“Once Upon a Time Inconceivable”: A Review and a Conversation
By Insun Woo
Published on October 15th, 2021
Throughout the past year and a half, I often found myself being pulled in a multitude of directions. Not literally, as I spent most of the time in front of a computer screen in my room, but mentally and emotionally. News on crimes motivated by fear and hate; a message from mom about a hospitalized family friend; articles on gross inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic; natural disasters caused by climate change. All kinds of news flooded my screens, making my already cramped room almost suffocating. Plunged in this deluge of information and imagery came a set of questions: What is happening? How do I/we make sense of all this? How do I/we move forward?
Perhaps this was why I was compelled to visit “Once Upon a Time Inconceivable” when I stumbled upon an announcement of its opening as I was surfing the internet in my room. “Once Upon a Time Inconceivable” is a group exhibition organized by Protocinema on the occasion of its ten-year milestone. As a nonprofit art organization that is free of ‘brick and mortar,’ as shared by the curators Mari Spirito and Alper Turan in a conversation afterward (featured in the article below), Protocinema commissions and presents site-aware art around the world that promotes cross-cultural dialogues and understanding. For this exhibition, works by nine artists—Abbas Akhavan, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Banu Cennetoğlu, Ceal Floyer, Gülşah Mursaloğlu, Zeyno Pekünlü, Paul Pfeiffer, Amie Siegel, and Mario García Torres—were brought together at Beykoz Kundura, a cultural hub that was formerly a factory that manufactured paper and leather, located on the north-east coast of the Bosphorus, Istanbul. Coming after a period of crisis and loss that has left many of us with the tasks of rethinking establishments and reevaluating personal, local, and global relationships, the exhibition invites visitors to consider the workings of perception and realization in relation to time and space.
As I walked through the vast exhibition space, I sensed the multiple temporalities embodied by it. The entire space bears traces of its past use (as a factory warehouse) and disuse: large holes exist in the ceiling, revealing the metal structures beyond; lumps of dust and occasional wood chips sit on the floor, and spider webs extend over the tall windows. The two walls of cardboard boxes, which were erected for the exhibition, added yet another layer of temporality to the space, making the show “appear as if it could be packed in all the boxes and be gone the next day,” as pointed out by the curator Spirito. Not only did it make me ever more aware of my body and the marks it left on the space, but it also made me more attuned to the different paces and temporalities of the displayed artworks.
Placed in front of the entrance, Gülşah Mursaloğlu’s Merging Fields, Splitting Ends (2021) and Paul Pfeiffer’s Orpheus Descending (2001) caught my eye. Mursaloğlu’s installation investigates the effects of heat and time. A group of water-filled metal buckets, each placed on a hot plate, were scattered across the floor. A hand-sewn sheet of potato plastic hung above each bucket. Though the three objects are disparate, they register as a system; they are connected by two imperceptible forces of time and heat. Heat travels from the hot plate to the bucket and to the bioplastic sheets through the form of steam. Over time, the sheets disintegrate. By the time of my visit, some sheets had discolored and even broken apart.
Glowing gently next to Merging Fields, Splitting Ends is a screen full of incubated eggs: Pfeiffer’s Orpheus Descending. It spans 1800 hours, displaying the 75-day-life-cycle of a flock of chickens (from eggs to day-old chicks to full-grown adults). Though heat and time are at work in both pieces, they lead to different results. Mursaloğlu’s installation highlights their entropic effects—materials disintegrate and systems break down. Pfeiffer’s video, on the other hand, shows the generative, nurturing effects of heat and time. Though I didn’t witness the hatching of eggs during my visit, I knew that with the passing of each second, they were getting one step closer to life (though, of course, an unhappy fate awaits them at the end). Together, the works made me consider the imperceptible forces that are at work across my space and time, forming or breaking relationships between me and my surroundings.
