Guy Martin, The Parallel State

JTF (just the facts): Published in December 2018 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover, 232 pages, with 135 color reproductions. Includes a French folded paper jacket (one of 5 designs). With 5 alternate sections on thinner stock, and essays by Pelin Turgut, Piotr Zalewski, and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The list of heavy handed tactics used by authoritarian leaders to exert and maintain control over various nations across the long arc of world history is remarkably standard. Almost regardless of geography or time period, the same tactics have been employed again and again – purging the government of dissenters, rounding up and jailing of opposition leaders, strict control of the armed forces and the press, and swift and often extreme violence meted out to any who dare to question the intentions or authority of those in power. The faces and regimes change, but the underlying process has remained remarkably similar.

One important aspect of exercising ongoing dominance over a nation is taking control of its central narrative, and at the core of that effort is often an overt attempt to redefine what passes for the truth. Propaganda and disinformation become critical tools for replacing reality with whatever the government wants it to be, leading to an environment where everything is mutable and relative, and this conspicuous absence of concrete agreed-upon truths fosters an environment rife with deliberate uncertainty and unfounded conspiracy theories.

Guy Martin’s photobook The Parallel State uses contemporary Turkey as the setting for a layered artistic investigation of the nuances of this kind of post-truth environment. In his work as a photojournalist, Martin has been tracking events on the ground in Turkey for years, from the Gezi Park anti-government protests of 2013 through to the failed coup attempt in 2016 and beyond. But The Parallel State isn’t simply a book of hard hitting photojournalism, unpacking the exploits of the Erdogan regime; it is instead something more intricate and meditative, where the “end of reality” is made visual.

As we might have expected given his professional role, many of Martin’s photographs document the immediate action in the streets and then extend to images that capture the dark mood of the country. He shows us security forces and military personnel, surveillance cameras and rock throwing protestors, agitated citizens and grieving families, gas-masked women and confused crowds. And then night falls and the people hunker down or watch from their apartments, the streets shadowed and empty, lit only by an occasional glowing window or streetlight. Bullet holes, charred surfaces, broken glass, blood stained sidewalks, and smoke rising provide the atmospheric details that fill out Martin’s nightmarish portrait.

Martin has interleaved these full-bleed images with others he made on the set of a Turkish TV soap opera, and the commonalities between the two make them difficult to distinguish in some cases, which is where things get interesting. Attractive, well dressed people (both heroes and villains) act out dramatic scenes in living rooms, bedrooms, and even outdoors, their expressions either exaggerated or quietly mysterious. Inside this Hollywood-style fantasy world, Martin finds theatricality and strange staged emotion – what he didn’t expect was that it would be so haltingly similar to what he found in the streets. Since these shows have plot lines that increasingly mimic contemporary life, it becomes almost impossible to tell if a bloodied woman on the sidewalk, an anxious embrace between lovers, or a man being hit by a car are real life incidents or fabricated roleplaying. Martin furthers the theatrical motif by including a number of images of closed curtains and veiled draperies, as if the show was about to begin (or end).

Separate sections on thinner paper are used to further investigate additional facets of Turkish cultural identity and role playing. There are headshots of martyrs (all men or boys), some in military uniforms and others in civilian clothes, making it difficult to tell on which side of the conflict they stood or who is doing the mourning. Another group gathers TV screenshots of women devoted to the teachings of the cult leader Adnan Oktar, their sexy looks, plastic surgery features, and designer outfits (they have been nicknamed the “kittens”) running counter to the traditional expectations for the preaching of Islam. And a third section reprints Turkish movie posters from the 1970s and 1980s, filled with burly action heroes surrounded by guns, explosions, and naked women. These and other images successfully muddy the water around our perception of traditionally conservative Turkish life, increasing our uncertainty about which version of “reality” is the “real” one and who the interlopers actually are. A transcript of the actual WhatsApp messages between the failed coup participants during the intense moments of the attempt twists us around again, the dramatic reality presented almost like a screenplay.

As an aggregate portrayal, The Parallel State smartly mixes fact and fiction, the blending process forcing us to confront just how much of our perception we can reliably protect from state control. The first photograph in the photobook shows us a hand reaching into a plastic wrapped cage to grab a small bird, but it’s not until we reach the end of the project that we start to understand the resonance of Martin’s sequencing choice. There is no escape for this tiny creature, only the frightening uncertainty of how the massive hand will exert its obvious power, the image an apt visual metaphor for the fraught environment faced by those when fake news and alternative facts make truth indistinguishable from performance.

Collector’s POV: Guy Martin is represented by Benrubi Gallery in New York (here) and Panos Pictures (here). Martin’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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