Academic journal article Critical Arts

Aesthetics of Self-Scaling: Parallaxed Transregionalism and Kutlug Ataman's Art Practice

Academic journal article Critical Arts

Aesthetics of Self-Scaling: Parallaxed Transregionalism and Kutlug Ataman's Art Practice

Article excerpt


This article examines relations of ethnography, contemporary art practice, globalisation and scalar geopolitics with particular reference to Kutlug Ataman's artworks. Having been shortlisted for the Turner Prize at the Tate and awarded the prestigious international Carnegie Prize in 2004 with his 40-screen video installation Kuba (2004), Ataman became an extremely well-known, globally acclaimed artist and filmmaker. Self-conscious of their global travel and critically attentive to the contemporary ethnographic turn in the visual arts scene, Ataman's video works perform a conscientious failure of representing cultural alterity as indigeneity. Concentrating on the artist's engagement with ethnography, this article consists of three main parts. Analyses of the selection of videos in each part will give an account of different scalar aspects of Ataman's artworks. It will first revisit a previous study (Cakirlar 2011) on the artist's earlier work of video portraits including Never My Soul! (2002) and Women Who Wear Wigs (1999). A detailed discussion of Kuba follows, a work that exemplifies a scalar transition in his critical focus--from body and identity to community and geopolitics. The discussion then moves to a brief analysis of the series Mesopotamian Dramaturgies, including the screen-based sculptures Dome (2009), Column (2009), Frame (2009), English as a Second Language (2009) and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (2009). Rather than addressing scale as a differential concept, this article aims to demonstrate the ways in which Ataman's art practice produces self-scaling, self-regioning subjects that unsettle the hierarchical constructions of scale and facilitate a critique of the scalar normativity within the global art world's regionalisms and internationalisms.

Keywords: documentary, ethnography, globalisation, Kutlug Ataman, scale, Turkey

Aesthetics of self-scaling: parallaxed transregionalism and Kutlug Ataman's art practice (1)

Born in Istanbul in 1961, Kutlug Ataman can be considered one of the best known video artists in the global contemporary art scene. Having trained as a filmmaker in Los Angeles and worked and lived in London, Istanbul, Barcelona and Buenos Aires, Ataman was a travelling artist from the very early stages of his career. Since his first (controversial) appearance on the international art market in 1997, the artist has contributed to major biennials and his artworks are now in major international collections, including the Carnegie Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern. Incorporating his background of filmmaking with his art practice in various innovative ways, and translating his cinematic vision to the medium of video installation through sculptural forms of talking heads filmed in conversation, Ataman's art practice is regarded as symptomatic of 'the twin phenomena of the globalized art world's embrace of a non-Western artist and its simultaneous embrace of documentary' (Lebow 2008: 58). Self-aware of its global reach and critically responsive to the ethnographic turn(s) in the contemporary art market, the artist's practice, I would argue, facilitates new possibilities in art criticism in terms of scales of analysis, and scalar constructions of regionality, authorship, aesthetics and ethnography.

This article thus aims to discuss a selection of the artist's artworks in concentrating on his playful formal engagement with constructions of culture, history, geography and globalisation. The discussion will explore Ataman's enactment of a critical transregionalism, where region-as-concept becomes a 'dramaturgy' of power and discourse, and the ethnographic gaze constantly confronts the conflict between intricate non-Western articulations of modernity and Western ideals of form, medium and genre in representing such alterity. The artworks Kuba (2004) and Paradise (2006) can be taken here as a turning point in Ataman's career, where his project of individual life-stories, or portraits via long streams of talk, unsettling its own documentary ethnographic setting or mapping, shifts its focus to a revised cross-cultural aesthetic of queering ideological narratives of geography, history and community. …

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