Identity as a State of “Betweenness”: Nancy Atakan’s New Works

By Nusret Polat


At her exhibition, “I Believe/I Don’t Believe”, at Pi Artworks (March 31- April 28, 2009), Nancy Atakan employs a variety of media, enabling a pluralistic reading of social and political events they depict. In this short article, I am going to focus primarily on the artist’s works that have political references. 

The artist foremost concern within the exhibition is the issue of “identity”, which has become a central theme in the globalized contemporary art world, in particular through the concept of “in-betweenness” that I will now explain. Life is an experience of being in-between birth and death, a state that is characterized by Nietzche as being squeezed in-between two ‘emptinesses’ or two ‘nothingnesses’.  At a time when immigration and cross-border movements deeply define the social and political map and cultures increasingly hybrid and hybridized, the metaphor of “in-betweenness” is quite useful to explain the concept of identity. By using this term, the artist also gives expression to a political perspective of being in-between two places situated on a shifting slippery base and an identity/identities emerging from this position.  The gallery of Pi Artworks, which provides the space for the artist to apply her conceptual map is on a side-street located in the middle of a series of jerry-built houses that are ready for renovation and gentrification, echoing the in-betweenness of the show’s subject. 

Nancy Atakan, someone who was born in the United States but has been living in Turkey since 1969, interrogates both the etymology of the Turkish word for identity (kimlik, kim-lik, meaning to be who ‘kim’), as well as the roots of the word in Western languages meaning “identity”. She reminds us that her own perception of identity is around discontinuities, fluidities and intensities, not about subjectivity, but as a network of concepts that express being and states of being. In particular, she does this in her work “I am not who you say I am.” It is useful to look at this work in depth. 

“I am not who you say I am” (2009) is a melancholic video portrait of the artist, accompanied by a series of photographs that depicts the artist sitting in front of a mirror, creating a double of herself, asking who she is and with what she identifies. The images reference the artist’s homeland, the USA, her mother, the soil that she grew up on and the culture that she was raised with, as well as to the geography that she lives in at the moment, Turkey. She compares these images, accepting none of the existing images (Western-Eastern, the USA-Turkey, Christian-Muslim, covered head-not covered head etc.) and making the viewer feel that she is uncomfortable with where she can place herself. It is as if the artist wants to say: “I am not who you say I am, but I also have no idea what I am and where I belong. I am more aware of where I do not belong and what or who I am not.” 

Actually, the questions of “what” and “who” remind me of an interview on love that French philosopher Jacques Derrida once gave: Derrida, said “Qui et Quoi” (Who and What)… The philosopher constantly repeats these words in this interview.  These two words are the key points within philosophical discourse (and maybe it would not be wrong to say, conceptual art), they mean to say: Who are you and what are you? Thus, to discover what and who someone is, to define the “whoness” and “whatness” is a philosophical task and this philosophical task coincides with the political one in contemporary art in today’s world. The issue simply is: Who am I and which community do I belong to as what? This is possibly, why Nancy Atakan relates to rituals such as religion, magic, fate, and chance that seem to belong more with the metaphysical rather than the social and political. These are elementary forms of living that have been differentiated in each society before constructing a political identity. And these are more valuable forms than the political identities that delineate the border from the perspective of the artist, pointing to a political identity that transcends borders or rather to the formation of an “identitylessness”. Or in other words, is the community that I am in a community of “identities” (Turkish, American, Black, Muslim, Woman, Gay etc.) or is it a community of “whatever singularity” that does not correspond to the questions of “who” and “what” I am? 

Community of whatever singularity is a concept that belongs to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and if we leave out the idea of “community of specter”, as the figure that is on the border of the visible-invisible that ethically deserves unconditional help (the “community of specter” essentially consists of refugees and the homeless), the concept references a being that just “is”, without including any identity constituents a priori. Just like the parable of Nancy Atakan, this concept not only points to the insignificance of “who” and “what”, but to the “who” and “what” defined by “being in the world” itself. Strangely enough, we are about to enter a “universal community.” This universal community does not have any pre-determinants that are ethnical, religious or gender-based. This is like another version of what the Enlightenment philosopher Kant conceptualized as the framework for the “world citizen.” Kant made a significant impact on the identity issue 200 years ago: “In this world where everybody is standing on the same soil, everybody has the right to be able to visit anywhere.”  

Another work by the artist, eponymous with the exhibition, hosts a potential that would fortify this thought further. This three-hour performance, in which the artist repeats the couplet, “I believe/I don’t believe” while dropping evil eye beads into a bucket in front of her, points to the culturally relative nature of believing, implying that the systems of belief formed by certain belief systems are true and dependable each in their own field of living. This is exactly the meaning of the pragmatic methodology proposed by American philosopher William James. According to James, “we believe since by believing, it is more likely that we can construct a dependable way of living in the world.” According to the philosopher “faith” and “confidence” are the same thing. While Nancy Atakan is against issues of violence and war brought upon by forms of belief, she thinks that no faith system is superior to another. This includes science. All of these forms of faith are single forms of a plural world. Thus, Atakan gives us examples of artworks that overcome hierarchic formations and reference pluralistic situations and positions. 

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.