Perhaps the foremost sensation that hits the viewer when he or she is confronted with a familiar medium that has been manipulated and transformed is unease. The experience of leaning blindly forward into the dark, waiting for your senses to adjust, is as much an invitation to discovery as to disorientation; what Turkish photographer Şahin Kaygun’s solo exhibition at the Istanbul Modern museum demonstrates, however, is that the results can also be hypnotic and exhilarating. Covering remarkable ground from the 1970s to the 90s in what was a tragically short life, Kaygun’s work spanned portrait photography, Polaroid collage, mixed-media painting and filmmaking. It is indeed apt that the host institution dubs Kaygun a ‘pioneer’ – surrounded by a selection of such disruptive, experimental and interdisciplinary pieces, it’s hard to deny that only a true avant-garde could bring these forth in the conservative, nationalistic Turkey of the 1980s.
This exhibition is a result of scanning over 20,000 negatives and 20 years’ worth of artworks preserved by Kaygun’s family to reach a tight, selective but nonetheless balanced, 89-work array of Polaroids, photo-manipulations, films and paintings from 1978 until Kaygun’s death in 1992. At the outset, the dimly lit space shines spotlights on his early black-and-white photography, where Kaygun’s tendency towards an experimental and expressionist aesthetic is already discernible in his deliberately unfocused and jarringly framed portraiture. These early works – a ghostly female lip on the frame’s edge, a nude against a sparse background replicated manifold in blank collated Polaroids – show an urge to break with disciplinary norms, disrupt clarity of representation and, perhaps in doing so, reach the artist’s ambition more truthfully than any one medium could facilitate: that of creating the incident rather than documenting it, as Kaygun stated in a 1984 interview.
Painting, etching and pasting directly onto his Polaroid works in the early 1980s, Kaygun’s application of painterly and filmic techniques manifest in a series of eerie and fascinating mixed-media pieces where texture and shape grapple for dominance over his equally intriguing use of those traditional essentials of photography, shadow and light. Fantasy imagery and dark symbolism abound in these small but powerful squares, where the female nude, negative spaces, partially obscured views and seashell and doll motifs present a world more akin to a painter’s subconscious than a portrait photographer’s subjects. Yet these experiments form perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition, especially in works where the same Polaroid has been reprinted and worked over many times in alternative mediums and techniques. These seem to document the formation of a protean, incomplete visual language in real time; we are invited to witness the ebb and flow as Kaygun searches for a new visual vocabulary upon the same photo, subjecting it to many different layers of tactile and chromatic disruption.
His foresight in identifying the creative potential of multimedia practice is evident in that he organised the first Polaroid photography exhibition in Turkey in 1984, while also shooting a number of experimental art films – one of which, Full Moon (1988), was screened at Cannes Film Festival. Although the exhibition includes Full Moon and others, his films cannot hold their own when squeezed between the striking early Polaroids and the surreal mixed media photo-peintures from Kaygun’s later practice. This late series, titled In the Ancient Seas (1991), is inspired by sculptures he photographed at the British Museum; turning these figures through his painting, collage and calligraphy on canvas into protagonists and villains in his own narrative closes the exhibition. It can by no means be called a full retrospective, given how prolific Kaygun was – but in what is to date the most comprehensive showcase of a visionary who is regrettably undervalued and unknown in Turkish art history, the Istanbul Modern has done him a well-deserved service.
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.