A review by Lewis Johnson
Sound and vision, word and image, installation and archive: Mike Bode’s ‘2 or 3 things I know about Turkey’
Reaction to this recent work in Istanbul by Mike Bode has included some raised voices questioning just why the artist brought together, carefully selected and as if in equal measure, photographic, videographic, sonic, linguistic and diagrammatic materials concerning the work of internationally-celebrated, if not obviously well-known Turkish composer, İlhan Usmanbaş, and the recent establishment, design, construction, opening, and then closure of the Formula 1 race track at Tuzla on the outskirts of Istanbul. This review aims not simply to provide an answer to that questioning. Perhaps to answer to it, however, given the sense that something this exhibition offered up was the chance to consider some memorable experiences of the sonic, with those raised voices, apparently protesting as much as questioning, leaving this reviewer with a sense of a desire to divert the more productive effects of those experiences back towards a rather-too-familiar cultural norm of the voice as arbiter of space.
It’s like those oddly familiar phenomena in concert halls accompanying performances of what is, like work by Usmanbaş, sometimes termed serious music involving coughing and sometimes speech, if also furniture, bags, packets, which not infrequently occur just when they should not, in the quieter passages or when a new motif is being introduced. John Cage’s oft-quoted prescription for a non-classical music as ‘a way to wake us up to the very life we’re living’ through and as the sounds around us doesn’t quite make sense of this sort of phenomenon of the reframing of music in which the instrumentalising of the body, sometimes through its proximate adjuncts, competes with the powers of the uses of other instruments of sound, even when the coughing is politely saved up for the breaks between movements.
Bode’s installation managed to solicit a sort of gallery equivalent of this sort of reaction through the creation of a space in which critical vocabularies about culture, technology and art could be re-experienced, not as emphatic pronouncement, but as a sort of open archive through which other powers of the sonic helped to unravel desires for cultural dogmatism. There was quite a lot of language, in the form of quotations, elegantly printed and adhering to the walls, by Usmanbaş, fellow composer Mehmet Nemutlu, Serhan Acar, assistant director of the company set up to bring about the Turkish Grand Prix, their associates, with printed material, some of it authentic publications and documents, of musical and critical work by Usmanbaş and others, as well as statements by Hermann Tilke, chief designer of the race track, the chief executive of Formula 1 (this a photocopy of Bernie Ecclestone’s letter supporting the bid for a Turkish Grand Prix), arranged in two glass-topped display cases on the longer sides of the space of the installation.
With these two cases dedicated to Usmanbaş and to F1 respectively and quotations and photographic prints on the walls also alternating between the two, the authoring of the installation was, paradoxically enough, strongly suggestive of an even-handedness, even a neutrality of interest, switching in controlled fashion. Flatscreen video displays on the walls and on two wooden structures, carefully designed by the artist, creating a central spatial aisle, through which the other installation materials, as well as other visitors, could still be seen, continued this sense of judicious care and clarity of purpose, a style of authorship solicitous of a provocation to and the frustration of that desire for certain knowledge of the aims of such exhibition design.
This, however, is how Mike Bode’s work in this space of exhibition in Istanbul with the topics of his carefully researched and arranged display, for me, came to generate their most interesting effects. On my first visit, it was this central aisle that pulled me in, with soundtracks of the video on Usmanbaş’ career at the conservatoire, music and interviews and footage from the Grand Prix in Tuzla, including the near-traumatic high-pitched chorus of the engines at its frenetic start, echoing down the length of the gallery. Judicious editing had Usmanbaş’ music, from the early, post-serial Dali’den Üç Resim [Three Paintings by Dali] of 1952-5 to the Yaylı Dördül için Adagio [Adagio for String Quartet] of 1999, among other pieces, resounding the length of the gallery, as if pointing to the old loading entrance of this one-time tobacco warehouse at the head of Bode’s central aisle, out into the city beyond, perhaps off to the site of the triumphs and disasters (none fatal, as is pointed out) at the now disused F1 track somewhere over the horizon. The photo of the helmeted racing driver, winner of the inaugural 2005 race, looking back and waving while walking away, hung between that doorway and an exit from the space seemed a melancholic echo of a gathering sense of the perdurance of space across the finitude of the purposes staged in them, by architectural and other means.
