On “True Love Leaves No Traces”

15 March, 2022
Hale Tenger, “Hap­pens to the Heart”, 2022, silk fab­rics, sound and motor mech­a­nism, 147 x 131 x 131 cm.

 

The group exhi­bi­tion “True Love Leaves No Traces,” in Istan­bul, approach­es hos­pi­tal­i­ty as an inti­mate coex­is­tence between bod­ies and beings. In the exhi­bi­tion, Hale Tenger and Kostis Velo­nis, two promi­nent con­tem­po­rary artists from Turkey and Greece, engage in an indi­rect dia­logue on the traces of life and death.

 

Arie Akkermans-Amaya

 

Hos­pi­tal­i­ty with­out end

The veg­e­ta­tion at Şelale is so rich and exu­ber­ant that it feels almost like a throb­bing body, and you would be eas­i­ly led to believe that it’s a site des­tined for mag­ic. Known in Ara­bic as Beit el-Ma, Şelale is the name of a mas­sive water­fall, locat­ed on the out­skirts of the small town of Har­biye, in Antakya, Turkey orig­i­nat­ing in sev­er­al springs that burst out of the moun­tain, col­lect­ing clear water in var­i­ous basins and ponds that sub­se­quent­ly flow into a val­ley before enter­ing the Orontes Riv­er. It would be a spec­tac­u­lar sight to behold on a sum­mer day; it felt like a tem­ple with­out walls, a tem­ple des­tined for love, or for falling in love, or sim­ply for falling. And in fact it was all of that, as we will find out. On the basins, turned into eater­ies, over­flow­ing with fresh but cold, ankle-deep water, vis­i­tors lunch in the com­pa­ny of ele­gant geese, unable to hear almost any­thing oth­er than the cas­cad­ing, tin­kling waters. But the water­fall is the site of a myth: Known his­tor­i­cal­ly as Daphne, it has been asso­ci­at­ed with the myth of Daphne and Apol­lo, since the Seleu­cid era.

Springs shoot­ing off from the Şelale water­fall, Har­biye, Turkey.

When the god Apol­lo killed the Python, a great snake that ter­ror­ized mankind, he became full of pride, and upon see­ing Eros, the god of love, him­self a famous bow­man, he turned to mock his winged nature. Eros didn’t take this offense light­ly and he struck Apol­lo with one of his arrows, shot right through the heart. With the sec­ond arrow he shot beau­ti­ful Daphne, a nymph who was a vir­gin huntress of god­dess Artemis. The arrow that hit Apol­lo was one of intense love and pas­sion, and the moment he was hit, he spot­ted Daphne in the wild and was unable to con­tain his pas­sion for her. The arrow that hit Daphne, on the oth­er hand, filled her with repug­nance for the god that appeared in front of her. The revenge of Eros was cru­el. Apol­lo tried to approach Daphne, but before he could even blink, she had fled. The god was run­ning and run­ning while Daphne was becom­ing exhaust­ed and Apol­lo could almost grab her—he final­ly did.

At that very moment, Daphne could see the waters of her riv­er-father Peneus and screamed at the top of her lungs: “Help me father! If your streams have divine pow­ers change me, destroy this beau­ty that pleas­es too well!” Peneus helped his daugh­ter, and she began meta­mor­phos­ing into a tree. The top­ic of the myth is not only love and pow­er, but the pos­si­bil­i­ty of trans­for­ma­tion and change. Artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Daphne’s escape are numer­ous through the cen­turies, from the late 3rd cen­tu­ry CE mosa­ic pave­ment exca­vat­ed from Har­biye, to the very famous inter­pre­ta­tions by Rubens and Berni­ni (includ­ing many oth­ers by painters such as Gio­vani Bat­tista Tiepo­lo, Francesco Albani or Cor­nelis de Vos). And yet there’s a con­tem­po­rary sculp­ture, “Apol­lo e Dafne” (2022), by Greek artist Kostis Velo­nis, which reflects both the nymph’s flight and the con­di­tion of her sud­den trans­for­ma­tion through the per­spec­tive of his­tor­i­cal change and espe­cial­ly the notion of his­tor­i­cal failure.

