Everything is Awesome


Great Time in the Age of Mega-Materialism and Optic-Opium

A few thoughts about the current work of Arda Yalkın

-Marcus Graf

We live in a time of hyper-aesthetics, where everything becomes an image in the infinite loop of our omnipresent visual culture. An unprecedented mass of digital pictures promotes today’s philosophy of plethora as ultimate believe in mega-materialism. There, everything gets consumed in order to feel pleasure, and – at least for the blink of an eye – experience some happiness. A wild capitalism permanently feeds us with a visual propaganda that promotes the greatness of greed. Though, in spite of its picturesque morphine and optic-opium that aims at putting us to sleep for dreaming an illusionary world, we should be able to understand the actual goals behind the shiny shells of media surfaces. Already Dadaism, Pop Art, as well as artists like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke or Wolf Vostell revealed the false promises and vicious artificiality of media images. Today, a critical understanding of mass media commonly prevails in contemporary art. Especially artists, who are dealing with socio-political issues, often question the state of our society through the analytical review of its visual culture.

So, nobody today can claim, that we were not warned!

Arda Yalkın’s oeuvre can be seen within the circle of artists, who simultaneously review our first and second realities in order to critically comment on our world and its images. Formally, he works with a variety of techniques, media and digital devices including photography, drawing, 2D and 3D animations, stop-motion, sounds, live video performances, and interactive media. Conceptually, he is mainly interested in issues like power-people conflicts, consumer society, assimilation, war, politics, or religion. In his oeuvre, pressing issues that are fundamental for our society get melted into an artistic media study, where he analyses the power, methods and intelligence of commercial ads, mainstream movies and mass media. Yalkın believes that the capital and political power apply refined and well crafted communication techniques to exploit the people. Through his own artistic alienations and distortions, as well as reverse engineering, and sarcastic provocation, he aims at revealing their methods and hypocrisy.

In his current solo-show at Gaia Gallery entitled Everything is Awesome, Arda Yalkın presents a rather dark vision of our world, where an absurd visual pornography feeds the middle-class’ need for voyeurism and the hunger for popular icons. The complex and extensive show consists of the multi-channel video installations The Circle Jerk, and Rorschach Project, the digital print series St. Celebrity, Gymferno, and Look Mum, I’m Grown Up, as well as one Altar piece consisting of eight parts.

In this introductory text, I will touch upon all series, but focus mainly on St. Celebrity, as it can be understood as a great bridge between the previous works and the current ones. This series reveals new formal qualities that I believe characterize the current state of his oeuvre very well. Also, an equal review of all series would exceed the adequate length of a catalogue text.

St. Celebrity and Gymferno are series that the artist has started in 2014. Although their content and conceptual frameworks remain mainly the same, the formal structure and aesthetic have changed evidently. In St. Celebrity, still, the idea of creating contemporary icons characterizes the conceptual core of the pieces. That is why single figures are depicted right in the centre of each piece showing the usual gestures of saints. Though, a strange and uncanny atmosphere surrounds them as nothing is as it appears on the first look. Instead a head, an exotic bird sits on the neck of each protagonist. No head, no brain, no mind is given to reflect and think about the disastrous state of the world they live in. No eyes exist to see, and no mouth is there to communicate, and speak up. Instead, a fancy and beautiful but also weird and awkward looking exotic bird is sitting on the neck of the figure. We see that even after being beheaded, beauty, posture and gesture must be preserved in order to keep up the given order and follow the usual program. No matter how strange it looks, and no matter how difficult it is, the image must not vanish. This issues of voyeurism, being exposed to a camera, and the act of posing for the perfect image of the self – just like in a Selfie – are fundamental for the conceptual base of this series.

The naked bodies of the figures have holes, in which mechanical structures are visible. So, no humans but robots imitate gestures that once had religious meaning. Also instead of holy books, fashion magazines can be found in the hand of the false robotic angels. In a world of social disasters and spiritual corruptions, fashion magazine seem to be the accurate sources for the inspiration and guideline of the soul.

Normally, in traditional icon paintings, the protagonist is set onto a monochrome background. Often covered with real gold, it does not refer to any known place in this world, as the figure is linked to heaven. A minimal aesthetic of the sublime shall lift up the spirit of the observer in order to find peace and trust in the image of a holy men or woman. Nothing disturbs the focus on the figure in a classic icon. That is why they appear as still, peaceful and timeless. Arda Yalkın’s icons follow quite an oppositional strategy. The background is a collage of urban and industrial places in Turkey, Syria, or Palestine. Locations of various crises, wars and destructions build the base on which the figure stands. Bits of plants and flowers frame it in order to create a feeling of deepness. Though, real genuineness never occurs due to the artificiality of the whole composition and its various interlinked parts. Not even the bright light, which frames the figures’ bird-head, can cause any real and honest spirituality. Yes, it shines, and the gloriole-like structure is full of energy. Though, it is only an electrical sign that lightens up. Not a holy symbol, but a neon-light-structure is used to mark holiness. Just like in commercial advertisement, the glamour catches the attention of the spectator, but instead of insight or knowledge, only provides superficial sensation.

The main formal difference between the current and the past works of St. Celebrity lies in its idea and application of multidimensionality. In 2014, the pieces consisted of various parts and layers, which were glued onto a printed background. Like a relief or assemblage the works had many physical layers, which all ended with the painted glass front of the frame. So physically, at least three real main layers existed. Now, they digitally and virtually created, and later printed on one sheet of paper, so that the physical three-dimensionality vanished. This gives the pieces a stronger digital character. Aesthetically, a synthesis of digital and painterly character prevailed in the previous series. Now, the lack of hand painted forms causes a stronger digital aesthetic. The use of Instagram-filters and digital effects like e.g. 3D-modeling, support this appearance, and serves his conceptual criticism very well.

