If there is one constant in the fabric of Istanbul, it’s interruption. In this irregular, gigantic mass of over 2000 square kilometers, buildings not only appear and disappear, but with them entire populations, histories, and memories can shift, recede and vanish permanently. On the corner of the intersection between Halaskargazi and Ergenekon streets stands a hotel built in the 1990s on the site of the old Pangaltı hammam of which there are no traces or references. The hammam, or Turkish bath house, whose foundation date or history is unclear, was demolished with the promise that it would be eventually re-stored . . . and then it simply disappeared. The only evidence of it is a small black and white photograph from the 1970s on the Internet where it is possible to see the hammam’s vaulted dome. This simple story exemplifies a trend. In the course of Turkey’s wars of independence and the transition from the decline of the Ottoman Empire to the birth of the Turkish republic, not only did the names of the streets change in the historical neighborhood of Pangaltı, but with them everything else eventually faded from view.
When artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, a native of Pangaltı, set eyes on the site of the hammam in 2013 to attempt to visualize what has been completely erased, it wasn’t just that there were no instructions or legal documents to help make sense of what the building might have looked like or contained, but there was also no site to excavate. Is it possible to reconstruct something out of nothing? At PiST/// Interdisciplinary Project Space, down the street from the physical site of the hammam, Büyüktaşçıyan recreated the bath house in a peculiar way. It wasn’t an architectural site as much as it was a mental space, and therefore, a function of the imagination coextensive with the uncertainties of deep memory. Without measures or dimensions, the final result was a space of intimacy that, through movements and smells, restaged the hammam as a social space, and therefore, as a site that has to be navigated by the body. In this project of speculative archaeology, aptly titled In Situ (2013), the artist proposed the tentative question: How can one reconstruct something in such a way that putting it into position becomes a way to invent, to create, to start, to found?
What is the difference between finding and founding? Or, how is something found if it was never founded? In Situ, Büyüktaşçıyan’s deceptively simple installation, consisting entirely of soap, became a treasure map for something not locatable except through empathy and sensorial experience, while at the same time, infinitely divisible and movable. Digging out the absent history of Armenians and Greeks in Istanbul, Büyüktaşçıyan is not presenting a finished archaeological site where all the elements have been found, excavated, interpreted, and placed in the specificity of a temporal framework, but rather, she is addressing the methodological impossibility of continuity in history by the absence of references. At the narrative limit of the artifact—the minimal unit of concrete meaning in archaeology—the task is not to found the wholeness of a site without putting an emphasis on the singularity of the object, but instead is to focus on the most general qualities of spatiality and recognize the human function of spaces: a network of both active and passive symbols that, in their totality, overcome the whatness of the earthly object. These symbols found reality as a field of inter-subjective recognition.
Little did Büyüktaşçıyan know that during the course of her exhibition, in the late spring of 2013, a sudden turn of events in Istanbul would lead her—and the entire city—to reconsider the physical and social fabric of the city due to another cycle of interruptions that would draw new internal borders inside the already convoluted topography of the city. Protests in the nearby Gezi Park, a 15-minute walk from Pangaltı, escalated into a nation-wide movement and became the first serious crisis of authority in post-dictatorship Turkey. When these protests met with a violent response, a thought process similar to that of In Situ became a political reality: makeshift barricades against police violence were erected throughout the country with the raw materials of the urban fabric itself, unleashing new historical disjunctives, that, to this day, remain open-ended and have transformed the country’s political arena into a viscous territory of uncertainty. How do repressed streams of thought foam up to the surface and produce a misrecognition between history and subject?
Resistance to a master narrative is an act of political foundation in the form of a pendulum: the void left by a crisis of authority can trail-blaze in any direction, and is often fraught with manifold risks subject to the contingencies of new political cosmologies with different simultaneous starting points and destinations. This primeval void, abysmal and unbound, resembles the surging deep water of the Biblical narrative of creation; it is a world pregnant with possibility but as yet suspended, dangerous, precarious and unpredictable. Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, the dedicated surveyor of Istanbul’s unreadable palimpsest, is no stranger to metaphors of water: they have dampened the pillars of her work since the very beginning. For Büyüktaşçıyan, discovering streams of water, real and imagined, subterranean and surface, carrying histories and the abeyance thereof, has been a platform for researching transmission, mediation and movement, but also destruction, disappearance and loss. As the two parts of Istanbul lie in different continents separated by enormous bodies of water, Büyüktaşçıyan’s practice is beset by the necessity to translate the anxiety of sea-faring to the drier land of memory.
