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ThisPlay, exhibition view at Arter, 2022. Photos: Orhan Cem Çetin.

ThisPlay

Artery

From February 17 to April 9, 2022

By ZOË HOPKINSJune 2022

Who could the contemporary surrealists be? In Istanbul, Turkey, Arter may have found the answer to this question. Spilling over walls, ceilings and corners, over several floors, the “ThisPlay” exhibit is an unruly child. He is a whimsical adventurer who seeks new truths through absurdity and playfulness. The exhibition, curated by Emre Baykal, brings together an impressive list of fifty-nine artists – most of whom are from Turkey but several come from all over the world – to test the limits of children’s imagination and change the rules of the proverbial game of art history.

The exhibition is voluntarily, delightfully open. The title, itself a play on words (a game invoking playfulness, performance and play at the same time), does not submit to determinism. What exactly is the “this” that he defines? And does play refer to theatre, games or amusement in general? The exhibition delights in being all of these at the same time: it is only defined by its multiplicity and its free play. Similarly, the exhibited works escape any definition. They come to us as crooks, pushing back against expectations, rejecting logic and refusing to grow. We encounter glass ladders suspended in the air out of reach, chairs made of spaghetti, two clocks that face each other and only tell the time to themselves. You don’t have to come to the exhibition with the context to quickly realize that nothing in this exhibition is intended to conform to our definitions of ‘meaning’. Instead, they embody André Breton’s famous maxim that “the mind, placed before any kind of difficulty, can find an ideal outlet in the absurd”.

ThisPlay, exhibition view at Arter, 2022. Photos: Orhan Cem Çetin.

SECOND PICTURE

Held at the whim of the absurd, the spectators are challenged to submit to new (sur)realities. Repeatedly, objects are unfamiliar once and then again. Take for example the work of Finnish artist Maaria Wirkkala. For his sculpture installation Behind the Scenes (Water Piano) (2009), Wirkkala stripped a grand piano of all its keys and accessories and placed it on the floor – like a corpse – with its legs in the air. An upside-down, keyless piano is already a strange thing to encounter, but it’s made all too odd by the presence of a small zebra figurine that appears to be drinking water from a cavity in the piano’s belly. What kind of world is it when a toy animal uses more than one piano than we can? Works of art play, and their play, the subtle trick of it all, is directed against us.

Calcifying the metaphorical play that takes place here, the games appear as a literal reference throughout the exhibition. At Luchezar Boyadjiev Endspiel; or The good, the bad and the lonely features a chessboard that has been lengthened, the usual 64 squares multiplied to the point that it is impossible for a player to reach from one side of the board to the other. In Rise to score by Bulgarian artist Pravdoliub Ivanov, a basketball hoop – an almost mundane icon of sports games – finds itself penetrated by a massive upside-down palm tree. The work is a ridiculously absurd collection of ready-mades taken to the extreme. The basketball hoop is emptied of its use value – because who can shoot baskets when a tree has definitely taken the place of the ball? – and the palm tree is similarly mocked as it rears up on its head. Here, the game is doubled: the literal game of basketball is subject to the metaphorical and artistic game of Pravdoliub. It seems, once again, that the game is relentless.

ThisPlay, exhibition view at Arter, 2022. Photos: Orhan Cem Çetin.

I wrote that the artists of “ThisPlay” are the surrealists and dadaists of a new era. But it is not only that these artists take up the conceptual mantle of these movements, but also, they figure them in the material lexicon of the 21st century. While there is a fair amount of sculpture and assemblage, there is rigorous attention to new media works that encourage performance and participation, as well as kinetic installation and video work. A contemporary social reality also emerges from the luster of the game. In the video by Turkish artist Erkan Özgen lost body (2005), the camera follows the seemingly disembodied feet of a boy as he kicks a soccer ball. It seems that we are witnessing a scene of impersonal and universal recreation, that the absence of the boy’s face invites us to imagine ourselves participating in the action. But the video’s whimsical take on disembodied play is thwarted by class realities: as the boy dribbles the ball, we’re guided through a landscape of dirty, poor streets and the sounds of struggle. We are witnessing a dreamlike state of affairs, but Özgen insistently reminds us that we are also witnessing a work of social realism, testimony to the material reality of the world at this time. “This Play” is a game, but maybe it’s one we need to take seriously. WM

About Bernice D. Brewer

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