Vahap Avsar

New York

Vahap Avsar: NONEISAFE (2008): Police car, debris. Dimension variable. Images courtesy Charles Bank Gallery, New York.Vahap Avsar: NONEISAFE (2008): Police car, debris. Dimension variable. Images courtesy Charles Bank Gallery, New York.

By Bill Clarke

Vahap Avsar
Charles Bank Gallery
To July 10, 2011

Although the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. is approaching, it can be easy for those living outside of New York City to forget the horrors of that day. Unlike New Yorkers, we don’t live with the physical reminder still present in the cityscape around the World Trade Center site. An exhibition like Vahap Avsar’s Noneissafe serves as a reminder that complacency is a dangerous thing. Throughout the exhibition, the artist examines censorship, the results of authoritarianism, and the current state of the world politically.

Vahap Avsar: Ipdal 1 (2010): C-print, 61 x 47 inches.Vahap Avsar: Ipdal 1 (2010): C-print, 61 x 47 inches.Avsar was born in Turkey, but has been living in New York since 1995. Upon entering the gallery, viewers see a suite of photo-based images from his “Ipdal” series (2010), which picture models portraying a Turkish soldier and a young woman - presumably his girlfriend or wife - in a variety of bucolic settings. She is dressed in fashionable (for the 1970s and early-80s) street clothes, and he is in military dress. They hold hands, he offers her a flower, and she rarely meets his gaze, staring off dreamily into the middle-distance instead. There is nothing particularly provocative about the images; they possess all the sexual tension of an episode of Ozzie and Harriet. And yet, the images are defaced by large red X’s and marked with the word ipdal, which means “cancelled” in Turkish. Avsar saved these postcards from disposal at a printer’s shop. The censoring of the images was carried out by Turkey’s military regime at the time. It is hard to comprehend why the censors deemed such innocuous images unsuitable for circulation, but they convey the sense that those in authority had very narrow views of acceptable social behaviours.

Opposite these is a wall sculpture that reads In God We Trust and two large canvases from the artist’s “Explosions” series. The patriotism conveyed by the phrase In God We Trust in the U.S. is undermined by the paintings close by. While it is fine to put one’s faith in a higher power, the artist seems to be warning us that faith alone isn’t enough. The sources of the paintings aren’t obvious (though one is titled “W.T.C.”). Their palettes of soft pinks, oranges, greys and clear blues seem to run counter to the subject matter. Perhaps, this is intentional. Rather than conveying the terror of such situations, the paintings emphasize the sense of dream-like unreality that surrounds such moments.

Vahap Avsar: Tekmil (2010): Video.Vahap Avsar: Tekmil (2010): Video.The rear gallery contains a sculpture of a burnt-out NYPD police car, which the artist purchased for $800 from a scrap yard. This is probably the most difficult element in the exhibition to process. Although the piece is positioned as a representation of the systems that protect us under attack, it is also hard not to look at the police car and be reminded of how we also turn on those systems when we think they are overstepping their authority. (For example, I was reminded of the police cars torched by protesters during the G20 summit last year in Toronto, and the subsequent allegations of unnecessary force levelled against the Toronto police department.) Regardless, the image of a burnt-out police car surrounded by detritus in a pristine white gallery setting is, pardon the pun, arresting.

The exhibition concludes with a riveting video in the gallery’s basement, “Tekmil”, which was inspired by the artist recently completing his compulsory Turkish military service at the age of 45 in order to travel freely in that country. Avsar apparently failed repeatedly an exercise in which soldiers are barraged with a series of technical questions about firearms, their components and use. Several months after finally passing, the artist convinced the soldier who was his drill sergeant to switch roles for the video, with the artist asking the questions in a soft, lackadaisical way. (One suspects this is not how Avsar would have originally been asked the questions.) The officer responds in a loud, staccato voice, his face sweating from the exertion. The video provides a look inside a military institution’s approaches to forming identity, exerting its control and fostering discipline on individuals. It is somewhat alarming to watch; however, never do we get the impression that Avsar wants us to leave the gallery in a state of debilitating paranoia. If we leave feeling a little bit anxious, though, that might not be such a bad thing.