In Berlin, a Politically Charged Group Show Considers the Artist as Witness

Oct 12, 2016 10:00PM

“I am just one protest. I am just one artist. I am nothing. My idea is free. My heart is free. My spirit is free.” So said Erdem Gunduz, the Turkish performance artist who, in June 2013, stood motionless for eight hours in Istanbul’s Taskim Square, silently protesting the government.

The quiet protest, widely documented and shared on social media, earned Gunduz the nickname duran adam (“standing man”) and prompted an outpouring of public emulation across the region. It also inspired the artist Ahmet Ehlan to create provocative new works.

Composed XIX, 2013
Zilberman Gallery
Composed XII, 2013
Zilberman Gallery

In “Composed” (2013), a series created the same year as Gunduz’s silent protest, Ehlan superimposes nude portraits onto 18th-century gravures showing traditional Ottoman interiors. The resulting images are a disorienting blend of historical and contemporary, male and female, ultimately circling back to some of the questions posed by the “standing man.” What is the significance of the individual? Is he or she grounded in time and place? And is it the individual’s duty to bear witness to the darker side of humanity?

Wonderland, 2016
Zilberman Gallery

Ehlan’s bold works are just a few of the pieces on view in “The Red Gaze,” a group show at Zilberman Gallery in Berlin. The exhibition centers on a common theme: the individual as witness, and more specifically, the artist as witness. The participating artists address the theme in a variety of media, from paintings to drawings to sculptures. Particularly poignant is Erkan Özgen’s video of a deaf-mute boy from a refugee camp miming the violence he witnessed in Syria.

“The Red Gaze” also includes live performances and guided discussions, plus two notable historic works: a 1944 self-portrait by the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and a rare poem, Die Ratten sie mögen schmausen wo sie wollen (The rats may sup where they want), penned by Pablo Picasso during the Spanish Civil War. Scrawled across the gallery walls in the curator’s own handwriting, the rhyming lines set an ominous tone, which feels appropriate for an exhibition that unpacks such timely, hard-hitting social and political messages.

Perhaps the “standing man,” who embodied the concept of artist as eyewitness, summarized the theme best. “I’m nothing,” he told the BBC. “The idea is important.”

—Bridget Gleeson

The Red Gaze” is on view at Zilberman Gallery, Berlin, Oct. 8–Dec. 23, 2016.

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