Motorcycle Maintenance by Metin Kitapçı
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
The sculptor worried about his motorcycle. He brought it to an unfamiliar shop for repairs. Kemal Tufan sat in a loft above his studio in Maslak as he prepared mentally for summer travels across Europe. An impressive shelf of liquors gleamed behind him. He served strong black tea. The bike would be ready after his return from Cappadocia. He planned to paraglide and unwind. His university post and the incessant drive to power through metal and stone had taken its toll.
“Everything goes very fast in Istanbul. You meet someone and continue the connections, suddenly it’s wide open,” said Tufan, reminiscing about his first exhibition in 1998, at a venue that was well-known in its day, Artisan Art Gallery.
Artisan invited him to produce a solo show. He was thrilled. It was a place of prestige, especially for a young artist. That year, Artisan participated in an art fair, which he admits was not necessarily of good quality by today’s standards, but the leading galleries were all in simply because options were limited. That was before Contemporary Istanbul. After his 1998 debut, Tufan mounted a new solo exhibition every year, exhibiting every other show between Artisan, and Pg Art Gallery.
“It was really difficult, but when you are young and dynamic and want to show everything, it’s okay,” he said.
As the years passed, especially following his first show with Pg from February to March of 2001, his association with Artisan eventually ceased as they went under. But he remained true to Pg, exhibiting solo shows biannually.
Since the emergence of Contemporary Istanbul in 2006, he has exhibited artworks represented by Pg every year. In fact, he first contributed to Contemporary Istanbul in a manner akin to his inaugural solo show at Pg, with his U-Boat (2001), a gargantuan, lead metal sculpture that he dressed in a flamboyant, multicolored palette of old clothes, a piece that he had initially exhibited in that form at the edge of a forest grove in Kirkcudbright, Scotland.
“U-Boat” is one of the many outdoor sculptural installations that he conceived in his very global career that began in Bacau, Romania with “Palace of Snails” (1996), eventually exhibiting on nearly every continent. Together with Pg, they receive ample commissions.
“In the last five years, the contemporary art scene and art market in Istanbul has become very active, alive, busy. There is a lot of action, exhibitions, and fairs. It’s good for us,” he said.
“In the beginning it was so hard. Twenty to fifteen years ago we would have a show, nothing sold and we closed it. It was hard times. I had to make money other ways. As an independent artist it was really, really tough to survive.”
Tufan was fixated on the forms of ships. For his inaugural solo exhibition at Pg in the late winter of 2001, he created his seminal work “U-Boat”, a metal sculpture — metal framed construction covered with lead sheets — set to the outlandish dimensions, 580x240x90cm, now permanently exhibited on a hilltop overlooking the Çoruh Valley near the Black Sea at the Baksı Museum.
“The funny thing is, in Pg Art Gallery [in Bebek], there were only two rooms, and I made a huge submarine, so one was room was full with that submarine,” said Tufan. “It was my first time [at the gallery].”
“U-Boat was six meters of lead. This was a submarine. I put it in three pieces, and also separated the tower. It was so heavy, being lead you know. We carried it by hand. I measured each door for the entrance, which was one meter. I made it 95 centimeters exactly, so that it could just pass inside the door and then inside piece by piece. And then we put them together in the gallery. The submarine filled the whole room,” Tufan recounted coolly.
Inside his U-Boat, Tufan installed a TV monitor. It lopped a making-of video from the time when he sculpted a marble shark underwater for a project he titled simply, “The Shark” (2000).
Diving for two weeks, he carved sunken marble blocks in Kaş. His team found a man who had a diving boat in Kaş who volunteered to make the video“ (and that man also supported the project with his boat and the diving equipments, etc.) working at night while submerged in the dark depths with his hammer and chisel.
For the opening, 100 people dove the relatively shallow 7 meters to see the work, including the local mayor and governor. “The Shark” (2,6 meters) is still on the sea floor in Kaş.
As a young, starving artist in Istanbul and spanning over three decades of work scattered throughout the world, Tufan consistently and unceasingly makes colossal impressions by the sheer size and physical presence of his works, born of his remarkably enterprising mind for conceptual originality.
It was not until he started designing U-Boat when he had the idea to place the video of him making “The Shark” inside it. But he developed that as a recurring motif in his later works, such as for “Rolling Stones” (2010) and “Deep” (2005), in which video monitors are embedded in his post-naturalist, mixed-media sculptures.
