A Nancy Atakan Profile 

A Multiple Faceted Identity, A Criticism of Belief and Cultural Domination: 

Her work from 1990 to the Present

by Fırat Arapoğlu


September – October 2010

In the process of developing personal identity, society uses cultural tools and tradition to suppress individuals and make them become a particular type of person. More than for the male, national and religious norms exert specific pressures on the female body and on the formulation of their mentality and their identity.  This situation is addressed by Nancy Atakan in her work entitled “I am not who you say I am” (2009). Seated in front of a mirror, the artist transforms her face with make up materials such as lipstick.  Her use of make up reminds us of 17th century satirical theater characters, associated with the evil female. As Hamlet told Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play:  “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.”  Later, John Berger wrote that female roles have always been formulated from the viewpoint of a male dominated society. While applying makeup, the artist continually sticks onto the mirror’s corner different postcard images. She systematically rejects these images that reflect societal expectations from different places:  the USA flag that symbolizes her roots; a picture of a church representing a religious belief; the Turkish flag from the country where she lives. 

Since Atakan in her work often questions “women and female identity”, “Faltaşı” (1999) seems to continue this trend. But, it is not just about an event where fifteen women from different social classes come together to have their fortunes read in coffee grounds, in essence it is criticizing the male dominated art movement, Abstract Expressionism. She asks if this female tradition of taking meaning from abstract shapes is not just as valid, significant, and valuable as the fine art created by male drips of paint on canvas.  Since both use irony to critique the male dominated art painting tradition, Atakan’s approach reminds us of the 1965 Fluxus artist, Shigeko Kubota, who painted a picture called  “Vagina Painting” using a paintbrush stuck between her legs during a performance…

Atakan uses four basic production forms – digital prints, installation, video and texts – to deal with critical issues related to the circularity of life, popular culture, female identity, beliefs, language games, living in-between cultures and questions about the norms of this situation.  An example of her approach to popular culture would be “Chronic İllness” (2009) that deconstructed communication codes created by American brands by transforming the contexts in which they exist. Internationally famous brands influenced by real estate investors can be found at central points throughout the city. Their logos are displayed in non-human proportions on gigantic billboards, constantly looking down from above to both lure and crush human beings.  In her project, Atakan took one of these symbols, McDonald’s logo, out of context and used it in a handmade ceramic piece and a lace tablecloth. In Turkey, even though more expensive than local brands, eating at McDonald’s became for the younger generation a prestigious symbol of modernism. Other Turkish female artists, such as Gül Ilgaz and Gözde İlkin, work with fabric, but Atakan uses techniques, lace and ceramics, outside the dominant modernist painting and sculpture tradition, to subtly criticize Modernism. 

Similar to Sükran Moral, Nezaket Ekici and Marina Abromovic, Atakan combines several different production methods, performance, digital print as well as digital video in “Downpour” (2008). Since the scenes from Atakan’s work do not fit into the structural dichotomous classification often seen in art history’s iconographic interpretation of good/bad, open/closed, happy/unhappy, and ugly/beautiful, the artist presents an unusually strong image of tragedy. Without making a judgment, she presents what exists rather than what must be. English words rain down onto mosques in a constructed panoramic view of Istanbul. In this city with conflicts between high and low cultural groups, knowing English is a basic necessity. As globalization develops, English becomes more dominant, resonating what Gramsci called “cultural domination”: the desire to create a common language. Atakan’s work comments on this by pointing out that instead of allowing identity differentiation, we can see a political strategy that promotes one culture, one language and one system, capitalism.  

Atakan was part of the group exhibition, “Out of Context”, at Pi Artworks with “Fake Reality”, a wedding cake made from Styrofoam that cannot be consumed, only admired, by which the artist depicts a basic crisis in society and in artistic representation. With this work, Atakan references Guy Debord’s concept of “The Society of the Spectacle”, an expansion of Marx’s concept of  “meta-fetish”. She refers here to a particular type of wedding ceremony, a spectacle that uses a cake that only seems consumable — a phenomenon without reality.  This way, food made from an artificial material that we cannot eat nor touch, becomes a metaphor for class status. Spectators of the ceremony can only gaze upon its beauty. By bringing this cake into the context of the gallery as an art object, not only does Atakan question societal connotations, but also the nature of untouchable art objects exhibited in galleries or museums. 

