Art of the impossible

Pramod K Nayar

Uğur Gallenkuş is famous as a man who does not respect borders – of time, space and culture – in his montages. This Turkish graphic designer works with collage and montage as his key art form, and in the process brings together the most incompatible, disproportionate and incommensurable elements.

In one stunning design, Gallenkuş splices together in a photograph a boy with a guitar and another wielding a gun. The image consists of these two ‘halves’ so that the guitar morphs, extends and merges with the gun. Captioned just ‘Liberia’, the contrast is shocking, a white hand holding a guitar and the black (Liberian?) carrying the gun. Another of his terrifying simultaneism can be seen in ‘Yemen’. The head is of a white, nearly cherubic boy, smiling contentedly. Neck down, the image shows a ghastly emaciated body, with a port for IV feeds inserted into the ankle region, rib cage showing and stick-like legs.

In another, a catwalk is merged with a row of refugees walking, the stage becomes gravelly sand. Swimmers hunched and about to launch into the water merge into the crouching and hooded-chained inmate of Abu Ghraib. Mona Lisa is montaged with ‘the girl with the green eyes’ from Afghanistan, and a space launch resonates with a tower of flame as a town near Gaza burns. They are impossible things to bring together, and so Gallenkuş does exactly that.

Simultaneism and Contact Zone

Gallenkuş signals the simultaneity of the mutually exclusive real, one world bracketed off from the other, to be consumed within the same frame. It echoes the simultaneism of avant-garde modernists of the early 20th century. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism defines simultaneism (sometimes written as simultanizm) as the ‘concurrent presentation of elements from different places, multiple points-of-view, radically disconnected segments of time, and separate media’.

Yet, surely, there is more to say about Gallenkuş. His work is a fine example of the montage form: bringing together different spatio-temporal worlds into contact. But the point is: these worlds, of the beauty contest and the refugee, the competition swimmer and the Abu Ghraib prisoner, would not meet. As readers we usually get one or the other, thereby fragmenting our perspective on the world itself. But Gallenkuş’ montages refuse the right to view one without the other, thereby showing us how to perceive the world’s startling inequalities and incongruities. If art is meant to discomfit, Gallenkuş’ montage does it very well.

The Gallenkuş artwork is a dissensual contact zone. Here worlds, cultures, icons, clash – not to produce a hybrid artefact that transcends their different origins, but highlighting the incompatibility, the dissensus, that marks our world. In response to those who praise multicultural ethnic chic and transnational identities, Gallenkuş shows that there are indeed binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’: these can meet only within the frame of an artwork’s dissensual contact zone.

Art here dislodges the ‘cosmetic multiculturalism’ (Mika Ko’s term) – that commodifies difference as marketable products of different ethnicities and geocultural regions. It tests and rejects, also, the myths of cultural understanding, assimilation, multicultural citizenship, the iconography of ‘one world’ and the universality of mankind – myths resonant with akin to what the social theorist Satish Deshpande termed ‘pasteurised multiculturalism’.


Kitsch is Power

The second key feature of Gallenkuş’ art is the conscious effort at kitsch. Kitsch is always too much and too little, seeking to melodramatise everything. It seeks to offer a sentimentalised spectacle of reality. Kitsch is a cultural and aesthetic mode that artists have used to draw attention to things as diverse as social relations and genocide. Kitsch focuses on affect, evoking sentimental responses but also thereby provoking us to think about what we are seeing. Exaggerating and melodramatising through obvious excess is a means of forcing the viewer to see and think beyond the immediate spectacle. This is precisely what Gallenkuş does with his montages.

Generating Shock

Gallenkuş simplifies complex social, historical and cultural contexts into one icon: a gun, an emaciated body, a burning building. In the process, he forces us to see the event and icon as a metonym for something larger, which he cannot (and we cannot) capture in a single frame. By juxtaposing this with the most incongruous Other icon we can imagine, Gallenkuş generates shock.

Take, for instance, Gallenkuş’ juxtaposition of a photograph of a ruined township in Gaza. A man or woman (it is indeterminate) stares out at the ruins. This is juxtaposed with Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Wanderer Over a Sea of Fog (1818). The Friedrich painting depicts a dandy, a richly attired man complete with walking stick and boots, staring out at a foggy landscape. The man’s posture suggests authority, born perhaps of class privileges. In the montage, the person stares at a ruined city and is a witness to loss, in contrast with the Friedrich protagonist who in all likelihood sees potential and adventure in the landscape ahead of him.

Gallenkuş’ work is provocative precisely because the kitsch troubles us with the incongruous excesses, the transgressive wherein starvation and plenty cathect into the same body-frame although they are different bodies from different contexts. Gallenkuş’ practice of showcasing in the same frame poverty or torture-porn (as these genres are called by art and film critics) with plenitude, style and happiness tells us more about the world’s iniquities than any Amnesty report. Gallenkuş’ is the art of the impossible.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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