First published in Art Monthly, 2019.
Reading time 6'
The Turkey-born and Amsterdam-based artist belit sağ explores how images act onto the world. For sağ, pictures can create reality as much as represent it. Central to her work is the question of how violence operates within the moving image. In her video essays she combines a broad range of filmic devices, creating multi-layered narratives. Alongside their presentation in galleries she also publishes her work online. Her videos are characteristically short, and combine archival material taken from the internet alongside her own footage. Sağ adeptly mobilises text, image and sound to create dense montages that persistently reflect on ideas of testimony and veracity. Watching her videos can feel like re-training the eyes, with the artist continually questioning the images she puts in front of us.
Ayhan and me, 2016, recently presented as part of sağ’s two-part solo exhibition ‘BL CK B X: belit sağ, at Lux – in collaboration with Peer – is typical of the artist’s work. The video forms sağ’s response to the censorship of her original proposal for the exhibition ‘Post-Peace’ at Akbank Sanat in Turkey. The institution censored the artist’s proposal because of political sensitivities surrounding President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s media crack down. The video begins with sağ crumpling up a photograph of the former Turkish police officer Ayhan Çarkın. The artist’s voice-over articulates a hesitancy about her perceived agency, with sağ intoning: ‘The illusion of being able to control images gives me strength.’ This statement is quickly followed by an articulated sense of disillusion as the scene cuts back to the uncrumpled photograph in the artist’s hand.
Çarkın was part of an unofficial paramilitary wing of the Turkish Security Forces responsible for killing thousands of Kurdish people in the 1990s and he appears in a number of the artist’s works. He acts as a cypher for political amnesia with the artist variously hiding and revealing her protagonist with the movement of her hands. The film suggests that symbolic and physical violence are enmeshed. To cut someone from a film, censor them from an exhibition, or to fire a gun – to take a life and remove a voice. History, as the monologue goes on to articulate, is written a bit like this.
If you say it forty times…, 2017, again features Çarkın and extends sağ’s focus on political accountability. The narrative is related via bold typography layered over out-of-focus imagery. Transcripts from former special forces troops and government officials are revealed with each figure taking it in turns to profess their innocence and lack of memory over particular events that remain unclear. The film briefly cuts to a scene with a crowd marching and holding up placards picturing murdered citizens. The film makes a clear analogy between political erasure and a public demand for accountability. Sağ’s films address the ways in which those in power conceal and obfuscate history and instrumentalise it for their own agendas. Invisibility is met with a demand for the visible and accountable – and, as Sağ so ably attests, images become the battleground for this discourse.
In disruption (aksama), 2016, we can see the artist’s feet as she walks from one building to another. Clips appear intermittently on screen from vintage films and contemporary news broadcasts to form a disparate narrative. A woman takes a portrait down from a wall and walks out of a house. Children take slices from a cake in the shape of Lenin’s embalmed body. A character from Woody Allen’s 1985 film Purple Rose of Cairo breaks the fourth wall and walks into a cinema. A text pops up on one screen: ‘your picture belongs to my world.’ The narrative starts to accelerate as the clips are layered. People are protesting, a group storm a TV set during the coup d’etat attempt in Turkey in 2016, an unconnected clip shows spectators looking on with seeming concern. At times images start to cohere before veering off. Characters walk out of the screen and paintings come off the wall; the film suggests that images are inseparable from the world. Furthermore, we embalm histories in pictures and mausoleums in attempts to clean them up and make sense of them, but lived experience is far too nebulous. Images continue to leak into reality, at once reflecting and refracting it.
What Remains, 2018, begins with a view of a graveyard in the Kurdish region of Cizre, filmed through a metal fence. The foreground of the image is glanced through vertical bars that briefly imprison the image. The background is dominated by the surrounding landscape. With its clever framing, the scene pointedly suggests that Turkey is locked into territorial violence, wrought by ethnic division. We’re materially and symbolically confined into patterns of history that end up repeating themselves. The narrative cuts to the aftermath of conflict. A family show us bomb damage inside their home as a soap opera plays on the TV. A neighbour’s house – damaged at the same time – has been subsequently restored. We can hear children milling around in the background as cosy domesticity is encroached on by faceless violence.
The film merges into pixelation as a post-mortem funeral image of a Victorian child appears. Sağ narrates the relationship between early photography and its umbilical relationship to death. The image is a type of mummification, petrifying a person’s image in perpetuity. The artist traces the semantic genealogies of Latin, Kurdish and Turkish words. Humantis, or humanity, comes from the root of humando, which means to bury. Humans are literally beings which bury their dead. Sağ has a thing for these types of anecdotes that reveal sedimented histories. The footage cuts to a group of women marching through a town as we view them from behind. A text states that the body is a recorder, connecting the violence of bombs with the aggression of ideology. Bodies, images and buildings become marked by physical and psychological scars and these wounds remain to become the material of history.
The three-screen film installation my camera seems to recognise people, 2015, presented recently at Peer, challenges the assumed passivity of the camera. In a world of facial recognition, the camera doesn’t just document what is in front of it but it also makes sense of it. We encounter photographs of dead people in Cizre and a photograph taken from a funeral in Ankara after a terrorist attack. While their faces are visible, their personal histories remain hidden. The camera’s lens automatically focuses on the women’s face but fails to make sense of it. The historical documentary photograph equated visual recognition to a form of political representation and sağ complicates this narrative.
Taken collectively, sağ’s films explore how images reveal as much as conceal, act as decoys as much as beacons. Nicholas Mirzoeff, writing in The Right to Look: A Counter history of Visuality, 2011, traces the etymology of the word visuality to the battlefield. The overseer, or general, has oversight over the terrain and is able to strategise ahead of the enemy. The ability to visualise confers authority. Sağ’s films explore the ways in which images – produced and mediated by governments and citizens – operate in a visual regime that is about the contestation of history and power. Her films resist singular narratives and construct something that is more uncertain. Hito Steyerl (Interview AM 375) once wrote that the closer we get to reality the more intelligible it becomes. This is often reflected in the jerky, blurry footage of camera phones and is typical of contemporary forms of witnessing. Sağ persistently foregrounds this type of testimony, framing collective history through personal anecdote. Her films employ different forms of storytelling to disorientate our relationship to the image. Ultimately, sağ asks us to be more attentive to ways of seeing.