Recurrence and Rampancy

The show at SALT, Istanbul, traces the origins of Turkey's current context via artworks, and elements of popular culture and social movements since the coup d'état in 1980. Photos of the exhibition and review.
By Bora Gürdaş | Oct 2015

In the years following the coup d’état of September 12, 1980, Turkey underwent fundamental transformations in its political, social and cultural structures. The changing face of the country foreshadowed ideological struggles, controversial urban renewal policies and disputes over unearned income, all of which still exist today. Neoliberal policies after the 1982 Constitution became the principles of the first civilian government Anavatan Partisi [Motherland Party] that came to power after the military coup. ANAP supported a consumption oriented society, while the military regime blocked all oppositional movements and political organizations. Throughout the 1980s, the government, in collusion with the military, promised prosperity and liberation, while upholding an authoritarian regime in social and political life.

The 1980s in Turkey is a period when the filmmaker Yılmaz Güney and singer Cem Karaca’s citizenships were revoked by the government (1983); the National Security Council agreed to lift the ban that restricted activities of political parties (1983); the government continued its Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) with the construction of the Atatürk Dam; and the prime-minister Turgut Özal was elected as the eighth president of the Republic of Turkey (1989). Also in this decade, the government closed the country’s borders with Bulgaria, when the number of immigrants reached 300,000; first lady Semra Özal gave Ottoman-themed costume parties at a historic Istanbul landmark, Yıldız Kasrı [Yıldız Pavillion], for the Foundation for the Empowerment and Promotion of Turkish Woman, (i.e. "Daisies" as the press used to call its members); trans woman singer Bülent Ersoy was banned from performing; while arabesque and folk singer İbrahim Tatlıses enjoyed his golden years thanks to his affinity with Anavatan Partisi [Motherland Party]. And, as a reminder of the recurrent nature of history, the present debates over the third Bosphorus bridge, opening of the Hagia Sophia Museum to religious prayers, conversion of İstanbul Technical University’s Taşkışla campus to a 5-star hotel, and the construction of a tube tunnel all began back in the 1980s. The facts listed above point out a critical overview of the period: this was a period of banning, shutting down, granting rights and taking them back, punishing and rewarding, winning and losing.

The exhibition How did we get here, which is on view until November 29 at SALT Beyoğlu and SALT Galata, draws a sociological portrait of Turkey in the 1980s by using elements of popular culture and referencing social movements that took hold after the 1980 coup d’état. The author of The New Cultural Climate in Turkey, Nurdan Gürbilek’s description of the period as "sound, speech and image explosion" are materialized in the exhibition through photographs, documents and recordings. The works that engage with the presented archival materials, Halil Altındere’s Welcome to the Land of the Lost (1998), Serdar Ateşer’s selected videos (1989-1998), Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s 191/205 (2010), Barış Doğrusöz’s Paris time: "The Separation" (2011) and Paris time: "The map and the territory" (2012-2014), Ayşe Erkmen’s Imitation/lllustration (1987/2015), Esra Ersen’s Advice to the Crown Prince (1995) and Hale Tenger’s The Closet (1997/2015) contribute to a broader understanding of the social dynamics of the decade.

The leaders of exhibition’s research and visualization, Merve Elveren and Erman Ata Uncu, were primarily interested in stressing the underrepresented aspects of collective memory between 1983-1993 rather than presenting excessively addressed issues. Gathered from personal archives, photographs and videos of the feminist movement’s The Consciousness Raising Group Meetings (1984), the first mass demonstration of the women’s movement, Solidarity Against Domestic Violence (1987), and of "Women in Black," a call for the support of hunger strikes in prisons, reveal not only how feminism in Turkey was conceptually understood and practiced in the 1980s but also how these visual records manifest a female uprising and urge to take part in different matters other than gender issues.

