Cemre Yeşil Gönenli, Hayal & Hakikat

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2019 (here). Triple-hinged, triple-spine softcover book with lock and chain; unpaginated, with 107 monochrome reproductions; 8.3 x 6.25 inches. Includes a tipped-in pamphlet reproduction; an inserted monochrome photograph; a text in Turkish by Refik Akyüz, with an English translation by Orhan Cem Çetin. In an edition of 40 signed and numbered copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A new edition of Hayal & Hakikat is forthcoming from FiLBooks and GOST Books.

Comments/Context: One night, in the spring of 2019, Cemre Yeşil Gönenli couldn’t sleep. For about two weeks, the Turkish photographer had been working on a project that she needed to conclude in the following days. Her research was complete, the images were chosen, but the form was still missing. As with any person enmeshed in the process of making, Gönenli is used to creative turmoil, especially when approaching a deadline. This project, however, was different.

Earlier that year, two Istanbul-based institutions – SALT Beyoğlu, a local branch of Turkey’s SALT center for contemporary art, and Kadir Has University – had launched a series of workshops and public programming tailored to a recent acquisition: the archive of Reşad Ekrem Koçu’s (1905-1975) Istanbul Encyclopedia. Monumental in scope, Koçu’s project remained unfinished and includes eleven published volumes of the letters A through G, as well as a lifetime’s worth of research material that the Turkish writer and historian compiled for both the completed and remaining letters of the alphabet. Combining historic facts with personal notes and observations, conversations and local stories – that are paired and enriched with drawings based on objects, photographs, and other memorabilia – Koçu’s encyclopedia does not follow the genre’s traditional approach to distill information and condense knowledge. Instead, it presents a colorful mélange of factual accounts and imaginative storytelling of Istanbul’s Ottoman times. To provide access to Koçu’s archive, continue its legacy, and unlock its potential for new interpretation, SALT and Kadir Has joined forces with a number of organizations, one of them specializing in photography workshops. As a result, Gönenli (along with two other artists) was invited to create and host “Interpreting Istanbul Encyclopedia via Photography”, a collectively run workshop, for which she was also asked to produce a personal body of work inspired by Koçu’s encyclopedia.

Although Gönenli was given a decent amount of time to sift through the material (which she received as PDF files), choosing a subject from an encyclopedic entry wasn’t easy. “It was a beautiful, crazy project, and I wanted to read everything – but I quickly realized, if I did, that I would never make the deadline. So I had to start gazing though everything, somehow going by instinct.” Her instinct eventually led her to her own roots – and Koçu’s entry on photography, which in Turkish is spelled with the letter “F” and, therefore, among the final entries of the encyclopedia’s last published volume. “Compared to the other entries, Fotoğraf was fairly short. You read quite a bit about [the medium] itself, its history in Istanbul. Everything very interesting,” Gönenli recalls, but nothing she could work with – until a brief note sparked her curiosity.

During the rule of Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918), the last Sultan to exert power over the fracturing Ottoman Empire, photography had become the preeminent tool to document and propagate the empire’s modernization. With a major photography lab set up in Yıldız Palace, Abdul Hamid II commissioned pictures of mosques and masjids, schools and police stations, army and navy regiments, and a plethora of other subjects, that were subsequently organized within albums. Among these albums were two that held a particular value for Koçu: photographs of male prisoners, who were depicted in groups of five, three, or individually – which the Sultan had commissioned in preparation for a planned amnesty to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his reign. For Koçu, these photographs presented valuable documents because of the prisoners’ clothing, which, theoretically, would allow the viewer to determine the social class these individuals once belonged to. For Gönenli, unknowingly at first, these photographs would eventually become the means and symbols of a silent protest.

“I was very interested in how [these prisoners] would look, how they would respond, with their faces, to the chance of being released. But I was wondering if I could even find these albums. I assumed they had to be in some library. But, frankly, I didn’t think I’d be able to find them.”

Gönenli did find them. After a few days, and with the help of one of her mother’s friends, she managed to get access to the Istanbul University’s Rare Works Library. Spending most of her remaining two weeks in front of a computer, Gönenli went through the entire collection of the digitized Yıldız Palace albums, and finally found the ones she was looking for. Among these photographs, she most viscerally responded to two groups of individual portraits. “As I was looking through them, two things caught my attention. I’ve always been drawn to hands, but in some of these photographs their poses felt unnatural, almost as if they were saying: Look at my hands, or that somebody told them to show them in a certain way. I couldn’t figure out what was going on there, but the hands, the gestures, felt more important than the expression of their faces.”

The other set of individual portraits showed prisoners in chains, which seemed to have little to do with the notion of amnesty. Not yet sure what to make of these photographs and whether she was allowed to reproduce them, Gönenli requested low-res files of the individual portraits that had caught her attention, as well as a few group images.

As Gönenli had never worked with archival imagery, she began to sort the photographs into two piles – hands and chains – and simultaneously investigated the men’s identities and whether some of them were ultimately pardoned. While this research led her nowhere, Gönenli, instead, was able to solve the mystery of the gestures. Communicating with a specialist on Abdul Hamid II, she learned that, along with his enthusiasm for photography, the Sultan was equally passionate about crime novels. Grounded in some pseudo-theory that he purportedly read in one of his books, Abdul Hamid II believed that “any criminal with a thumb joint longer than his index-finger joint, is inclined to murder” – and, hence, genetically incorrigible.

