Tijdschrift voor kunst en cultuur

In conversation with Suat Öğüt: talking about monumental memory

Nicholas Burman

“The best monument (…) may be no monument at all, but only the memory of an absent monument.”
– James E. Young

For our latest issue on monuments Nicholas Burman interviewed artist Suat Öğüt. Suat Öğüt’s multimedia installations are demonstrations that the production of memory is a social process. His 2017 work, Solidarity of The Memory, is a remediation of the exterior of a corner building in Cologne, the site of arson attacks which killed members of the city’s Turkish community between 1992 and 1993. The installation finds a scaled-down version of the façade printed onto transparent fabric, kept in place by a wooden frame held up by eighteen beams, upon which sit the names of victims of attacks perpetrated by neo-Nazis. Solidarity originated as a proposal to be a permanent installation on the very site it depicts. The plan of the memorial site has instead been realised as a transportable installation, which can and has been put into place in various locations in the Netherlands, where Öğüt is based.

While this installation does come alongside documentary evidence such as videos, photographs, and text, the spectator’s focus is drawn to the recreation of this seemingly innocuous, single-storey red brick building. This ordinary feature of a Cologne street is exposed as having the potential to be a site active in memory production. Borrowing phraseology from Julian Jonker and Karen E. Till, it can be argued that Solidarity performs ‘a memorial cartography anchored by [a] sit[e] of trauma, struggle and popular memory.’

Monuments, typical markers of social memory, are often constructed to commiserate and celebrate so-called national heroes, figures which provide a national mythology. Öğüt’s work, however, is often dedicated to working class migrant communities. His work attempts to give marginalised groups a stake in places where they have settled, but may feel unsettled. This is demonstrated in The First Turk Immigrant or The Nameless Heroes of The Revolution (2018), a portable collection of busts of Turkish political exiles who entered Europe during  the various guest worker programmes of the post war years.

To coincide with Simulacrum’s special issue on monuments, I talked with Öğüt over some weeks during Spring 2020 to discuss memory, monuments, and the role of art in public space. It seemed we embarked on this conversation at the right moment, as Black Lives Matter has put monuments, their role and how we discuss them, front and centre of many national debates, especially in Western countries who are yet to confront and critique their colonial pasts and presents.

Nicholas Burman:
The monument is central to much of your work – I was wondering where this interest in the monumental comes from? Did this start while you were in Turkey or is it something that developed once you arrived in the Netherlands, and have you experienced differences in how these two countries utilise and discuss monuments?

Suat Öğüt: I’ve had a very classical and traditional arts education, but in the sculpture department of the school I attended we had a fascinating facility which got us to think conceptually on contemporary art in public spaces. Even though public space is always a starting point in my practice, my early works never ended up in a form of monuments. 
In Turkey, as in most countries, monuments are used as a way to represent the power structures of governance. This has been the case in Turkey at least since it became a republic. Especially with the campaigns to make statues of Ataturk after the 1980 military coup, I think that it has produced an even more dominant effect on society via the public sphere. My interest became more specifically about monuments when I moved to Europe, first in Ghent, where I lived between 2012 and 2013, and then Amsterdam, where I have been since 2014.
I have expanded my interests and investigated the relationship between public monuments and how they correspond to the present time. I am mostly fascinated by historical materials, these provide a key source of inspiration for my work, and the research phase is an important part of the process. In a way, I have been inspired a lot by historical bronze monuments, memorials, and invisible monumental buildings.  

NB: Regarding your piece The First Turk Immigrant or The Nameless Heroes of The Revolution (2012-2018). This was a collection of busts of Turkish political refugees who fled to various western European countries in the 1960s. It sat outside near the Buiksloterweg ferry terminal in Amsterdam Noord for a few weeks, and people could find cards explaining the installation and who it was portraying inside the pedestals. What were your experiences of having this impermanent monument so public, and of people reacting to an art piece outside of a gallery setting?         

