IN-BETWEEN SPACES: PROTOCINEMA AND MIKE NELSON’S “PROJEKTÖR (GÜRÜN HAN)”

by Ezgi Yurteri

Is it possible to be fully aware of being inside an exhibition and, at the same time, feeling with the same evidence in another place, somewhere familiar yet afar? This is one of the many possible feelings that Mike Nelson’s recent show PROJEKTÖR (Gürün Han) has evoked.

PROJEKTÖR (Gürün Han) was commissioned and presented by Protocinema, created specifically for the historical Gürün Han in Istanbul’s Sirkeci neighborhood. It attempted to temporarily borrow the building, claiming it as a sculpture in its own right, by his manipulation of space through a collection of videos and assembled objects. In choosing this building, Nelson, who has been a regular visitor to Istanbul for the past thirty years, consciously responded to an earlier incarnation of his work, MAGAZIN (Büyük Valide Han) (2003) created for the Istanbul Biennial that year. Sixteen years later, in a modern han, the artist once again created a new work with the same approach: while acting as a cartographer or a narrator, his assemblages, with all their metaphorical potential, reflected multiplicity and complexity of our memory, both individual and shared.

Mike Nelson, PROJEKTÖR (Gürün Han), 2019, commissioned and presented by
Protocinema, Istanbul with support Henry Moore Foundation; Alserkal Arts
Foundation; Galleria Franco Noero.

Central to the exhibition, there was a peculiar spherical vehicle, built with makeshift materials and found objects, immersed in an intense red light, shifting the viewer’s perception. The artist re-contextualized these objects in his constructed rooms, and somehow, revealed both their predefined meanings and connotations, and juxtaposed them, giving a potential for new meanings. Yet, a conclusive understanding was deliberately denied and avoided. Traces of a recent past (or a neglected presence): it was left to the viewer to imagine who could have been there. While visions and sounds were blending across the long-locked rooms of the han, a disparate narrative structure emerged in relation to the history of the building, in which visitors were invited to find their own personal path. In a circular game between the known and unknown, the arrow of time and its negation, the artist once again transformed the site in dialogue with the existing structure. Internal histories of the work expanded and blended into the surrounding environment where reality and fiction unfolded together.

Mike Nelson, PROJEKTÖR (Gürün Han), 2019, commissioned and presented by
Protocinema, Istanbul with support Henry Moore Foundation; Alserkal Arts
Foundation; Galleria Franco Noero.

Mike Nelson is known for his immense, psychological environments that subvert the sense of place within the viewer through appropriation and exposure of everyday materials, revealing hidden or unforeseen elements within our quotidianity. For Nelson, the object is in “a state of always becoming”; and through his constructed environments, he transmits a deep inward feeling that makes forgetting impossible. As the meta-narrative of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, the stories Nelson creates have other stories concealed within. He invites us to lose ourselves; not only in the irrational paths of his alternate worlds, but also in the myriad of possible associations and interpretations they offer.

The “workman-like process” of its realization is as important as the final work in Nelson’s installations. For this latest exhibition, for example, the artist stayed in Istanbul over a month; observing, collecting and building his works. This is why the exhibition managed to convey a multiplicity of visions, and spoke both to the regular art audience and the locales working in the han. His approach can be considered as that of an architect or a storyteller, characterized by a meticulous attention to detail. Referencing often to specific works of literature and cinema, his installations are a means of storytelling. But rather than a structured, fixed narrative, each viewer is called to write his own story. It is a series of moments, an atmosphere, relying on a spatial alchemy between the installation and its location. Whether dealing with space or narrative, what he makes is both captivating and unsettling.

What rendered PROJEKTÖR (Gürün Han) powerful and evocative is that in a world full of notions, shaped by language, culture and social norms, it transcended predefined meanings by respecting the subjectivity of our existence and its perception; expressing a constant transformation — a ceaseless state of becoming. Delineating complex, multi-layered, sometimes even contradicting realities, his “in-between” spaces, and the historical and cultural components they contain, can be appropriated, translated and read anew. A liminal zone, beyond the linear trajectory of time, opens infinite rooms for transition.

Mike Nelson, PROJEKTÖR (Gürün Han), 2019, commissioned and presented by
Protocinema, Istanbul with support Henry Moore Foundation; Alserkal Arts
Foundation; Galleria Franco Noero.