“From his early years he felt a close connection with the sea as the living infinite, constantly beckoning to be explored,” wrote Jerome Symons, for Tufan’s 2014 book, “sculptures”, highlighting his upbringing on the coast of the Sea of Marmara in Silivri. “Of course, you need a ship to explore the sea, to sail by different winds and across different waves towards the horizon, towards freedom.”
The idea for “The Shark” project came about simply while diving in Kaş and working as a stone sculptor. Finding the sponsors to make an underwater video eighteen years ago was an obstacle in Turkey. He intended to document the whole process as a motion picture. It was then when he met the head of a diving club who believed in the project so much that he descended into the water with his video equipment gratis for two weeks.
“I was lucky. We didn’t do much advertising or marketing in those years. We just focused on the project. There was no Instagram, no Facebook, the internet was so-so. There are many underwater museums now, one in Mexico, and even in Turkey. It was actually a performance. Many people visited while I worked underwater. As it was a very popular diving spot in Kaş, everyday hundreds of people passed by and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’” said Tufan, as his partner Ayla Turan, also an artist, walked into the studio to join the conversation.
Turan was there with him in Kaş at the time, and at his first show, which they remember with a few good chuckles. “There was a Chinese restaurant in the basement of the gallery [in Bebek]. We asked the waiters for help. They were wearing red costumes like Chinese soldiers. It was the performance part actually.”
“We always asked favors from people, because we didn’t have money. Everything goes by friendships, just good relationships with people. The underwater sculpture project, The Shark went like this. The videographer helped me. He didn’t know me until that time. A guy from the marble quarry gave me the marble for free. Someone handled transportation. The municipality gave us rooms for our stay. We only dove and worked,” said Tufan.
“From that moment till now we did many crazy projects. Another was ‘Do You Hear Me?’ when I carved under ice in frozen sea between Sweden and Finland for Lulea’s Winter Biennial. We made a hole with chainsaws. Every morning I went under the ice and carved the negative. Outside it was -20, the water 4 degrees. In one week, I sculpted an ear, “Ice Ear” (2002). In one group show at Pg, I showed the video in my piece ‘Rolling Stones’.”
For his outdoor sculptures, Tufan has mainly worked with marble stone, for it’s durability and strength in weather. In his academic training, he learned to carve other types of stone, such as granite. The scale of outdoor sculptures are not fit for galleries, where commercial curators prefer smaller pieces for the pragmatics of sale, especially true in the early days of his career.
Tufan adapted, working with wood, which is not only great for indoor exhibitions, but is also cheap, and shapes quickly. In that way, he mostly worked with wood and small pieces of natural stone, particularly river stones, because they’re free.
His many projects with these materials included Lick it/Liquid (2010) at Pg Art Gallery and Landlocked Sea (1998) for Artisan Art Gallery, in which he carved space for paper boats to float on water inside the stones.
“At that time, I had no money. I had to find material that was cheap, or free, so I started to find these round, natural stones from the river,” Tufan explained, going back to his early career when his creativity merged with his resourcefulness, as entertaining as his sense of humor.
“One exhibition I used a friend’s piece of wood. He was another artist. One day, he came, and said, ‘Where’s my wood? I put it here.’ The next day it was in the exhibition. I said, ‘Which one?’”
Tufan has also sculpted metal since his earliest days as an exhibiting artist, beginning with Needlefish Passage (1998) and Fish Square (1998), both for Artisan Art Gallery, the latter of which still hangs in his Maslak studio.
“There are classical materials in sculpture, like wood, stone and the metals, bronze and aluminum. If you follow my exhibitions, each has a material concept, like painted wood for Camouflage (2007). You have to select material to make a continuous concept,” he said, citing his last solo exhibition, titled “Time Ocean / Thy Motion”, making kinetic sculptures out of steel.
“I’m interested in all materials. I carve ice, snow. It doesn’t matter. With an idea, a good concept in your mind, you just go for it and make it, trying many different materials.”
He pointed to a swaying duo of hammerhead shark figures suspending over the doorway to his cluttered, industrial studio. They were made with polyester fiberglass covered in sheep fur for a show themed to leather.
