A dialogue between Didem Ozbek, Donatella Saroli and Fusun Akbaygil introducing the short story A watermelon stand by Sait Faik Abasiyanik
This dialogue stems from a short story handed over to me as a gift by Turkish artist Didem Ozbek during the conversations leading up to the exhibition Istanbul. Passion, Joy, Fury. In turn I handed it over, as a gift, to Fϋsun Akbaygil Fallavollita, a Turkish artist herself who for many years has made Italy her home. I’m not sure gift is the right word to use when sharing stories. I do know it is the term used when a professional storyteller allows someone else to tell a story from their personal archive. The handing over of such stories open fresh paths in the recipients.
This is how it felt when Didem brought up Bir Karpuz Sergisi (The Watermelon Exhibition), one of the many short stories that Turkish novelist and poet, Sait Faik Abasıyanık (1906-1954), wrote on the communities he knew best – labourers, fishermen, children, the unemployed, and the poor – in Istanbul and on the seaside resort of in Burgazada, one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea, where he spent a lot of his time.
During those conversations Didem spoke of a hot summer, of the shade found in the mosque’s courtyards, of the tradition of swimming in the Bosphorus – a luxury allowed to men only – of the unusual friendship between a beggar and a philanthropist. She explained the burning desire of the former to open a kiosk that would showcase all varieties of watermelons and of the good disposition of the latter to financially support such a dream.
I got the gist that The watermelons Exhibition offered an insight into the Turkish society at a time when the tradition of the Ottoman Empire and the push toward modernity imparted to the country by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, were in negotiations. The watermelons Exhibition acts as a pivot for Didem’s research on her status as an independent artist along with her creative process. Didem also reads the relationship between the two protagonists as a reflection of the art world. It resonates with the network of relationships that rise with the search for funding and from the awareness that to operate independently means creating relationships.
At the heart of Didem’s reflection on independency there is an understanding that independency actively includes dependency, ie entering into relationships. «We can not do anything alone. There is never independence without addiction, but it is part of a network of relationships».
It is thanks to the translation from Turkish into Italian that Fϋsun so carefully and lovingly wrote that we are finally able to follow the two protagonists while they discuss on the best display of watermelons while getting a glimpse of Turkey in 1936 without losing sight of our present time.
D.S.: What role does The Watermelon Exhibition play for you?
D. O.: The Watermelon Exhibition as a project in process aims to question the presence of an artist; how s/he positions herself/himself during the creation, production, exhibition and sales processes of an artwork, and the professional relationships s/he needs to build, through the reconstruction of Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s story. So rather than independency by its own, I deal with the dependencies that an artist needs to create to claim her independence.
D. S.: Many of your projects start by looking up in the dictionary different meanings of words and when they were first introduced in the Turkish language. Stemming from this process are reflections on the role of art in society, on the social and political changes and on the paths that words open us.
In 2012, looking up for the term “exhibition” in the Turkish dictionary you found that “sergisi” referred both to the way products are shown for sale, on kiosks – fruit, vegetables – as well as to art exhibitions. In dictionaries the different meaning of words follows a ranking based on the relevance in society of that word. For the time being, exposition of vegetable and fruit is in pole position compared to art exposition. Will it change?
D. O.: This is how I discovered Sait Faik’s short story. In Turkey fruit and vegetables are typically displayed in piles, in the shape of mountains and transformed in real installations (Similarly to the way watermelons are installed in Italy during the summer. Editor’s note). Reading further in the dictionary entry I noticed that in order to explain the meaning of exhibition and the first time it had been used referred to the display of products, a quote from Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s short story was reported. «He wanted to work. It was summer. He was making plans to open a watermelon stall. He dreamt of watermelons of the highest quality…». I suddenly got curious since I had found two threads: “exhibition” and “project” (plans in this English translation). As you know the independent space that Osman and I opened in 2006 is called PiST /// Interdisciplinary Project Space1.
I ran to the bookstore and I saw that the short story had been published in May 20 1936 in a magazine called Kurun. I ran to the public library and I ended up with the official newspaper. Sait Faik was alive at the time of Atatürk. Back in 1936, writers had a really strong connection with the Istanbul art scene. Sculptors, painters, filmmakers socialized together. Back then there was also a strong tradition of “watermelon painters”. It is true that during the Ottoman Empire people had started having their portraits done yet, to comply with Islamic laws, it was safer to stick to still life subjects and, among them, watermelons. I feel Sait Faik Abasıyanık is ironically referring to a certain kind of “safe territory” for painters while criticizing the production process of artists. As I said the short story appeared on Wednesday and on the Sunday supplement a critical essay on art and artists by Sait was published. He mentions Freud and then goes on commenting that artists – and in this category writers are included too – don’t express themselves directly but rather indirectly. Sait indirectly talks about the life of people surrounding him. Through his plain Turkish language you clearly visualize the atmosphere and the characters. He is an incredibly acute observer and that is why he is such a good writer.
