Wendy M. K. Shaw

Currents by Sinem Dişli


A strange demand falls on an artist whose history refuses to blend with assumed norms: he or she becomes recognized as the voice of others. This artist becomes the token of refreshing difference, a mascot of open-mindedness in a sea of belonging. No artist voluntarily takes on this task, because much as it enhances the curiosity of audiences, it reduces a sense of originality by setting it within cultural difference. Global contemporary artists, especially women, and especially artists who are not from hegemonic cultural capitals, can have a hard time speaking from within this trap: how do you speak another voice without playing out the habits of appealing to the urban, male, Western master embedded in the voice of art?

Sinem Dişli comes from Urfa, a city from Eastern Turkey whose profound local aesthetic languages are not those of Western art. Her work fundamentally asks these questions: what does it mean to come from Urfa in the aesthetic language of a global modernity? What does it mean to do so in the body of a modern woman with the native language of an ancient place? What does it mean to grow up in an era so segregated from the local that one learns identity as an imposition of museums, books, and histories set against the voices of family, of the local, of the village? What does it mean to be an artist in an era of profound economic change that transforms all landscapes? What does it mean to live in an era plagued by war and a renewed forced migration that reveals the fiction of national borders and ethnic boundaries?

Her answers are not political but poetic. If modernity functions by the logic of the sun, a logic of rationalization and historicization, of mastery of nature and an economics of construction, her work functions by the logic of the moon. It does not celebrate modern engineering. It does not give its audiences the narcissistic pleasure of sympathy by asking bereaved people to reveal their tales of woe. It does not preserve histories so much as invoke memories. It tells stories outside of words.

This logic of the moon recognizes movements that connect the present with the past and the local with the universal. It invites us to recognize the limits of our capacity to know the other, to respect an inherent distance, and to be comfortable not knowing.

In this distance, we recognize that the logic of the sun has been feeding us a series of lies. Among these lies: that a dam will bring prosperity. That modern cities comfort. That museums narrate the past. That the past is history.

“We have bored through the mountains and the ages,” said a prime minister long ago, speaking the logic of the sun. In Sinem’s work, the logic of the moon takes the remaining hole as its weapon. It upends it as a telescope that touches the planets. It makes of it a microscope that reveals life inside the water. It crawls through it as a tunnel into caves that are pockets of past time. Under the moonlight, she reveals ruins set against the stars and we come to know: moon worship never ceased here, it just fell silent.

The logic of the moon reveals a certain hope in the ebb and flow of tides. We need this hope today, when the holes bored through the mountains and the ages have strangled the life-giving forces of water and replaced them with petrol fanning the flames of war. Words once intended as a celebration of economic growth have become destruction through construction: the overbuilding of an unplanned concrete city with few aesthetic concerns. The abandonment of rural practices and patterns in favor of urban uniformity and cheap capitalism. The damming of a river flowing with life to feed the artifice of industrial energy.

The logic of the moon does not leave modernity to shine under the banner of success. Under the moonlight, memory flows like water, seeping into every crack, even where you least expect it. The tide ebbs, but also it flows. Its tension is bound to unwind, even if this means that the colonial past comes and today slaps Europe in the face.

But the voice of the moon is not political. Instead, it demonstrates persistence in the face of a modernity that insists on its unique validity. In Dissemblance: Babel, villagers walk up and down a pimple in a flat field. They call it the mountain. They walk there and they walk back, in every season. They plant their fields and they harvest, and then they burn the husks. What they call a mountain, we might call an archaeological mound. What they call a field, we might see as a blanket of dirt that covers an unknown past. What they long to plant, we long to excavate and place in a museum. To dig the past means to rip open somebody’s field to take out buried stones. And then there will be no mountain. And then there will be no harvest. By the logic of the modern, the harvest of history carries more weight than the harvest of wheat. By the logic of the moon, this is somebody’s home and our feet should be bound to tread in the rhythms of this home’s history.

Revisit witnesses people returning from their modern homes to turn in the caves where they once lived. It provides no staged interview with a story of sorrow inspiring the liberal sympathy of art lovers. Instead, we witness a staged gesture in which the body reveals a person who treads in his or her past. We see the weight of their footsteps, a kind of balance trained in a particular place. Their memories are not told to us but left to unravel in our minds: how were these caves once, with couches and television sets? Where did the wires go to the generators and satellites? What was lost as they let go of an ancient home in favor of a modernity already staged by apartment frames? The logic of the moon tells us not to ask but to watch and listen, seeing what is revealed in not being told.

A projection titled Invisible Longing shows a drummer drumming, but we can only see his shadow. A harvest dance now reduced to folklore: a performance stages what once was a celebration. By focusing on the shadow, we see the drummer, neither old as he is now nor young as he was; neither beside the fertile harvest of a field nor in a high school gym making music for dancing children; not given to our eyes as folklore set against urban modernity; neither past nor present, we see the man. We find his drumbeat beating inside our own hearts.

In the logic of the sun I once heard, you cannot read by the light of the full moon. But the moon gives us better things to do by its light than read.

In the logic of the moon we come to see this: the history that must be read writes itself on the water that flows between us.

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