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Codes of etiquette, of good manners, politeness and of being 'proper', the do's and don'ts of a community, a society, a school or a household could be accepted as a given, a structure that is understood within the context of time and place. By their very nature, such rules of social grace within a culture are often considered to be innate, or at least instinctual and hence in the past went unwritten. The first early conceptions of accepted etiquette that were noted down were court codifications. Later books on the topic began to be published in relation to good business policies, as markets and trade routes grew and became more established. A larger market for 'manuals' appeared only when travel became much more common and people preferred or needed to acquire locally accepted rules for dining, meeting and communication to ease themselves into an unfamiliar societal system.
The book that Gülsün Karamustafa came across in a second hand book store in Istanbul this year is yet another transferral of such codifications. It is an adaptation of the French book Pour Bien Connaitre Les Usage Mondaine that was originally printed in Paris in 1910 by Pierre Lafitte et Cie for the Femina Bibliotheque. The adapted book is written in Turkish with Arabic letters, because although its printing took place after the declaration of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the legal announcement that saw Turkey adopt the Latin alphabet occurred in 1928. Hence the book is somehow trapped in time and in an Oriental enigma. It attempts to apply the rules of the West in tone and imagery; yet is literarily, and for the eyes of non-Arabic readers visually composed within the history of the Ottoman Empire and the East.
This conundrum that exists when the Orient meets the Occident and the shifts in desire and perception – between the yearnings for either Oriental fantasy or Occidental modernism – that fall in and out of place and context throughout a certain period in history has greatly intrigued and influenced Karamustafa's artistic practice. In particular her interest in how this period represents women and informs their conduct has surfaced in several of her works including those that use Orientalist paintings as a source such as Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies (1999 – 2000), fragmenting / Fragments (1999) and From the Outside (1999). Her discovery of such an 'elastic' object as this book, which focuses on a modelled notion of etiquette, that is at once both a construct and engineer of the pull between East and West, becomes the perfect tool for Karamustafa to speak about the idealisation of Western attitudes in the East within her new installation Etiquette (The Taming of the East).
The author of the book, Abdullah Cevdet (b. 1869), trained as a doctor and graduated from the Royal School of Medicine of the Ottoman Empire. He was clearly a radical figure who felt close to the Westernisation movement and together with his friends he was the first to systematise specific modes of thought after the administrative and political reforms (Tanzimat) of 1839 in the Empire. As Karamustafa notes: "Within the context of the adapted book, the author defends the argument of Westernisation of the East by all means. He takes it as a class distinction and refers to all details of the Bourgeois life style, even giving advice about the behaviour of the chambermaids and the stableman. This makes the publication unique within other examples of books for good manners on keeping up with the West, which were printed in quite a number during this period, when everything was changing rapidly in the history of what was an Empire and was becoming a Nation."
Karamustafa cannot personally remember the lessons on etiquette that she received while at school in Istanbul. Yet they did take place – as a school friend recently reminded her while talking about the development of her work Etiquette – on deportment, dinner manners, social skills etc. Karamustafa's forgetfulness of such teachings is not surprising for someone with a profound sense of personal direction, development and independence. And yet as Karamustafa is quick to point out this life that was being taught was the same life she was immersed in, and not one that she was forced to accept as others perhaps would perceive. Her most recent work Anti-Hamam Confessions (2010) speaks in a similar vein. The film revolves around a series of images of an old Istanbul hamam, but the first-person voice-over describes Karamustafa's lack of ever having visited a hamam in the city. For her and her family washing at the hamam has been an outmoded practice for decades. Hence, the high-society propositions of conduct displayed in Cevdet's book cause Karamusafa to respond in many different ways. The composite of Arabic script and the "Western" portraits that illustrate the book are a contradiction in themselves; at the same time they are seductive, somehow naive and therefore quaint, but also shocking in their pretension. Dealing with such a complicated narrative, but without, by any means, attempting to be politically correct, Karamustafa plays with these codified systems, their application and imposition.
