Humanity has long attributed symbolic meanings to nature, and cultural artifacts, narratives and images that are passed on from earlier generations bear witness to these interactions. The Industrial Revolution emphasised the economic, social and commercial characteristics of geography, and brought along the desire to separate from nature in order to dominate it. Associated with the sublime and the virtue of moving to greater heights through the ages, what does the image of the mountain correspond to in today’s world, where new technologies possess absolute power? Murat Akagündüz’s Qaf series portray the highest mountain peaks on Google Earth, and sheds light on the new existential definitions and hierarchies of the Anthropocene epoch, in which digital accessibility replaces physical and spiritual attainment.
Murat Akagündüz graduated from the Painting Department of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in 1995. The artist was amongst the founding members of the group "Hafriyat" with Antonio Cosentino, Mustafa Pancar and Hakan Gürsoytrak. In the course of his 25-year career, Akagündüz’s works have been exhibited in the 9th and 13th Istanbul Biennial as well as many national and international museums. The artist’s last solo show “Vertigo” took place in Arter in 2016.
We talked to Murat Akagündüz about our indirect relationship with nature after industrialization, the lost "Homeland Tour" paintings by artists who were assigned to paint Anatolia in the early years of the Turkish Republic, and Greta Thunberg as “the prophet of our age”.
This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.
As we looked at your past exhibitions, we found out that you had an exhibition in Eskişehir before. It took place about 19-20 years ago in Anadolu University in 2000.
It’s been a long time.
Yes. An exhibition of "Hafriyat", which you are a founding member of.
That’s right. If I'm not mistaken, it was our 5th exhibition as "Hafriyat". Antonio Cosentino, Mustafa Pancar, Hakan Gürsoytrak and I held an exhibition under the collective’s name at the Kare Art Gallery in Teşvikiye. We held a second exhibition at Passion Art Gallery in Etiler and our third exhibition was at the Atatürk Cultural Center with a much wider participation. After that we had an exhibition at Karşı Art Gallery. Later on Anadolu University wanted to organize an exhibition with us and that’s how we came to Eskişehir. I remember that it was a really exciting exhibition for us. It was a pleasure to be invited to the university, and as I recall we felt very welcome.
Have you traveled since then to the city?
Yes, I occasionally visit, I have friends here. In fact, before this exhibition that we just talked about, Hakan Gürsoytrak was a faculty member at Eskişehir University’s Fine Arts Department. The idea of "Hafriyat" was actually based on our friendship, which began when we were students at Mimar Sinan University. The founders of Peyote are also my friends. I used to go to their concerts from time to time but of course I can’t at the moment. The pandemic conditions, bans, restrictions… but as I said earlier, I do stop by Eskişehir from time to time. During my travels to Anatolia, I especially prefer to pass through here. I like the concept of “the city” that Eskişehir wants to build, and I enjoy observing it.
Would it be correct to say that your practice goes hand in hand with your travels, or that it is combined with an idea of spiritual or physical travel?
I start out by examining the idea of what the city contributes to us as individuals and as a society. I observe what kind of interactions occur both in terms of an inner journey and daily practice. I’m interested in reconstructing and re-building the idea of geography, which is already an accepted idea that we are expected to have, through a personal re-examination - maybe it’s not right to say “re-examination” but rather through observing it for the first time. I embarked on these travels since I thought they could contribute to the idea of a homeland, a country - maybe of identity, belonging - that we can only then grasp. It was necessary for me to get to know this geography, reconsider its relations and I continue to do so. So, your definition is correct.
I would like to talk to you about your Qaf series, which extends beyond our own geography, and is currently exhibited in our “At the End of the Day” exhibition. Consisting of five canvases, the works are dominated by the color white, and each one is named after the coordinates of the mountain images that you have found on Google Earth.
As you know, in many cultures’ mythologies and in Eastern culture, the name “Qaf” is associated with setting out in search of some kind of virtue, rather than arriving at a destination. It’s a title that is futuristic, as it references the point that we reached today in the progress of what we anthropologically call “human”. We have left the Information Age behind, we’re on a digital path and the meanings we ascribe to time and place have changed within this digital space. The place itself, which finds meaning in the myth of Qaf, seems like it needs some questioning.
