February 2006

Arts & Letters

Dating longing

By Justin Clemens
The work of Mutlu Çerkez

Early in the twentieth century, a few artists realised art wasn’t simply a matter of the senses. Nor could art be identified with any particular material, content, form, technique, theme or colour, or any mix of these. Art was both less and more than that. It could be made out of anything. It could be an inverted urinal or a black square on a black background. It could be found anywhere, not just in the authorised studios, galleries and museums. An artwork could be almost nothing – as long as it forced you to think again about what art might be. A minimum of presentation had to open onto a maximum of thought. Rather than producing objects that captivated the senses, art became a process of material reduction and immaterial disruption. Mutlu Çerkez is in this lineage.

Born in London in 1964 to Turkish Cypriot parents, Çerkez finished his studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, in 1987. He had his first solo exhibitions the next year, at City Gallery in Melbourne and the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney. He has exhibited regularly in major group and solo shows since. He quickly attracted an international reputation, showing in the US, Italy and Denmark, as well as at the 1998 São Paolo Biennale and the Istanbul Biennial in 1999. In the same year, he was in the Seppelt Contemporary Art Award. Articles about his work began to appear in Melbourne art magazines as well as in abstruse international journals of philosophy.

It is a striking trajectory for such an uncompromising artist. Çerkez’s works are about as high-concept as they come: restrained, oblique, thoughtful. They are driven by one underlying idea: Çerkez doesn’t always give his works a standard title, but they always receive at least one date; this date doesn’t relate to the work’s fabrication, but is placed in the future. The work may have been made in 2003, but it will be called something like “Untitled: 15 August 2038”. On the specified date, Çerkez will remake the work. Arbitrary as this idea may seem, it illuminates something essential about the contemporary world. Paul de Man has pointed out that while no one in their right mind would try to grow grapes by the light of the word ‘day’, it’s impossible not to think of one’s own life in terms of date structures – though this involves a strictly analogous fallacy. As Çerkez once remarked to Robyn McKenzie: “I imagined at the end of my life there being two series of works, the originals and the copies, in two different chronological orders. I thought the interesting thing would be the missing ones – the ones dated after I die.” Rigorously and impeccably conceived, researched and executed, all Çerkez’s work derives from this fundamental conceit.

Çerkez focuses on anomalies in the recording of events, producing fake covers for bootleg records, black-and-white tour posters, and box sets for non-existent vinyl albums. The twentieth-century German critic Walter Benjamin noted that photography made apparent the “optical unconscious”, because it captured things in the field of vision that people automatically overlook. Something analogous goes for live bootleg recordings, which pick up glitches, mistakes and ambient sounds that would never be permitted to appear on the official release, as well as often being recorded in inopportune spots and with inferior equipment. Undertaken by entrepreneurial enthusiasts, bootleg piracy exposes peculiarities in the relations between ‘live’ and ‘studio’ recordings, between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ productions, between survival and ephemera, between technology and commerce. As Damiano Bertoli notes, “the discovery of bootlegs enabled the artist’s interest to proceed beyond the official recorded catalogue, into a vast and potentially endless library of lost moments, never intended as recordings, let alone objects to be collected and fetishised.” Çerkez is interested in all the modalities of this aural unconscious: what you never heard because you weren’t there, and what you never heard even though you were – the traces of performances you missed or were impossible to hear or never took place or are yet to occur.

But music is not just an aural phenomenon: it encompasses sensory and social elements. Çerkez is particularly interested in Led Zeppelin. Why Led Zeppelin? Perhaps because the band was just another artificial supergroup of technically proficient musicians with carefully managed PR, on the one hand; perhaps because the band became famous as the authentic progenitor of a genre, on the other. Were the members of Led Zep true artists, then? Or should that title go to the bootleggers, who transform transient and situated experience into more permanent forms? Night after night, there are inevitably tiny variations in performance: what makes one go off, another fall flat? What scale of values would enable a firm decision?

