Fillip 14 — Summer 2011

Between the Scaffold 
and the Ruin: 
Ahmet Öğüt’s Exploded City

Ahmet Öğüt and Berin Golonu

Originally commissioned for the Pavilion of Turkey in the 53rd Venice Biennale, Ahmet Öğüt’s installation Exploded City (2009) depicts and collapses various catastrophic events from around the world into a single sculptural form. Scale models of buildings and vehicles destroyed by terrorist bombings, ethnic conflicts, and military attacks of the last two decades are brought together in an assemblage that resembles the structure of a modern city centre. Exploded City renders these buildings and vehicles intact and depicts them in a state prior to their destruction. The resulting structure resembles a model of a shiny new city, much like a World’s Fair diorama that offers a propagandistic vision of progress. 

Manifesting French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage, which refers to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of sources, Exploded City merges a series of symbolic sites from myriad nations and cultures into one structural unity, producing an impossible spatial proximity and temporal simultaneity. Even though the visibility of these sites has been ushered in through catastrophe, the fact that Öğüt has used media photographs of these buildings to build his models reflects the understanding that this visibility is always compromised, abstracted, and removed from its actual context through its media representation.

A legend supplements the sculptural components of the installation and lists the buildings’ names, locations, and dates of destruction. In addition, there is a textual narrative that further interweaves past, present, and future into a complicated and problematic unity. This textual narrative draws from the magical realist tone of Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, based upon the tales Marco Polo tells the emperor Kublai Kahn about the cities he sees on his travels, cities under the emperor’s rule that the emperor has not been able to visit because his empire is so vast. In Öğüt’s narrative, Polo describes how the Exploded City’s residents are aware of these buildings’ impending fates yet choose to inhabit the city nonetheless. The catastrophic events of the recent past have yet to occur and are held in suspension, in a perpetual present that looks to the future for some sort of release. The emperor, who gains knowledge of the past, present, and future through Polo’s narrative, is thus forced to confront this dystopic vision of a city and a people under his rule, a city that lives under the constant threat of obliteration.

Berin Golonu – I see Exploded City as an assemblage of specifically chosen events that attempts to represent a vision of global conflict. This piece was originally commissioned for the Pavilion of Turkey at the 53rd International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Was there a certain narrative you wanted to convey about the history of the Turkish modern state for the piece’s original context of display? Perhaps a revisionist history of Turkey’s modernization project or a comment about the lacunae in the sanctioned, authoritative historical narrative that is taught in Turkish schools?

Ahmet Öğüt – I was trying to create a closely studied history of Exploded City without getting caught up in the discourse of the sanctioned, authoritative historical narrative. My hope was to present a social montage by tapping into individual memory. The buildings I chose to include in Exploded City have an open-ended makeup. For example, it’s important that the structures themselves are somewhat anonymous looking. The events I chose to include occurred from the 1990s to the present, and the buildings I chose to include are semi-public. There are, of course, many other buildings that fall into these criteria that could have been a part of Exploded City. The destructive events documented in Exploded City are caused not by a single ideology but by a diverse range of motivations. Some of these incidents were brought about by civil wars, others by international terrorist activity, regional conflicts, ethnic conflicts, or religious clashes. I find it is important not to relate these conflicts to only one cause. Exploded City is an open-ended structure in which a diverse array of ideologies converge. We need to examine this diversity in its full complexity. The recent histories that our individual memories can access have potential, yet they can also be manipulated by the status quo, by what we are collectively taught to remember. For example, coming face to face with the recent history of Turkey means doing so only through a big lapse in time. The laws that have been in effect for many years turn the recent past into the distant past. In other words, recently lived history is shelved, and the process of coming into contact with history becomes a delayed process. This delay or lapse in time not only erases critical actors from the scene but also erases them from a social memory.

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About the Authors

Ahmet Öğüt was born in Diyarbakir, Turkey, and lives and works in Amsterdam. He works with a broad range of media including video, photography, installation, drawing, and printed media. His most recent solo exhibition, Across the Slope: Ahmet Ogut, Modern Essays 1, is on view at SALT, Istanbul, through October 1, 2011.

Berin Golonu was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and lives in New York. She is a doctoral student in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.

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