To the left, beyond walls of cardboard boxes housing Zeyno Pekünlü’s Without a Camera (2021) was Abbas Akhavan’s spring (2021). A series of concentric circles stood somewhat precariously, relying on two piles of bricks for their balance. A dry mechanic hum emanated from a nearby machine, which turned out to be a cooling engine. What the sculpture was wasn't readily available; it evoked random objects, like an electric burner or an archery target. With the help of the accompanying essay, I realized that the sculpture is made of pipes from dismantled fountains. As I looked at a fountain stripped of its spectacle—water flowing, splashing, and jetting from a beautiful cast stone structure—I wondered about the kinds of structures that underlie today’s society. Much like the fragile frozen pipes that lie behind the visual spectacle created by a fountain, what lies behind the public spectacles and fast pace of our society seems precarious and paralyzed.
Banu Cennetoğlu’s installation IKNOWVERYWELLBUTNEVERTHELESS (2015 - ongoing) quietly but consistently exerted its presence from above as I walked around the exhibition. The phrase comes from the French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni, and it refers to a willingly repressed state of awareness. At the beginning of the exhibition, 24 black helium-filled balloons were neatly aligned across the wall, spelling out the title in Turkish. Though they were crumpled and scattered across the ceiling randomly by the time of my visit, it was this very illegibility that made me feel as though the work was asking, “what are you going to do with the newly gained information and perspectives from this exhibition? Are they going to translate into action?”
As I was writing this review, I had the chance to speak with the curators of this exhibition, Mari Spirito and Alper Turan and learn more about the featured works, as well as the exhibition space and curatorial process.
Insun Woo: Could you tell us more about the exhibition title, Once Upon a Time Inconceivable, and how the topics for the exhibition came about?
Mari Spirito: The exhibition embodies the passing of time, how we understand it, what conditions lead to realizations, and then what happens from all that. It was organized for our tenth anniversary, yet it's really about misunderstanding time, which is why many of the works here are changing and moving. That’s why we refer to it as a milestone: something that we’re passing by.
While we were working on the exhibition, we all learned how people’s perception of time had changed quite a bit because of the pandemic. We felt time passing differently because we weren’t able to physically move around. Along with that, having all that time to think leads to realizations for many. Lots of people were making big life changes, about work, where they live, how they live, and so forth. So all these things were put together into this soup that is the exhibition.
I.W.: It’s clear that the perception of temporality is central to the exhibition. Could you tell us more about the decision to bring Ceal Floyer’s works Viewer (2011-21) and Overgrowth (2004), which deal more with spatiality, into the exhibition?
M.S.: I try to put artworks together that address the core issues on a spectrum. The artworks are each about the topics from varied directions.
I’ve always been affected by the fact that when you physically change places, you get a different emotional perspective on things. Living in Istanbul has allowed me to gain a different perspective on things that are going on in New York, and this is fascinating and insightful. I felt that this is reflected in Ceal’s Overgrowth; the distance between the projector and the wall changes our relationship with the projected image. Similarly, Viewer offers a mediated view of a space, changing our understanding of it, yet at the same time an absurd move to put a peep-hole in a window.
Also, I wanted to include works by artists who I’ve worked with in different ways. Ceal is an artist I’ve had the longest relationship with—we’ve worked together for twenty years, since my time as a gallery director in New York, part of my past. On the other side of it is Gülşah Mursaloğlu, who I know the least and first showed her work in 2017.
I.W.: How was Beykoz Kundura selected as the site of the exhibition?
M.S.: I met Buse Yıldırım, who is the Artistic Director of Beykoz Kundura, a few years ago. In 2019, Protocinema premiered our screening tour at their cinema. We had a lovely working experience and kept talking over the years. While I was in the process of looking for a space for this show, Buse invited us to do the exhibition there. I am constantly keeping my eyes and ears open for spaces and always thinking about how to put artworks and spaces together. It’s regular practice for an itinerant art organization like us.
Alper Turan: Besides the good relationship we had with Beykoz Kundura, we also liked how it’s used as a film set, which fits with Protocinema’s interest in moving images. Also, the space is huge, and there aren’t that many large spaces available for an art exhibition, so we saw it as an opportunity.
I.W.: Yes, I loved it! It went really well with the exhibition topic as well. I could see and feel the history of the space--how it was used as a warehouse for a factory. I’d love to hear more about the exhibition design. Could you tell me more about some of the choices you made?