D. S.: The first few paragraphs are tinged with strong sexual notes. The philanthropist is seduced by the encounter with the beggar. A dreamlike atmosphere permeates the entire short story but there is also a strong “financial” element: precision, handling of money, lists of products ecc. Furthermore, you get the feeling the philanthropist deeply needs being part of the creative project more than the beggar does. Funding and desire are intertwined. Who needs the dream more, the beggar or the philanthropist?
D. O.: In one of the talk-marathons I organized at SALT in Istanbul, I invited Ali Akai who is a professor of sociology, a curator from Istanbul and a francophone. For him The Watermelon Exhibition is a love story where the philanthropist is more in love than the beggar is – at a certain point the latter disappears and seems more concerned about finding someone to run the kiosk.
For me it is interesting to see the philanthropist as a gallerist, a curator, a collector. Therefore, artists these days must have relationships with all these entities.
D.S.: Relationships in which desire is central. Who is the young boy?
D. O.: He is in charge of sales in galleries. Very trendy dressed, sleek, confident. Or possibly a young curator. More concerned about the next step in his/her career, a few years ahead, rather than where and what he/she is doing right now. This type of person is very successful in any profession.
D. S.: Didem is a digger. She finds a thread and follows it. On her way stories, artifacts are found and created. It is a tough job to be the one who digs. That original act of looking up the word “exhibition” led her to discover the May 20th 1936 issue of the newspaper where she found articles that caught her attention. In turn that took her to develop a first step of a larger project – yet to be realized due to lack of funding – at SALT in 20122. That was the starting point for her radio program – 3 years later. With the radio program she “digs” into the newspaper Kurun and discusses a variety of topics creating a limitless network of connections with the people she invites in the program.
D. O.: Radio works pretty well. In 1936, at the time in which Sait wrote his short story, radio was the top technology in mass communication. And I believe that waves travels back to 1936. I consider the radio program as the visual transcription of the short story. It’s a verbal exhibition. By focusing on my work on radio I have new ideas for my artwork.
D. S.: Sports, art, independency and watermelons. Didem has the extraordinary ability to open up one Chinese box after another. She refers to this way of operating, thinking, researching as a way of making connections and it is totally intertwined with her reading of “independency”: everything is in fact deeply connected.
D. O.: After Gezi, in 2013, Osman and I decided to suspend the international residency program to focus on our work. After many years I wanted to have time to swim. I had to train. In that period my main concern was swimming and not art. Yet, in the back of my mind, I knew I was processing all this. I also knew I would end with a project related to the locations and situations I was experiencing through that specific training.
Eventually I went back to the short story and I was reminded of what I was going through with my artwork and the difficulty of finding sponsors, but it also felt familiar since I was training for the continental swimming competition. In The Watermelon Exhibition the characters take a swim in the Bosphorus whenever they have time or when the conversation becomes awkward. At the time of Sait’s story, during the summer, men often went swimming in the Bosphorus, to relax. Today, in Turkish society, the fact that women swim in public is a very charged action. I realized the reason I was swimming had to do with relaxing and getting out of the stress of the art scene.
D.S.: A competitive art scene?
D. O.: When you get into sports you find the same competitive reality. But you also find something different. In the “public space” where I hang out, near the Bosphorus there are old men and women – in Turkey you can rarely see them but in the city center women feel more confident to swim3. At the beginning I thought I was afraid of two things: the jellyfish – the sea is very dirty – and the currents. Currents are very strong; good swimmers say that if you don’t know how to swim against the current you cannot end the race. So I thought I should really experience all this before the race. As an artist I’m really interested in public space and I decided to be part of it and create a project. To survive an environment made of concrete pavement and two ladders to get into the water, with no toilet, changing cabinet or restaurant you really need to be very creative. Similarly to what I did at SALT I came up with certain issues and invited people to discuss them in that public space. The Ministry didn’t allow me to carry out such a project. It was more an issue of bureaucracy. How does bureaucracy deal with art? As an independent artist I really get into this bureaucracy by writing petitions: can I use the public space?
D.S.: What followed then?
D. O.: I turned back to the project we had done for the Tate Modern in 2010 Independent vs. Dependent? I realized that I had spent my parents’ money for my projects even for the ones we conceived through PiST. So when I claim that I’m independent I’m really dependent on my parents or on a funding system. Therefore, if I don’t have a support structure I shouldn’t carry out the project. I spent the whole summer in that part of the Bosphorus and I filmed the video works Lodos and Public Space, that were showed at MAXXI; and on that concrete pavement I made many contacts4.
D. S.: What does “Independent” mean for you?
D. O.: From the very beginning I really think we are all dependent. We cannot do anything by your own. There is never independence without dependence. You are never totally independent. You are part of a network of relationships.