She is now a resident of Heybeliada, one of the Istanbul’s Prince Islands, some 30 km from the mainland. Orthodox Christianity survived here for hundreds of years after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, and in modern times Heybeliada is also a site of displacement and population exchange. Büyüktaşçıyan travels back and forth between territories that are historical, cultural, mythical, and theological. Her 2014 exhibition The Land Across the Blind merges the journey of Byzas of Megara—a mythological character credited with the foundation of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) in 667 BC when he sailed across the Aegean Sea—with the history of the islands as places of exile where political dissidents were blinded with iron rods and thrown into monasteries for the rest of their lives, and the contemporary anxieties of a city in the eye of the storm. Istanbul sits on a tectonic fault line that has destroyed the city several times in its history, and it is also now the site of a bitter internal conflict between modernization, restoration, and more recently, the intermediate station in a dangerous journey of migration that has seen millions displaced from the ongoing and interminable war in Syria.
Büyüktaşçıyan’s Dock (2014), set on an old found wooden table doubling as a base, resembles the small docks on the islands, from which travelers make the daily journey between the Prince Islands and the mainland, but it is a dock on which it is not possible to stand. The eerily moving planks reproduce a condition of instability: the journey of Byzas through the Aegean, the impossibility of finding safety on the land today, the perilous journeys of migrants through the ages, life in a collapsing polity during moments of transition, or the constant sense of interruption between the logic of self and story in the shifting emotional landscapes of Istanbul, never at rest. As the work was being shown in 2015 at one of the city’s iconic institutions, Turkish nationalists marched in the direction of a ceremony commemorating the centennial of the Armenian genocide. It was a bitter reminder of the many violent chapters of Turkish history that have been repressed and erased, not only from buildings and national monuments, but also from the memory and imagination of the present day. Büyüktaşçıyan’s reference to contact with the water is a way to leave these gaps open, and to make them visible.
Aquatic memory, as Turkish curator Başak Şenova phrased it, is a pivotal mechanism in Büyüktaşçıyan’s work to let cultural artifacts and specific moments in time not only appear, but also occupy a surface. This surface, however, is not yet an absolute space; its contours are not defined and its mass and volume are not subject to the shape of the container. In this manner, the residual materials of history become invasive and consolidate without solidifying. There are always questions. There are always doubts. There are always new possibilities for memory to appear in unexpected places, to pour over empty rooms and penetrate the walls in between chambers, to turn narratives from fact to a porous truth that spills on itself. Solid structures become dissolved through minor gestures, in particular drawing, affecting their gravity and stability and become floating monads in a conceptual ecosystem where there is no possible closure, not even in symmetrical forms. Finitude and infinity are presented, not as a dichotomy, but as parallel systems of meaning. Familiar objects—photographs, buildings, bridges, balconies—implode and become complex synthetic propositions.
In 2014, when Büyüktaşçıyan traveled to Jerusalem to participate in the Jerusalem Show VII, curated by Şenova, she discovered the Patriarch’s Pool, also known as Hezekiah’s Pool, in the middle of the Old City—one of the most politically contested territories in the world—an abandoned area which used to hold the city’s water supply, part of a complex system of water sewages, cisterns and tunnels dating back to the classical world. In the course of Büyüktaşçıyan’s research, she came across the 19th century book The Recovery of Jerusalem written by British archaeologists Sir Charles William Wilson and Sir Charles Warren, with extensive source material on the aqueducts of Jerusalem. From there the large installation The Recovery of an Early Water (2014) was born, questioning the way in which water can carry and reveal, but also obscure. From a political point of view, the artist’s access to the site which has been barred to the local population by the Israeli authorities, reinserted a void, a space which is neither public nor private, into the public domain. From its abeyance, the site of the Patriarch’s Pool resurfaced temporarily from the maneuvers of the Israeli occupation.
How does one reactivate a dormant space? Büyüktaşçıyan performed a similar task during the 14th Istanbul Biennial in 2015, when she took over the reading room at the Galata Greek Primary School, one of the schools of Istanbul’s Greek community, now no longer in operation. Here she displayed an archive of books and memorabilia from the original students of the school before the Greek exodus, alongside her piece From the Island of the Day Before (2015) that consisted of 668 covered notebooks, the exact number of original students, and a number of drawings of islands, both real and imagined. But the true effect came with the reading series Islands Speaking that extended throughout the biennial and brought a number of speakers to discuss “islandness” as a metaphor—for the self, for colonialism, for political violence, for poetry, for translation. An aural aspect to the extended gesture was introduced: the acoustic articulation of the Greek language inside the room, bringing back to life traces of something which had been thought extinguished from Istanbul, enabled the concreteness of live speech to penetrate not only psychic but also physical space.