M.S.: We chose to use the space as we found it, as we wanted to show the aging of the space. The dust on the floor was left as it is, and spider webs near the window were left uncleaned. We also placed the works in a way that rewards close-looking visitors. Viewer is installed right at the entrance, many people initially run right past it, when they first walk in. You might get it only on your way out. Also, two of Mario Garcia Torres’ silkscreens are hanging in dimly lit parts of the show. Which is interesting because Mario’s works are precisely about how knowing or not knowing changes how we experience and understand our world. There are some extra treats in this show, “easter eggs’ as the film industry likes to call them, for those who look closely.
I.W.: That’s what I wondered. I also noticed how parts of the windows were colored, and the colors were similar to those used in Mario Garcia Torres’s silkscreen. Did you do that for the exhibition?
M.S.: That coloring of the windows are plastic films that Kundura Beykoz put on there to make it look like stained glass. It’s a visual trope used a lot around Istanbul referencing pre-Ottoman era glass history. Mario’s palette came from photos we sent him of the front of the cinemas where the posters of his “Spoilers” would go. The posters were sent to independent cinemas in Kars, Izmir, Ankara, and here in Beyoğlu, Istanbul.
A.T.: Also, if you look at Gülşah’s work, some of the bioplastic sheets are tinted with colors. She was literally inspired by the coloring of the windows in the exhibition space.
IW: I’m also curious about the placement of the works in the show—Cennetoğlu’s work, IKNOWVERYWELLBUTNEVERTHELESS, for example. I had read the ProtoZine before visiting the exhibition and tried envisioning what the exhibition might look like, and I expected Cennetoğlu’s work to be hung either near the exit, or at the end of the exhibition space, since it asks the question of what comes after realization. I was surprised to find it somewhat near the middle of the exhibition space.
M.S.: Naturally, in group shows works are installed to create conversations between each other. Paul’s video is on the floor facing our entrance to put forth a grounded feeling. Yet his story is a very long one—in real time, it lasts longer than the run of this show and keeps going in other parts of the city until sometime in November. Both Gülşah Mursaloğlu’s and Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s works are also on the floor with reaching elements, so that viewers look both down and then up. This leads you to Banu’s sculpture which is installed up near the ceiling. Banu’s work speaks of the psychological and pathological crime of inaction, where Gülşah’s work crumbles in its own action and Hera’s work reveals over 1,500 years of layers upon layers of power struggles. Alternatively, Abbas Akvahan’s sculpture, spring, is about a pause, a frozen or suspended feeling, that is revealed in a moody part of the warehouse with only a sliver of natural light and only a little connection to the outside. I wanted it in its own winter oasis, yet in the vicinity of Ceal’s tree (of life). Zeyno’s work deals not only with A.I. yet also how much things are both very different and the same through history. Her and Fitisound’s audio lure you into a cyclical time warp and it is installed where the viewer will pass it multiple times. There’s a lot of visual activity happening up on the ceiling, damaged wood for example, nets hanging to catch falling debris, so we wanted Banu’s work to be in conversation with that mess, as well. It's part of the show. Mario placed his paintings himself, to be discovered along the way and function as “ah ha moments” and punctuation marks. I also wanted the natural light from the outside to fall on each of these works in different ways. So, there are lots of variables.
I.W.: How interesting! It worked really well. That clearing between Mursaloğlu’s and Büyüktaşçıyan’s works, especially. Could you also share more about Amie Siegel’s Quarry (2015)? How does it relate to other works in the show?
M.S.: The relationship between Siegel’s and Büyüktaşçıyan’s works is direct, especially considering what happened to the architecture of Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) here in Istanbul. [editor’s note: In July 2020, the Hagia Sophia was stripped of its museum status and converted into a mosque. Turquoise carpet was laid across the marble floor].