Although PiST is generally associated to an independent art space, it is dependent on external support to sustain its ongoing activities.
D. S.: Does this term still work for you or should we find a new term that isn’t charged with the illusion that you may really be independent?
D. O.: Yes, it still works for me. I know immediately what it means.
D. S.: What do we all recognize when we referring to “independent artist” or “independent curator?”
D. O.: Independent space is more about who makes the decision. Recently we received an email saying that an artist was supposed to make a new exhibition and she considered PiST as a closed space. Which is not. In the last few years we haven’t organized any official thing but PiST is open. It doesn’t mean that tomorrow I’m not going to do anything. Independency allows us to do whatever we want. I don’t need to rush, unlike a consolidated museum, to have a regular program. I can have an irregular calendar. Maybe three years is my regular calendar. Maybe every three years I open something. Independency is the most important part of this.
My main problem is the financial problem. The best thing is to keep on swimming. I consider myself an “open-water swimmer”: you need to keep swimming when you are in open waters! It’s not like a safe pool condition. You have to know where to start and where to end.
A watermelon stand
(by Sait Faik Abasiyanik)
All of a sudden, he started to kiss my hands. His face went red. I could see just his small ears, also red, and his auburn hair, which had grey highlights on his nape. Immediately I felt different. I was a changed man. All my thoughts were disturbed. My ideas confused. In that moment, you could have got anything from me. In those few seconds when my hands were being kissed, if you’d asked me for a whole new world I would have had the strength to create it for you.
Meanwhile, his lips passed from the hairs on my hands to my nails. At a certain point, I even felt his blushing red cheek brush against my hand like the touch of a cloth. I left my hands, which were not used to being venerated like this, entirely to him. They were no longer mine. Even my mind relaxed into a static calm. My thoughts stopped. After some time, with the air of someone not used to being loved, I removed my hands from his cheeks.
“No,” I said. “Don’t worry, the money, the money I gave you, how important can it possibly be? Never mind, stop it, you’re embarrassing me.”
“It’s not because of the money, I swear, it’s not for the money. I swear on my religion. Believe me, it’s not for the money. I swear on my faith!”
We were in the courtyard of one of those mosques in Istanbul, full of silence and mystery, where the grass is freshly cut and the domes and the shadows cast on the lawns by the minarets stretch towards the nearby markets. It was about midday. When, on certain occasions, I got bored, when another personality found its way into my head, when I wanted to love and become closer to people, getting out of that hermetic solitude to better understand the existence of others, I always looked for melancholy corners. In that moment, under the colonnade of that mosque where little pigeons strolled back and forth, I reflected on the city, on its bridges, on its poor inhabitants, on its ships, which think about and call to each other, and I contemplated Istanbul.
I have never been alone in the courtyard of a mosque. Maybe I’ve always found people who feel the same as myself, lying under a cypress or plane tree, or in the shade of a cupola. I’ve met the man who I gave money to today before, always in the same place, once, and then again a week later, and then in spring and once again in summer. I reached the point of believing that, if one day I were to leave the city and only return several years later, I would still find him there under the same cypress tree, or in the shade of the same cupola.
We were very used to one another. He would lie on his back. His hands crossed behind his head, where his grey-highlighted hair fell. By day, as if he were stargazing, he looked thoughtfully at the sky. His head, like that of a Jew, was full of business schemes. Now he even had money in his pocket. He wanted to work. It was summer. He was making plans to open a watermelon stall. He dreamt of watermelons of the highest quality…
With the burning summer ahead of us, we dove into the cool and refreshing shade to design the new watermelon stand.
“Those from Tekirdag we’ll put at the bottom, in the back row. Reserved for those clients that never negotiate… In the first row we’ll put the dark enormous ones. They have thick skins and are always red inside. But they quickly become like rotten nuts. The melons from Vodina are the best. Their scent comes from inside rather than outside. Those with uneven grooves quickly become soft and squashed, we have to give them away immediately at any price.”
Suddenly, he panics:
“We absolutely have to take on a little helper. Without a helper we can’t move forward. We’ll find a young boy who’s on the ball, perhaps with very very black skin, vigilant enough that even the smallest noise wakes him, and able to tell if a watermelon is ripe with the slightest tap of his finger. The main jobs of the stall will be the responsibility of this young boy. Only thanks to him will we be able to enjoy the satisfaction of having done a good job, of having used beautiful words to convince customers, of having been patient and, at the end of the day, of finally being able to have a good smoke, singing quietly to ourselves.”
“No,” I say. “First we have to work without a helper. Having one would cost us.”
Again he cuts in:
“It won’t cost us,” he says. “I’ll divide my bread with him, what does it matter to you? Never mind, you’ll be the boss. You’ll get two shares and I’ll get one. That will be enough for me and the helper.”