Whether it is video, water, paper, granite, Tufan sculpts it all. “For the material, every year it changes,” he said. “The basic concept for my sculptures is contrasts and contradictions. It’s a contrast, fur with a hammerhead shark. Life is full of contradictions.”
“Some artists focus on one material, like marble, and become experts. I believe that you have to renew yourself, and always try to catch the contemporary moment. Otherwise, you miss the train and become old-fashioned. The artist finds new sources and new concepts. Material is the last creative decision. It’s much more important to update your mind,” said Tufan, who is constructively aware of critics and his own artistic conscience.
“From the ancient to the futuristic, you can use everything. That’s why I’m using stones that are millions of years old. In contrast, the full HD video screen that I put inside will be seen as old a few years from now.”
“When choosing materials you have to be curious to try new techniques, you have to follow technology, daily life, politics. Art can never be separated from politics. Comics are very powerful under authoritarianism. Turkish humor comes from political pressure,” said Tufan.
“If everything is perfect, with everyone relaxed, rich, happy, you can only create decorative stuff. If there is political pressure, creative concepts become stronger. Look at the history of art, like ‘Guernica’ by Picasso. But it shouldn't always be that obvious. If the message is too direct, it’s not as effective artistically. It’s more like a political slogan. I like hidden layers.”
“Turkey is a very strange country. As they say, 98% of Turkey is Islamic. On the other hand in Istanbul you see transvestite bars, gay clubs and so on. It’s a mixture of everything. The people somehow accept it, and this makes the culture rich and you can feed yourself from this richness. These contradictions feed the artist,” said Tufan.
“The sources come from everywhere, because Turkey has a deep history. Most of the works are affected by the history of Anatolia, for instance. When I make boats, or the skeleton of these boats I’m actually taking references from ancient times, and nature, because I use all of these beautiful natural materials.”
Contemporary artists have trended towards alternate materials and away from the more classic variety that remains central to Tufan’s focus. Stone and wood, for example, are relatively old-fashioned, but while others may not see him as a contemporary sculptor, Tufan asserts that he lives on the edge where history and the present converge.
In many respects, he is a proponent of archaism, which sees the path to the future of civilization as a regression to the sources of time in thought and creativity. One of its chief designers was the dissident author Terrence McKenna, who coined the phrase “archaic revival” to advocate the primordial use of hallucinogens as an evolutionary technique by which humanity might overcome its modern neuroses from the orders of ecocide and patriarchy that bedevil life-affirming progress.
Where others cry degenerate, archaic revivalists move to claim the prehistoric heritage of the world as a goldmine from which to build and beautify the means toward a truly novel future. It is the case that much of prehistoric culture is lost due simply to worldly impermanence, but it is special to the consciousness of artists who live on the knife edge of the Western pale where the frontiers of the past are seen to mark uncharted terrain on the ever-revolving course of time, which to the ancients and indigenous, is incontrovertibly cyclical.
“Take the risk to walk on both sides of contradictions, on the knife edge. I have taken this risk for many years because I believe I have nothing to lose. If you stay on the safe side you can never see the other side. It’s like living in Turkey, to know how to use its contradictions for the creation of art, even if they’re bad, like the politics. The form of ‘U-Boat’ is like a big phallus, representing political power. I made submarines covered in colorful clothes, like for the first Contemporary Istanbul art fair. The painters were so unhappy because of the size,” he said with unfading, though friendly sarcasm.
“Clothes represented the skin or armor of the submarine, but also the people. We are giving the power to the authorities actually. It’s a contradiction. If you say this isn’t right for democracy and human rights many people are jailed, still half of the population supports this. That’s why Turkey continues to be in chaos. Instead of making a penis, I made a submarine.”
Tufan’s cutting political satire is inevitable, at home and abroad. The internationalism of the contemporary art world facilitates that role, actuating protest with clever misdirections, making it all the more important as an avenue by which Turkish cultural expression finds a voice on the world stage, as opposed to the dimly lit and censorial mockery that exists in the tightly controlled national sphere.
It is part of a wider theme that runs parallel to gallery exhibitions, encouraging artists to participate in the global scene where free expression is unrestrained and appreciated exactly for its socially critical effect.
