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Let’s Start from the End

Curator Jing Yi Teo finds post-apocalyptic solace in the work of Kerem Ozan Bayraktar after evading a category-3 typhoon in western Japan.

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A no-access section of Inujima Seirensho Art Museum

A no-access section of Inujima Seirensho Art Museum. Photograph courtesy the author.

“The blue ruin of earth is the total work of art at the end of history.  The earth will be buried at sea.”

- McKenzie Wark,  ‘An Inhuman Fiction of Forces’ [01]


Two days before Typhoon Krosa wrecked its way through western Japan and headed north towards Korea, I was touring one of Japan’s inland islands. It was already going to be the peak of the near-intolerable summer heat, but pre-typhoon, as the locals say, is always extraordinarily hot. Still, Inujima was enjoying a flux of tourists who flocked to the islands for the Setouchi Triennale. Coy and unassuming, the island home to barely eighty residents could hardly accommodate the tourists even just for day trips. 


Stepping out of the speedboat I was ushered to a makeshift shelter where the Triennale staff urged us naïve tourists to not only buy a return ticket, but to reserve a seat for a particular time slot, or wait three hours for the next boat otherwise. 80-pax speedboats ferried visitors to Inujima three times a day from the only access point: Naoshima, the largest amongst the islands and host to the buffet of see-and-be-seen art sites helmed by Benesse Holdings [02], including Yayoi Kusama’s ubiquitous pumpkins. The luxurious ferries funnelling visitors to Naoshima from the port cities of Uno and Takamatsu, in contrast, could take on 500 passengers at any one go and boasted nearly floor-to-ceiling windows flanking leather seats that resembled those of business-class airport lounges. The ship was so massive that once inside, one would be forgiven for forgetting the vessel was moving. 


Seirensho


The path to the landmark Seirensho Art Museum was an approximate 20-minute walk, flat but jagged as the magnetic waves lapping on the shore lured children and adults alike into snaking back and forth between the walking track and the rocky shore. Museums tend to inflict a certain heedful, self-conscious awareness in their visitors, an institutionalised fear of stumbling into a precious artwork, of breaking the hush-hush atmospheric tone, of walking in the reverse direction of the exhibition route — a sin I couldn’t redeem myself from even in the faraway island of Inujima.


Instead of finding the museum entrance, I became lost in the maze of some half-tumbled brick walls, a mere fraction of the ruins of the copper refinery that it once was. The museum’s name referenced the unabating presence of the island’s industrial past and was a poetic pun in itself: “精錬 ”,  which means improvement and rebirth, is phonetically identical to the word for the smelting of copper, “製錬”, both written and pronounced as seiren in their Romanised form. Chimneys with cracks treacherously dividing their tall bodies towered over the site. Weeds had infested any and all gaps between the bricks, mostly made of slag, a dingy and dense by-product of the copper refining process. A sign read in Japanese and its direct English translation: WARNING COLLAPSE OF A BUILDING AND CAVE-IN.


Tumbled-walls-and-chimneys-of-Inujima-Seirensho-Art-Museum-infested-by-weeds

Tumbled walls and chimneys of Inujima Seirensho Art Museum, infested by weeds. Photograph courtesy the author.


Seirensho’s winding ruins were an experience in spectating, of looking from the outside — not in the Euclidean sense of spatial division [03], but rather of the viewer as external to the event that has taken space. Even though I was immersed in what  urbanists call a ‘ruinscape’, I was glancing upon  a time-accented space. It is easy to think of an event such as the establishment — and the subsequent desertion — of an industrial site as an anthropogenic one. But standing in the quarries of the past, the spectacle felt less like ‘ some people were here’ and more like ‘ the world was here’.  While I was observing residues and traces of the past, this ontological exteriority has the effect of extending symmetrically into the future. Abandoned industrial sites that are not as lucky to receive the benevolence that Inujima has had stand frail witnesses to the past existence of an economy, a livelihood, an actuality now vanished into empty space, where weeds are the only visible sign of life. In the encounter of such spaces, we are faced with the possibility that the future might well be without us as a species, raising the questions: Why bother imagining a better future? [04] What will remain alive after human life is long gone?