To allude to this absurd story and to emphasize her own viewing experience, Gönenli decided to crop the prisoners’ heads out of the photographs; focusing exclusively on their bodies and the gestures they perform. As aggressive as this act might sound at first, it is crucial to the puissantly tender impact of Hayal & Hakikat. Organized as two independent, yet adjacent sections, each of them is bound at the top, as if imitating the gestural logic of a notepad. I can’t help but notice the freedom of my hands, their movements, and the space they take when flipping through the pages of each section. In Hayal, which unites a meditatively sequenced series of hands, we see gestures of humbleness and doubt, as hands silently rest upon bellies and chests, at times intersecting or barely touching; holding onto wrists or seem to hide in folds of fabric sleeves. There are moments of resignation, as they hang loosely or deliberately to the side; sometimes there’s a glint of Napoleonic pride with fingers disappearing beneath the break line of a jacket. If you didn’t know – which you don’t, unless you read the accompanying text that is part of the book’s third section and set apart from the photographs – you couldn’t tell these are the hands of prisoners.

These images clash with those of the book’s second section, Hakikat – an impression that the darker backgrounds and sharper, less grainy surfaces only emphasize. Smaller in volume but more disturbing, we see photographs of torsos, legs, and feet, many of them burdened by disproportionately large and heavy chains, which are locked to the ankles, with their links, at times, curled on the ground like snakes, more often, though, held by the prisoners themselves or tied to their waists. While none of these photographs communicate anything about identity, whether personal or generic, one two questions piercingly arise – what does it feel like to be imprisoned and how do bodies dream of freedom?

The essence of these questions was as pertinent in the declining Ottoman Empire of Abdul Hamid II, as it is in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey of today. Both men, abusing power in their own, yet similar, ways, successfully established a state of surveillance, in which opposition, freedom of speech, and protest are silenced by violence, imprisonment, torture, and death. As Gönenli was mulling over the design and concept of her book, she learned that a friend of a friend went to jail for no evident reason, for an undetermined time. She didn’t know him well, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

“After what happened in Gezi Park [2011], we, as a generation, became more silent, I suppose. We were heart broken and hurt after a great attempt of resistance and solidarity. Then, I personally lost the point of protesting in streets, because, to me, it just felt like punching a ghost. However, becoming silent doesn’t necessarily mean we are OK with what is going on, and, perhaps, some of us started searching for alternative ways to feed our need for freedom of speech. I guess, this book became my silent protest, in which free speech was enacted through history and photograps.”

Designed during that sleepless night in the spring of 2019, Hayal & Hakikat, which translates into English as Dream & Fact, became Gönenli’s means of resistance. “In putting these two sections next to each other, facing each other, I wanted to collide these two ideas, the freedom we are dreaming of and what reality actually is like – a little way of flashing this war, that we, as a generation, are facing.”

There are many aspects that make Hayal & Hakikat the remarkable book it is. One being its thoughtfully conceived design – its size based on the hand of Gönenli’s husband; the chain you must unlock to open the book; the cover reproducing the original albums’ pages; the thick, tactile paper for both the photograph and text sections; minute details such as the tipped-in, reduced facsimile of Koçu’s encyclopedic photography entry; the sections’ subtitles, The Book of Punishment and The Book of Forgiveness, printed on the back of the photographic sections; and the book’s dedication “To the bright people who are arbitrarily convicted or had to depart from this beautiful land in these difficult times that Turkey is going through”.

There are other books that come to mind, when looking at Hayal & Hakikat. Visually, perhaps most immediate, is the resonance of Chien-Chi Chang’s The Chain, for which the Taiwanese photographer captured a literal chain of 700 psychiatric patients, who, abandoned by their families, are tethered together in Lung Fa Tang Temple. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about Marc Garanger’s Femmes Algeriennes 1960, a disconcerting series of portraits, in which Algerian women, ordered by the French military, were forced to take off their veils in order to ‘pose’ for their identity cards. And while Gönenli’s and Garanger’s photographs couldn’t be more different – one being archival and the other original images, one depicting body parts, the other faces – there is a similar urgency to their gestures, and, hence, responsibility with which we have to interpret and regard them.

Gestures are symbols. They are movements of the body that express meaning – a meaning we can rarely explain through cause or deduction, but have to interpret through empathy, that is, by our capacity of imagining our own body and mind in the same, or similar, situation. Gönenli’s photographs were originally intended to serve the Sultan’s personal interest – to demonstrate and to confirm a theory. As any image made of the powerless by (and for) those who are powerful, Gönenli’s images are difficult to repurpose, because they run the risk to either reiterate or simplify. Hayal & Hakikat doesn’t do either, but instead addresses a different viewer – one who understands, and is suffering from the same what these images depict – and, therefore, changes the context of the experience of these images.

As you reach the end of Hayal & Hakikat, you’ll find an unsettling photograph, mounted with two picture corners. It shows a row of men standing in front of building, likely a prison. Soldiers on either side frame men in chains, with a dead body at their center, propped against the wall, about to fall over. I have no words for the terror that I feel when looking at it. As I take the photograph out of the book, I find these words imprinted underneath:

– Would you be upset if he dies?

– So much.

– Then, forgive.

I return to the photograph and find a face I hadn’t noticed before. Slightly blurred, it is looking out of a barred window. Its expression is ambiguous. Neither here nor there; I am left with a choice. Is it a gesture of fear or one of hope? Perhaps, a whisper that there is still enough worth saving.

Collector’s POV: Cemre Yeşil Gönenli does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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