28 Ocak 2009 Çarşamba
The Stranger as Erlkönig
Although Turkey has been hosting various immigrants from different countries (i.e. Iran, Nigeria, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Moldova, etc.) in recent decades, it continues to have the category of »the Stranger,« who is crucial in the construction of Turkish national identity, and who has been in this position since the beginning of the Turkish Republic. This »privilege« of being considered as »the Stranger« is given to people who are categorized as »others within ourselves.«
These strangers, who originate from »us« – the Ottoman Empire – and who on various political grounds played an important role as the other for the new Turkish Republic, are the ones who in the national imagination supposedly represent the biggest threat (the ethnic side of this spectrum contains most prominently Armenians, Kurds and Jewish immigrants, and Arabs of various origins). The politically threatening stranger is the real alien figure for both the nationalists and the state. The way those strangers are represented in society thus constitutes a major concern. There are various control mechanisms over their actual persons, but also there are various control mechanisms for their representations. Sociologically, there are many differences in the ways these representations are repressed in detail. But here I will be mostly interested in the ways artists deal with the control mechanisms over strangers (and especially »the Strangers«) and the control mechanisms over their representations.
If we are aiming to focus on how today’s art learnt to deal with the figure of the Stranger, it is necessary to work out how artists dismantle various control mechanisms over the »specters of the strangers.« And in the Turkish case, because the stranger is understood in a political way, according to the mainstream discourse Kurd is something very close to the communist and Arab is something very close to the Islamist threat. They are also understood as actual human beings with historical content. And repressions over actual beings intermingle with an official history-writing process. Historical ghosts are breathing inside the Strangers…
However, if it is essential for all nations to control the movements of ghosts, and if this is done using many forms of repression, resistance against those forms is crucial to let the ghosts be! Specters/ghosts related to Strangers or of Strangers are obviously not free to move under existing conditions.
If we take the Turkish case, the Stranger is always redefined by those control mechanisms, which fear ghosts moving independently. Ghosts are supposed to be controlled by the official history and official national identity. There is one discourse that we all have to fit in. Artists interested in acting against these controls deploy several tactics, ranging from ironical disguise of control forms to direct identification with the specters/ghosts of Strangers. In search of artists working against this control, we may find figures of the Stranger reflected freely in the movements of its ghosts.
Artists deploy sophisticated tactics to identify themselves with the ghosts. One main approach to resisting any repression has always been to give voice to the repressed, but there has been a twin sister: to »give voice« to the silence. Here, the repressed forms hide themselves, talk without words but with silence, without appearance but with non-existence. They find languages of hiding themselves.
Cengiz Tekin, an artist from Diyarbakir, works very interestingly with this hidden discourse, accepting the position of being a ghost, but under this repression still keeping the ghost moving in an uncontrolled way. Thus he interprets the Kurdish question in Turkey in a special manner.
In his »Man Behind a Curtain« (2003), we see the naked legs of a man behind a curtain. The carpets and curtain imply a traditional house. Everything is normal and calm. But there is a potential crisis. There is a man hiding behind the curtains and his naked legs imply that he is totally naked. His nakedness is a kind of existence and resistance; he hides himself but he can also expose himself any minute. He wants you to feel that potential by using the language of silence in a rebellious way without the actual rebellion. The language of silence uses potentials and possibilities instead of words. We can read this together with Tekin’s two other works, »Calm Situation« and »Duvets,« and Bulent Sangar’s »Man in the Closet.«
»Calm Situation« is striking for its sense of absence, repression and potential. This time we see the total picture of a traditional room (not only curtains and carpets), an everyday scene, with its daily details. A man (»Father«) sits in the middle of the scene. There is nothing unusual here as long as you don’t notice the hand under the man – the hand of the »ghost.« The repressed is buried under the »normal« scene. The violence of daily life and normality is confronted with the hand of the ghost, the rebellious potential again.
In the »Duvets« the rebel-ghost shows its existence by hiding itself even more. You can’t silence them anymore because they silence themselves in an even more violent manner in daily life. They are burying themselves under beds, behind curtains or inside a colorful mountain of duvets. Or just inside a closet as in Sangar’s work.
Especially the family scene with a buried man under the bed shows how the culture is constructed upon someone whose face you cannot see. You can’t face them. And even in the »Duvets« you see them pressing their own face into colorful traditional duvets so you can’t see their face at all. The ghost doesn’t have a face and does not exist in normal living spaces; the ghost lives in voids, between duvets, under beds, behind curtains, in closets. And that’s the way it speaks.