T-1 day


Upon alighting at the port worn out after a day of art-wandering, I staggered into a local sushi establishment just a few steps from the ferry station and was ready to prance at a tokkuri of cold sake when a forewarning WhatsApp message from a Japanese ex-neighbour back home sent me scrambling for my luggages to catch the last train towards Osaka that night. A quick search on my smartphone showed that the port town I would have lodged in was in the direct path of Typhoon Krosa, which was at that very moment ravaging its way northeast at maximum gusts of 144 kilometres per hour. The oddest part of realising that I was about to be hit by a category-3 typhoon was that I had received the news from a source a thousand kilometres away. Apart from the 38-degree Celsius weather, which I foolhardily assumed to be bad planning on my own part, I picked up zero signs of the impending typhoon over the two full days I spent on the islands. The islanders went about business as usual and I saw no alerts or warning systems openly announcing the incoming disaster. Just how accustomed can a community get to shore-pounding, house-wrecking, flight-cancelling tropical storms? 


Rocks and winds, germs and words


On the one hand, natural disasters have the unceasing capacity to instantiate the meagre extent to which humans can control, or even monitor, our environments; on the other hand they serve as manifestations of the chain of consequences of our smallest actions. The contemporary world and its visual and material culture is so pervaded with catastrophe, that whether a grand, definitive, all-destroying apocalypse has actualised yet is already irrelevant. 


This was possibly why it felt like all the right buttons were being pushed when I encountered Kerem Ozan Bayraktar’s latest exhibition at Sanatorium curated by Kevser Güler soon after my arrival to Istanbul. The gallery was a clinical, rectangular space, and the first thing I saw upon entering was a floor-to-ceiling steel grid construction. Its back was tilted towards the viewer to expose the mess of cables and wires left in its shadow. Treading over to approach the front of this installation, titled Skins , I realised it was a deliberate decision by the artist and curator to highlight the materiality of electricity and light as components in a chain of events that accumulated within the images. The choice of displaying the images in lightboxes as opposed to un-illuminated wood or paper, as in the artist’s previous works, also pointed toward this materiality. These electrical connections breathed life into the images, not in just a metaphorical sense, but in a new materialist conception of ‘life’. Indeed, this ‘life’ set the tone for the rest of the exhibition.


In Skins,  each lightbox carried a unique image of a species or object, generated digitally with the help of photogrammetry techniques [05]. Non-living things like a paper unicorn statue, traditional Turkish Iznik patterned vases, and a filled-up trash bag were carefully portrayed against a black background, radiating every bit as peculiarly as living things, such as a budding potato or a sleeping deer. Other objects, however, were not as easily categorised. Among them: a pair of eggs, a leafless bonsai plant, a shell with no mollusk body in sight. The variety of beings, living, non-living, and in-between, drew attention to the exhibition title, “Rocks and winds, germs and words”.   The phrase was borrowed from a book by theorist Manuel de Landa titled A thousand years of non-linear history [06], in which de Landa argued for an understanding of nature as a constantly unfolding reality. Nature does not end where life does; correspondingly, life like becomes alive as a consequence of the enlarged conceptual and temporal frame. 


Kerem-Ozan-Bayraktar,-“Rocks and winds, germs and words”-2019-exhibition-view

Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, “Rocks and winds, germs and words”, 2019, exhibition view, Sanatorium, Istanbul. Courtesy: the artist and Sanatorium.


In the middle of the room was a geological experiment titled Respiration , but with a reconfiguration in its elements: cubes and shards of steel sat in a sand swamp, the glass tank filled with just enough water so that the steel pieces were almost completely submerged. Living out their own plenary existence in an aquarium, the steel pieces underwent a process of oxidation induced by the water, air and light in the gallery. Over the duration of the exhibition, rust was produced, and the water would slowly be imbued with a stunning gradient of coppery red, as the rust — iron oxide, the artist would have you reminded — sunk to the sand. This was a welcome narrative touch that prompted the inquiry: When does an object begin inhabiting its own story as a living being, given that it possesses its own micro-movements like oxidation, independent of human interference?


The mutability and necessity of oxygen is a focus shared with another work in the exhibition, Great Oxidation Event.  The eponymous event saw the first oxygen pumped into the air on Earth by cyanobacteria, and is therefore credited with the birth of all multi-celled organisms.Printed on a large wooden block leaning against the gallery wall, the piece could be read as a dense relationship map, or a text-filled, diagrammatic jumble of a collage. Intuitively, I tried to make sense of the map, but the handwritten lines overlapped and the colour codes had no scheme whatsoever. There is no use — the artist seemed to say — of looking for strict classifications in the interlocking and interflowing webs of life.


