Burak Delier, Songs of the Possessed, 2014. Courtesy of the artist

Burak Delier: Freedom has no script
INIVA London, 26 Mar – 17 May 2014

published in Springerin

Turkish artist Burak Delier’s first major exhibition in the UK, Freedom has no script at Iniva, is a highly politically-charged display exploring the entangled and paradoxical relationships between art, capitalism and prescribed notions of freedom. Within the context of the anti-governmental protests at Gezi Park, one may think that Delier’s work is a reactive interpretation of the uprising that exposed the failures of a possible ‘Muslim democracy’ paradigm. His practice, however, is far more subtle than that; as Hal Foster would argue, it is not ‘political art’ but an ‘art with a politic’[1], addressing the effectivity of aesthetic experiments within the social totality rather than reproducing ideological representations through rhetorical codes. “Without any scripted agenda or a leader to follow, multiple practices of freedom and solidarity had become possible in Gezi Park” said the artist in an interview for Aesthetica magazine. “These practices were based on ad hoc improvisation and free experimentation. And this idea of experimenting and improvisation can be linked to various scenarios that we see in my artworks. (…) Only when we don’t exactly know which way to follow, when we feel uncertain do we become available for the experience of freedom”.

Delier deals with problems of choice and hegemony starting with his own work place, the art world. In Notes from my Mobile we follow him on the bustling streets of Istanbul, on a journey of critical self-examination that captures his on-the-spot thoughts on the economics of the Turkish contemporary art scene and his position within. The prevailing feeling is of failure: his art does not meet the expectations of the western art elite as it does not overtly portray the current Turkish political affairs; it does not appeal to the local audience either, as it is not rooted in the local traditions; his networking skills with curators and critics require radical improvement; his production rate needs to raise to seven or eight new works per year; and, in general, his career would have been far better if he would have chosen to study in Paris, for example. The work is presented as a rough video diary, with no set up, rehearsals or polished editing, revealing how art is made and how the subject negotiates his position between being part of and being a spectator. The act of filming may be seen as a ‘life-in-the-project’ or as a ‘lifetime performance’, as Boris Groys coined the terms [2], whilst the ephemeral nature of the work and its display (in a small box with a hole you have to peak through) hint at the consumerist ‘passion for the Real’, as Alain Badiou identified it as the key feature of this century[3]. By addressing complex social concerns through simple yet incisive comments, Delier stimulates reflection on the way critical discourse and identity are being produced, never offering an utopian, prescriptive alternative, but opening up new perspectives and legitimacy.

The artist’s struggle with his career is intimately connected to financial capitalism and the global art market. The market is corrupting art, determining what kind of art is made and sold, changing the topics of art and eventually controlling its future. The worst scenario emerges when it is also corrupting artists themselves, luring them and rewarding them for superficial work. In Collector’s Wish, Delier explores the uneasy relationship artists have with influential patrons and the money they offer, undermining the myth of creative freedom through art. He says to the collector: “I’ll do anything that you ask, what kind of work do you want?” He takes detailed notes and carries out the comission as instructed, yet the ‘artwork’ is not actually the end product ordered by the collector, but the full process documented on film. In the face of the rampant collapse of the art world into the world of trade and inauthenticity, Delier succeeds at retaining his autonomy and produces significant art at the very intersection of opposing value systems.

A similar strategy, reminiscent of the Artist Placement Group’s approach in the late 1960s, is at play in The Deal,  where the artist creates an economic loop unveiling the intricacies and absurdities of financial capitalism, alongside its systems of value, power and prestige. He asks his gallery to withdraw the money they would pay him for a work, gives the money over to a trader, plays a complicated game of risk involving countless transactions, but ultimately loses. The process is painstakingly documented and explained through video and diagrams. As in a performative act, the artist works here at the site of reception of his work, being in charge of maintaining the operational relationship between aesthetics and politics. By infiltrating the global political economy and making visible its syntax that links and controls everything, Delier turns aesthetic into a guerrilla tactic of silent subversion and reinforces art’s capacity of experimental investigation, despite its marginal locus in late monopoly capitalism.

The levels of absurdity and estrangement rise even higher in the video installations Crisis and Control and Songs of the Possessed. The first shows real workers from the world of corporate finance in Turkey, practicing yoga to relieve the stress of their careers, whilst the second focuses on power relations at work and their effect on people’s lives and emotions. On the surface, contemporary office life exudes a stronger measure of freedom than it ever did: more and more women have come to occupy higher rungs of the corporate ladder, and people feel free to move between companies and continents. At the same time, freedom in one’s choice of workplace really reflects the abrogation of a company’s sense of loyalty to its employees, whereas the frantic busyness with no tangible outcome and commitment takes away any promise of a purposeful, balanced life. Psychological instability is the experiment that white-collar workers have to endure, alienated from the products of their work and enslaved in their uptight bodies by the corporate ethos. Carrying the experiment one step nearer to its Kafka-esque completion, Burak Delier forcefully reorients our entire picture of how people’s occupations affect their lives, and how insecurity, routine and ersatz diversion, in turn, determine the features of our political life.

[1]           Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle 1985.
[2]           Boris Groys, The Loneliness of The Project, MuHKA, Antwerp 2002.
[3]           Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, Stanford University Press, 2005.