Also, the previous works were more fragmental, as they were characterized by a complex pixel-aesthetic. Each work consisted of thousands of small images, which formed a coherent but kaleidoscope-like composition. Now, only around twenty to fifty images are used, so that the current pieces appear calmer and simpler than before. I consider this step a logic result of his ongoing artistic search for forms, techniques, and aesthetics that accurately express the critical concepts his oeuvre is dealing with. 

Gymferno is characterized by cynicism and irony, as the dark topic of crucifixion gets translocated into the context of everyday-routines like grocery shopping or fitness. Again, in front of dystopic sceneries, single figures are exposed. This time though, not the act of blessing is represented but the cruel torture of a death sentence. For more than 2.000 years, murders were crucified. Though, since the crucifixion of Jesus, the cross gained a mystic and religious meaning. As Yalkın puts man in the same position as Jesus, he forms an allegory, in which our everyday struggle to survive is transferred into the context of believe and spirituality. In the end, the series shows that we have a chance to stay alive in spite of exterior forces and mental breakdowns.

Whereas, St. Celebrity and Gymnferno only feature one figure, Look Mum, I’m Grown Up shows a group of people being arranged like in a classic family portrait. Here, the artist discusses family values, and the possibility to keep them up today. In the age of absolute individualization, where family ties loosen and single households prevail, the poses and gestures seems out of date and anachronistic. Whereas the figure in St. Celebrity and Gymnferno are presented in a close-up manner, the works of Look Mum, I’m Grown up, the figure groups are depicted from a distance, and are set in a wide landscape format. While the world in their back falls apart from catastrophes and disasters, the family looks straight to the front, concentrating on the camera that records this valuable moment for the private memorial. If they had eyes, they could notice the approaching apocalypse. If they had a normal mind, they could grasp the danger, and act accordingly. Though, again, instead of a human head, birds sit on their necks. Beautiful they are, but at the same time doomed to be extinguished.

As you can see, the show is dark, as it reveals the loss of faith and hope in any eternal or metaphysical power. The Altar in the show continues the criticism of the previous series. Consisting of three parts, the piece tells the story of life, death and afterlife. Though, the paradise is just as false and fake as the world they live in. Arda Yalkın got the idea and inspiration for creating a contemporary altar work while he extensively visited the Louvre Museum in Paris. There, he was impressed by the visual power of altar pieces of the Renaissance and Baroque. The ability to present complex contents in a multiple order of images characterizes every altar. The form of the triptych gives the artist the chance to tell various stories at once. Often the images are interrelated, so that a narration occurs between them. That is why these works can tell stories quite accurate, as they are able to represent different times and places at once. A bit like in a movie, the altar can carry the mind of the spectator through time and space. This feature, of course, is of great value for Yalkın’s work, as he loves to show various sides of a story. The multidimensionality of his conceptual and formal approach fits perfectly to the complex syntax of the altar.

In the two video installations at his solo show, a fragmental character is obvious. Just like in an altar, he uses multiple screens and channels for giving the spectator a pluralist experience of time, space and sound, communicated and represented by video.

The Circle Jerk is a 7 channel video installation, and deals with the inner and exterior realities of people. Staged within the context of a job interview, the spectator watches five people sitting around a table and having the usual dialogues between employer and employee. Each person occupies a single screen. On the last two screens though, their thoughts, feelings, and dreams can be seen. Here, a surreal and strange aesthetic, in which fiction and reality melt into a complex collage of images, build a counterpart against the rational dialogues. Using a fragmental form of narration, the piece underlines the paradox of living in two realities, where constantly clashes between the inner and outer self exist.

The five-channel video Rorschach Project deals with improvisation and chance as methods for artistic creation. It is questioning our perception of war images on the internet and in social media. Arda Yalkın first nearly randomly created a collage of around 2.000 images of war scenes disasters, and then alienated and abstracted them through the application of animation techniques. Afterwards, he invited four musicians to react spontaneously to the video. While seeing it for the first time, they recorded voices and sounds in real time. In the end, Yalkın merged them into one soundtrack. So, an interaction of spontaneous musical expressions formed the sound-texture for Arda Yalkın’s conceptual and visual framework. The result is surprisingly coherent, as a harmony between the musicians is given. It seems as if the various sound-streams had been recorded by one band. So, the video-collage posses a certain visuality that was perceived by the musicians in a similar way.

This work has two dimensions: The first is about the coherence between sound and visuals. The second, and more important one, relates to the conceptual framework and the game rules that Yalkın has set up. Due to the discussion of the notion of artistic creation, and the review of the interconnections between rationalism and subjectivism, as well as plan and improvisation, Rorschach Project means more than just an interdisciplinary experiment. 

In the end Everything is Awesome reflects very well the current state of Arda Yalkın’s oeuvre by exposing its formal and conceptual progresses. The show proves that the artist has refined his technical skills and sharpened his conceptual criticism, where a deconstruction of our world through a reflective media review is still prevailing. The stronger digital aesthetic allows him to draw complex connections to the everyday experience of our natural and media realities. The strength of his work lays in the combination of realism and fictions, as well as utopia and dystopia. Due to their brutal candor, it sometimes may seem difficult to stand the works, and face their harsh criticism. Though, how else should an artist act, who is engaged and interested in the current world?

And by the way; who would ever say that reality is easy to grasp and comfortable to live with?!