The sculp­ture con­fronts us with this failed cou­ple, of preda­tor and prey—in words of the poet Ovid, who hand­ed down to us the most author­i­ta­tive ver­sion of the myth. It is a ref­er­ence to failed utopias, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly draw­ing our atten­tion toward the state of fail­ure as such, focus­ing instead on the remains of the utopi­an project (mod­ernism, con­struc­tivism and the avant­garde are Velo­nis’ pri­ma­ry visu­al lan­guage), and its inscrip­tion onto the stri­at­ed sur­face of his­to­ry. Ground­ed in Tatlin and Rodchenko’s con­struc­tivist pro­pos­al, and its rejec­tion of style as form, Velo­nis rejects beau­ty in a pre­dis­po­si­tion that he shares with Daphne’s request to Peneus. The destruc­tion of beau­ty is in the con­text of 20th cen­tu­ry utopias and the artis­tic move­ments that accom­pa­nied them, a demand for a min­i­mal­ist real­ism that will show the inner struc­ture of real­i­ty in its truer appear­ance: All the con­sti­tut­ing parts are frag­ile, endan­gered, sub­ject to decay, per­ish­able and almost imper­cep­ti­ble to his­tor­i­cal memory.

But in fact, beau­ty is destroyed con­stant­ly, and this destruc­tion is one of the fun­da­men­tal mark­ers of time: It was like­ly Alexan­der the Great, the first to dis­cov­er the springs at Har­biye fol­low­ing the vic­to­ry against the Per­sians at Issus, in the 4th cen­tu­ry BCE, where it’s told in leg­ends that he drank the sweet­est water he ever tast­ed. But it was his gen­er­al Seleu­cus I, who laid the foun­da­tions for Daphne, Seleu­cia and Anti­och (present-day Har­biye, Saman­daǧ and Antakya). Rely­ing on ora­cles and div­ina­tions, he believed with cer­tain­ty that he had locat­ed the orig­i­nal loca­tion of the myth, because of the ubiq­ui­tous lau­rel trees. The heal­ing spring­wa­ters at the shrine of Apol­lo, built on order of the gen­er­al, in a grove called the Daph­naion, were wide­ly vis­it­ed as pil­grim­age sites in antiq­ui­ty.  The tem­ple was sub­se­quent­ly burnt down com­plete­ly in the year 362 and Emper­or Julian the Apos­tate blamed the Chris­tians. Although the ruins of the tem­ple sur­vived many earth­quakes through the cen­turies, no traces of it can be found today.

Isn’t this also what hap­pened to Daphne? Didn’t she dis­ap­pear with­out leav­ing traces? Her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branch­es, and her legs into roots. Before Apol­lo could ful­ly gaze into her, she had already dis­ap­peared. The only thing stand­ing was a beau­ti­ful lau­rel tree. But even after Daphne’s trans­for­ma­tion, Apol­lo did not aban­don the pur­suit of love: “Since you can­not be my bride, you must be my tree! Lau­rel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver.” And since then, the lau­rel tree became a sacred tree for Apol­lo, and the wreath of lau­rels his sym­bol. The wreath of Apol­lo is an image of his unful­filled love, but also a sym­bol of vic­to­ry, glo­ry and pow­er. These utopi­an remains are some­thing oth­er than a fos­silized moment or an archive; it is a transtem­po­ral sym­bol that artic­u­lates the con­tra­dic­tions of his­to­ry. And this his­to­ry is not a con­tin­u­ous nar­ra­tive but a mere frag­ment, the mate­r­i­al tak­en out of con­text, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of per­ma­nence. The throb­bing body of an ancient spring today.

“Apol­lo e Dafne” Kostis Velo­nis, wood, acrylic, oil, ges­so mod­el­ing clay, 232x89x5cm, 2022.

Velo­nis’ sculp­ture of dual­i­ty and symbiotism—two bod­ies attached to each oth­er, is part of the large group exhi­bi­tion “True Love Leaves no Traces”, on show in Istan­bul at Galerist, attempt­ing to grap­ple with the ques­tion of hos­pi­tal­i­ty, but not with­in the Bib­li­cal tra­di­tion or in a con­text of ver­ti­cal hier­ar­chies between guest and host, but in a more com­plex set­ting where there exists an uncon­di­tion­al recep­tion of the oth­er, the unin­vit­ed, and the stranger, in such a way that the con­sti­tut­ing parts merge into a seam­less organism—whether you call it life, the body or politics.

