Perfect Strangers


05 July 2005

Kutlug Ataman is an artist whose works re-determine a number of significant art historical and filmic conventions. Relationships between fact and fiction, video art and film, truths seen and unseen, art and documentary – all are intricately and sometimes perversely interplayed to create a series of works that are times confounding and at others, moving, disturbing and hilarious.

Perfect Strangers is one of the largest surveys of Ataman’s work to date and given that the works are all installation-based film pieces that operate – deliberately – with a complete disregard for notions of narrative and time, this is not an exhibition to see on your lunch break. You need time and more often than not a little patience, but patience is rewarded because glimpses of these works – which is all one can ever really get – reveal idiosyncratic, fleeting moments that flit seamlessly from the mundane to the moving. It is Ataman’s ability to find characters that are extraordinarily ordinary and yet have something so completely odd to offer the world that rescues the works in their viewed entirety from becoming completely overwhelming and a bit “same same but different.”

Ataman is a storyteller and his practice is driven by a fascination with the way we, as humans, tell stories and express our own truths. Deconstructing documentary, Ataman’s concern is not so much with truth, but with personal testimony and our constructions of self. These are portraits of individuals and communities, and what they only allude to – and what is not directly captured – is as much a part of the work as what is being said directly to the camera. These characters are weird, sometimes creepy, often affable, unpredictable, funny and sad.

Perhaps the most evocative of all Ataman’s works is his most recent, the Artangel-commissioned installation piece Küba. An off-site work, Küba seems a marked departure for Ataman in terms of his use of the art space – the work is not as ‘tidy’ as some of the other installations and as a room replete with 40 old TV sets and 40 old chairs, there is a greater opportunity to move about the work and to really engage in it – to sink into these familiar, well-worn chairs and to intimately engage with these ‘characters’.

Perhaps it was the impending storm outside, perhaps it was the antique wiring, but entering Küba two things immediately strike you: a cacophony of noise, with 40 competing voices echoing around the room, and a weird electrical sort of energy, with the humming screens and darkened lights. It’s almost overwhelming. Free to wander about the room and sit in any chair at will, it requires a concerted effort to concentrate on the screen in front of you – subtitles make it easier – but attuning yourself to the voice and nuances of the speaker is difficult, with other characters bidding for attention in your peripheral vision. It creates an interesting sort of personal dilemma. You sit and watch these people – real people, living in Küba, the Istanbul ghetto – and you hear their stories, just ordinary stories – and in the comfort of your chair you feel intimately connected to this person, and compelled to hear them out. Standing up and moving on to another screen, you feel almost guilty – (akin to that head-down hurry past the homeless feeling) – because 40 different people are asking you to invest in their story, to validate it by listening. But in this large darkened room, they fight to avoid becoming anonymous, a collective where their individual stories merge to become one buzzing, bustling noise. It’s effective and affective.

There’s a lot to ingest with this exhibition, with much more than what is immediately obvious at play. Irrespective of any possible pre-formed ideas about film-based art work, documentary and the art space as a place to interrogate these concepts, Kutlug Ataman: Perfect Strangers is well worth checking out.

- Jo Higgins

More Information:
Kutlug Ataman: Küba
Until 24 July
The Argyle Stores, The Rocks
Entry on Playfair St
Daily 10am - 5pm

Kutlug Ataman: Perfect Strangers
Until 4 September
Museum of Contemporary Art
The Rocks, Sydney
Open daily 10am – 5pm
Admission free.