The Silent Turk

Ah­met Ögüt’s tone of voice in art is per­cep­tive, thought-pro­vok­ing, and serves to ed­u­cate the pub­lic on com­plex so­cial is­sues. Shireen Zain­udin catches lunch with the so­cio­cul­tural artist in Kuala Lumpur.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Contents -

The con­cep­tual mul­ti­me­dia artist Ah­met Ögüt, gal­lerist Lim Wei-Ling, and I nav­i­gate our way past ta­bles over­flow­ing with Kuala Lumpur’s lunchtime mob. We sig­nal the black­aproned waiter, a har­ried mi­grant, and smile-mime our ta­ble re­quest across the ca­cophonous ter­race in perfect ar­tic­u­la­tion, be­fore slid­ing onto the red ban­quette of a ta­ble at Yeast, a French-style bistro known more for break­fast and 5pm Happy Bread Hour. But hey, we’re lunch­ing to­day. Édith Piaf re­gret­ting noth­ing is the back­ground track to the fiz­zle and hiss, the chat­ter and clink.

Ögüt, the Turk­ish-born artist of Kur­dish de­scent, lives and works be­tween Ber­lin and Am­s­ter­dam. He is the founder of The Silent Univer­sity, a re­mark­able knowl­edge ex­change plat­form run with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of refugees, asy­lum seek­ers, and mi­grants. This ed­u­ca­tional plat­form be­gan life in 2012 dur­ing Ah­met’s year­long res­i­dency with the Tate in Lon­don. The si­lence he speaks of is that of those who have had a pro­fes­sional life in their home coun­tries, but ow­ing to their sta­tus—or lack of—are un­able to use these skills in coun­tries they seek to make new homes. Ögüt asked him­self rel­e­vant ques­tions about learn­ing and com­mu­nity, how one could col­lab­o­rate with­out hi­er­ar­chies. He har­nessed the gifts from these com­mu­ni­ties—cel­e­brat­ing skills, ex­pe­ri­ence, and knowl­edge across lan­guages, eth­nic­ity, and age; while par­tic­i­pants de­vel­oped lec­tures, dis­cus­sions, events, re­source archives, and pub­li­ca­tions. To­day, mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary co­or­di­na­tors of The Silent Univer­sity find their voices heard in Athens, Stock­holm, Am­man, Copen­hagen, and cities in Ger­many; ad­vanc­ing a grow­ing global com­mu­nity. Menus ar­rive and we dis­cuss the rel­a­tive mer­its of pasta be­fore de­cid­ing we all need to eat more healthily. “How old do you think I am?” Ögüt sud­denly asks. “Ev­ery­one I’ve met in KL thinks I’m at least 10 years older than I am. I need to look younger,” he says.

The 36-year old is open and en­gag­ing and as sunny as the mus­tard-yel­low blazer thrown ca­su­ally over his T-shirt. He or­ders a bot­tle of rosé. It pairs per­fectly with our con­ver­sa­tion.

We are a week away from Malaysia’s 14th gen­eral elec­tion and there is a per­sis­tent whis­per of hope­ful change in the air, but no one re­ally knows what to ex­pect. “I al­ways seem to be in a coun­try when some­thing big is hap­pen­ing. I was in Ankara, with my first solo show in a while, when the at­tempted coup hap­pened. There were tanks ev­ery­where. It was a Godzilla movie with a miss­ing di­nosaur. The same with Fukushima in 2011 with the earth­quake and nu­clear dis­as­ter.”

Art flour­ishes in these oc­curences, of course. Five years af­ter the Fukushima tragedy, 12 Ja­panese and for­eign artists in­clud­ing Ai Wei­wei, Taryn Si­mon, Trevor Pa­glen, and Ögüt col­lab­o­rated to “show­case” what might have been the most in­ac­ces­si­ble art ex­hi­bi­tion in the world, ‘Don’t Fol­low the Wind’. Ögüt’s con­tri­bu­tion was en­ti­tled Once Upon a Time Breath­ing Ap­pa­ra­tus for Breath­able Air, a Level A haz­mat suit cus­tomised with pieces of an­cient samu­rai ar­mour do­nated by a lo­cal horse­man whose an­ces­tors were feu­dal samu­rai war­riors. The suit is in­stalled on the ground floor of the horse­man’s home within the nu­clear ex­clu­sion zone. All of the ex­hibits have been left un­touched, to evolve over time, un­guarded against the rav­ages of any en­croach­ing na­ture. The pub­lic will only be able to ac­cess this world when the zone is de­clared safe for habi­ta­tion. “Op­por­tune tim­ing seems to be a theme in my life,” he laughs.

