A Warm Melancholy inside a Cold Emptiness
I follow the work of Volkan Kızıltunç for quite a while now. The first time I encountered a photo of him was in a group show, where in between the many works of different artists, his work Beach (2010) stood out due to its formal and conceptual strength. It never vanished from my visual memory, because of its great balance between aesthetic and thought, technique and idea, beauty and ugliness as well as critic and poetry. Later, we worked together in the exhibition “The End” that I curated at Plato Sanat. Now, I am very happy to write a text for his first solo show at Gallery Merkur, which gives a great insight in his work by showing 20 photos from the Insitu and In the Threshold series, as well as the videos Nightwatch, 27375 Days and The Unspectacular, the piece that won the ESSL ART AWARD CEE 2013.
In Volkan Kızıltunç’s exhibited photos, the image of man is absent. Though, his stories and histories are always sensible and present through man’s objects and environments that play the leading role in his work. The protagonists of his pieces are empty spaces, desolated locations, where only consumed objects and remains of people tell the dystopian epos of humanity within the shattered walls of our modern society. Modernism, industrialism and its utopia reveal their hidden ugly faces in his work. Once modern, the depicted buildings and objects resemble historical relicts, which now show the destructive power of time. His work reveals the disastrous results of wild capitalism and excessive industrialization, where everything after the end of its expiring date and sufficiency falls apart just to turn into civilisation trash. Once expression of a utopia, objects and spaces now refer in his photos to nothing but their history. The older they get the more unreal and absurd they appear. That is why in series like Insitu and The Threshold, often, a sense of nostalgia and melancholy dominates.
Formally, his work is characterized by sobriety, minimalism, clarity and simplicity, which gives it a contemporary documentary character. In this context, his work is influenced by Dusseldorf Photography School’s deadpan aesthetic ,Volkan Kızıltunç never creates set ups or arrangements. With open eyes and an analytical mind, he reviews our reality in search for the images that he needs for his visual research. Selective perception leads him to the locations and incidents of his photos. As his series are based on social-scientific thought and theory, they stand on strong conceptual bases and bring up intellectual discussions that go beyond the known.
Let us have a short look at the series that he exhibits at the gallery by starting with Insitu, an early series of photographs, which Volkan Kızıltunç created between 2003 and 2005. The title is a reference to the term’s archaeological meaning of “a finding in its original place”. So, the photos present the relicts of modern society, where empty parks and beaches, as well as demolished factories and architectural buildings function as desolated stages, on which apocalyptic perspectives on our brave new world are presented. Often, the images resemble film stills, as they remind the spectator on movies of post-apocalyptic science fiction films or road movies. Due to Kızıltunç’s cinematographic notion of aesthetic, in his photos, it is like Wim Wenders meets Mad Max in a world that is drowning in the garbage of its modern utopia. For the artist, “ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our civilisation and its changes. As being the small pieces of history remains suspended in time, the state of ruins is essentially a temporary situation of the result of changes of era. This state of fragility, given by the fast running time elapsed, lead us to watch them one very last time being dismayed but also admire, makes us wondering about the permanence of things in time” (V.K.).
The absence of any human figure gives the spectator the chance to put himself into the images in order to create his own stories, and play an active part in the reception process. Although their content is highly critical, Kızıltunç is neither polemic nor didactic. The clearness of his photographic approach leads him to present the world like he finds it. Nothing is arranged. Like a surgeon, the artist cuts up reality, and reveals the blank, forgotten spots within our cities and landscapes. A cynical and critical, yet sometimes absurd anachronism occurs, which is underlined by the monochrome sepia tone of the pieces that makes them look older than they actually are. At the same time, due to the use of this aesthetic in today’s digital photography and Instagram-culture, Kızıltunç’s photos gain another meaning and dimension. Used in digital pop-culture as references to classic photography and film, his works deconstruct now the language of our visual culture. By gaining an additional ironical character, their critical dimension gets even more strengthened. In the end Insitu shows us the end of the world as we know it, and reveals the silent poetry and beauty in the ruins of our civilisation.
In The Threshold
The second series that Volkan Kızıltunç presents in the exhibition is called In the Threshold. This body of works can be understood as the continuation of the visual research of Insitu. He began the series in 2006, and finished it in 2011. Again, the title of the series can function as a key for understanding its conceptual framework. A threshold is a limited and marked area between two spaces. It is some kind of no-man’s-land, which belongs to its neighbour-spaces and at the same time is independent from them. We can also understand it as a gateway, in which time and space do not exist. In this way, for Kızıltunç, “ Threshold is both referring the state of togetherness and also a border. Its in between outside and inside but doesn’t belong to both of them, so its a hesitation zone, a limbo. We can see this concept as visual evidences of situations of objects and spaces which are stucked in between past and future. The spaces in this serie are in a resistence against time and but they are different from the ruins as small history pieces, these are in an ambiguous situation. These photographs are not last visions before annihilation, but more like waiting in between time. Nothing’s clear so, they’re in the threshold.” (V.K.)