In between the duvets the ghost seems like a pattern, embedded inside the patterns of culture. The ghost of the stranger is a potential monster for the state and mainstream discourse, an Erlkönig, as in Goethe’s poem. The Stranger-as-Erlkönig is considered as a threat to the stranger-as-(harmless)-child and the stranger-as-(cynical)-father.
In various ways, artists embrace Erlkönig in an empowering way for the oppressed and for the stranger. By hiding themselves in voids, artists show another face of the Erlkönig, a hidden face, as the rebel in a pose of exaggerated submission.
But they also show the Stranger-as-Erlkönig after the rebellion.
In a striking example from Cengiz Tekin’s series »Still Life,« we see a different version of hiding yourself in the pattern. This time we see a ghost with a gun. We again can’t see his face. But we can see his gun. He doesn’t seem to be hiding, but rather as if he were shot, and dead. But still, he has a potential. He existed, and his existence is embedded in the patterns of nature. Knowing that is an empowerment for the Stranger-as-Erlkönig. He is a part of the frame at last...
The desire for the Erlkönig
Tekin’s Erlkönig is embedded in daily life, hidden under a bed, under a culture, or shot dead in nature. Erlkönig turns into a tool for inventing a language to make the silence speak. Positioning the stranger as the Stranger-as-Erlkönig or as the stranger who desires to be Erlkönig are two tactical shifts seen in artistic responses to the control mechanisms over strangers. This is obviously more empowering than situating yourself as the powerless and even cynical father.
Guido Snel examines how Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic was surprised by the rise of Serb nationalist leader Radovan Karadzic as a killer during the war, because formerly Karadzic wrote poems for children. Yugoslavia was a terrible example of evil emerging from inside, monsters emerging from the words of a children’s book even. Just like the Erlkönig’s nice-sounding words attract the child in Goethe’s poem.
Mehmedinovic didn’t really want to demonize Karadzic, because he didn’t want to turn evil into metaphysics. But he still continued to refer to the Erlkönig metaphor, and living with his son in Sarajevo under the Serbian siege, he couldn’t help but position himself as the father (and even at times as the son by remembering his own father). Mehmedinovic opens an important area by rethinking the situation in Erlkönig terms – but we can step forward and look at artists who, instead of accepting the ethically comfortable positions of the father and son, desire the Erlkönig inside themselves.
Angela Carter, a British writer known for her feminist approach, also works on this »desire for the Erlkönig« theme, but in a slightly different manner. In her short story »The Erl-King,« where she rewrote the poem, the main protagonist is a woman who meets the Erlkönig in the forest and who has an affair with »him.« But then she thinks the Erlkönig will do her harm and in order to pre-empt this, she kills the Erlkönig by strangling him while he is lying on her knee. The last sentence of the short story is remarkable: »Mother, mother, you have murdered me!« Although she has a relationship with the Erlkönig she doesn’t let him inside her and kills »her own imagination.«
Here we remember Octave Mirbeau’s novel »The Diary of a Chamber Maid,« where we follow the adventures of the chamber maid Celestine. Most strikingly, in the last episode Celestine falls in love with a man, Joseph, although she is pretty much sure that Joseph raped and killed a small child! Nevertheless, Celestine’s desire for this Erlkönig goes further and she lets the Erlkönig in. In the last paragraph of the novel, she says that Joseph got inside her like a demon, and she feels that she will do whatever he wants, and this could even be a murder!
Instead of murdering the imagination she decides to take the Erlkönig in and murder together with him.
Speaking through what is hidden
The Stranger doesn’t talk at a normal pace. He talks faster or slower. Beyond the consensus. And he plays with the consensus mechanisms he sees that exist outside him.
The mainstream discourse forces the stranger to be sorry for the child in herself/himself who has been taken in by the Erlkönig. The Stranger is only loved in his innocent and childish form or in his helpless father form. The Stranger wants to express himself as a potential Erlkönig who will take the life of the child in himself. As someone who can’t be forgiven but who is nonetheless desirable. Loving the stranger in its Erlkönig form has crucial consequences. And even having a child by the Stranger-as-Erlkönig…
Necla Rüzgar’s French-kissing women with scarves brings to the fore two ghost forms – lesbians and women with scarves. But by mixing them she dislocates many things – repression of the hidden lives of women with scarves, a general repression of women’s position as a sexual subject who searches for her own desires. Instead of marginalizing the category of lesbians, these daily traditional outfits bring the ghost of lesbianism back to traditional daily life.