When in the middle of his project, “The Shark”, Tufan documented the brunt of surveillant state oppression of all places underwater. As authorities deemed his project forbidden, a night patrol came in search of him, finding his worksite on the sea floor at night. They stayed in place for a time, staring him down. He couldn’t tell if they were police, but they soon flashed spotlights on him. He kept working nonstop, and in time, they left, disappearing through the darkness (this was the concept of the video /performance”).
“You can not be so obvious, you have to hide messages. It should only be in the concept. If you say the whole story, and are too obvious, it loses power,” he said.
In 2003, for his second solo show at Pg Art Gallery, titled “Protection”, Tufan produced metal cast egg-shaped sculptures akin to metaphorical armor as when he covered U-Boat in colored clothes for Contemporary Istanbul.
And equally, it is based on his interpretation of the political situations in Turkey, by saying that people should protect themselves because they are not really safe inside the country. It is an atmosphere in which someone might disappear, end up in jail and spend years proving that they are, in fact innocent, only to emerge from a cell with a routine apology.
“You have to know how to protect yourself, or hide, or be careful about what you are talking about. To be a hero and stupidity are very close here. If you make a performance in Taksim Square to say that you are against the dictator, and then five minutes later the police take you, you do not exist. They can not hear your shout. You have to be careful and clever. ‘Protection’ comes from this concept. We are not safe. So, protect yourself,” said Tufan, with a serious tone.
“Since my childhood till now I don’t remember peace in Turkey. Governments change, but nothing else. We grow up with political problems. It’s the beginning of worse. For many years, the government kept the economy at a good level, but this is fake. They sell everything of what they have, so they keep the economy good. Now, the problem is there is nothing to sell. We say in Turkish, “deniz bitti”, the sea is finished.
It doesn’t take Tufan long to prepare his solo exhibitions. He works hard, day and night for three to four months. Pg gallery is small, and consequently the works are also relatively small for him. He sees sculpture as a constant challenge, regardless of limited gallery space in the greater context of his work as a sculptor of immense, outdoor installations.
The need to create many pieces in a short time, and to employ multiple skills, such as welding, cutting, carving, and painting, and to keep the concept fresh and the work exciting are his prime motivators. Prolonging the time that it takes him to make a piece is deflating, because he gets other worthwhile ideas in the process.
“There are thousands of projects in my mind. Their realization is very few. If I make 1% of what comes to my brain, it’s a big success. Some people have one idea, then go and create a thousand sculptures. I really appreciate these people,” he said with a long belly laugh.
“I like to make my art and my lifestyle similar. What I make and what I like to do is all connected in my artistic production. I like dancing, music, flying, diving.”
Now, as an older artist, Tufan feels that time is more valuable than anything, and the need to go faster is ever-pressing, as the advance of technology marches forward at an increasing clip.
The only exception to his overall approach to exhibiting was his very first piece, U-Boat. He filled the gallery on purpose, but in every other case he measures his works and the space before installing. Although he has since shown smaller works for better commercial prospects, he stresses that art is not a business.
Three years ago, Tufan exhibited “Dictionarium”, his series of oversized sculptures in the shape of pens (some of them were metal but others were made with books, old reading glasses and even wooden pen had video screens inside).
Passersby could see the entire exhibition from the gallery window. There were six pens, five of which he recently sent to Germany for another show at Nordart that opened the 8th of June, 2018, located about an hour north of Hamburg.
It was a huge exhibition, with a lot of sculptures, paintings and installations. He had previously installed stainless steel versions, titled “Magic Pen” in Jing An Sculpture Park in Shanghai, China in 2012, and in Buyukcekmece, Istanbul in 2009.
For his signature piece in Dictionarium, he laser-cut metal to form a Nazim Hikmet poem in the manual alphabet of sign language. On the outside, the pen form is deceptive. It seems to be a decorative object, formed with a textural, lace-like exterior, but it has layers. Firstly, it is in the shape of hands, and ultimately, forms the poem. On a deeper level, the meaning of the poem is relevant to the piece as a whole.
Dictionarium furthers Tufan’s unique approach to archaic revivalism, as it is essentially an exercise in preliterate consciousness, an exploration of language as visual, as a material extension of the human body and its tools. His venture into the realm of modern literature contrasts, in that sense, with his concentration on the timeless forms of the past.
Metin Kitapçı is a writer based in Istanbul