This latest exhibition is actually reflecting Protocinema’s general approach to exhibition-making outside the “white cube” model. There is an organic relationship between the work and the context it is set in. Founded by Mari Spirito in 2011 as an itinerant art organization, it commissions and presents “site-aware art” with the aim of evoking empathy towards understanding of difference across regions though exhibitions, public programming and mentorship.

An essential aspect of Protocinema, as Spirito says, is that it is “free from bricks and mortar”. It activates unused or abandoned spaces and brings its own community with it, further rooting the projects within their locations. This kind of functioning gives flexibility to vary in movement to respond both to global concerns but also shifting conditions on the ground. While the exhibitions happen mostly outside of pre-existing structures, it also collaborates with other non-profit organizations to expand its existing network and support systems. In the selection of space, the priority is given to the need of that specific work and its integration into a particular landscape.

Although the works are produced to respond to a specific site, its circulation across different regions furthers the initiated dialogue, and gives possibility to experiment with different meanings that changing locations may carve out.  The intention is to raise questions rather than imposing or negotiating certain answers with the intention of activating the audience to take part in the decoding process.

Protocinema is currently travelling with a screening program Of Our Own Making, a series of single channel videos, premiered at Kundura Sinema, Beykoz in Istanbul, following by six venues across four regions: Rampa (Porto, Portugal, June 22); SculptureCenter (Long Island City, New York, July 11); Cinémathèque de Tangier (Tangier, Morocco); sub (Çanakkale, Turkey, August 16) and Teatro Union (Honda, Colombia, August 31). Hera Büyüktaşcıyan, Vajiko Chachkhiani, Lara Ögel and Hale Tenger use folktales, history and storytelling in contemporary narratives to reveal the aspects and notions in societies that may have seemingly changed in its guise yet still carry similar ideas in its essence. Theo Triantafyllidis’ video is a recording of a virtual reality live performance, in an imagined future-present, which plays and subverts how images and ideas had been created in the past. Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s video reflects on the “March of Return” that took place on the Gaza border. Ahmet Öğüt brings together aspects of social-political life in Mexico with the language of film, in which an abandoned town sign becomes a symbol for abuse and neglect. Featured artists have all worked or are currently working on commissions within Protocinema’s international program. This circulation creates a flow of artistic exchange, as well as connecting with different communities. The idea is to open up and expand dialogue, and give space to alternative narratives. Working with artists over a long period creates a valuable support system for emerging and established artists from different parts of the world, providing exposure and channeling for their works.

In September, Protocinema will host two exhibitions in Istanbul: Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities, 2018 was initiated by artist Liu Chuang and researcher Yang Beichen, and continues to conduct field research into from Southeast Asia to Central Asia. Initially commissioned for the exhibition Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence, the work reveals a sort of thought experiment by using moving image, aiming to break through epistemological frameworks. 

Liu Chuang, still, Commissioned for Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence 
with the support of the Mao Jihong Arts. Foundation, courtesy Antenna Space, Shanghai

In terms of following a processual development of artistic production over the course of time, an important program that Protocinema has initiated is the Emerging Curator Series. It creates a stimulating and sustainable hub for young curators and artists to work together -intellectually and practically- with mentor curators from Istanbul and abroad. This year’s exhibition Proven Home Remedies, curated by Naz Beşcan, will be at the French Institute, Istanbul. Responding to the building of the institute, the exhibition highlights its specific history as one of the first modern hospitals of the Ottoman Empire, which is widely unknown to the locals. The works of Mimosa Echard, Lara Ögel and Tabita Rezaire, whose practices revolve around the concepts of healing and recovery, critically look into the points in the contemporary setting that may require healing: physical and mental illnesses and injuries, the taboos around the ill, past or more recent traumas of individuals and societies, economical wounds and the injuries embedded in the building itself.

While Protocinema’s programming continues to evolve and transform, three important points seem to remain at its core: responding to the site, building long-term relationships, providing support and circulation. The nomadic way of working gives possibility to fully embed in the dynamics of a given space and to focus on in-depth research, addressing to current issues that may differ in its form across regions but holds a similar essence. It thus bridges different audiences and transcend boundaries as the projects expand through time and space.