Following this conceptual idea, the photos show a kind of limbo, in which the absence of man underlines his permanent existence. Life’s impermanence though, is always present through his depiction of empty ruins as well as destroyed buildings and objects. The biggest difference between In the Threshold and Insitu lays in the color of the images and the choice of its locations. The works of In the Threshold are in four-color, and have a rather documentary character in contrast to the rather nostalgic taste of the works in Insitu. Also, the photos of In the Threshold show mainly deserted outdoor locations, so that the relation between human made or occupied space and natural or urban surrounding is an outstanding matter here. That is why the works of this series can be understood as contemporary landscape and city photographs, which are able to capture the beauty and ugliness as well as the poetics and politics of our environment.
The Nightwatch (2011)
In the end of this text, I would like to shortly review the three video works that he exhibits at Gallery Merkur. The Nightwatch focuses on the relationship between the individual and its urban surrounding. As parallel edited video-piece in three channels, it shows streets, gateways passages and windows in Istanbul and Vienna during the night. The streets are filled with anonymous people who are unaware that they get filmed, so that, a slightly voyeuristic character prevails in this video. For Kızıltunç, “although they remain anonymous, equal under the lens of the camera, a sense of individual lives and diversity emerges. The camera distils the flow of everyday life, the movement of people in the city, and reflects on daily reality from an entirely anthropocentric perspective. ‘’ The spaces become stage-like backdrops in Nightwatch, and we suddenly become aware of ourselves.“ (V.K.)
On three screens, the artist lets uncountable shots of the cities clash, and creates a visual rhythm, where a dialectic of emptiness and fullness, loneliness and crowdedness occur.
27375 Days (2012)
27375 Days creates another dialectic reference to the flux of life. In this two channel video, Volkan Kızıltunç shows on one screen waves and on the other one a slow burning fire. In this piece, no human figure is present. The spectator only sees the endless hitting of waves on the beach and the dancing of flames. The work’s title refers to the average life expectancy in Turkey of 75 years, which makes 27375 days. The monotone rhythm of the video work is like a visual equivalent to the pendulum of life, which permanently counts the days that pass in our existence. The moment we were born, we start dying, as the clock on our lifeline unstoppable counts backwards until it reaches its final number. The dialectic character of the diptych can be understood as reference to the bipolarity of our life, where everything exists in an interdependent relationship with its opposite counterpart.
The Unspectacular (2012)
The Unspectacular opens up a discussion between photography and film by deconstructing the notion of still and moving images. Different from the photo series mentioned above, in this work, the human figure and its portrait stands in the centre of the artist’s attention. Kızıltunç creates video portraits in the literary meaning of the term, where he uses the video-camera like a photo-camera.
The biggest difference between photography and film is the existence of time. In a photograph, there is only represented time, where movement get illustrated. Photography freezes time, and captures the flux of life into one single frame. In film, time is represented in longer sections, so that the spectator observes and experiences it by watching movements and hearing sounds. We expect from a film to see action in order to feel the speed of life. That is why, since the birth of film, the tempo of the quickly passing frames is one of its central formal and contentual elements. In Volkan Kızıltunç’s pieces though, the protagonists are not moving. They stand still in impoverished urban surroundings, and stare at the camera as if they wait for a sign of the artist, so that they can release themselves from the pose. A strange effect occurs, as through the explicit exposure of time, the moment’s reality gains an absurd, even unreal character. Though, the atmosphere in the video is always calm, yet a bit tensed.
The absence of sound leads the spectator to an even more focused visual investigation. No story is told, and nothing but small and mostly unconscious movements of the portrayed happen. These small “mistakes” play a very important role, as they give the spectator a glimpse beyond the facade of the pose. That is why, in spite their artificiality and absurdity, these video-portraits look more real and realistic than classic photography or documentary, as the observer becomes an absolute voyeur, who has the chance of a total observation.
Volkan Kızıltunç’es work can be understood as a silent but strong critic of the ongoing gentrification process, because it shows people, who had been living in the city renewal project areas of Turkey in Istanbul, Nevşehir, and Trabzon. As the result of gentrification and wild capitalism, some had lost their houses; others were waiting for the bulldozers to tear them down. In this context, the slightly vibration of the individuals’ poses could also be interpreted as the calm before the storm or the condition of already being in the eye of the tornado.
In spite its critic as well as rather dystopian content, the work of Volkan Kızıltunç is full of beauty and poetry, where a highly attractive visual language invites the spectator to contemplation as well as observation and consideration. In the end, we understand that the artist reveals beauty inside the horror of our post-industrial existence, in order to make us reconsider the ideas and clichés that we have about our world.
 Assoc. Prof. Dr., Yeditepe Univerity, Fine Arts Faculty, Art Management Dept.
Doç. Dr., Yeditepe Üniversitesi, Güzel Sanatlar Fakültesi, Sanat Yönetimi Bölümü
Resident Curator, Plato Sanat
Daimi Küratör, Plato Sanat