“Okay – agreed.”
The next day, I find him again lost in thought, with his hands behind his head lying on his back under a cupola. He tells me that the helper will be ready tomorrow.
It’s an August day, so still that not even the leaves move. The air is very clear and warm, and it carries voices from far away, even those of the bathers on the shore of Kumkapi.
“Let’s go to Kumkapi,” I say. “We’ll take a dip in a corner there.”
“I’ve already been this morning,” he says. “If you want, you can go, bathe, and come back. I’ll wait for the boy.”
“And the money?” I asked.
“There’s no more?” he said.
“There’s the money you gave me,” he said. “That will be enough, with some to spare.”
I set off for Kumkapi. He turns to the right, still lying on his back. He closes his eyes.
As I’m slowly moving out of the shade of the minaret and towards the sun, he shouts after me:
“Hagi Bey! I’ll see you tomorrow morning at six thirty next to the Beyazit fountain.”
At around 10am I get to the Suleymaniye courtyard, and no one is there. All I can see is a man taking off his clothes and looking for something.
I thought it might be him, but it’s not. Towards the evening, in front of the portico of the mosque, I stand waiting for the meltem wind, in a state somewhere between sleeping and thinking. He appears – sweaty, freshly shaven, wearing a black vest.
“Why didn’t you come at six thirty?”
He drags me out of my half-sleep. By the time we get to the watermelon stand, my temples are throbbing from having walked so quickly in the sun, my body is weak; it’s been a while since I’ve sweated so much and it’s making me itchy. About forty watermelons are lined up on a dirty wicker mat. A strange little boy with very black hair is shouting in front of the watermelons:
“Only 25 kurus per kilo, 25 kurus per kilo!… How red! What, did you cut your hand, uncle!?… If I had the money I would eat it too!
A ray of sunshine settles on some of the watermelons, and it’s unclear where it comes from; from the beginning of the road a light meltem blows like a fan.
“Here,” he says, “our stand will be just like this.”
Slowly, slowly we go back up the steep hill we came down earlier. It’s evening now and we’re still thinking about the watermelon stand:
“Kirkagac is another variety of melon,” he says. “We’ll put them to one side. They fare well in winter. They don’t spoil or go soft. They freeze inside. You need to cut them next to the stove. Better yet, cut them after putting them briefly in some warm water. An endless flavour.”
Then it’s all over. He bullishly takes off his black vest, puts on his gentleman’s shirt, takes his jacket from the nail in the wood of the watermelon stall and puts it on his shoulders:
“Come on, let’s go!” he says, “let’s watch the ships from the bridge. That way, we’ll get a bit of air.”
1Didem Ozbek has her own artistic practice but in 2006 along with her husband, artist-photographer Osman Bozkurt, she conceived PiST/// Interdisciplinary Project Space, a non-profit, independent art space in Istanbul.
2SALT is a Turkish contemporary art institution. It was started by Vasif Kortun and Garanti Bank in 2011, and has exhibition and workshop spaces in Istanbul and Ankara. For Ozbek’s project there, in 2012, He was working on a project in order to open a watermelon exhibition she created a series of installations, performances and talks).
3Didem specifies that «the current government doesn’t approve of ordinary women showing up with a swimming suits in the pool or in the Bosphorus. In the swimming race today there are women who swim with their clothes on. This was unheard of in the past. Of course, the larger the suit is the less you are able to swim. These women are not able to pass the competition but they allowed in. Recently a newspaper reported that the Parliament is opening swimming pools but allowing men and women in in different days. Sunday families are allowed which means single women or men are not admitted».
4On May 2010, PiST/// had been invited by Tate Modern, along with more than 70 other international art spaces to participate in its No Soul For Sale. A Festival of Independents. The Tate provided a space – the Turbine Hall – minimum travel costs yet no support for the production. A good occasion to ponder on what it means to be an independent art space and to question the conditions of a relationship with a «transatlantic like Tate Modern». As Didem Ozbek explains, «The project had three aspects: a Performance Test with a sound component (the result of a collaboration with Stine Hebert, a Danish curator who was a resident in Istanbul back then), a multiple choice text that people filled in and handed over to us and a publication we called Independent vs. Dependent? fully equipped with a dictionary in two editions: English to English and Turkish to Turkish. The Turkish version starts with “alternative” and ends with “losing money/profit”. The English starts with “absolute” and ends with “zone”. None were translations of each other, but a summary of each dictionary that develops its content from the words independent and dependent. The Turkish dictionary had many missing words compared to the English dictionary. The understanding of being independent seems weaker in our society. […] Abroad there are funding systems. It was interesting that in Turkish “loosing money/profit” was the last word. As independent artist is not easy to make any profit because there is no support structure. The terminology or rhetoric supports the idea. It is the same with the term “exhibition”.