Mesopotamian Dramaturgies / The Stream (2022) is the first new work shown by Ataman since the artist decided to take an indefinite break from the art world in 2013. The Stream consists of a collection of twenty-two televisions that are suspended in a rough pyramid shape onto a wooden structure. Eight different films variously play on the television screens. On them we see and hear a hand-held hoe digging an irrigation stream. Each of the films is a close-up. The viewer can occasionally see the hand of the digger on the hoe and hear the sound of their breathing but the main sound is the hoe scraping against the hard ground. The televisions are positioned so that the stream that is being dug runs upwards from the ground to the ceiling of the gallery.
Ataman says of the work: “To me it is about reconstructing, rethinking and starting from scratch. I feel it is also about soil and water meeting and creating life, and the struggle that involves such a task. When I was making it though, I was only digging the soil and let the dry soil meet with water so I could turn the barren land into a green garden for myself. It was an attempt to heal myself.”
Ataman came to the attention of the art world in the late 1990s. In 1997 after making two conventional length feature films he made a very different sort of work for his third film. He was a young feature film-maker recently back in Istanbul. He'd left the city for Los Angeles in the 1980s after being arrested and tortured for filming street protests against the military dictatorship. He pointed his camera at the opera singer Semiha Berksoy for almost eight hours and let her talk. Having been publicly persecuted for an affair with an exiled communist poet, Berksoy was living in obscurity as an octogenarian lost in an eccentric dream world of her own. Ataman later recalled “it was very different to conventional filmmaking, I didn't really know what it was.”
Rosa Martinez, the curator of the Istanbul Biennial, saw the resulting work, Kutluğ Ataman's semiha b. unplugged whilst visiting Ataman and asked to put the work in the show. Ataman agreed and at the time joked that he hoped Hollywood wouldn't find out about his “night job” in the art world.
Ataman described his process of making the work; “By making semiha b. unplugged almost eight hours long– it`s about an entire life, after all-I wanted the audience to have to return to this piece again and again without ever being able to see the whole thing, and to be forced to make their own Semiha out of the fragments that they do see.”
After showing at the Istanbul Biennial in 1997, Ataman was invited to participate in the 1999 Venice Biennale by the curator Harald Szeeman. For that, his second exhibition, Ataman presented Women Who Wear Wigs (1999). The work is a four channel video installation with sound featuring four women from Turkey talking about their experiences of wearing wigs and why they decided to wear them. The stories of the four women run simultaneously, creating a cacophony of sounds and images that, at times, makes it deliberately difficult to follow each woman’s individual testimony.
The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read (2002) is a four-screen video installation filmed over the course of a year, which centers around the remarkable life of Veronica Read, an Englishwoman with a special passion for Hippeastrum, commonly known as amaryllis. With over 900 Hippeastrum bulbs in her two-bedroom house, Veronica Read's obsession with these flowers is all consuming. Masquerading as a documentary about the Hippeastrum flower bulb, the work is actually a portrait of a woman wholly devoted to the care of these bulbs, which contain the hope of flowering only once a year. The work is a heady concoction of erudition, sexual innuendo and bright floral prints.
The work premiered at documenta 11 and then went on to be shown at museums around the world.
99 Names (2002) is a multi-screened video installation showing a man in the various stages of zikr (the Sufi remembrance ritual). The work’s title refers to the 99 names and attributes of God mentioned in the Qur’an and the Hadith Islamic tradition. Within the realm of Sufi Islamic mysticism, the repetitive vocalization of God’s names constitutes an act of prayer. Through the use of a rotating shooting angle and the ascending arrangement of the installation screens —combined with the escalating intensity of the man’s prayer— the work refers to religious ecstasy, an experience which is both spiritual and physical. The viewer is presented with the repeated image of a man rocking back and forth with increasing velocity and determination as he recites the name of Allah in prayer, his exertions echoed by a towering crescendo of screens that present him at varying angles to the viewer.
In 2004 Ataman was nominated for The Turner Prize for his work Twelve (2003). The work shows six individuals recounting their experience of reincarnation. It was filmed in south-east Turkey, near the border with Syria, in an Arab community trying to make sense of horrific loss. They accept as a fact that everyone is reborn, although only those who have suffered violent or untimely death remember their past lives. Twelve exposes the mechanisms of language and its limitations. As the storytellers talk about their past and present lives they move between “then” and “now”, and their narratives become confused. As language becomes insufficient, our notion of reality is modified or even made irrelevant because, Ataman believes, “in a strange way that reality is in fact a fiction.”
In 2004 Ataman was commissioned by Artangel to make a large-scale installation in London. The result was Küba' which was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 2004.
“Küba is Ataman's finest work to date. His videos and films have always concerned themselves with the stories people have to tell - aging opera divas, Turkish transsexuals, an Englishwoman obsessed with lilies, people who believe in reincarnation and women who wear wigs. Küba is many lives, more than a cast of characters, in that after a while one begins to form a bigger picture of their interconnections, shared difficulties, common struggles and complex betrayals. Küba begins to have the richness of a novel: a mosaic of truths and lies, insight and ignorance, anger and humour and humanity.”
- Adrian Searle, The Guardian
Mesopotamian Dramaturgies / Journey to the Moon (2009) depicts the activities of inhabitants of a remote village in eastern Anatolia who reportedly set off for the moon on board a minaret transformed into a spaceship. The split-screen film unfolds wit one half of the screen showing a fictional narrative, illustrated with black-and-white still photographs and told by an unnamed narrator. Ambiguously suspended between reality and artifice, Journey to the Moon alternates these two narrative levels in a structure similar to that of investigative television reports, where the opinions of experts lend depth to the documentary materials. through its intertwining of folk tale and scholarly commentary, it suggests that even the most irrational mythologizing can be framed in ways that make it seem reasonable.
Along with The Stream, Ataman produced a new body of work fiction [other planets] (2022) on his return to the artworld. The series looks at the societal oppression of subject positions deemed other by authorities. In addition, Ataman's new feature film Hilal, Feza and Other Planets which will debut in November 2022. Ataman says of this new series: “The subjects of these series are trans individuals who volunteered to come and act the oppression they endured during the '90s. Trans subjects are one of the leading political forces for human rights and embody the basic right to exist. It came to my mind during the filming that the sequence had a documentary quality since none of them were actors. What started as a sequence for a fictional work became real in my mind, and I was naturally drawn to this situation where artifice was crisscrossing with reality.”