Ögüt is in KL to un­veil two in­stal­la­tions at Wei-Ling Con­tem­po­rary, in an im­por­tant vis­ual show­case by 10 artists in­tent on push­ing bound­aries, en­ti­tled ‘Seen’. Eerily top­i­cal, the in­stal­la­tions frame ar­chi­tec­tural and vir­tual win­dows that al­low the viewer to pon­der the in­fil­tra­tion into the pri­vate sphere that per­sists in mod­ern so­ci­ety. Sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies are com­mon­place in al­most ev­ery as­pect of our lives. En­vi­ron­ment is spec­ta­cle. From po­lit­i­cal to play­ful, is­sues of so­cial vis­i­bil­ity and in­vis­i­bil­ity are raised in these works by Ivan Lam, James Bri­dle, Ken Fe­in­stein, Vik­to­ria Bin­schtok, Heather DeweyHag­borg, Anuren­dra Je­gadeva, HH Lim, Roger Ballen, Paolo Cirio, and of course, Ögüt.

But his in­stal­la­tions al­most did not make it to our shores. Ögüt was al­ready com­mit­ted to ex­hibit­ing a dif­fer­ent piece in Ber­lin around the same time, with dates in Ja­pan loom­ing. But a charm­ingly chaotic Skype ses­sion with Wei-Ling con­vinced him to re­ar­range flights for an ex­tended land­ing in KL. “I liked what I saw of Wei-Ling’s in­ten­tions. Her gallery was mak­ing space for a pub­lic need. For a com­mer­cial gallery to of­fer the ed­u­ca­tional ser­vice of a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion ... I wanted to be in KL for this. Bi­en­nales aren’t al­ways the lo­co­mo­tives of zeit­geists,” he muses.

His first piece, This Area is un­der 23 Hour Video and Au­dio Sur­veil­lance, is an of­fi­cial-look­ing sign po­si­tioned at the gallery en­trance. Cu­rios­ity may arise from the pos­si­ble mis­chief of the miss­ing hour, but of­ten, the sign is ac­tu­ally over­looked as an art in­stal­la­tion, show­ing how nor­malised the prac­tice of con­stant sur­veil­lance is. The Miss­ing T, a 10-minute video, os­ten­si­bly and hu­mor­ously doc­u­ments the re­turn of the trav­el­ling let­ter “T” to the mu­nic­i­pal­ity sign of Tu­lum in Mex­ico. Four re­cently dis­missed po­lice­men wear Mayan masks and are in­ter­viewed in a sur­real, coded nar­ra­tive against cor­rup­tion. What The Miss­ing T ul­ti­mately proves is that cen­sor­ship and sur­veil­lance are two sides of the same coin, each thriv­ing in the pres­ence of each other.

Our sin­gle shared bit­ter choco­late fon­dant with ice cream and cap­puc­ci­nos ar­rive, and we talk about what art he might cre­ate from his serendip­i­tously sig­nif­i­cant time here. “Po­lit­i­cal posters al­ways make good col­lab­o­ra­tive art.” He men­tions the covert art of in­flu­ence. Artists in Turkey were al­ways seen as non-threat­en­ing. “Art was al­most a pass­port to ob­serve the world. I had to learn how to be my­self in this world.” His grand­fa­ther was a Kur­dish oral his­to­rian. Ögüt was ed­u­cated solely in Turk­ish, and re­alised in los­ing Kur­dish, he would lose sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­a­ture and his­tory. Hence, The Silent Univer­sity en­cour­ages the use of mul­ti­ple lan­guages, as with his art. “I’m fo­cused on what is ur­gent and needed, and this in­structs my medium. If a paint­ing is re­quired, I paint. If it’s pho­tog­ra­phy or an in­stal­la­tion, so be it.” His art an­swers his life ques­tions. There is pas­sion, but also fi­bre.

Ah­met Ögüt

From left to right: Across the Slope, 2008, Ah­met Ögüt

This Area is un­der 23 Hour Video and Au­dio Sur­veil­lance, 2009, Ah­met Ögüt If You’d Like to See This Flag in Col­ors, Burn It, 2017, Ah­met Ögüt

We Won’t Leave No.5: Sao Paulo, 2014, Ah­met Ögüt

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