This hos­pi­tal­i­ty does not depend on whether the guest may be wel­come or not, but on a rela­tion­ship in which some­thing not tech­ni­cal­ly alive, becomes a liv­ing organ­ism only by asso­ci­a­tion with its host. The cura­tor of the exhi­bi­tion, Bur­cu Fikre­toǧlu, drew inspi­ra­tion from a fas­ci­nat­ing, auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal text by the philoso­pher Jean-Luc Nan­cy, “L’intrus”, where he speaks about a heart trans­plant that he over­went and the strange­ness of this experience.

 

Saved by an anony­mous donor

In receiv­ing an organ from an unknown donor, the bound­ary of life and death expands, as Nan­cy explains: “What is this life ‘prop­er’ that it is a mat­ter of ‘sav­ing’? At the very least, it turns out that in no way resides in ‘my’ body; it is not sit­u­at­ed any­where, not even in this organ whose sym­bol­ic renown has long been estab­lished?” L’intrus isn’t a stranger whom we can invite into our homes, but an intrud­er, one that will claim the space on his own, and will make the host some­one oth­er than him­self: “A life ‘prop­er’ that resides in no organ but that with­out them is noth­ing.” The intrud­er is not a liv­ing being yet, but will become liv­ing through the host’s dis­po­si­tion towards life. The traces of the strange­ness will even­tu­al­ly dis­ap­pear but the acknowl­edge­ment of risk, of con­tin­gency, of unpredictability—an organ might still be reject­ed, becomes an act of uncon­di­tion­al accep­tance. The strange­ness becomes an ordi­nary event, and it is pre­cise­ly the mem­o­ry of this for­eign body that the exhi­bi­tion is attempt­ing to highlight.

The heart as an organ is here a metaphor for the throb­bing of this phys­i­cal body, under­go­ing change, assim­i­lat­ing, becom­ing sen­tient but also becom­ing oth­er. “Hap­pens to the Heart” (2022), a micro­proces­sor-con­trolled sound instal­la­tion by Turk­ish artist Hale, invites us to expe­ri­ence the liv­ing heart, invad­ing the host and becom­ing alive in the process. The work is a struc­ture float­ing up and down, com­posed of loose orange silk fab­rics form­ing a cube, cre­at­ing a vac­u­um effect, as if we were in the pres­ence of this new heart, nestling in the rib cage, and the per­son is breath­ing out a sigh of relief at the improb­a­ble but amaz­ing con­ti­nu­ity of life. The rhyth­mic sound of the motor pulling up the silk pieces inside of the airy cube takes the place of a life sup­port machine, ani­mat­ing the heart, trans­form­ing dead tis­sue into a liv­ing organ­ism. Is this a mir­a­cle? In fact we’re deal­ing with very sec­u­lar won­ders, for as Nan­cy tells us, the wish for sur­vival and immoral­i­ty is an ele­ment in modernity’s pro­gram of mas­tery over nature.

Hale Tenger (1960, Izmir), grad­u­at­ed from the Ceram­ics Depart­ment of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts Uni­ver­si­ty after a bachelor’s degree in Com­put­er Pro­gram­ming at Boğaz­içi Uni­ver­si­ty. In 1988, she com­plet­ed her Mas­ter in Fine Arts at the South Glam­or­gan Insti­tute of High­er Edu­ca­tion. Tenger draws her sub­ject mat­ter from the cul­tur­al, polit­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and psy­choso­cial ref­er­ences. Her artis­tic pro­duc­tion is char­ac­ter­ized by the overt stim­u­la­tion of the sen­so­ry and intel­lec­tu­al per­cep­tions simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Tenger builds up her visu­al and audi­to­ry metaphors by dis­till­ing com­plex and loaded con­tents, encour­ag­ing the view­er to have an inti­mate expe­ri­ence through the con­nec­tion of mem­o­ry, space and time. In her wide range of pro­duc­tion, diverse mate­ri­als are brought togeth­er in an elab­o­rate com­bi­na­tion, which includes video, sculp­ture and pho­tog­ra­phy as well as immer­sive large scale installations.

