Monday, April 7, 2008

Interview: Kutlug Ataman

Kutlug Ataman has made a big stir with his video and film installations worldwide, from his native Istanbul to the international art-world schmoozefest at Venice. An exhibit of his work at the Vancouver Art Gallery afforded us a chance to talk. The National Post ran the resulting interview on February 29. Full text now after the jump too.

Q&A Kutlug Ataman
National Post, February 29, 2008

There are many ways we identify ourselves, from the political (Liberal or Conservative?) to the generational (Lohan or Monroe?). And Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman has made an internationally acclaimed career by investigating how we bolster those identities. Now, with two major artworks on display in Vancouver—one, Kuba, on a small Istanbul nabe, and the other, Paradise, on SoCal--Ataman tells Leah Sandals what labels apply to himself, if not others.

Q All your films focus on people talking, with no other action. Why?

A While talking, people construct their identities. Since the beginning of my art career 10 years ago that’s been one of my main ingredients: interest in how people construct themselves, how they use their stories to create their own characters in front of the camera.

Q The two groups in these artworks—one poor in Turkey and the other privileged in California—seem very different. What do they have in common that drew you in?

A Well, they’re both communities, both groups of people rather than individuals.

With Kuba I saw a group of people organizing themselves, even if subconsciously, around this mythology of belonging a small shantytown neighbourhood. I became interested in the mechanics of it: Do they get together and make a manifesto and plan to construct their stories accordingly? Or are there other ways this progresses?

Later, I thought I’d go to another community that actually dominates talk, that creates the mythology of the whole world, and investigate its community structures too. In Southern California, people are much more affluent, educated and creative than in Kuba. Yet the mechanics of a community recreating mythologies is exactly the same. Both communities organize along a common mythology, whether it’s around being poor and martyred in Kuba or creative and envied in California.

Q Your California interviewees range from clowns to lingerie salesmen. How did you meet your subjects?

A Actually, it was harder to get people for Kuba, because Kuba is a squatter community in danger of being eradicated. They don’t want to be on public view, so it took a year of going around and knocking on doors without a camera. But in California people are happy to be in front of the camera, mainly because they feel it’ll promote their businesses. Usually I went through friends, and one person led to another. But in one case, I was driving on the freeway and I saw a clown driving a car with a built-in carousel. I pulled in front of him and took down the phone number on the truck. Turns out he’s the world’s oldest working clown.

Q You studied film at UCLA some years ago; is California paradise to you too?

A I love California and I love some of its inventions. But would I live there now? No. I’m more interested in living in Turkey because it’s still in the making. If I can put a little bit of salt in the dish, add to that development, that’s exciting at this point in my life. California is already on the table, already constructed, so at the moment it’s not my idea of paradise. I like reality!

Q Why do you present these films on several separate screens, rather than just one?

A Conventional film requires captive audience. But these don’t. Here you take in only as much as you choose, and that’s more like real life. Say you saw accident on the street; you look at it and walk away. Two other people might stay longer. You do your own editing of how you are taking the world in all the time. And in these installations it’s the same. I think that experience is more important than sitting down and hearing a predictable truth, precooked-TV-dinner style.

Q I read, though, that you’re still working on feature films.

A Yes, that’s my day job. I’ve always been fascinated with filmmaking, with constructing illusions and stories. Feature films led me to see parallels between a screenplay and life, between a character and a real-life person, and to see that we all as individuals are the heroes of our own movies that we write and create as we go on.

Q Vancouver—or “Lotus Land”--is Canada’s California. Do you see anything paradisical about it?

A No; it’s cold so it’s not really my ideal. But it’s a part of the world I like to revisit for its natural beauty. The last time I was here I drove to Alberta, across the Rockies. Also, the food is great.

Kutlug Ataman: Paradise and Küba continues to May 19 at the Vancouver Art Gallery (

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