I wanted to paint what I chose to in these images, especifically the parts of the composition where it was impossible to see. I scanned the images on Google, and painted the parts that I chose in an analog way. This can be thought of as a deconstruction against the totalitarian view of romanticism, about the romanticism of a geography. I would say it creates a silent reactivity. The work was built on these ideas and I included the coordinates of the images that I determined before. These paintings got their names from the coordinates of the places I chose to paint, as I navigated through the south of Europe, the Pyrenees, the Alps, the mountains in the north of the Anatolian Plateau, the Caucasus and to the end of the Himalayas.
It sounds like a very difficult choice to make, you could have painted any of the mountains in the world. These works are from 2015, did you spend a lot of time on Google Earth before this project? What was your starting point?
Before the Qaf series, I made the Homeland - Anatolia series. Between the years of 1938 and 1944, before the Second World War, artists were sent to Anatolia to display and portray the cultural achievements of the single-party period of the Turkish Republic. There was a propensity to attain cultural benefits as a result of the painters' experience, to exhibit the works in the institutions and museums of the early Turkish Republic, even awarding the winners through an exhibition held at the end of each year. Yet this project didn’t fulfil the expected results. Because, especially in the first two years, the paintings did not focus on the achievements of the Turkish Republic, they provided a somewhat ruined and run down depiction of Anatolia and nothing that looked like a gain. Therefore, the effects of the paintings are quite disappointing. Most of those paintings are missing today, we cannot find them. As far as I know there must be 617 of these paintings, but we know very little about them. Today, the works of artists that we know from art history belong to that period, however we are not familiar with many artists, or their paintings. To revisit this, I did my Ankara paintings to focus on the center itself, and not on Anatolia. Even though I have no ties with Ankara, I actually wanted to deconstruct the image of the capital. After that I started to travel to Anatolia on my own, and instead of taking orders from the center, I assigned the role to myself. Upon this, I created a series called Homeland - Anatolia with resins.
As you know, mountains have always been associated with sublimity… In the Anthropocene epoch, the earth is shaped by human influences. So it is in fact possible for each of us to reach greatness through digital screens, in fact as images from various applications as highs and lows, as topographies. An image of the world has already been captured, although artificially.
As a painter who focuses on this, I created a collusion between the existing image and the image on the painting, superimposing them and asking "how can we raise new questions?".
In a text by curator Aslı Seven, we encounter this definition: “The exhibition contains an inquiry into the existential consequences of digital mediation in our relationship with Earth, and its effects on image production.” The part that I would like to highlight is “digital mediation” because, as you have pointed out, the way we position ourselves in relation to the world has changed.
Of course, yes. As a matter of fact, the proposition "Man is a creature detached from nature" is a definition handed down to us by philosophy and sociology, and we don't challenge it today. I believe one of the main reasons why we don’t have any doubts around this is the great distance between us and nature, caused by the possibilities of digital technologies. Hence when we think of the Industrial Revolution, which was a more mechanical period, the questions that we have today are more naive, and closer to reality. At present, my environmental awareness is informed by the fact that people are experiencing the consequences of natural destruction, which happened due to the great Industrial Revolution. Of course, we are talking about an experience of the global West. Coal mines and quarries were the places where the most severe cancer cases were seen for the first time in the world. Currently, the West is attempting to get rid of the carbon emissions of heavy industries sooner, as well as the resources causing the most environmental damage.
However, nothing in the world occurs simultaneously. The industrialization imperative that the West has undertaken is something that is looked up to by the “developing” countries - which causes a cyclical destruction. It’s possible to obtain information from around the world with these new digital resources. A kind of “reality” surrounds us and everything gets built around the idea of a capital, or a metropolis. As I have said, what we are experiencing is an indirect existential interaction with nature, which perhaps leads to the sensibility growing today. Since monotheistic religions, human beings have defined themselves as spoiled subjects of nature and the universe so much that; they kept consuming resources and developed an idea that they are entitled to everything. Yet, it became apparent that this was not the case. Instead of humans, the idea of our planet and living creatures as the primary subjects began to unfold. For a hopeful and utopic future, the idea of the transference of subjecthood from human to nature can be key.
Among all the topics that we have talked about, was there a statement or work that caught your attention recently?
While listening to Ömer Madra and Oya Baydar on a radio show earlier this year, I particularly enjoyed a statement that Oya Baydar made, on the young activist Greta. She said “Perhaps the new prophet of our time is Greta Thunberg”. I really liked this statement so I’ll continue to praise Greta like that. In times of crisis, someone will come along and will recapture and redefine our reality. In this great crisis that the world has entered, there is a besieged reality, and I hope that we can reclaim it. Thanks to Greta and other activists who are taking steps towards this direction, we may be able to regain a new reality, we may have a utopia once more.