Kerem-Ozan-Bayraktar-Great-Oxidation-Event-2019

Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, Great Oxidation Event, 2019, digital collage, digital inkjet print on hahnemühle matt fibre paper mounted on wood contra box, 150 x 184 x 10 cm, installation view, Sanatorium, Istanbul. Courtesy: the artist and Sanatorium.


In a sombre turn towards a looping animation video also titled Respiration , snow-clad ambulances became lodged in their static positions in a desolate, icy terrain. The stillness of the emergency vehicles was felt even more by the camera’s birds-eye view. A female voice filled up the gallery space like a loudspeaker with encyclopaedic definitions of the Great Oxidation Event and its related terminologies. Ambulances are iconic as the critical difference between life and death; their role dependent on the speed at which they shuttle between destinations. Hence it was no wonder why, turning to see State , a sculptural assembly of miniature ambulances cast in polyester helplessly stationed by the feet of gallery visitors, I felt the gulping tension of failure and its torpid aftermath. Bayraktar’s choice of carrying life-birthing concepts with a post-apocalyptic aura was a surreal but necessary reminder that the continuation of life beyond what we currently know it to be is just as probable as the beginning of it.


The final work in the show picked up where it all began, with the artist’s penchant for rattling the heads of his audience with stark imagery. Bayraktar presented yet another set of images, but this time each one is an artificial intelligence-aided amalgamation of software-readable photographs mostly composed of quotidian urban and natural sightings. Simply called Untitled , the work came as a strange confrontation, despite its simple presentation in a slideshow that faded in and out. I acknowledged the picture as a picture , buts as one image faded into the next, its foreignness continued to dominate, thwarting my efforts to register its contents. I found myself questioning the specificity and flatness in which we perceive images in their composition — object and background, period. That the artist felt the need to employ non-human faculties to make his human viewer aware of such an elementary function was telling of our perceptual fishbowl and its limits. 


Kerem-Ozan-Bayraktar-Untitled-2019

Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, Untitled, 2019, computer generated images, slideshow 06’47”, Silent, installation view, Sanatorium, Istanbul. Courtesy: the artist and Sanatorium.


Everything’s gonna be alright


Back at the bar table gobbling on the last pieces of sushi, I asked the server attending to us throughout the hurried dinner, in contrived broken English to match his, “Typhoon tomorrow, you OK?” He nodded incessantly just as he did when I asked earlier on if I could have another napkin, “Typhoon! OK!” In frantic survival mode, I had more curiosity than admiration towards the steely sentiment of the Japanese. To bring up the all-obliterating end of the world is to exhaust all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios, but at the same time, to invoke a posthumanist discourse is to aggravate provocations of intimidating gravity. Luckily, those questions have been friends of artists since the very beginning, and even more luckily for art, it is one domain that can afford not to offer solutions. Instead, perhaps, what it can offer is not unlike the response I received from the other side of the bar table — a cocktail of curiosity and eagerness to get on with life.


“Rocks and Winds, Germs and Words” by Kerem Ozan Bayraktar at SANATORIUM runs until 20 October 2019. More information  here .


  • 01.

    Wark, McKenzie. “An Inhuman Fiction of Forces.” Leper Creativity, (Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2012), 39–43.

  • 02.

    Benesse Holdings' former chairman and current executive advisor, philanthropist and art collector Soichiro Fukutake spearheaded the revitalisation of Naoshima and some of the other Seto islands into luxurious art destinations since the 1989 founding of Benesse Art Site Naoshima.

  • 03.

    Euclidean space, named after Euclid the Greek mathematician, is the framework in which any point in space can be assigned a geometric coordinate. It is used in representations of space in maps, plans, blueprints, drawings, etc., and thus considered ‘flat space’, even if the space is 3-dimensional.

  • 04.

    As commented in Stephen Muecke’s review of Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects. Muecke, Stephen. “Global Warming and Other Hyperobjects.” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 20, 2014. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/hyperobjects/.

  • 05.

    A computer software-based technique of providing exact geometric points of objects using existing photographs.

  • 06.

    “Reality is a single matter-energy undergoing phase transitions of various kinds... Rocks and winds, germs and words, are all different manifestations of this dynamic material reality, or, in other words, they all represent the different ways in which this single matter-energy expresses itself.” De Landa, M. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. (New York: Swerve Editions, 2000).