In Etiquette a table sits as a centre piece and as a structure that straddles two positions – guest and host, those being served and the server, those invited and those who are not. In addition the table sets the most standard tone for a broader understanding of manners. While manners begin at home as they say, they are most defined and shared at the dining table and nowhere more than at a formal, seated banquet. In the installation it seems as if a feast is awaiting the audience, but the table has not yet been "properly" laid as Cevdet's book would set out to address. For those who enter this room there is a sense of unease at having encountered such a disorganised banquet. It is then that the decoration on the plates, menus, glasses and napkins becomes apparent. On every piece of cutlery, porcelain and tableware are printed images and definitions from the found book on etiquette. Lined in gold leaf and with Ottoman Turkish characters these ornamental additions "impose the good manners of a mundane life".
Around the table are 36 vividly coloured, iron beams that run from floor to the ceiling. The vivacity of their fluorescent coatings for a moment masks any similarity to prison window bars or a balustrade that separates the country home from the wild nature of the garden. Yet such barriers are their reference. They act to contain and separate, a strategy that Karamustafa has used several times before. In Double Reality (1987), a male mannequin, (that Karamustafa found in Terkez passage in Istanbul and bought for his absurd attire – a woman's nightgown) is placed in a double frame of iron bars that make clear his position, as seen by Karamustafa, within a certain zone of both real life and the imaginary. These bars are taken as the standard for those in Etiquette and assume a similar role. In Double Reality it is clear that the audience should not enter the frame of the work, yet they could; and the same is implied in Etiquette. How should one interact with this suggestive barrier? Who is worthy of access and who is not, and more importantly in relation to Cevdet's book, who has the right to classify class and intellect based on learnt gestures and phrases? Other marks by Karamustafa such as You Are Here (1989), a site-specific installation that introduced a physical red line around the Funeral Gate of the Hagia Sofia Museum in Istanbul, again make clear the definition and position of a space, be it mental, physical or referential and question the definitions and systems of access.
Karamustafa's reflections on the importation of European taste can be traced in two of her more recent works Burying the Sleep (2001) and Compromise (2004). The former, an installation of two clocks from 19th century Europe introduces another form of West to East import accepted as a symbol of class, taste and 'learning'. Such clocks were purchased in Europe by trades people to be given as presents to state offices or to be hung in public official space back in cities such as Istanbul where they clearly stated the time-based push of Europeanisation upon the nation. First presented in the exhibition Ethnic Marketing in Geneva (2004), Compromise is a series of photographs that question who is entitled or expected to produce their own fantasy, which is in this case an Orientalist vision by a female artist living in Turkey. Karamustafa's four female subjects recreate understood poses and gestures inspired by the genre of 'orientalist' portraiture. They either look straight ahead or avert their gaze away from the camera. Within their realm the clocks borrowed from Burying the Sleep act to carry the piece on a similar journey – the passage of acceptance of a suppressive form of Europeanisation that contains the same bourgeois attitude on etiquette. These two works and in particular the clock's inclusion nicely frame the 'lost world' that Cevdet's book can never escape from. While his aim was to translate for all a perceived language of the future, his work instead straddles a whole range of languages, systems and appropriations and clearly hosted a class agenda. With the passage of time his book has become an obscurely decorative and charming object that is trapped by our fetish for such conundrums of the past. Whereas in Etiquettethe pages are used to engage the audience via their visual appeal, at the same time their re-application challenges their meaning and as Karamustafa describes "what is left behind is a structure and a work of art, a delicate thing that is open to interpretation."
Associate Director of Programs and Research at SALT, Istanbul, Turkey.
4 February -
9 April 2011
ifa Gallery Berlin
6 May -
26 June 2011
Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2011
Concept: Gülsün Karamustafa, Iris Lenz
Texts: Iris Lenz, November Paynter, Gülsün Karamustafa