Another important video work, “Used to be New”, can be better understood in the context of W. F. Haug’s “Commodity Aestheticism” concept.  This work masterfully criticizes the cosmetic sector that created an important market for women over the age of fifty by selling a dream about restoring youth.  Sitting in front of a mirror, the artist continuously applies layers of face cream but none of the wrinkles disappear and a younger appearance is not obtained.  

Two works that point out prejudice from different perspectives are “Blind Intersection” (2005) and “Holding on” (2009).  In “Blind Intersection”, the artist asks American friends, “What do you think about Turks and Turkey?” The answers she received did not surprise her. They range from those who see Turkey as a mild Moslem country to those that know its location on the map but never plan to visit. She printed these statements on the gallery wall. In “Holding On”, without predetermined expectation, she invited spectators to write on the gallery walls their ideas about the concept of ‘holding on’. Even though the concept for this work evolved out of a 2007 interdisciplinary art studio project in Cyprus, it has site-specific character as the gallery space, Apartment Project, was trying to hold on while being pushed out by encroaching new restaurants and bars. Interestingly, other Turkish artists have addressed the concept of  ‘holding on’. For example, in exhibition “I am alone, but,…” curated by Denizhan Özer, the artist Gül Ilgaz also did work that she named “holding on”.  However, overlapping themes are not surprising as Nancy Atakan, Gül Ilgaz, Neriman Polat, and Gülçin Aksoy worked together extensively in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Atakan’s emphasis on inter-cultural relationships can be read as a projection of her in-between position. “For Sale”  (2009) shows a church steeple and a mosque minaret that appear to be a part of the same building and a sign that reads: “Everything for sale by the owner”.  The artist asks, “Do governments and nations use signs of belief and representations of belief for their own purposes? Is everything – even religion – for sale?” 

Besides cultural identity, Atakan concentrates on myths associated with female identities, which she addresses in works such as,  “Leda and the Swan” and “Daphne and Apollo” (2009). In these myths, Zeus took possession of Leda by disguising as a swan, while Daphne could only escape from male passion by transforming herself into a tree.  By placing herself in the work as a female under attack, she brings these ancient myths into a contemporary context. 

As a part of her art practice, Nancy Atakan has several identities, art historian, writer, Conceptual artist, and founder of an art initiative. In 1995 she completed her doctoral thesis on Conceptual Art in Turkey and in 1998 Yapi Kredi Publishing Company produced her book Searching: Alternatives to Painting and Sculpture which was published as an updated second edition in 2009 by the publishing company Kara Kalem. Up until today an equal to this book that contains important information about Contemporary Art has not been published in Turkey. One of the most important signifiers for what Atakan refers to as “Art as Dialogue” is the art initiative, 5533, founded in 2008 by Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan with the assistance of curator Marcus Graf. Continuing to function today, this non-profit art platform was developed to support both national and international art projects. It holds an important position as a place for students and artists to share information and to experiment.  

Her identity as both an art historian and writer contributes to the intellectual depth of her artistic practice. Artists like Atakan continually question the nature of artistic production, the concept of art, and the work of art to find new methods of production and propose new concepts. The originality of their work eludes existing categories and complicates the process of classification used by traditional art critiques. According to Joseph Beuys, as a method of communication, art must be evaluated depending on its communicative value rather than its pure meta-value. Only artwork that functions as a part of the information flow inside network relationships can deal with questions about democracy and freedom. Such art production is not a meta-production, rather a dialogue. Following Beuys’ schematic approach, Atakan does not use institutional procedures but begins with a dialogue and emphasizes the creation of relationships. Beuys made work that could be touched and that renewed the spiritual connection with art, characteristics that can also be found in Atakan’s work. 

Inherited from contemporary art of the 1960s, Atakan emphasizes thought rather than meta-production. If we consider her work concerning gender, psychology, identity to be about non-political behavior, perhaps we sense a slight contradiction in her stance, but as Deleuze says, “No one dies from contradiction.”   

All images on this site and their copyrights owned by Nancy Atakan unless otherwise stated. Images are not to be reprinted or reused without the expressed permission.