In another work by Rüzgar we see a man, a slaughtered sheep behind the man, and a woman behind that sheep. They are in a kind of »threesome.« A love triangle. The ritual of sacrificing animals is criticized without the sheep being stuck in the position of victim. The sheep becomes part of the family and situates itself behind the man and in front of the woman, just in between them. The classical picture of a family sacrificing a sheep changes into a family sacrificing themselves, or not being able to sacrifice the animal.
Similarly in some ways, Korean director Kim Ki-Duk’s film »Bin-jip« (3-Iron, 2004) tells the story of a drifter. He stays in other people’s homes, but the residents can’t see him, and he does housework in return. He is the helping ghost of several houses, an artist of hiding, an artist of being a ghost-being. And at the end of the story, he even becomes the lover of a woman who suffers under a violent husband. This time we have a »happy end« where the woman and her ghost lover live happily ever after in voids…
These ghost forms talk with silence, with rests. These repressed forms never talk too much. They can’t talk too much. Their own language is taken away or suspended or repressed. So they express themselves with rests. They talk with hiding, emptiness, voids… We see various types of talking with hiding in the Stranger.
Resistance and disobedience
The Stranger in Cengiz Tekin’s works talks by embedding himself in colors, patterns, nature, everyday life. He is expressing a potential rebellion with this awareness. He is also showing that he is very much aware of the voids and patterns that are left to him. And when he is inside the duvets his neck also looks like a broken neck – is he really alive? Or faking death like some animals do to survive?
The stranger is also represented in »hidden rebellions.« Ahmet Ogut’s animation »Light Armoured« depicts a light armored military vehicle in the middle of nowhere. As the animation begins, we slowly start to witness stones being thrown at the army vehicle. Against the powerful form of the military vehicle we have the forms of little stones. Stones are thrown with hands, not with any computer-aided war machine. And the thing is, we can’t see who is throwing the stones. They are coming from a hidden corner. Little by little. Slowly. Never really damaging the military vehicle. But showing that they are there. In the void. In the pattern. They exist. We don’t see the people who are throwing stones, and they don’t even always hit the vehicle. Basically these stones are not being thrown to damage the vehicle but they are being thrown to show that there are people out there who are repressed by this vehicle and who resist and dare to resist it. Here the artist directly identifies himself with forms that are linked to resistance. Again, it works with the language of rests, and the language of silence. People who throw stones do so from a place unseen and without making much noise.
We can trace this same theme in Ahmet Ogut’s artwork »School Memory.« Here we see a boy detached from his friends in a school memory photo which is supposed to show their togetherness. And the boy seems proud of it; he is still in the picture, in the frame of their supposed togetherness but in his own detached way. »Civil disobedience« at a very early stage of »society.« The silence of our discontent enters the stage.
In the Turkish case there is also a strange two-sidedness. The mainstream national identity discourse declares some people as strangers and as potentially unwanted Erlkönige. But at the same time there is a growing feeling that this national mainstream identity is itself considered as the other, alien identity in the idealized EU conceptualization. Being in the position of the stranger against the EU adds a different psychology to the repression inside the country. Repressive languages also see themselves as victims. And the EU becomes our national identity’s desired other, the desired Erlkönig in a way. We want the EU but it is going to eat us as in Angela Carter’s story. A notorious question is heard: Shall we strangle it beforehand?
In the »Temptations of Doctor Antonio« (part of »Boccaccio 70«) Federico Fellini is somehow dealing with the same problem. A prudish man, Doctor Antonio, is fighting against a huge billboard advertisement of Anita Ekberg, which he finds extremely dangerous for the whole society. He works hard to remove the billboard, but he does not succeed, and in his dreams we see that he is actually feeling a strong desire for her. And he also wants to kill her. Here we have a femme fatale Erlkönig (very similar to how we imagine the EU in the mainstream discourse in Turkey). And, like the woman in Carter’s story does, in the end Antonio throws a pike at the billboard to kill her... But of course it is not that easy to kill a »femme fatale Erlkönig«; the next morning Antonio is taken to the hospital, while the billboard is still there…