On its own, Quarry is an articulate representation of extraction. During the pandemic, when talking about reducing consumption to reduce extraction, I surprisingly got a lot of people asking, What do you mean? Instead of being aggravated that I have to explain that to people, I thought that it’d be nice to show it. There’s a lot of seduction about these beautiful high-rise apartments. The work walks a line between being critical yet potentially from the inside, being seduced by power and money. I think that’s something that is important to keep in mind because we all say that we want to stop consuming and be more sustainable, but we’re participating in it. So that brought about the cardboard box walls and recyclable seating. We really worked on where we could to make the exhibition not be wasteful. We didn’t fly artists in, we didn’t ship any artworks. We are participating in what is possible to do.
IW: Do you know how Pfeiffer’s and Garcia Torres’ works installed in other locations in Istanbul and other cities in Turkey were received?
M.S.: We did get some feedback from cafes when we first installed Pfeiffer’s work. People were waiting for the eggs to hatch and they wanted them to hatch faster! We will go back now that the eggs are hatching and ask people what they think.
IW: Yes, that’d be so interesting! Last but not least… What is your vision for Protocinema in the coming years?
M.S.: We’re envisioning some more writing projects. How would you articulate that, Alper?
A.T.: That, and we’re also trying to work more on the grassroots level with other initiatives and artists around the world—in addition to Istanbul and New York.
M.S.: We will be doing things differently, yet we don’t know how yet. That’s the inconceivable part. We have the flexibility as a small organization. We can experiment and try different things. When we first started Protocinema without a permanent physical space and working in different cities, it was hard for people to grasp. Now, there are so many organizations working like this. So, we want to make another new way to work that responds to this moment in time, to the new needs that have come up, in ways that we do not even know about yet.
“Once Upon a Time Inconceivable” was held at Beykoz Kundura from September 4th - October 10th, 2021.
Read more about the exhibition on Protocinema’s website.
Follow Protocinema on Instagram.
Mari Spirito is Executive Director and Curator of Protocinema, a cross-cultural, site-aware art organization commissioning and presenting exhibitions and public programs in Istanbul and New York, since 2011. In 2020 Spirito was commissioning curator of Ahmet Öğüt: “No poem loves its poet’, Yarat Contemporary Art Center, Baku, and Theo Triantafyllidis’ “Anti-Gone” which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, New Frontier; she curated public talks for Beijing Art Summit, 2019; was faculty for Independent Curators International (ICI) Curatorial Intensive, Bangkok, and guest curator, Alserkal Arts Foundation Public Commission, Dubai, with Hale Tenger, in 2018. In 2017 she launched Protocinema’s annual screening tour, in 2015 Protocinema’s Emerging Curator Series mentorship program. From 2013 - 2018 Spirito programed Conversations for both Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach; served as International Advisory Committee Member for the Inaugural High Line Plinth Commissions, New York, 2017; was Curator and Director of Alt Art Space, Bomonti, Istanbul from 2015 to 2017; curated “On the Nature of Justice” exhibition and talk for Onassis Cultural Center, 2017, Advisor to the 2nd Mardin Biennial, Turkey, 2012; and Director of 303 Gallery New York, 2000 - 2012. She is on the Board of Participant, Inc, New York, and holds a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art, Boston.
Alper Turan is a curator and researcher based in Istanbul and Berlin. Her current research and curatorial practice focus on queer strategies and methodologies which includes but not limited to collective fiction and fictional archive-building, appropriation, and anonymity. Between 2016-2018, with a curatorial collective Das Art Project, he co-curated four site-responsive exhibitions including ‘‘Genetically Modified’’ (2017) commissioned for 13th Sharjah Biennial’s off-site exhibition. In 2018, Turan curated Positive Space, an exhibition project on HIV/AIDS in Istanbul. This project also lays the ground of his cultural studies master research in Sabancı University in which she merged critical reading of artworks with (auto)ethnographic accounts. Turan co-curated HIVstories research exhibition which has been travelling around Berlin, Warsaw and Istanbul. Turan participated in International Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans (2019), ARTER Research Program, Istanbul (2019-20) and worked temporarily for Schwules Museum, Berlin (2018), Collecteurs (2019), Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg (2019). In 2020, Turan started her PhD in theory and history of arts at the College of Fine Arts in Hamburg (HFBK).