How did we get here also features the Petition of Intellectuals, presented to the dictator turned President, and the speaker of the parliament on May 15, 1984. Signed by 1,256 people and severely criticized by the Prime Minister, the petition, titled "Observations and Requests Pertaining to the Democratic Order in Turkey," aimed to remove legal and practical limitations that prevent products of intellectual activity and art; to alter the structure of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) in the direction of autonomy based on the principle of election; to call for freedom to press. It should also be remembered that the public declaration "Demokrasiye Darbe" [Coup to Democracy] in 2014 shared the same fate and the President accused the people who signed it of "lacking morals."

Another landmark of the 1980s explored in How did we get here is the publishing industry and media. The exhibition includes 270 original editions of the various magazines from the period, which makes it possible to see and appreciate the diversity of the media in the 1980s. One of the interesting observations in this part of the exhibition is that gender-based magazines such as Erkekçe, Kadınca, Playboy, Penthouse, Playmen emerged in this period, as discourse around sex became less and less hindered. Political humor magazines from different ends of the spectrum, Limon and Hıbır, gained huge popularity among younger readers, while magazines such as Toplum ve Bilim, Birikim, Gergedan, Metis Çeviri, Kalın, Nokta, Gösteri and Adam Sanat focused on art, history, politics, and literature. Among all the magazines that are on display in the exhibition, one specific periodical Sokak [Street] stands out. With a dissident editorial policy, weekly magazine Sokak channeled the period’s alternative movements through its provocative headlines. Through 1989 and 1990 Sokak’s "Know your Rights" section aimed to develop democratic citizenship awareness about the legal restrictions and constitutional violations of the period. Additionally, texts referring to the literature scene in another section of the exhibition deserve attention as they demonstrate trends, and illustrate how the censorship mechanism worked in the 1980s.

Censorship in 1980s was not much different in the case of cinema, either. In 1983, A Season in Hakkari, directed by Erden Kıral, returned from the Berlin Film Festival with four awards, but was banned by the martial law in Turkey. An excerpt from this movie is on view in the exhibition. It can be said that everyday life, psychological subtexts, women and "other" sexualities are at stake in the cinema of this period. In this context, the full-length version of Motherland Hotel (Ömer Kavur, 1986), a terrific example of cinema focusing on an ordinary story with introverted and psycho-sexual dynamics, is included in the exhibition. The anti-hero of the film Zebercet can be interpreted as a reflection of the society that had to live with the "spectres of the past" and "anxieties about the future."

When I look at my naive and happy childhood years in the 1980s, I remember dancing joyfully to Ajda Pekkan’s 1980 Eurovision entry "Petr’oil," watching ice-skating legend Katarina Witt in astonishment, playing "bingo" on New Year’s Eves, feeling bored to death with classical music television programs on Sundays, laughing at the VHS recordings of variety shows next to my parents (without knowing what the joke is about), and feeling aroused by erotic programs on Turkey’s first private television network "Star 1." 1993 —the year that How did we get here culminates — these references indicate a turning point in my personal life, as well. All those sweet memories of childhood came to an end with what was on the news: the assassination of journalist Uğur Mumcu in Ankara, the massacre of Alevi poets, writers, musicians in Sivas… As I look back on those years, I can think of only two words: Recurrence and rampancy...


Bora Gürdaş

Art historian and critic. Research assistant at the Department of Art History, Hacettepe University, Istanbul, from where he received his PhD.

(A longer version of this article was first published in Turkish in Biz’D magazine, August-September 2015)

How Did We Get Here

3 September - 29 November 2015

SALT Beyoğlu and SALT Galata


SALT Beyoğlu
İstiklal Caddesi 136
Beyoğlu 34430
Website / Email

Archival materials including magazines,
advertisements, photographs,
video recordings and films.

Works in the exhibition by:
Halil Altındere
Serdar Ateşer
Aslı Çavuşoğlu
Barış Doğrusöz
Ayşe Erkmen
Esra Ersen
Hale Tenger

Merve Elveren and Erman Ata Uncu

Visualization: Esen Karol

The exhibition is part of the five-year program "The Uses of Art – the Legacy of 1848 and 1989," organized by L'Internationale.

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Interview with Vasif Kortun, Director of Research & Programs of SALT Istanbul. By Binder & Haupt, Nafas, Jan. 2013
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