Bloomberg News

‘‘Column,’’ a 2008 installation by the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman. ‘‘I don’t like to give messages, I like to ask questions,’’ he said.
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With the help of his audience, he is creating his version of a Bayeux Tapestry, in the hopes that one day it will help to decipher today’s Turkey.

“I was traveling to southeast Turkey on my way to Syria to shoot a video,” said Mr. Ataman, who is Turkish. “This was right on the day that the troubles in Syria started. Everybody told me don’t cross the border, so I was stuck in Mardin,” which until the 1930s was the seat of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch.

As the artist strolled along the terraced stone buildings in Mardin, “a local intellectual took me,” he said, “to the house of one of the remaining Syriac Christians, or Syriani, as we call them.”

Once inside the traditional house of a woman known as Nasira Hanim, Mr. Ataman was intrigued by its ceiling.

“It was painted bright turquoise in a zigzag pattern,” he said recently by telephone. “It was very graphic, very contemporary-looking in design.”

“She told me that in the past the Syriani were scared of going outside, fearing for their lives — they were being attacked and killed by others. It doesn’t matter who, but I think she meant in ethnic clashes,” he said. “But because they were trapped inside, they painted a symbolic sky on their ceilings to alleviate their yearning for the real thing.”

That motif was called silsel, a word he did not recognize as being either Turkish or Arabic.

“I researched further and discovered it was Aramaic, the original language of the Bible and what was spoken at the time in that region,” he said. “It seems to have had a double meaning, either the fluttering of wings, or the sky.”

Unable to pursue his video project because of the violent upheaval next door in Syria, he decided instead to present a theater piece he named “Silsel.” Its “actors” are audience members who bring letters about freedom written on strips of fabric, which they sew together in the performance space, a former Greek elementary school in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul.

“It’s a little bit like the AIDS quilt,” a project that toured North America, Mr. Ataman explained, “but the significance of ‘Silsel’ is that it would be coming out of this geography where we are closely affected by the Arab Spring and the dynamics of our own society” as Turkey has shifted from having a military with wide political powers to a country governed by Islamist-rooted politicians with a global economic view.

“We became a nation state nearly 100 years ago and since then, have been ruled in an authoritative way,” he said. “Now this Pandora’s Box is open and we are constantly negotiating between further democracy and further oppression: It’s one step forward and one step backward.”

“We live in a very stressful, political society,” he said. “ In Turkey, a lot of our political and societal problems have been in a deep freeze for much too long and they have been resurfacing in the past few years, making this a rather exciting but also rather dangerous place, fertile ground for artistic practice.”

“Obviously it’s not a classical theater piece performed on stage,” he said. “It is a kind of crossing by contemporary art into theater and then crossing back into contemporary art, an ever-changing piece that will come to being with each spectator, each viewer who will be contributing to it.”

“You can think if it as a sculpture, you can also think of it as a performance, in which the roles of the artist and the spectator are completely blurred and in which the viewer actually becomes the performer.”

Such blurring of reality has surfaced throughout Mr. Ataman’s repertoire. “I am always questioning the role of art and how its objectivity lies in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “I don’t like to give messages, I like to ask questions.”

With “Silsel,” he is asking whether it is possible “to put aside our differences, to accept them but not to ignore or suppress them, to create a common ground, or a common sky, under which we can live accepting others’ differences, be they Alawites, Kurds, Armenians, Jews.”
His performance, then, is intended as a wish list for the type of society audience members would like to create.

“I thought wouldn’t it be interesting for people to not just bring textiles to be sewn together, but to have them write their stories, write a letter to Turkey or whichever country, to say what kind of Turkey they want,” he said. “What country do they wish for themselves and for others?”

Mr. Ataman is hoping that it’s not just the trendsetters, leftist youths or intellectuals who “perform” his piece.

“Everybody — right, left — everybody, is welcome to bring piece of fabric 45 centimeters wide, of any length in any language, upon which they write this letter,” he said. “The text can be in any language, even completely blank, or embroidered, or painted or photographed. It’s completely free form.”

The “actors” would then bring the letters to the school and in turn, “sew their piece, one after the other, so that this kind of fabric roll is created, with all these zigzags just like the ceiling in Mardin,” Mr. Ataman said, “creating a kind of metaphoric sky.”

He also hopes the end result will play a secondary role, like the Bayeux Tapestry in France, functioning not just as a piece of art but also as a historical document.

“In this geography,” he explained, “the official history is the only history etched in our minds, but in my works, I always deal with creating unofficial but real histories of the street, as written by the street. Two hundred years from now, I hope these letters are going to function as documents, instrumental in deciphering today’s society. It’s my version of that tapestry.”

“Silsel” will be among the kaleidoscope of avant-garde Turkish productions being presented May 10 through June 5 at the 18th International Istanbul Theater Festival.

The program also includes performances by notable overseas companies, including Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinocerous” by the Théâtre de la Ville of Paris, “Kafka’s Monkey” by the Young Vic Theatre Company of London, “Hamlet” from the Schaubühne of Berlin, and even street theater in the Tunel neighborhood by the Beijing Dragon and Lion Theater of China.

The “stage” for “Silsel” will be open for 7 hours a day over several days during the festival.

Mr. Ataman has already received at least one contribution to the work. “Today we received our first segment,” he said, “from Diyarbakir. Someone found out about it on Twitter and she sent the first piece of fabric,” a bilingual text in Turkish and Kurdish.

The end result could stretch for kilometers. Mr. Ataman concedes that storing the finished work could prove problematic if the project finds a wide audience: “I am even thinking of taking different segments of it to other cities to make it grow, like a cutting from a plant.”

“I intend to take it to back to Mardin and also to the big cities of the world,” he said, “so it’s not just something that is about Turkey but which shows in fact that we can all sew a common sky for the entire globe. To me it’s a little bit like the Olympic flame traveling around the world.”