Human Being – They, Us, You, Me!! By Keith Stewart
They/Onlar, by Turkish artist Ipek Duben, has its British premiere at the 2017 Brighton Festival, shown in the gothic, atmospheric and cool environment of Fabrica (a deconsecrated church in the centre of Brighton). This multi-screen video work so suits this venue! As you walk down the models’ runway-like entrance you are warned about the lack of light and the time needed for your eyes to adjust. An enthusiastic and welcoming volunteer gives me a briefing and we’re off! There is the noise of voices that from the outside makes me think that the place is busy – but it is the chatter of voices from the interviewees that Ipek Duben has collected from across Turkey. There are life-size screens showing films of the six people speaking about their experiences of being ‘other’ in Turkish society – spoken in English to stop us being ‘other’.
Turkey is presented in the UK news as the ‘other’: a bomb killing dozens in Ankara does not warrant the same news reports or social media responses as one in Paris. The April referendum with its substantial changes to the Turkish constitution has raised fears about an end to secularism, and additionally about Turkey’s relationship with Russia, the EU, and Nato. Turkey with its population of over 78 million people is three times the size of the UK and has a history of empire, achievement and also pain to share. The Ottoman Empire and links to Persia all create a rich tapestry of culture.
I arrive knowing only that there is an exhibition here – and that’s how I like it. All I know is the name – They/Onlar. My mind is made up to view what unfolds and nothing else. My senses are shaken – initially no light, all dark with the intermittent light from the films playing on the screen. No crowds as the noise of voices had previewed. I sit to listen to a woman’s story of abuse, violence, bravery, perseverance and success. A wonderful story of overcoming a very violent and abusive husband and showing her children there is another way. This begins as a sight and sound event. And as the magic carpet unrolls my heart, mind and soul awaken.
‘Other’ is a ginormous thing around the world. Now, maybe more than ever. Even in Brighton, this supposedly liberal, anti-Brexit, pro-gay haven, I experience and see other. Do you notice the large number of homeless people on the streets of ‘London by the sea’? How many faces of the same colour do you see? Therefore, these stories resonate on every level, relating to my own experience of being other because of my gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age etc. etc. There are many examples of other to taste here: for example, marital status, being a lesbian, or being from a different ethnic group. Moreover, what is important is that this otherness is multi-faceted. You are other for one, two or many different reasons. And you can be different in different places. A powerful thing one woman said stays with me: there are conditions of behaviour for women – covering their head for instance, all their lives – however, no such infringements on men.
I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing the names of the speakers. Invisibility? Often those that are other are called ‘they’ or ‘them’ or ‘those’ not by their chosen name.
Another way to exhibit this installation could be with each speaker and their film played in separate cubicles. No outside distractions. Privacy. Intimacy. In secret. Just you and them and their story. In some ways in hiding. This is how some of the speakers had lived parts of their lives.
There is a little rush of visitors – students. More ‘other’. Some standing around chatting. Why? The spirit of this exhibition for me is to listen: to the voices of others; and your own. To watch their eyes, expressions and body movements. To enjoy their clothes. Their smiles. And resonate with their pains. Then, there is the unending strength of the human spirit that means these powerful individuals live to tell their story. However, they put themselves at risk when others hear their story. On the other hand, was that my assumptions playing? Because the students could have been charged with conversation by the experience…
In a way, having all these people about – walking around, talking – they are a distraction from being in the moment with these stories. On another, that is how ‘other’ plays out in real life. As I sit in this cafe writing, other is all around. In addition, when I am home – alone – I am not the other. I am the one.
If you don’t have a home - you are my other. Or?
If you have a mansion and a pool, am I the other? Or?
To repeat a Socrates quote from one of the interviewees (her favourite): ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ To examine is a constant act of reflection – at different times, places and experiences. In addition, sometimes contradicting views and conclusions, but with a willingness to change. To accept yourself and others as they stand.
They/Onlar feels like the sort of exhibition to visit and revisit. To hear all the stories. To hear them again and again in order to see what new things explode. This, for me, is more documentary and observation than art.
They=HUMAN. They=ME. They=US.
Ipek Duben: They/Onlar runs 8 April to 29 May 2017, presented in May at Fabrica, as part of the Brighton Festival www.brightonfestival.org