“Every society has their others,” muses artist Ipek Duben as SOURCE takes a tour of ‘They/Onlar’, her installation at Fabrica, co-produced with Brighton Festival. The echoing voices in the high-ceilinged gallery space create a lulling background chatter. Video screens scattered through the pitch dark show men and women filmed full length, staring out to speak their personal stories in unrehearsed narrative. Perched on a small bench in solo communion with each speaker, we enter a relaxed private space with them to let their stories unfold.
These are the ‘others’ of Turkey, Duben’s own homeland. Armenian, Kurdish, Jewish, Alevis, Romanis and more are represented here by witnesses, each with their own compelling story to tell. At the opposite end of the gallery, away from the individual screens, the installation is crowned with a triptych wall playing shorter clips from 19 of the interviewees. Here their stories join, with phrases carefully edited together to emphasise similarities and differences, encouraging unplanned dialogue between these fellow citizens which suggests, ultimately, the potential for unity. It’s a striking display, mostly well suited to the cool, roomy atmospherics of Fabrica – though we did feel that some of the more softly spoken testimony risked being lost above the reflected noise of the other speakers.
Duben’s work deals with how we see one another and ourselves. The artist, resident overseas for much of her life, is keenly aware of her own otherness. A previous work, ‘What is a Turk’, examined how Turkish people have been characterised by foreign writers. ‘They/Onlar’ seems a natural progression, therefore, as she shifts the gaze to a sympathetic yet internal one, examining how Turkey sees itself.
The installation, originally shown at the SALT Galata Museum in Istanbul, for a primarily Turkish audience, has a new frisson in Brighton, re-shaped by our Southern English context. “How alien does it seem to you?” Duben asks at one point, intrigued by the novelty of her work’s geographical move. It’s hard to deny that, viewed so soon after Britain triggered Article 50, the piece seems to invite us to make our own comparisons with political, social and economic divides which grow by the day. Who are our others?
“Europe’s identity,” Duben acknowledges darkly, “has grown in relation to its own others”. From the playground to the world stage, the wider truth of ‘They/Onlar’ is how we all place people (and peoples) into categories. The only solution, Duben suggests, is to shelve our judgements, sit, listen and really understand. The machinations of the state of Turkey (who have coincidentally been unsuccessfully lobbying to join the EU since the late 80s) may be unfamiliar territory to viewers of this display, but it doesn’t make ‘They/Onlar’ difficult to connect with.
Although some of the stories here engender disbelief – the Armenian lady who tells us she would not be allowed to work in her country as a history teacher, or the Muslim lady laughed at by police when she reported spousal abuse – the similarities are what we, as humans, lean towards. When a lesbian lady appears on screen describing her early life, we have to ask ourselves how different her struggle might have been in any small English town in the 80s. Or when the domestic abuse survivor says wearily that “everyone is putting up with something”, how can we deny the truth of that in so many of our own lives and relationships? This piece serves to bring us together, encouraging us to see and understand the categories… and then to see beyond them.
‘They/Onlar’, Fabrica, 40 Duke Street Brighton. 8th April – 29th May 2017
Photos by Syl Ojalla