Skin and Surface
But perhaps it is the work of Şinasi Güneş in ‘Deri ve Yüzey’ which most demands that we rethink skin and surface, cultures and identity. It is this reworking of painting as the art of surface which signals to me the difficulty of the critical task in the visual arts in the contexts of Turkish culture. These paintings remind me that it is painting which has both been the site of the emergence of discourses of what modern art may be and object of explorations of what may be done with a discrete surface. The mainstream western in art has perhaps been promoted as this precise confluence of the modern, of a surface for painting as art. This is not precisely current, I believe. But nor is it simply past, as the out-of-date modern before the postmodern. Indeed, it is this confluence as model of the current, the up-to-date, which has been imported as if to be incorporated, if later to be gone beyond or set aside.
Şinasi Güneş’ work will not let us put this model of surface aside. He paints as if with three hands. One divides the canvas with a painted grid, painting beginnings. Another paints scenes of what seem, framed in this grid on the overdetermined space of painting, to be moments that end there. (Beginnings cannot simply continue to begin; they have to be the beginning of something.) Something which looks like a staircase, disappearing upwards out of view. A ‘Dikkat’ sign, as if caught in a stare. An endless procession of bones arranged like hurdles to be jumped. The figure of a man head down before our look, or turned as if towards another into a volumetric space. But each of these scenes are qualified, withdrawing from the spaces of the teleologies of activity. The staircase looks like an optical puzzle, and not like a duck-rabbit one, for figures are not just objects of aspect blindness or vision, despite what Wittgenstein seems to have argued.[i] For the figure which represents a staircase looks also like a pattern, a sort of flat space for the look to float across. The ‘Dikkat’ sign prohibits human and animal, undoing a space of their mutual exclusiveness. The bones rise up the surface of the painting like some awful monster to come, irridescent as if with toxic flesh. The human figures hold their faces to one side or have them criss-crossed in paint to the point of becoming illegible.
The truths of this working with paint seem to me to lie between the obvious modes of apprehension and comprehension of these multiple figurations. There are many tales to be told in the discovery of common themes, perhaps: but the pull is back to a sense of surface, a sense of surface which does not enclose a volumetric space, or a space of narration. This is signalled, it seems to me, by the stamping of each painted zone of the grid with the same mark. This mark, the work of the third hand, marks the painted surface with another sense of surface: surface as a site of reading, where we may follow, if we turn our looks or adjust to the distribution of marks in the correct orientation and order, a legend in Turkish which may be translated as ‘This is a work of art’. A surface of bureaucracy, each little ‘painting’ as if authorised to be shown as such, approved for public consumption or recognition.
It is as if Şinasi Güneş’ work appears by courtesy of a legal-machinic apparatus which approves the performance of painting as work of art, affirming that argument of and for Western art, that painting is the site of the manifestation of this notion of a work of art only on condition that the surface of that work also be the site of the readability of the Turkish for what would be seen there, were such legends not already an obscuring of something which the other two hands had already given to be seen. Thus does Şinasi Güneş’ painted work signal the double-bind of notions of the modern work of art in Turkey: prescribed as the terms of comprehension of what may be painted so as to be communicated, this apparent importation would already be the site of another sense of surface, one which is less the drama of a surface-impressing act of expression than a zone within and across which a sense of identity is staked, and other terms of comprehension insisted upon. The third hand of this artist is thus a sort of phantom of the sense of body which, identifying with zone, or surface as site, acts out the dreams of being many figures, human and otherwise, in space.
There is no equivalent in English to the semantic division between ‘deri’ and ‘ten’. What do these two Turkish terms for ‘skin’ suggest? A division between skin as that which is, as complexion, as the site of human flesh, to be cared for, cultivated or abandoned to and that which is to be regarded, measured up or redesigned. Does ‘Deri ve Yüzey’ turn from the erotic? Only as the already known, that which belongs to the idealised and demanding bodies of culture and not to the work of negotiating the spaces between surfaces, where senses of skin may be released.
Lewis Keir Johnson
[i] See L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigationsw, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), 194. Wittgenstein is already referring us to the potential generativity of visible figures, but sometimes sounds as if he is content to leave this as a matter of ambiguity. But the duck-rabbit figure is, of course, an occasion of a possible double identification with the animal, oddly successive if also not instantaneous, as he