Back at the Patriarch’s Pool in Jerusalem, Büyüktaşçıyan was faced with the challenge of how to bring the water back to the pool. During the journey to Jerusalem, she looked into fabrics used in construction sites throughout the city and the type of semi-transparent materials that hung from above crates, which she later incorporated into the installation as a kind of double entendre: we are either sheltered by the tent of the sky or swallowed by the abyss of water, of time, or of oblivion. Are the waters above or below? The artist’s research seems to suggest an ambiguous answer. When we operate in territories so fragmented, it’s difficult to discern what history is and whether it isn’t a rather reactionary gesture to insist on memory as such omnipresence. Nevertheless, historical reconstruction flows within a horizon of the future, grounding the present through symbols of continuity, linking up change and upheaval of the here and now, not as interruptions or mutations, but as the completion of earlier cycles that have been abetted. Since that point onwards, imagining bodies of water, suspended and in motion, has become codified in Büyüktaşçıyan’s work as a mechanism to both interpret and challenge discontinuities.
In her second artist book, Ayp, Pen, Kim (a reference to the first three letters of the Armenian alphabet), published for the occasion of her participation in the Armenian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Büyüktaşçıyan draws, in borrowed images and words, a vivid picture of her relationship to the Armenian language as a Greek-Armenian living in Istanbul, a territory which is considered by both communities somehow void, or whose place in the hierarchy of meaning has been eroded. In the book she recounts her arrival as a child to the Pangaltı Mkhitaryan School, founded by the Mekhitarist monastic order (a congregation of Benedictine monks of the Armenian Catholic Church) in 1825 and through turbulence and extinction, serving the Armenians of Istanbul. The relationship between Hera Büyüktaşçıyan and the 18th century monk Mkhitar of Sebaste, would not be limited to her school years. While conducting research in Venice, and walking around vaporetto stations, she came across the notice for San Lazzaro Island, where the Mekhitarist order was founded, and she began a new journey between Istanbul and San Lazzaro.
The island, a crucial point in the transmission of the Armenian language, became a reference in Büyüktaşçıyan’s archipelago of unfinished structures. Being a “mnatsort,”—the remnant of something that has been lost or that has disappeared—as a monk in San Lazzaro pointed out to her, is a direct reference to the Armenian genocide, and calls on her to occupy different temporal frameworks simultaneously.
Büyüktaşçıyan often recalls correcting people when they interrogate her on her life as an Armenian in the “diaspora” or “exile.” She insists that being an Armenian in Istanbul is not the diaspora, but is the very center of Armenian life. Her works from Venice, shown at a library San Lazzaro where Lord Byron had once learnt the Armenian language, Letters from Lost Paradise (2015) and The Keepers (2015), are informed by the poet’s work and life, and his role in the liberation of Greece. As a transnational community, it would be difficult to conceive of this multilayered reflection on Armenian life as an ode to nationalism, yet Büyüktaşçıyan is certainly informed by the politics of Romanticism.
So many different types of islands: Heybeliada and the Prince Islands in Istanbul, and inside Istanbul the mysterious island of the Mkhitaryan in the center of a triangle between the neighborhoods of Osmanbey, Pangaltı and Nişantaşı. Then there is the island of San Lazzaro in Venice with its centuries-long Armenian print and library, or islands inside islands: The monastery of Halki, at the top of Heybeliada, with its theological school closed by the Turkish government in 1971. Then there are the less obvious islands: microcosms of urban violence and gentrification, the unstoppable waves of migration that do not reach their destination island, or the disappearance of minority languages and publications in Istanbul under the weight of Turkification. “There is no world, there are only islands”, writes Jacques Derrida, making reference to the difficulties of intersubjectivity and human communication, so that we have lost the world as a common space in which we hear one another. However specters remain, we still vaguely recognize the shadows of the “other” trying to address us from an audible faraway.
This aspect of inhabiting the world spectrally is present in the characters, mythological and otherwise, who inhabit Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s realms of thought and imagination. They are perhaps lost on the Cartesian plane of tangible geography, but they simultaneously occupy other places. Speaking from island to island, digging out what is buried deep below the streams of visible water, they return to the world not as a site of redemption but of endless foundation. Their suspension then becomes the active site of a master narrative that writes out the world from underneath and surfaces up only fragmentarily through leakage and contradiction. In her most recent intervention—When things find their own cleft (2016), at the Alt space in the restored Bomonti beer factory in Istanbul, in close geographical proximity to the psychic space of the Pangaltı hamam—Büyüktaşçıyan creates a tear through a newly built wall, out of which a stream of red bricks flows from the past and interrupts the seamless flow of the exhibition space, revealing hidden histories of erasure and displacement, trapped in between the mute walls of the new city. This discreet leak, quietly pouring over the new structure, becomes an ineffable territory of resistance, always fluid, always in movement, always pointing elsewhere.