Nil Yalter: Exile is a Hard Job @CCS Bard

JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 works by Nil Yalter presented in roughly chronological order, from 1973 to 2011. (Installation views below.)

The following 22 works incorporate photographs, film, or video:

  • Temple of Apollon, 2011, computer generated video
  • Temporary Dwellings, 1974–77, 7 collages (Polaroids, pencil, and other materials on archival board), 6 black-and-white and color videos with sound
  • Exile Is a Hard Job, 2012–ongoing, posters
  • Headless Woman, 1974, black-and-white video
  • Estranged Doors (from “Exile is a Hard Job” series), 1983, photographs, oil paint, bronze pigment and rubber stamping on cardboard
  • Pyramis ou d’Eudore, 1984, 11-channel video installation with sound
  • Pyramis ou d’Eudore (Polaroids), 1984, 47 Polaroids
  • La Roquette-Prison for Women (co-produced with Nicole Croiset and Judy Blum), 1974, 1 black-and-white video; 16 framed black-and-white photographs and 16 framed drawings on cardboard with handwritten inscriptions; ring binder with 56 black-and-white photographs and handwritten and typed texts
  • Le Chevalier d’Éon, 1978, 1 black-and-white video, 7 photographs, 2 acrylic paintings, 2 Polaroids
  • Algerian Marriage in France, 1977, 6 collages (photographs, oil paint, pencil on cardboard)
  • AmbassaDRESS, 1978, black-and-white video, dress, 14 drawings
  • AmbassaDRESS, 1978, 8 black-and-white photographs, edition of 3
  • Neuenkirchen, Ruth Smith, Germany, 1975, 8 framed works, each comprising one silver gelatin print and one pencil drawing
  • Neuenkirchen, Ruth Smith, Germany, 1975, black and white video, Polaroids and other materials on 2 wooden panels
  • D’Après Stimmung, 1973, 7 collages (pencil, colored pencil, and other materials on cardboard)
  • D’Après Stimmung (Studies), 1973, 5 assemblages (newspaper clippings, pencil on paper, typewritten texts) in plastic sleeves
  • Circular Rituals, 1992, reproduction of text on vinyl
  • Orient Express (Paris Istanbul), 1976, Polaroids, pencil, colored pencil, ink on cardboard, 7 panels
  • Orient Express (Paris Istanbul), 1976, 16 mm film
  • Turkish Immigrants (with Nicole Croiset), 1977, photographs and pencil on cardboard, 12 panels
  • Turkish Immigrants, Tower of Babel, 1977, 8 black-and-white videos
  • 20th/21st Century, 2011, computer generated video

In addition, the show includes 6 paintings:

  • Circular Tention, 1967, acrylic on canvas
  • Blue Tention, 1967, acrylic on canvas
  • Temple of Apollon, 1967, acrylic on canvas
  • Green Tention, 1967, acrylic on canvas
  • Circular Tention III, 1967, acrylic on canvas
  • Optical Cubes, 1968, acrylic on canvas

The exhibition, which comes to CCS Bard from the Museum Ludwig, Cologne (here), is accompanied by a catalog published in German and English by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König (here, 272 pages, 100 color and 77 black-and-white illustrations, 8.75 x 11.25 inches, $40 paperback.) Edited by Rita Kersting, deputy director of the Museum Ludwig and curator of the show in Germany, with a preface by Yilmaz Dziewior and Tom Eccles, and including essays by Lauren Cornell, chief curator and director of the Graduate Program at CCS Bard and curator of the show in the US, Fabienne Dumont, and Övül Durmusoglu, as well as an interview with Nil Yalter.

Comments/Context: Since the 1970s, Paris-based artist and activist Nil Yalter has made art about the experiences of those marginalized by virtue of their class, gender, sexuality, or circumstance, among them immigrants, women, and prisoners. “Exile Is a Hard Job” at CCS Bard—Yalter’s first major exhibition in this country—seems especially relevant to our current political moment.

Born in Cairo and raised in Istanbul, Yalter began her career as a performer, creating and presenting pantomime plays while traveling through India in the late 1950s. Her exacting, labor-intensive work of the late 1960s to the early 1980s—the period covered by this show—seems not only a continuation of her interest in storytelling, but a sympathetic echo of the “hard job” of the the exhibition’s title.

In works that frequently combine video, drawing, photography, assemblage, and collage, Yalter delves into her subjects’ lives and their histories, meticulously documenting their daily activities and their surroundings. But despite the artist’s ethnographic approach, the works are more diaristic than didactic, in every case insisting on the primacy of individual experience.

The show opens with Temple of Apollon, 1967, one of a group of paintings influenced by Russian Constructivism that Yalter began making on her move to Paris in 1965. In 2011, the artist revisited these paintings, using them as the basis of digital animations, and the work is paired with a video in which its pictorial elements—two views of a fluted column—wheel and morph into new forms.