SÖ: Indeed, the complexity of the immigrant is very much present in my work. My work exists within a dynamic space located between the present issues of the immigrant and their historical context. 
This project began with research that aimed to find a political immigrant from Turkey in each of the nine countries that were part of the negotiations in the 1960s concerning the so-called Turkish guest worker agreements. As you mention, I elaborated on the biographies of the individuals I found in the letters that people could literally pick up from the piece. The individuals I picked were all related in some way to the post-coup period in Turkey. Through these letters, I hoped to establish a personal connection between the audience and the nine immigrants.  
My idea was that by using the medium of busts I could hint to the past and yet also insert an ambiguity both in the historical narrative and in the language of “the monument.” I envisioned to pair the busts together and make a “mobile monument” out of them which would go around town and relocate over time. I thought about the language of the bust. Nearly everybody is familiar with the aesthetic, and when they’re placed in public space as a monument we generally know the role they play and the script of how we should interpret them. This convinced me that when I wanted to reach a lot of different kinds of communities I had to use this language. My approach involved a complicated strategy that mixed history and the biographies of the protagonists, the official visual language, and the idea of a “mobile monument.” This brought about the ambiguity that I felt was needed to encourage the viewer/audience to reflect.
During the exhibition Monument to the Unsung, organised by Framer Framed, which was part of the first edition of Public Art Amsterdam, we had a chance to present this work in one of the most visible areas in Amsterdam Noord. Noord has been home to many Turkish (labour) migrants since the sixties. They made a highly important contribution to both the industry and the character of this area and the city more generally, but are now pushed to the periphery to clear the way for tourists and wealthy real estate developers. Many Turkish citizens both living in or visiting Amsterdam were surprised to see Turkish names that sound familiar in a public space, although these specific figures are unknown by them as well.
I guess they were honoured to see any figures from Turkey as a statue in the centre of Amsterdam. Perhaps without knowing the content, I am not sure if anything would change the point of their view, but the work was experienced by everyone without judgment. As you can imagine, such a location made it a very accessible work for both tourists and locals. I made more than 2,500 envelope packages, in which people could find more information about the figures being represented and short biographies.

NB: There’s been lots of debate recently about taking down monuments of people which a society (should probably) disapprove of nowadays. Adolph Reed makes the point that while often welcome, the dethroning of monuments to such people would be most useful if that process came alongside different forms of public education programmes. What are your thoughts on this?

SÖ: One major example is when, during the fall of the Soviet Union, more than 2000 monuments of Lenin in Ukraine were demolished in the 1990s. More were removed or demolished until 2013-14. Most Eastern European countries have similar stories from the point they gained independence, monuments are either being demolished or dismantled, often by a rule of law. Some of them are bought by someone and relocated to a private park, such as Grutas Park [] in the middle of the forest in Lithuania. Not only monuments, but street names have also been removed and renamed after each election right in many of these ex-USSR countries. Also here in the Netherlands, this is still a somewhat problematic, unresolved subject, as some street names and/or names of public spaces and institutions are related to colonial times.  
Because public space is meant to be accessible, it has also always been a manipulated area, especially by governments. We witness this frequently these days, especially in regards to where we can come together to fight for our rights in public squares. 
As to the taking down of monuments… a monument represents history and governments want to build up their own power by communicating certain histories with society, and I see monuments as one of the representative, aesthetic structures to do this. So where does art stand in this debate?
In my opinion, I believe in autonomous art in public space, especially if it is somehow connected to society, minorities, and the present. For me, autonomous art is invested with a social or communal focus. It also includes a process of communication with the public and is aware of its own position in public space. At least, it stands more independently and engages with the community rather than being paid by the government just to represent its power structure. Therefore, I am very interested in the role of public space and questions about how it is related to the present history and elements such as monuments and buildings.