 

After tak­ing Nancy’s “L’Intrus” as a point of depar­ture, both Tenger and Fikre­toǧlu turned to the song­writer and poet Leonard Cohen for insights on the one­ness and same­ness of feel­ings, embod­i­ment and expe­ri­ence. The title of the exhi­bi­tion derives from the cho­rus of a 1977 song, which tells us:

True love leaves no traces
If you and I are one
It’s lost in our embraces
Like stars against the sun

Tenger’s inspi­ra­tion was “Hap­pens to the Heart,” a song writ­ten in the sum­mer of 2016, a few months before Cohen’s untime­ly death, and said to be large­ly a reflec­tion on the five years that he spent as a Bud­dhist monk in Cal­i­for­nia. The song was released as the first sin­gle of his posthu­mous final LP, “Thanks for the Dance.” There’s a strik­ing cor­re­la­tion between Nan­cy and Cohen here, in regard to the pos­si­bil­i­ties afford­ed by life and death, the sur­ren­der­ing of the self and the seam­less sur­ren­der­ing to and into the oth­er. In the song, the rap­proche­ment between liv­ing and non­liv­ing is smooth but unavoid­able. The instal­la­tion is enveloped by a tune extract­ed from Cohen’s song, record­ed by Ser­dar Ateșer.

Sure it failed my lit­tle fire
But it’s bright the dying spark
Go tell the young messiah
What hap­pens to the heart

 

Hale Tenger, “Where the Winds Rest,” 2019, mixed media instal­la­tion (pho­to Laleper Aytek/Galeri Nev).

In her recent work, such as “Where the Winds Rest” (2019), inspired this time by Turk­ish poet Edip Can­sev­er, Tenger deals with sur­faces of his­to­ry that at first seem ordi­nary, innocu­ous and neu­tral as images, but that soon become latent, and reveal dan­gers lurk­ing under­neath, unex­pect­ed threats and risks, unknown lay­ers in a frag­ment­ed nar­ra­tive. Sim­i­lar­ly in the cur­rent exhi­bi­tion, the instal­la­tion stands not only for the dias­tole and sys­tole of the heart, but also for the way in which mod­ern life unfolds: The nar­ra­tives of civ­i­liza­tion are arti­fi­cial­ly sus­tained in a world that is both chaot­ic and vio­lent, and always in con­stant motion and change. The invis­i­ble cube of the heart, both organ and con­tain­er, formed by the empti­ness around the float­ing silk, blurs the dis­tinc­tion between inside and out­side, in our his­to­ry, in our per­son­al lives, in the phys­i­cal bor­ders of pol­i­tics and real­i­ty, and in our bod­i­ly exis­tence. This con­stant loop of ups and downs is noth­ing like an extra­or­di­nary event—it is just bare life itself.

The uncan­ny ele­ment in the instal­la­tion is not the sur­prise or unpre­dictabil­i­ty of the event—a new heart, new begin­nings, the renew­al of a nar­ra­tive, but the sense of con­ti­nu­ity: The cycles of the liv­ing heart, not unlike those of time and nature, con­tin­ue on account of the hard­ships of con­flict and love, and not in spite of them. It is through the encounter—which can result in oth­er ways than desired, that the human per­son as a whole, in the sin­gu­lar only a com­bi­na­tion of atoms and par­ti­cles, becomes a plu­ral­i­ty of sto­ries and expe­ri­ences, always shared with oth­ers. Hos­pi­tal­i­ty here becomes more than sim­ply host­ing, it is also a com­mon pro­duc­tion of space which saves pass­ing time from total ruin by means of mem­o­ry. Arti­facts of mem­o­ry, whether archae­o­log­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal, or sim­ply his­tor­i­cal, how­ev­er, have no con­text or life of their own with­out the entire dynam­ic sys­tem. What is an organ with­out a body? This speaks also to the alien­at­ed indi­vid­ual, unfree inso­far as he does not par­take in the com­mon world.

 

Kostis Velo­nis (born 1968) is a Greek sculp­tor, known for explor­ing the after­lives of unre­al­ized Mod­ernist and avant-garde projects. Many of Velo­nis’ sculp­tures explore awk­ward­ness and the slap­stick, and he is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in “stum­bling” as an impor­tant aes­thet­ic and polit­i­cal cat­e­go­ry. Velo­nis lives and works in Athens. His work has been shown at Kun­stvere­in in Ham­burg, Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Athens, the Witte de With Con­tem­po­rary Art Cen­ter in Rot­ter­dam, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Museo Tamayo in Mex­i­co City, Palais des Beaux Arts (BOZAR) in Brus­sels, Kun­sthalle Athena, Athens, Whitechapel Gallery, Lon­don, Cran­brook Art Muse­um in Michi­gan, and Kun­sthalle Osnabrück, among oth­er places.

