NİL YALTER “Fragments of Memory” by Derya Yucel


“Fragments of Memory”


Witnessing with an artist’s sensitivity the history of intellectual and spatial changes, Nil Yalter, from the 1960’s on, redefined political, ideological, aesthetic and patriarchal narratives with a unique feminine point of view. Inspired by the disciplines of poetry, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and ethnology, Yalter transported all these disciplines into a personal/individual context to form an original and complex artistic field of activity, creating new meanings of countless various levels between past-present-future, I-other, reality-fiction, imagination-memory. In Yalter’s works, constructed memories appear as spaces of immigration, exile, displacement, interfusion and interaction and the notion of “culture” as an allegedly well-established body is questioned.


In her early work Nil Yalter expressed the tension between modernity and tradition by combining elements of constructivism, suprematism and Bauhaus, and added elements from Byzantine and Islamic art to this combination. Unexpected harmonies emerged, surprisingly revealing relationships between seemingly disparate approaches. Yalter translated these relationships she discovered from painting to new media in random, variable and multifarious ways. Using forms of new media, she went beyond a re-examination of the language of the 20th century avant-garde and applied, both intellectually and formally, its methods of dispersion-fragmentation and displacement. Yalter’s aesthetic-analytic style progressed towards producing the meaning-possibilities of new technologies which the artistic fantasy that came before her had begun to practice. The artist did not only combine various artistic styles and periods, but she also synthesised sociological and ethno-critical aesthetic practices against artistic doctrines. In her courageous and illuminating aesthetic practice, Yalter focused on themes such as immigrants, exiles, workers and women.




“L’ét ranger te permet d’être toi-même, en faisant, de toi, un êtranger”

“The stranger allows you to be yourself, by transforming you into a stranger”

Edmond Jabès, Paris, 1989


The “stranger” in Nil Yalter’s stories cannot be reduced to a single identity. Identity, here, is an interpretation that is continuously formed in motion. Her productions are accompanied by a temporary concern for rootlessness-nondirectionality. The concern emerges at the meeting of ego and the world, and thus it is this meeting and the interpretation that present the critical perspective. Nil Yalter appears as the inseparable companion of the convulsion that takes place at these meetings. The nomadic experience of Nil Yalter is not the expression of a fixed identity that belongs to a single location. The artist excludes the rhetoric that pertains to identity, blood and the borders of genealogy, instead carrying out a comprehensive interpratation of social relationships. Yalter is interested in rendering visible the position and worldviews of immigrants. She also believes that people can create change with the political struggle they carry out in order to be approved and represented within their methods of constructing awareness. She focuses on the work and living conditions and political exile of immigrants from Turkey, Portugal, Algeria and Chile.


“Temporary Dwellings 1974/1976”, a work included in the exhibition, is a series of fragments illuminating historicities belonging to exiled/immigrant communities. Works in which scenes of despair caused by hope, immigration, settlement and the effort to construct a sense of belonging, are realized as hybrid productions between aesthetics and documentation using drawings, photography, found objects, text and videos. In her movement between the cities of Istanbul, Paris and New York in the years 1974 to 1976, the artist uses the cities as fields of observation and research with the meticulousness of an ethnographer or anthropologist. Yalter’s aesthetic approach is to look at everyday existence as socio-criticial, sociological and ethno-critical art. Yalter uses ethnographic methods as a form of artistic production in order to understand and reveal human communities and their relationship with home, country and universe. These works point to the practices engaged with world/existence and the individuality of beliefs and symbolic relationships. The relationship of such ethno-critical works with the aesthetic field can be defined as part of the artistic creation emerging from within the consciousness/memory construction movements and political struggle of the 21st century.


The works contain video recordings on the everyday life, problems, wishes and desires of women, men and children. These documents convey highly significant statements concerning what life was like for immigrants in the 1970s. They are important in showing how separate areas according to the identities of foreigners were produced and in showing the importance of the role in the local economy of the immigrant/working class and the forms of their integration into the labour market despite the segregation of urban space. Or at least, the living evidence of suppressed histories are not so easily abandoned and forgotten. Because in general, countries with developed economies have until very recently been unwilling to articulate the history of immigration into their own history. In this context, it is highly significant for the discipline of art to emphasize and articulate memories deferred in relation to dominant histories. Nil Yalter did not only include the voices of these people who were recently heard from the 1970s on in memory, but she also echoed these voices by using considerably plain artistic media.


In the works titled “Temporary Dwellings 1974/1976” the “City” becomes a space of transition along an axis of adjacency, or a point of intersection. The city is not only experienced as a physical reality, the sum of collective history, memory and memorials, neither is it reduced to a fixed fancy; rather it becomes a fluid signifier containing unexpected, incalculable, multilayered interpretations and stories. There have always been inseparable ties between world cities in the global and supra-national system. The simultaneous occurrence of globalization and differentiation both feeds and questions the borders of the nation-state. Histories, cultures and processes are being questioned/interpreted by those on the ‘other’ of the hypothetical centre-periphery division line of times gone by. The “First World” has to commit more to confronting voices borne out of the history and languages that define the authority of that old spatial hierarchy. As an outcome, witnessed by the arts that found their inspiration in critical thought, the fluidity of life is transformed into more permanent forms and we continue today to witness this effort.


Another work in the exhibition, “The AmbassaDRESS 1977 /1980”, is formed of photographs, drawings and a video, and an installation. The variety of media used in the work is the product of an approach that allows the differentiation of the audience’s point of view. The artist draws the viewer towards details, constructs visual compositions and encourages the viewer to create meaning not based on but produced via images. By repositioning/presenting the common signs between image and memory via a dress and a story shaped around it, the artist combines the pieces of the continuous struggle for meaning and history. The artist is aware that a settling of accounts with the past and with history is a loaded/tense practice.


Although the dress at the center of the work titled “The AmbassaDRESS” contains a reference to “female” identity, Nil Yalter refrains from repeating the major-dominant narrative that invariably ascribes “female” identity a marginal position. In presenting “female” identity as a figure long not issued with legitimate representation, she in fact points towards, exhibits and criticizes phallocentric power structures. Nil Yalter does not emphasize the nostalgia for representation/difference or authenticity, she does not speak on behalf of, or stand in for others. She is at the interface, her voice, initiating dialogue, invites the viewer to be skeptic. She protects herself from the pointedness of definitions such as individual-society, I-other, familiar-different, east-west, inside-outside, fiction-reality, or history-narrative. In this work too, she does not trap the viewer into a territory that could be considered “finite.” There is no clear “message.” There are stories, fragments, and the viewer emancipated by the distance of the artist’s interpretation/gaze.


Yalter’s works are perceived as the expression of an artistic attitude where feminist, Marxist and post-colonialist thought intersect. The chronology of the works in the exhibition significantly reveals how the identities represented in her works and the memories that belong to these identities are recorded in a manner beyond contemporary preoccupations of art history. The witness accounts of these women and men comprise, without sacrificing the perception of the viewer, a certain aesthetic creativity, and it is here that the aesthetic creativity and the political stance of the artist interlock.


Derya Yücel

Istanbul, 2011 March