NB: Since the fall of Colston in Bristol, various other statues celebrating colonialists have come down in the UK, as have statues of Leopold II in Belgium. Have you been keeping up with those developments, and what has your reaction been?

SÖ: During the last decade we have rarely seen such a demonstration of statues being taken down by the public, but we are faced with unacceptable situations which forced our hand. Fundamentally, I do not think that these movements we have witnessed are seeking to destroy history or damage public goods. Rather, they are pointed against discrimination and demonstrate how racism and fascism are all over the world. These monuments became a target because all of them are representatives of colonial history and no longer correspond with many peoples’ current relationship with society. Most of us think that we don’t need to see these monuments in public spaces in order to confront the past, they should be moved somewhere else for a better understanding of the past in the future. 

Is this a moment in which we can rethink the purpose or the necessity of such a thing as a “monument?” 

SÖ: The remaining pedestals after the toppling of the statues are sometimes used as meeting platforms or for public speeches. We could also consider other options, artists could propose temporary presentations in these places. I already see some inspired images and ideas on social media (not necessarily by artists) about what could be done here. Remember during the Gezi movement in Turkey in 2013, public space was an inspiring place to be, Taksim Square in İstanbul was full of creative ideas and a great sense of humour. 

I would highly suggest rethinking the purpose of monuments these days. But I also believe that, conceptually, monuments have much broader application than only being these sort of representative monuments. However, we have seen more monuments of populist figures such as football players or singers; it looks like the “concept of conventional monuments” is losing its value over time in public space.

Solidarity is not a monument to a success or a victory, but to a loss. In this way, it relates to the propensity in post-WWII Germany to build counter-monuments. As James E. Young explains it, one way for the German nation to reconcile itself to its actions in the second half of the 20th century was to build abstract and symbolic monuments that highlighted the action of disappearance and loss. The point was to remind a spectator about that which they may rather forget.

I’ve come to understand your work as part of the counter-monument movement, or at least an extension and update of that post-war German tradition, although from a victim’s perspective rather than a perpetrator’s. Is this an artistic movement you’ve consciously drawn on – what contemporary arts practices have informed you and your work? 

SÖ: For me, monuments are a sort of tool and an accessible way for people to engage with public space and community. Hence I am engaged in the dynamics between tradition and modernity, the personal and impersonal, and how reality and fiction deceive and question one another. In a monument, a world is reflected back at the spectator which is at once familiar and alien, universal and personal. My interest lies in how recent history is seen from the perspective of individuals. I am interested in how recent history can be activated in the present in order to understand where we are and think about how to act in the present, facing towards the future. I (re)construct my own historical narrative and give room for others to (re)construct theirs.
NB: Let’s talk a bit about “hidden” monuments and monumental buildings. This is a topic you’ve touched on twice, in Solidarity of The Memory and The Future of the Me-nemen-Mory (2020). They were quite different examples of monumental buildings. Could you give a little overview of how you developed these projects and their differences?  