These questions aren’t too recondite for our everyday lives. Take sexual coupling, for example, where the correct analysis of tiny variations in a partner’s comportment might make all the difference between erotic happiness and abiding misery. It’s not just the problem of discerning your prospective partner’s hidden intentions; it’s up to you to read those intentions correctly and respond appropriately, in such a way that they then do what you want them to, without necessarily realising why they’re doing it. Seduction, whether financial, erotic or aesthetic, is complicated, subtle and violent – and always a matter of aesthetics.

For “Various Responses” (2004), Çerkez signed up with a dating agency. The procedure was straightforward: Çerkez left a recorded voice message in an assigned box to which female subscribers to the agency could listen; if the subscriber liked what she heard, she could reply with a message of her own. From this Çerkez produced a series of monochrome text paintings, white on black, transcribing selected responses without editing out the solecisms. The texts are compelling:

hi i thought i’d send you a message i i thought your profile more than the others i liked the way the way you put it together and the sound of your voice um i don’t know if we’ll have anything in common i i’m not really artistic i’m a bit of a workaholic um i am professionally employed and um i’m i live close to the city so i think we may have some things in common i am thirty-five five foot seven and i have long hair and brown eyes and present myself well and um consider myself reasonably attractive or maybe i i would say i’m above average um anyway i do okay um yeah and i’m not looking for something casual so so i just wanted to send you that information anyway i’ll leave you with that thanks cheers.

Note the selection of suggestive details (of class, earning-capacity and geography), routines of self-evaluation (“reasonably attractive”), and the hesitant confession of desires to a stranger (do we have anything in common; why am I responding at all?). If numbers provide the paradigm of stable reference (“i am thirty-five five foot seven”), they also convey the agonies of longing (they are only provided to attract a partner). Dating is dating, numbers and sexuality entwined.

As Çerkez’s friend and artistic collaborator Marco Fusinato points out, these works examine the PR of such aural self-portraiture. Try to hide your desperation; try to present yourself in the best possible light, to get the greatest possible number of responses. But it’s not until the responses roll in (or don’t) that you’ll have any idea of your success. Even then, it doesn’t end there. In this way, dating profiles are already competitive seductions, trying to induce further interest and sideline the other candidates. Çerkez’s works are not simply statements transcribed: they are responses to responses, hovering between the aural and the visual, writing and painting, emitting and transcribing, recording and living, desire and its exploitation, the public and the private. In these works, Çerkez becomes a second-order bootlegger, hijacking the hijacking of intimacy by profit-making agencies, in order to return it to aesthetic ends. It’s striking how anonymous and generic this process reveals the most intimate aspects of life to be.

Even Çerkez’s self-portraits aren’t really self-portraits. Though you’d have no problem recognising the actual guy from these technically accomplished works (his bald spot really gleams), Çerkez is more interested in what they cannot show, in the responses that are to come. Take the line of 112 calendars that stripes the wall just above eye-level, running from 1964 until 2075; or the glass-fronted beehive squatting in the gallery; or the video of Japanese T-shirts with bizarre slogans. Çerkez has a real mistrust of official narratives of success, and all his work is an attempt to save – or at least gesture towards – what has been lost, erased, secreted, downplayed. His work is deliberately difficult to describe and discuss; indeed, discussion runs the risk of covering over what he’s trying to expose. Çerkez is not didactic, just attentive.

In his essay about Çerkez’s “Auditions for An Unwritten Opera: Untitled: 12 February 2016” (2000), Michael Graf notes that Çerkez, despite his minimalism, shares the Wagnerian ambition of the total artwork, for which the artist takes complete responsibility over every detail. Graf adds: “the future dates summon a Nietzschean affirmation of all that lies ahead.” If what happens to you is always contingent (things might have turned out differently), its very happening makes it absolute (it was like this and not otherwise). Çerkez’s work explores the vicissitudes of fate.

Mutlu Çerkez died in December 2005.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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