When appropriation became a prevalent strategy in art in the 1980s, and even became a movement under the name ‘appropriation art’, it started a big discussion between its supporters and its opponents. One of its opponents, Fredric Jameson, claimed that postmodernism had turned parody into a humourless pastiche that consisted solely of the pillaging of old art works; thereby diminishing history to a series of hollowed out images, turning original (modern) styles into postmodern codes.2 As opposed to Jameson, who believed that this interest was, in fact, burying history, another American philosopher, Linda Hutcheon claimed that postmodern parody had become a manner of expression on its own that problematised previous styles of representation.3 According to Hutcheon, who claimed representation had become visible thanks to parody, was responsible from cleansing the doxas of their doxas; making way for the fundamental values to be questioned, and making us see in which ideological basis the perpetuities and disengagements between the past and the present find meaning. As a ‘counter-narrative’ to Ancient Greece, parodia, thus, could turn (any) representation/style of representation into a problem.
Today, many artists approach the historical/cultural indicators that they appropriate specifically from a context of representation of identity. Especially those, who aren’t from the West but that have been through a Westernising modernisation process, through flipping the “copy, paste, insert” syndrome, in a way, use the canon of the history of art as the main source of their identity parodies; they appropriate the canonical works. This visual practice, which allows for other points of view to different modernisation processes, consists merely of an empty parody, as Jameson pointed out; but sometimes, as Hutcheon claims, turns into an interrogative excavation of history, memory, ideology. In this context, the canon of the history of art as a field of institutionalised visual ideologies, is one of the main areas in which one can re-think the representations of identity.4 As Donald Preziosi has pointed out, the history of art itself, with its own specific objects and language, is already a manifestation of an imaginary setup. Within this context, Preziosi, when claiming the absence of a single artistic tradition that wasn’t influenced by the sense of history and aesthetical values of a European historiography/museology, cannot be deemed wrong.
When visiting Özlem Şimşek’s exhibition, let’s keep in mind Preziosi’s claim: Every appropriated work of art is a sample of the repertoire of this country’s history of art, yes, but from the creation of an Ottoman museum for Helenistic sarcophagi to an Ottoman prince drawing figures similar to those on the sarcophagi in his paintings; to the beginnings of a study of the nude a hundred years ago in this country where working with a nude model is problematic even today; a visual repertoire that is being created on the female figure being a symbol of modernity in and of itself, proclaims the effects of a (Western) tradition of art history with a respected authority. In her exhibition, Şimşek, by including ancient sculptures, first figurative
paintings and nudes, and representations that reflect the principal visual codes of Western painting in general, wants us to think about what kind of a cultural platform Turkey’s repertoire of art history is founded. When the ones that aren’t able to include themselves in history or in the Western-oriented Grand Historical Narrative, namely women, second and third world citizens and all the other ‘others’, revisit and start to question the canon of art history, they start to crack open the doors of critically revaluating a visual repertoire from a gender, race, ethnicity, nation, class, etc. context. Being left out of history and its visual reflections sometimes makes it representable, when spoken from within that history and visuality.
With each re-representation, the counter-narrativity of parody brings us face to face with not the copy of an image, but with what’s behind its curtain.
Özlem Şimşek uses the same familiar strategy in this exhibition named “Dramatic Persona” as she did in her previous one, “Epic
Seduction”. But her topic, as I’ve mentioned before, is not the Western History of Art, meaning the big canon, as it is with many Western and non-Western artists, it’s her ‘own’ history of art. Şimşek brings to life the classical female figures of artists such as Osman Hamdi and Abdülmecid Efendi, who took the first steps in the field of art in pre-republic Turkey, as well as those of early republican era artists such as İbrahim Çallı, Nazmi Ziya, Namık İsmail, as a sort of tableau vivant. She recreates these principal works of art of our art history by using her own body in stages
she herself has set up. Here disguise and the setting up of stages function as a metaphor; Şimşek draws attention to the sociological and psychological reflections of the identity construction processes of the photographic images she has created, in the reality of fiction
and provisionality, in the period ranging from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic of Turkey.