Leav­ing no traces

What does it mean then to leave no traces for Velo­nis and Tenger? After the destruc­tion of the tem­ple of Apol­lo, the waters of the spring of Habiye con­tin­ued to be iden­ti­fied with the myth and prac­tices of div­ina­tion and dream incu­ba­tion are still car­ried out today in neigh­bor­ing sacred sites by Arab Alaw­ites, the present inhab­i­tants of the region. Coins are left often in the many water basins by those ask­ing for good luck, mak­ing vows or wish­es. The traces of lived his­to­ry, though invis­i­ble, are sym­bol­i­cal­ly car­ried by gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of words, sup­pli­ca­tions, images. As Daphne fled her cap­tor, she fell out of bal­ance, in the same way that the world falls out of pro­por­tion and scale, dur­ing times of cri­sis when per­spec­tives are shift­ing. After stum­bling, she changed her world—for her world had changed as well, by becom­ing some­thing else. This trans­for­ma­tion of the nymph from naiad to dryad, from human to nature, is not a mere dis­ap­pear­ance, but a tran­si­tion between cul­ture and nature. It is the vio­lence of civilization.

Nan­cy tells us about becom­ing this strange self: “It’s not that they opened me wide in order to change my heart. It is that this gap­ing open can­not be closed.” Once the body has been altered, a pletho­ra of con­tra­dic­tions arise between inside and out­side, self and oth­er, that can no longer be over­come. Who is the intrud­er after all? He con­cludes his text thus: “The intrus is none oth­er than me, my self; none oth­er than man him­self. No oth­er than the one, the same, always iden­ti­cal to itself and yet that is nev­er done with alter­ing itself. At the same time, sharp and spent, stripped bare and over-equipped, intrud­ing upon the world and upon itself: a dis­qui­et­ing upsurge of the strange, cona­tus of an infi­nite excres­cence.” In Tenger’s “Hap­pens to the Heart”, the phys­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion of the heart is ratio­nal, a mod­el of nature, but in the pres­ence of the unex­plained, unac­count­able, liv­ing breath, the heart remains only a faint trace.

If we’re speak­ing spa­tial­ly, for Velo­nis, utopias of the Euro­pean 20th cen­tu­ry also rep­re­sent a sense of alien­ation, but in his case, from the unsta­ble archi­tec­ture of the present. This alien­ation is then trans­lat­ed into an invert­ed nos­tal­gia that sees the future as the restora­tion of an unre­al­ized or dis­fig­ured past. In terms of the lau­rel wreath, of the god Apol­lo, what kind of glo­ry wreath is this? Per­haps the “κλἐος” of the Greek epic, with the implied mean­ing of what oth­ers hear about you—the hero’s glo­ri­ous deeds. But this kleos can come only to those who have become immor­tal­ized through their hero­ism on the bat­tle­field, and who are, there­fore, no longer mor­tal or liv­ing. The accu­mu­la­tion of his­tor­i­cal cycles of col­lapse, embod­ied by Tenger’s translu­cent time sur­faces, by no means lin­ear, tell us that in the absence of gods, there’s no beyond or after­wards. It is the impos­si­bil­i­ty of per­ma­nence, what con­sti­tutes the only hori­zon of tran­scen­dence in the world. Is Daphne alive or dead then? As the pump­ing heart sig­nals, we’re always liv­ing and dying, chang­ing, pass­ing, return­ing, at the same time.

 

“True Love Leaves no Traces” is on show at Galerist, Istan­bul. The exhi­bi­tion con­tin­ues through March 26.

 

Acknowl­edge­ments: Bur­cu Fikre­toğlu, Kari­na El Helou, Jens Kreinath, Hale Tenger, Barıș Yapar. In Mem­o­ry of Sarkis Buchakjian. 

ApolloartDaphneErosGreecelovephilosophyTurkey

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is an art critic and writer based in Istanbul, formerly Beirut and Moscow. His work is mostly concerned with the relationship between archaeology, classical antiquity and modern culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, with an emphasis on contemporary art. His byline has appeared previously on Hyperallergic, the San Francisco Arts Quarterly, Canvas, Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia, and he is a regular contributor for the popular Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae. Previously, he was a guest editor of Arte East Quarterly, a recipient of an experts fellowship from IASPIS, Stockholm, and a moderator in the talks program of Art Basel.

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