My research began, not in Cappadocia, but in the city of Istanbul. The intense, bustling, city is startling for all of its beauty, its poverty, its vibrance, and its decay. I have never known a more paradoxical city to exist than Istanbul. Whilst there are many things today in Istanbul that can sweep a person away it was the calligraphy of Mustafa Rakim that was to strike me the hardest and longest.
Historically, calligraphy holds a special place in Turkish culture. For hundreds of years typology and calligraphy have been definitively separated; to an extent that is far beyond Western comprehension. This meant that Calligraphy has existed as a veritable art and a study that was greatly appreciated. Perhaps this understanding grew from a similar ideology as that of the christian iconoclastic period? A period wherein it was considered blasphemous or heretical to depict religious deities and related figures in such a classificatory image. More recently Calligraphy had the chance to develop in an entirely new way. Mustafa Kemal, the Turkish President at the beginning of the 20th century, decided that Turkey needed to be revolutionised/modernised/westernised. Kemal, now known as Ataturk, abolished and illegalised the arabic language and replace it with an alphabet based using romanic characters. This left Calligraphy in a strange and novel situation. Throughout the Ottoman period Calligraphy became a prevalent feature of religious centers but the repercussions of Ataturk’s reforms would so impact the Turkish community so that today very few people can undestand calligraphic texts at all. This means that the symbolic meaning and artistic expression captured within the visual spectacle is enhanced. Calligraphy as a textual language descends from use whilst Calligraphy as Art, expression, aesthetic exploration, has a raised profile.
At this point I put Calligraphy to one side. I mean to return to this subject later in order to develop my critique and attempt to craft a personal and exploratory series of works on the subject of Calligraphic lines. In order to conclude my research briefly, the potential of Calligraphy to develop beyond the practises original purpose is only conceivable because of its redundancy as a functioning social language. Later when I was to visit Cappadocia the situation was very different and the emphasis in terms of the sites religious history differs greatly.
Cappadocia is famous for it’s erosion, it is also famous for its cave dwellings that harbour many early christian frescos. In amongst the cave dwellings are frescos that come from the brief iconoclastic period that occured between 726 – 843 AD. Pre and post Iconoclast frescos also exist and these are perhaps the most reknown of the surviving frescos however they are not that interesting to me. Pre and post Iconoclast images are figurative and as such compose a visual language that ought to be ubiquitously understood by those people who have only the most cursory knowledge of biblical stories. On the other hand, Iconoclast images are purely abstract and esoteric symbols, and, like Calligraphy, are an archaic visual language.
If we were to now delve into the dialectics of visual languages I would perhaps argue that these symbolic languages have a greater potential to be creative, subjectively unbounded, and versatile, than figurative pictorial languages such as those that sandwich the Turkish Christian Iconoclastic period. Figurative pictorial languages struggle to deconstruct the relationship that we have with the things being represented because of our inherent knowledge of the represented object/persons limitations and abilities. It is also appropriate to phrase this as, a figurative/realist language limits the message to that which can be shown through such images. In this basic way, the juxtaposition of non-realist symbols, that are significant in having meaning, can create a multitude of creative situations and personal interpretations. This is to say that the imagination, along with personal interpretation, can result in a far more phenomenal personal relationship with the content of the visual language.
So to bring my thoughts together, there are two religiously affiliated languages that have both became politically or socially active in the past and are currently redundant, archaic, or poorly represented, and are as such visually symbolic of what they were/are supposed to be involved with: Religion.
Now that I have explained my interest in the two languages, I must now provide my rationale for representing or working with them. Whilst in Istanbul I perceived Calligraphy to have deteriorated as a functional language as a repercussion of the phasing out of the arabic alphabet as it was replaced by it’s roman successor. Such a process, as previously mentioned, enforces ones visual relationship with arabic Calligraphy. I have noted this development and it i my intention to antagonise the situation. I reasoned that working with Calligraphic form, and the methodologies involved in its construction, could be done with the intention of highlighting its’ social relations as a ubiquitous decorative feature but also something heavily weighted with allusions to religion and Ottoman history. I proposed a performance, installation, or site specific series where-in calligraphic phrases were painted, using chalk and/or charcoal and water, or were drawn through the displacement of dirt, dust, and debris. In either scenario, the marks would gradually fade at a rate determined by the nature of the space and the surrounding traffic. It had been my intention to create these works in sites that would be relevant in some way, in Ottoman sites or public spaces such as Istiklal Cadesi. This has many resonances. The omnipresence of an Ottoman past, the weight of Muslim beliefs upon public etiquette, and the social revolution of perception in regards to Calligraphy. Inadvertently, I had already began to look at erosion before the word surfaced in Cappadocia.
As I have said previously, for a location, erosion has resounding importance in Cappadocia. It is here that rain, wind, and fluctuating temperatures, shaped the soft tuffaceous (comprising of a high percentage of compressed ash) landscape into giant monoliths and creased valleys. It is here also that human activity has affected the landscape. Aberrant and ancient civilisations have furthered the erosion of the tuff surface by digging their homes into it. Whilst there is much geological, anthropological, and topological erosion taking place, it was of course another kind of deterioration that caught me. That of language.
The parallels between Iconoclast symbols and Calligraphy are curious. Both are religious, both are languages, both are esoteric and were involved in some kind of prohibition or reform, both can claim to be art, both are decorative, both functioned as languages through the use of non-figurative and non-realist representations of ideas. Lastly, they both exist today although the evidencing material for Iconoclast images are scarce. The symbolic nature and the historical value of Iconoclast images are compelling as are the sites from which they come. What did they represent? Is there any consistency in the symbols? What forms do these symbols take and what do these symbols say about the psychology and perspective of the people who painted them? How were the symbols devised? How do they represent biblical stories? As the the Iconoclast symbols were supposed to represent the same biblical stories as the figurative images that were made in the post-iconoclast period, how do the respective images from each period relate to one another?
For me, the great variety of types of erosion can not be overlooked as an important and integral feature of any artistic response made to the site. The symbols that I am interested in could not have existed the way that they do without the churches to host them. Churches that could not exist without the soft tuff earth. The tuff is incontestably as important as the symbols if not more so. I propose that the symbols should then become a part of the environment that bore them. How this is to be done I can not say as yet but it is suggestible that they are recreated in an outside environment so that they can disintegrate at the pace of the earth that they are born of. The aesthetics of such a work need some consideration.