A turning point in Yalter’s art came in 1972, with the imprisonment and execution of Turkish Marxist-Leninist dissident Deniz Gezmis (1947–1972 ) following Turkey’s 1971 military coup. Her multipart work about these events, Deniz Gezmis (1972), which combines the front pages of newspapers, texts, and drawings (and is not included in this iteration of the show, which comes to Bard from the Ludwig Museum in Cologne) provided both a formal and a conceptual template for much of the work that would follow.

By this time involved with the Turkish Communist Party as well as feminist art circles in France, Yalter abandoned painting for more socially and politically engaged projects, with a particular focus on the connections between labor, migration, and women’s issues. Inspired by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s piece STIMMUNG, which includes vocals in which singers chant the names of gods and goddesses from various religions, her seven-panel work D’APRES “STIMMUNG” (1973) draws connections between mythological beings and contemporary events. A panel devoted to Mars, the god of war, for example, includes drawings of artificial limbs, while a series of studies for the work presents newspaper images of women mourning the victims of domestic violence within the context of the goddess Hera.

Around the same time, Yalter began to experiment with the new technology of video. The Headless Woman, from 1974, shows a closeup of the artist’s stomach, on which she writes an excerpt from the French anthropologist Rene Nelli’s essay on the cultural repression of female sexuality, Érotique et civilisations (1972), before performing a kind of belly dance for the camera. A pioneering work of early feminist art, it references both feminine sexual (clitoral) pleasure, as well as the male (Orientalist) gaze.

Nearby, Temporary Dwellings (1974–1977) testifies to Yalter’s increased interest in issues of immigration. During Western Europe’s postwar economic boom, millions of workers arrived from Spain, Portugal, Africa, and elsewhere to fill the growing demand for labor. Working with local cultural centers, Yalter created 13 assemblages (7 of which appear here), each focused on a different neighborhood in Paris, Istanbul, Ghent, or New York. The works, which incorporate Polaroid photographs of the areas as well as detritus collected within them—a piece devoted to stretch of Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, for example,  includes a squashed Coke can, a drawing of laundry on a line, and a photograph of a tenement, among other items—are accompanied by video testimony by Turkish immigrants living there.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Yalter continued to address labor, immigrant, and women’s rights in works that tack between personal and communal experience. In Orient Express (Paris Istanbul), 1976, she documents a train journey to Turkey through photographs and drawings annotated with descriptions of her fellow travelers, quotes from Baudelaire, and passages from Romany folk songs, while several groupings of painted Polaroids from 1984—arranged to form patterns reminiscent of Ottoman decoration—commemorate a trip to her birthplace in Egypt. Though both works recount private journeys, they are also meditations on departures and returns and on histories, identities, and homelands lost and rediscovered.

Elsewhere, Yalter shifts her attention to the lives of others. In Neuenkirchen (1975), a work comprising photos, drawings, and videos, she gives a voice to two inhabitants of the eponymous German village: Mrs. Schmidt, a worker at a dairy farm, and Mrs. Meisel, a cleaning woman married to a truck driver. In Le Chevalier d’Eon (1978), she records a friend’s physical transformation from male to female, first through clothing, and then through hormone treatment. And in La Roquette, Prison for Women (1974) she tells the story of a Mimi, a former prison inmate, through Mimi’s own words and through images of such meager possessions as might belong to a prisoner, including a blanket and a pack of cards.

More opaque is the large installation, The AmbassaDRESS (1978), at the center of which is a stained white satin dress on a pedestal. Accompanying the dress are drawings of the personal belonging of an unnamed friend, the wife of an ambassador. The work also includes an image of a woman walking a dog, on which is written a statement that begins, “The ambassadress said to me that she did not know anything about the concentration camps…” In the context of this show, Yalter’s anonymous subject seems to stand in for willed ignorance of others’ suffering.

The exhibition concludes with the Yalter’s major installation Exile Is a Hard Job (1983), titled after a verse by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. At the center of the gallery, interviews with illegal Turkish workers in Paris play on eight monitors arranged in a circle. The immigrants are clear-eyed about their reasons for being there, and articulate about their position in French society. “The bourgeoisie uses unemployment to reinforce racism against foreigners . . .,” says one man, “While the real reason for unemployment in France is the economic crisis.” Framed pieces lining the walls each consist of a photograph of one of the workers paired with drawing of the same photograph made by the artist. In these renderings, though details of fabric and wallpaper are carefully depicted, voids are left where the subjects’ faces should be. “[They] had lost a certain amount of their identity,” Yalter tells curator Rita Kersting in an interview in the show’s catalog, “My drawing represents this loss.”

Though Yalter’s methods at times resemble those of socially conscious conceptual artists working in America in the 1970s (particularly Fred Lonidier, whose monumental work on labor unions was on view at Essex Street gallery last year), she eschews their distance from their subjects and puts herself in the picture. “I do not feel I belong to a single identity,” she says to Kersting, “but a multitude of communities all seeking a place in the world.” Yalter’s extraordinary body of work, newly rediscovered, is a reminder that only by listening to the stories of others will we save ourselves.

Collector’s POV: Nil Yalter is represented by Galerie Hubert Winter in Vienna (here) and Galerist in Istanbul (here). Her photographic work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Nil Yalter, Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS Bard)/Hessel Museum of Art

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