From Four Years of Silence to More Years of Silence

Vasıf Kortun

The arch-shaped paintings of Serdar Arat carry images of imploding heads, vacuous sirens, various industrial and other enigmatic forms, as well as real and painted air ducts. Lately, he had added deceivingly naturalist forlorn vistas, thick black stripes, and a mélange of real and produced materials. Since his series Four Years of Silence, 1980-1984, Arat has augmented this images vocabulary and presented new meanings by playing with its semantic units.

In Arat’s work, the physical structure of the painting, the way it stands away from the wall –physical and fragile at the same time- as much as the image it carries, reveals, a diacritic totality. Completely consumed in the physical presence of his painting, Arat has been experimenting on their potential as vehicles-working with and against the grain of the image they transport.

Having both Friedrich and Rothko-like aspects, Arat’s painting has a deceivingly sublime over current. Although neither a representation as in Friedrich’s purely religious landscapes, nor an abstraction as in Rothko’s horizontal (horizons?) areas of color, Arat’s vast expanses of sea and sky, are about dignity, elegance and solitude. It is significant that Arat works around painters who have overcome the problem of representation; the former being an absolute believer in it, and the latter conveying it through spiritual integrity. Why this reaching back into the past to remember two artists who expressed a belief or a hope? Although there is no guarantee for absolvement, romanticism, in essence, is a genuine trope in Arat’s language. Because belief and hope as well as pessimism or alienation have finally to do with the notion of faith through the experience of the work created and the work contemplated. What is the spiritual integrity of Rothko other than an alienation from the presences of his day? Arat’s landscapes are neither illuminated with the kind of divine light which Friedrich endows his works with, nor do they have an inchoate directness into one’s heart. This is not only because of his unsettling juxtaposition of images, but is also embodied in the production of the landscape. Arat’s painting is a vehicle of past faiths speaking of their entrapment and rupture, in a personal, self-contradictory language.

Even though Arat’s works look abstract, they are rooted in the actual. How can the actual be painted again? Neither purist as Mondrian nor a spiritualist as Kandinsky, Arat’s work conveys two powerful notions; idiosyncrasy and awkwardness. As such, the air ducts, become something unexplainable and unsolvable. While we all know very well what it is, with its basic and simple aesthetic, the air duct is the actual. And, as a manufactured object, it is more abstract in form than a painted sky or a seascape, contradicting the sublime. Hence, the idiosyncrasy and the awkwardness.

Art had always been about the transportation of knowledge at a certain level; a mode of teaching in pre-literal societies, a site of common memory or shared conspiracy. What are the possibilities to an artist at a time when there is no more a unitary discourse of production and dissemination? How can he then offer a cure for our souls and minds?

The catastrophic imagery in Robert Morris’s 1984 “Firestorm” series, which may at first glance provide a common sensibility with Arat, marks a radical failure in stirring the viewer –if such a concern is legitimate- because it relegates itself to the reproduction of horridness. As reproduced images, they favor little distance from themselves in the first place. When Morris makes a rerun, they become merely decorative.

The arch-shaped works have affinities to Friedrich’s Abbey in the Oakwoods and the Cathedral. The Gothic arch in German Romantic painting, as painted image and underlying design, reminds one of hope and salvation, binding the earth and the heavens together. Not too dissimilar from the German master’s use of the Gothic arch as a culminating point, the arch in Arat refers to the classical Ottoman moment. The arch image has been seen in Turkish painting before, but not as the actual thing. In Arat, it is furthermore a spatial experience which invites or repels; a private chamber of contemplation or a forbading monumental opening. The arch resonates with the message of its original site –a well thought out public space of a unitary discourse, of visible, palpable power relations- hence, the painter’s failure to approximate such moments of public language and the ensuing solitude. In this respect Arat’s work summarizes a personal failure of endless repetition and stoppage.

The long black rectangular shapes are there to block images as authoritarian forms of censorship. The black stripe is a negation, an attack on visuality. Ambiguously enough, it may equally represent a void, given the spatially receding image of the black. That the work negates itself or snicks into a void on its own terms, seems to be a remark on the limits of Arat’s image of visuality.

An increasing investment in Arat’s work has been the combined use of real and produced materials. The surface density in the use of combined materials in his late works, recall early romantic sculpture’s tortured surfaces, in particular the rather idiosyncratic 19th century French sculptor Préault’s Ophelia. Then again, Arat disturbs such pure surfaces with actual objects. The T-shaped pipe transplanted firmly on the surface also brings to mind one of his early works where an inert and softened pipe was presented in monumental from, perhaps as a reminder of ineffectuality.

Friedrich and Van Gogh are two artists with indubitably existential concerns with whom Arat has affinities. Van Gogh’s Wheat Field, painted innumerable times from his window at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, is represented by Arat as an example of belief, integrity and great painting. There are also explicit references to Böcklin, in whose Island of the Dead series is conveyed, stillness, silence, and an inevitable fear. A willfully ineffectual romanticism, a sour realization of one’s activity, as a painter and as a person, lies in the essence of Arat’s works. If Four Years of Silence educed Turkey and his distance from it between 1980 and 1984, the prevailing universal conditions of being and communication may evoke many more years of silence.