On the mechanics of pedagogy: Aslı Seven curates Saint Joseph

On the mechanics of pedagogy: Aslı Seven curates Saint Joseph

Matt Hanson

The independent curator and writer Aslı Seven has tempted the art world of Istanbul with an outlying exhibition in league with her latest work at Arter. The show is ‘Saint Joseph: Beats of a Fabulous Machine’

Behind every thing is a thought. That might be a proper adage for the curatorial work of Aslı Seven, whose range extends from the literary conceptualism of ficto-critical writing, a kind of hybridization of fact and fiction in anthropological journalism, to an astute reading of ecological history. The environmental poetics of her exhibition, “Saint Joseph: Beats of a Fabulous Machine,” sprawls throughout two buildings on the campus of the Saint-Joseph French High School in Kadıköy.

By the year 1910, two brothers, Frere Possesseur Jean and Frere Paramont-Felix had amassed a collection of natural objects that encompassed the extent of their entomological and geological fascinations with their surroundings. With exhaustive scrutiny, they examined bugs and rocks along the coastal, forested cliffs of Moda down to the seaside streams of Kurbağalıdere. Inside the present-day school, there is a comprehensive sample of taxidermies of Turkey’s floral and faunal biodiversity at their world-class Natural Sciences Museum.

Maude Maris, 'Sugar Mountain', 2021. (Photo by Matt Hanson)
Maude Maris, “Sugar Mountain”, 2021. (Photo by Matt Hanson)

Down one of its halls, there are photographs showing how life was for a Frere when Istanbul was reeling from the revolutionary upheaval of its post-1908 era. As the conflicts of World War I and the Balkan Wars unraveled Ottoman territories in Europe, Francophone Christians in Kadıköy were absorbed in an ambitious project, imparting a momentum of naturalist scholastic that would not only last for the next century, but that has come to develop into widening circles of cultural and scientific inquiry.

That prophetic vision has born fruit, and none so ripe as the vivid intellectuality of Seven, who reimagined the castle-like architecture of the school to house the idea of images as concepts termed “fabulous machine” and “radiant beat.” The singularities in her vocabulary are only matched by the artists that she has chosen to spotlight within the dim reaches of the historic property. Adapting the educative establishment of Saint-Joseph as a kind of machine, Seven has reanimated the incubative potential of its interiors with a contemporary gaze.

In an old world

There is an opening room at Saint-Joseph French High School, just around the corner from the entrance to one of its broadest, main buildings. If the exhibition can be said to begin, as it certainly does not appear from the outset or in retrospect to have a linear narrative arc, then, at least spatially, it would start with a multiform installation of paintings by Ekin Kano. With a lunar, and underwater ambiance, Kano bears a subtle, though empowered ability to project empathy for nature, through otherworldly explorations of its textural transformations.

İz Öztat, 'İnkar Edilmiş İtiraflar / Aveux non Avenus (translated, Empty Confession), 2021. (Photo by Matt Hanson)
İz Öztat, “İnkar Edilmiş İtiraflar / Aveux non Avenus (translated, Empty Confession), 2021. (Photo by Matt Hanson)

The delicate superficiality of the imagination is an integral part of the art that Kano has produced for Saint Joseph, as the compact room flickers with a documentary film by the research duo Eda Aslan and Dilşad Aladağ. The landscapes shown in their video, “Neşvünema” (2021) are practically extraterrestrial, barren, something out of science fiction or the remote renderings of far-flung planetary surfaces. As an expression of their project, “Garden of (not) Forgetting,” the piece follows the travel archives of Alfred Heilbronn, who with his wife Mehpare, founded and developed the Istanbul University Institute of Botanics.

Narrated in Turkish and French by Seven, “Neşvünema” is complemented by a double-sided printout showing where the intrepid couple traveled as part of their botanical expedition in eastern Anatolia, from eastern provinces Elazığ to Van. On the way they crossed the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Batman and eastern Bitlis, cataloging over 400 specimens as they went. Around the bend into the belly of the school, there are works by Daniel Otero Torres and Emin Fırat Övür. The miniature and faded aesthetics of the works are aptly placed within the show’s trailing echoes of historical curiosity.

As the exhibition is open to the public during evenings later in the week, and weekends, the school takes on a sense of abandonment, an emptiness, while assistants guide seers through the eeriness of its sudden desolation. The aura is unsettling as if there were a catastrophe and everyone had to flee the city or even Earth. The total absence of people in a space that is usually filled with students and teachers compelled by the mandatory order of society to conform, accents the critical presence of art as a pedagogy of civil disobedience.

Daniel Otero Torres, “Kiremit / Tuiles en céramique”, 2019. (Photo by Matt Hanson) Last one to leave

The darkroom series of Övür comprises eight works. Among them, prehistoric traces of smudged handprints frame the organic contents of an image, that of a beach scene in which wet sand is impressed with a dog’s footprints. Within its layered visioning of human sight, and the disappearance of an animal, Övür is in dialogue with pieces by Torres, an artist from Columbia whose drawings feature meticulous, surrealistic depictions of everyday work life in which people and animals are burdened with the task of constructing their environment.

From a more artistic angle, the film of Julien Prévieux is an exquisite piece of cinematographic precision, with a well-written, philosophical voiceover that muses on the materialization of grace through dance choreographies in which bodies are reduced to sequences of moving lights. Screened in a plush classroom theater, “Patterns of Life” (2015) is one of the show’s peaks, instilling the sensibility of Seven’s “radiant beat” by evoking the meaning of nature as a performative process of creativity.

In the adjacent room, a large-scale installation by Iz Öztat gleaned antique furniture from Saint-Joseph, in particular a bookcase, stocked with massive, worn tomes, and which appears to double as a Catholic confession booth. It is as if scientific knowledge was being subject to religious interrogation, which is subtextual to the historiographical work of Eda Aslan and Dilşad Aladağ. As a quiet seer might wander about the vitrine, eyeing naturalist posters of plants and animals, the unseen rate of current-day extinctions is as haunting as it is real.

Komet, 'Untitled', 1976. (Photo by Matt Hanson)
Komet, “Untitled”, 1976. (Photo by Matt Hanson)

In an equally ambitious, room-wide installation piece, artist Sergen Şehitoğlu displayed a phrase, in French, “Calypso could not be consoled by the departure of Ulysses.” And in the middle of the vacant, silent room, there is an elegant chessboard, set with all of its pieces ready for a match. On the blackboard, there is a series of equations that could indicate the potential course of play. It is as if someone had too much time on their hands, and was waiting for something to happen, like a concerted response to climate change, only to succumb to the endlessly self-absorbing, mathematical diversions of a difficult game.

“Saint Joseph: Beats of a Fabulous Machine” follows its conceptual paths to a smaller building across the school lawn, where the paintings of Maude Maris and Komet are referential with that of Kano’s sculptural tableaus and a plastic response to the work of Maris by Öztat. Seven brought her train of thought about the works of Emre Hüner from a museum gallery in Arter to a more condensed, and perhaps more focused installation for a reboot, “||||[u]Ur-ElektrR||||” (2021). Opposite its space works by Maris and Torres are as quirky as a film by Virginie Yassef behind a curtain, “Dogs Dream. It Wasn’t Meant To Be Known” (2021). Yassef’s focus on sleeping street dogs is as dreamy as the somnolent, apathetic apocalypse.

Courtesy: Dailysabah

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