Hammer Projects: Fikret Atay

The Turkish artist Fikret Atay makes videos that offer short vignettes of life in Batman, a Kurdish city near the border between Turkey and Iraq. Using a hand-held camera and natural lighting, Atay films young local residents as they perform traditional dances, beat makeshift drums, and play war games. His simple, unaffected style lends an apparently straightforward authenticity to the images, yet the meanings of the performers' actions remain mysterious to viewers unfamiliar with the local culture. Despite the difficulties of filming in the highly charged political atmosphere of Batman, Atay's insistence on the specificity of place gives the work a distinctive presence and, despite an occasional hint of danger, the sense of continuity of community.


Fikret Atay was born in 1976 in Batman, Turkey, a small Kurdish city on the Tigris River close to the Iraqi border. He received his degree in fine arts from Dicle University in Diyarbakir, Turkey, and currently lives in Paris. Atay has had solo exhibitions at the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, León, Spain; Maison de l’Architecture, Paris; and the Vienna Kunsthalle. His video works have been included in the group exhibitions Time Zones at the Tate Modern, London, and Adaptive Behavior at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and in several biennial exhibitions worldwide. Reviews of his work have appeared in Flash Art, Art Press, and Contemporary. This is Atay’s first solo exhibition at an American museum.


By Vasif Kortun

In 1997 the fifth Istanbul Biennial broke once and for all the domination of the secular, Western artistic elite in Turkey. Halil Altındere, a young artist from the southeast of the country, enlarged is national identity card to placard scale and duplicated it six times. In the section where his photograph should have been were a series of self-portraits that gradually, over the course of the six panels, left his identity behind. It may not have been the most novel piece in the exhibition, but it was the boldest display of Kurdish presence in contemporary art. (Turkish viewers would have understood from the birthplace listed on the card that the artist was most likely Kurdish, and his birth date is given as 0.01.1971, indicating that he was registered with the authorities after his birth.) In the more than eight years since the biennial, Kurdish artists living and working in the southeast have helped to diversify and radicalize the panorama of contemporary art in Turkey. While some of the works, especially those that reference political cartoons, have been one-liners or have suffered from over-the-top humor, those by such artists as Fikret Atay and Ahmet Ögüt have been able to complicate, convert, and reroute real-life traumas, thus escaping the burden of existing to serve as an example.

At the end of 2002, I curated an exhibition in Istanbul of work by lesser-known artists from Turkey. The title of the show, Under the Beach, the Pavement, a reversal of the Situationist slogan, implied the inability to dream of another world, the breach between the promise and the reality of globalization, and how artists operate to insert themselves back into the system. Atay was one of the artists featured, and it was his first exhibition. The work arrived as a video CD—the cheapest of all formats—via Altındere, who has established relationships with any of his contemporaries, Kurdish and otherwise. Now you have to understand the utter impossibility not only of producing work but also of sharing it and making it public in Atay’s context, let alone the absurdity of earning a BA in fine arts in order to become a teacher in a nearby town. 


 Rebels of the Dance and Fast and Best Rebels of the Dance 

 Fast and Best  Bang!Bang!


 Lalo’s Story 

Vasif Kortun is the director of Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul. In 2005 he was co-curator of the ninth International Istanbul Biennial.


Hammer Projects are made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, Fox Entertainment Group's Arts Development Fee, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and members of the Hammer Circle.