Yet another effect, however, came to supervene on this one when I went back for another visit, an effect that recalls what I take to be among the more important reasons for artists to move away from the production of discrete, tangible things, or things which may be taken to generate effects that simply derive from and return to the visual. If artists since Duchamp have denounced, if not renounced, the making of visual things to try to encourage more active forms of participation by their audiences, then my second visit had me engaging more with the (now less crowded) sound-space, listening more carefully to extracts of Usmanbaş’ often difficult music, with complex sonic events that I would call ‘trans-tonal’, encouraging, if not enabling a sort of mourning of the historic drama of the desire for Turkey to show itself as modern and up-to-date, generating a sharable future on an idealized international and universalist stage. Prompted by Bode’s citations of Nemutlu and Usmanbaş, concerning Republican composers’ desires to ascend to universalism through the sharing of a cultural language, with the latter encouraging criticism but then later, from a 1977 interview, questioning Turkish culture for its failure to ‘transcend boundaries’ and disturb ‘norms or habits’, as it seemed to me on this second visit, Usmanbaş music in this space offered up a chance to re-experience a relatively recent instance of technologically-led Turkish cultural optimism as misguided. The racing driver waving goodbye from the corner of the room seemed now either irresponsible, deluded, or both.
I said above that this review would not aim exactly to satisfy those who wanted to know why Mike Bode had confected Usmanbaş with the Turkish F1 Grand Prix. Perhaps I am right, and, like me, he found in Usmanbaş’ music a sort of summons to try to understand different things happening simultaneously, with some more clearly distinguishable, closer, as if in the foreground, and some less so. Several of the remarks about Tilke’s track, however, suggest that the race as spectacle was not thought of like this, for while it was much-admired by the drivers as a test of their skills, producing lots of drama, because of the forty-metre rise and fall of the track for many of the spectators in Tuzla the experience of viewing was limited. Other simpler circuits give their spectators more opportunities to see the cars further away as well from closer to. The careful judiciousness of Mike Bode’s installation, on the other hand, allowed precisely for an experience of events crossing into the time-zones of others, with those generated by Usmanbaş’ work, given over in advance as composed work to recurrence and reconsideration by different audiences to come, passing on the values of its complexity to that installation.
In a statement prepared by Mike Bode’s collaborating critic, Jonatan Habib Engqvist, available along with a thin, but elegantly red linen-bound volume of images and quotations from the exhibition, the suspicion that the title of the exhibition draws on the well-known 1968 film by Godard 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle deepens. Engqvist provides a careful account of how we might read the conjunction in Bode’s, or Godard’s, title. Is it ‘or’ as an alternative, different or the same? Correlation or correction, Engqvist seems to favour what he identifies as the uncertain ‘or’, with us not knowing whether we know 2 or 3 things. Recalling that Godard’s film involves a directorial voice-over that often digresses, either from the representational shots of bodies and locations or from the frequent shots of linguistic text, I want to remark on a difference here, one that seems to me to follow from Bode’s citation of Godard (if that is what it is) but differs from it. Godard’s well-known whispered voice-over is, however, sometimes not less authoritative in some of its effects than more traditional uses of the voice in cinema. That voice discourses on the referent of the pronoun ‘elle’, whether it is the character played by the actress, that actress, or the city of Paris, or some other object beyond. Thus, with a swerve facilitated by the camera and its mobility, the image inventively but insistently coming to support the authorial instance, Godard’s voice-over insists on uncertainty in the more-than-two.
Pressing Godard’s interests in exploring looking and listening to the world further, designing and redesigning a space for the experience of sound and vision, Bode’s installation offered up an opportunity for our experiences of images, words and sounds to be readjusted. If Godard’s voice-over takes place from a space from which authorial control seems to unfurl, Bode’s installation offers us the chance to free ourselves from this sort of identification. Does the solicitation of uncertainty revive a traditional Western exoticising of Turkey as a feminized and capricious oriental space? Not, I think, if we take the ‘or’ as correlation, signifying a difference between one way of experiencing the exhibition and another. 2 or 3 things I know about Turkey offered an opportunity not just to try to get to know the work of İlhan Usmanbaş better, said not to be well-known by Engqvist among others, or the history of F1 in Turkey, but to let that work challenge senses of space which would be ruled by certainties of the authoritative voice or by desires for certain and indubitable knowledge of the outcomes of events and representations thereof. The event, apparently passed, but still generative, of Bode’s enquiry into events and events-of-representation of Turkey and their excesses quietly insists on spatial reinventions of cultural experience, if also on a disqualification of monological spaces of the voice.