SÖ: My interest was triggered by the memorial competition that I was nominated for, which was organised by NS Documentation Centre of the City of Cologne in 2016. For the memorial, I proposed Solidarity of the Memory, in which I explored how architecture could be considered as a witness, and is itself a monument to memories. How can we highlight “unknown” buildings, and their historical role, and make their stories visible, accessible, or shareable in a public space? Instead of making something new, I suggested using existing resources for the public good.
The location for the memorial was meant to be a corner, on the cross-section between Keupstrasse and Schanzenstrasse in Cologne. The project was about protecting the cultural heritage and memory of a neighbourhood facing reconstruction. The facade of the building has remained the same, up until today, and now this facade is being confronted by plans for gentrifying the area. My plan was to transform the facade into a monument, and to create a collective memory and represent those who lost their lives in the attacks in this neighbourhood, such as the arson attacks of 1992 and ‘93, as well as victims of the NSU.
Since then I have been engaged with the idea of architectural codes as representations of collective memories. Following my initial plans for Solidarity of the Memory, I created a large-scale model of that facade of the building. This model creates space to remember the people who have lost their lives. The aim was to raise awareness about all the possibilities of remembering the past that could call for a new type of solidarity. So far the project has travelled to temporary exhibitions in Berlin, Amsterdam, Karlsruhe, and will soon be on show in Hamburg.
For The Future of the Me-nemen-Mory, I intended to investigate the relationship between hidden buildings and memory in relation to society in Amsterdam. I was inspired by the hidden buildings I found to create a social platform where I could show what I discovered in my research. In this project I wanted to model these buildings and somehow use Google as a tool.  As we know, Turkish communities adapted their cultural existence to each new location outside of Turkey they went to, and here in Amsterdam there’s Turkish shops, markets, and other types of businesses. For the installation, I used the main thing that everybody needs to live: food.
I made wood models of these buildings, and printed Google satellite images of them onto carpet. The sculptures were placed on the carpets, as if they were rising up from their hidden locations. For the exhibition, I built up the installation to create a space in between a domestic and non-domestic setting, where I could provide the food for local residents and hear their stories.This project also included a two-channel video showing a bike-messenger, cycling around the four blocks which surround these buildings, exploring the concept of memory at work in the urban environment. In the video, the messenger is performing a very simple task, manoeuvring through the city, something everyone is very familiar with. The video shows the perspective of the messenger and a superhuman satellite view, and tells us how memory, history, architecture, and spatial orientation are at work in our everyday lives.
In both projects, monuments and temporary replacement were an essential point of view. Rather than using the classical perspective as I did in my previous projects, here I was more interested in how to shift the practical purposes in different functionalities.

A big part of The Future of the Me-nemen-Mory was inviting people to come and enjoy food you’d made at the exhibition. This is something that, pre-quarantine, you also did quite regularly at Corridor Project Space as well. What is so important and exciting to you about food oriented activities and socialising?

Since 2014, my partner and I have occasionally organised public dinners as part of the pop-up exhibitions in the community platform in our neighbourhood. There, we have cooked and served Turkish mezes and drinks. Perhaps during that time I realised that this is what I was missing: a traditional Turkish gathering. We wanted to experience this in Amsterdam.
I always had a strong desire to be a vocal voice and member of the local (art) community. Corridor Project Space was established as a platform in 2015, and is where we have been hosting such food events as the finissage of each exhibition there, and so dinners have become more essential. Because I am passionate about discursive processes I find it crucial to participate in a dialogue with the public.
For this project, my intention was to use food (menemen) as a social metaphor to represent the idea of memory and hidden buildings, as well as a way to share the narratives. In a ground floor studio in the Jordaan in Amsterdam I covered up the walls with white-painted planks of wood, creating a new and temporary (as well as futuristic) space, of which there was no previous public memory. The purpose was so that the work itself became a meeting place, where I could cook my favourite lunch and share my own narrative with others, and receive visitors to hear their stories.

You are one of the organisers of Corridor Project Space – do you see that as a monument, in a way? How do you see your role as a curator and organiser, and how does it play with your role as an artist?

No, Corridor Project Space has different dynamics as a space, but it is a challenging idea and perhaps I will apply this experience on my future projects. In my practice I often desire to change my roles and positions in the art world. Corridor is where I have learned and experienced different perspectives. So far it has survived thanks to collective solidarity and collaboration and help from all the participants. Inclusivity is always the main focus at Corridor. Our team is composed of an international group of people based in Amsterdam who come from different cultures. This inclusivity goes beyond the artists and professionals we work with and also applies to the audience and visitors we want to attract. Even though I am one of the initiators of Corridor Project Space, like everybody in the team I also have other roles such as being a technical assistant to help exhibiting artists, designing exhibitions, and sometimes acting as a bartender. I believe we should all take the initiative and act in different roles to be able to build up our own spaces. This way of working is becoming more pronounced in my practice.