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Arts feature

Turkish time travel

Harry Mount looks across the Dardanelles and sees yesterday’s weather today

1 January 2011

12:00 AM

1 January 2011

12:00 AM

Harry Mount looks across the Dardanelles and sees yesterday’s weather today

In Canakkale — the biggest town on the Dardanelles, where more than 130,000 British, Australians, New Zealanders and Turks were slaughtered in the 1915 campaign — Mark Wallinger, the 2007 Turner Prize winner, has dreamt up a clever little work about memory. On the Asian quayside, looking across to the Gallipoli killing fields on the European side of the straits, is an old shipping container, tricked out like a 1950s picture house; think Cinema Paradiso, and you get the idea.

Using a 1950s-style sign, Wallinger has named it ‘Sinema Amnesia’ (Sinema is Turkish for cinema). The sign says that the film now showing is Ulysses — as in the James Joyce novel about a single day in Dublin; also as in the Latinised name for Odysseus, who fought just down the coast from here at Troy. Step inside the cinema, and all these disparate references come together — there’s a continuous film showing the view from the quay across the Dardanelles at exactly the same time yesterday.

It may all sound a little gimmicky, but it works. However obsessed you are with the weather, it’s future weather you’re always worried about; you pretty much forget what the weather was like yesterday. So there’s something rather comforting in seeing yesterday’s weather today — it fills up a gap in your memory, like suddenly remembering that you left your keys on your bedside table.

The pleasure is heightened if yesterday’s weather is different from today’s; but, even if it’s the same, Wallinger’s virtual view, on rough-quality film, is engagingly different from the real-life view you see outside the cinema.

When I visited, yesterday’s overcast view on film looked like a Corot — with the modern addition of several container ships moving slowly, left to right, north towards Istanbul and the Black Sea; while today’s real-life view was sparklingly clear, flooded with harsh Aegean light, even in winter.

The most prominent thing in Wallinger’s viewfinder is a memorial to Gallipoli — there’s a line of verse beside a picture of a Turkish soldier, who is about the size of a tennis court and painted into a gap on the pine-covered hillside above the Hellespont. These are the waters Byron swam across, 200 years ago last year, following in the footsteps of Leander, the lovelorn Greek athlete who drowned while swimming across the straits to his lover Hero; they’re also the same straits that Xerxes crossed with a bridge made of boats in 482BC.

The past surrounds you everywhere: you can barely drive a mile without coming across an immaculate Allied war cemetery — with a Cenotaph-like tapering slab of white stone flanked on all sides by thousands of small headstones set into the neat lawn, each about the size of a pad of A4.

When ancient memories — and memories of the first world war — are so thick on the ground, it’s useful to be reminded by Wallinger how easy it is to forget what happened literally yesterday; like the Alzheimer’s patient who remembers 1923, but can’t remember last Monday morning.

Mark Wallinger’s cinema is one of five works by European artists set up across Turkey this winter as part of a project co-funded by the British Council and the European Commission.

Who knows whether the latest developments in Greece and Ireland will put an end to this liberal splashing of EU cash? But it won’t stop Turkey emerging as a major new force in modern and contemporary art.

At Contemporary Istanbul, the city’s contemporary art fair in November, a 1962 abstract painting by Mubin Orhon was on show; it had just broken the Turkish contemporary art auction record, going for £618,400. To catch a bit of this money sloshing through Turkey, Sotheby’s is holding its third sale of contemporary Turkish art in London in April. And Bonham’s is holding a modern and contemporary Turkish sale at the same time, as well as opening an Istanbul office. It hasn’t harmed things, either, that Istanbul was 2010’s European City of Culture.

There is an inevitable downside to the injection of money and contemporary art into Turkey — along with the good stuff, there’s some pretty good cobblers available on the banks of the Bosphorus.

Kutlug Ataman is the golden boy of Turkish contemporary art, and he’s got his own one-man show, The Enemy Inside Me (until 6 March), at Istanbul Modern. ‘Me’ is the operative word. Ataman has ticked all the low-grade, populist boxes of contemporary art: a bit of shock, some rude stuff, some telly clips and a lot of narcissism.

Visitors to the show are greeted by Ataman in rich show-off form in his 2007 video installation, ‘Turkish Delight’. In full belly-dancing drag, Ataman postures for comic and shock effect, achieving little of either.

Some of his films are mildly engaging: the portrait of obsession in the film of Veronica Read, the devoted horticulturalist responsible for the British national collection of Hippeastrum bulbs; or the four screens showing Women Who Wear Wigs — a political activist who uses a wig as a disguise; a student who wears a wig to get round the headscarf ban in Turkish universities; a chemotherapy patient; and a transsexual prostitute.

All interesting enough, but no better than a well-done BBC4 documentary; and all the more annoying because it seeks extra points for being art.

Extra art points are awarded, too, for anything involving sex, surgery or freaks. So Ataman throws in a plastic surgeon and an orgy aficionado — displaying all the lowest common denominator gifts of Channel 5’s late-night programme controller, with none of the frank honesty that this is what draws the punters in. Ataman, born in 1961, has had a rough time in Turkey, as a gay artist in a city that, until recently, could hardly be considered progressive. In 1980, he was beaten up and tortured. Bloody horrible, of course — but it doesn’t make this cheap, semi-naked bid for passing attention any better.

Still, you don’t have to go far from Istanbul Modern to see Ayas Sofya, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace: the sort of things that have attracted attention for a couple of thousand years, and have survived passing fads like the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. They’ll still be there, long after Ataman’s videos have been filed away in the dusty vaults of a digital library.

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