These images that examine the symbolic meanings expressed by the image of women that is changing throughout the modernisation process, also contain the construction process of Şimşek’s subjectivity as a woman, no doubt. Her photographs and videos that bear a performative dimension, put flesh on the bones of the ‘modern woman’ images in our history of art, freeing them from
their dimension of fantasy, and present them as people that have gone through an experience rather than merely an image. This
approach, as pointed out by Judith Butler, flips on its head the interpretation of the female body as a passive medium on which cultural meanings are imprinted; so the female body that is used by another decree as a tool to determine a cultural meaning to itself, albeit by another woman, is used to remind us of women’s experiences.5 It is worth pointing out that Şimşek reconstructs her own identity every time she takes on the identity of one of these women; in this way, the artist not only emphasises the identity formation processes of women in today’s society, she also points to society’s appearance-oriented perception of modernity. Şimşek’s approach, like many feminist artists who use parody as a common strategy to destruct male-dominant representation systems, undercuts the idea of originality. Her ‘costume play’, in this context, turns into an ironic reflection of our adventure of modernity.
As Şimşek switches disguises and makeup and turns into a different woman with each image she composes, she also intends to recreate the body languages and emotional states of the women. We can especially feel this in the video inspired by “Sarcophagus of Weeping Women”, a principal piece in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, which makes one think of the case of museology, an important component in the Westernisation process of the Ottoman Empire. The artist brings to life the 18 different female figures on the sarcophagus, all but making visible the emotion carved onto stone; makes one rethink the identification of mourning with women and the meaning of the tradition of the weeping women. Watching this video in today’s Turkey, where we witness traditionally legitimised murder of women every day, renders this work current and political. To imagine Prince Abdülmecid Efendi, during the times this sarcophagus was excavated, painting his odalisque wrapped up in robes like ancient figures, presents an interesting parameter in the name of rethinking modernisation dynamics. Özlem Şimşek sets off on this interesting parameter
when re-imagining Abdülmecid’s odalisque. The mere fact of reimagining Osman Hamdi Bey’s “Yaradılış”6 (Genesis) (previously thought to have been called “Mihrab”, until correctly identified by Edhem Eldem) is very important in and of itself: Depicting a woman sat on a lectern in front of a mihrab (a niche in a Mosque showing the direction of Mecca) like a goddess, this painting preserves its problematic nature due to its cultural symbols. Şimşek adds tortoises to this composition to symbolise eternity. It makes reference to “Kaplumbağa Terbiyecisi” (Tortoise Tamer), to draw attention to this out of the ordinary painting by Osman Hamdi, it makes one think; the fact that we cannot look at the painting itself but merely to a parody of it, creates an interesting situation about Turkey’s cultural dynamics. “Dramatic Persona” also features Avni Lifij’s allegorical paintings, Namık İsmail’s woman lying on a sofa, Cemal Tollu’s “Toprak Ana” (Mother Earth), Rafet Başokçu’s watercolour ‘pin-up’s that resemble pages of fashion magazines. Following the footsteps of different envisagements of women, Özlem Şimşek invites her audience to take part in her journey, and opens the door to showing the worlds and world views behind our history of art for the first time to some and to others, from another
Mahsus, Beylere Vazife” by Ahu Antmen, in book titled “Kimlikli Bedenler Sanat, Kimlik, Cinsiyet” , Ahu Antmen, Sel, 2014, Istanbul,TR
2 Fredric Jameson (1991), Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham.
3 Linda Hutcheon (1989), The Politics of Postmodernism, Routledge, New
4 Donald Preziosi (1998), The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford
University Press, New York.
5 Judith Butler (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of
Identity, Routledge, New York.
6 Edhem Eldem (2010), Osman Hamdi Bey S.zlüğü, Republic of Turkey,
Ministry of Culture and Tourism publication , Ankara.
This essay written for catalogue of Ozlem Şimşek’s exhibition titled “Dramatic Persona” organised Galeri Zilberman on May 4th-June8th,2013