* Bosphorus Sanat Gazetesi (The Art Newspaper), December 2010
Ahmet Öner Gezgin, who brought the experimental photography approach to Turkish photography, is one of the leading artists in his field. He has served as the Deputy Rector at the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, Dean of the Department of Fine Arts and Chairman of the Department of Photography at the same university. Having adopted the principle of forcing freedom and limits in photographic expression, the artist is currently serving as the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Işık University. While discussing what kind of innovations have been made regarding art education in Turkey, we also talked about photography, which is our main concern. I hope you will enjoy this read.
E.SEKMEN: In the past, when art education was mentioned only Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts (Academy of Fine Arts) came to mind. Today, the situation has changed. With the opening of private schools, the ways are paved for creating polyphony in art education. Adnan Çoker, who likened the academy to an orangery, said that artists were taken under protection at the academy. What do you think about this?
A.Ö.GEZGİN: Adnan Çoker’s use of such a sentence reflects his own thinking, which I respect. However, what is intended to be said here in general terms is that in the Academy a specific trend is taken under protection rather than the artists themselves. As a person who has experienced many things during my tenure as dean, I understand this from the orangery allegory. The Academy is the first and deep-rooted art school in our country; it has been an establishment resource for many schools in the education of many artists. The Academy has done the right things from this point of view. On the other side of the coin, there are conflicts; ego conflicts, contempt, exclusion and smear campaigns stemming from differences in tendencies… If debates arise in an institution from differences in understanding, this is good; these also bring positive energy; however, the entrenched thinking that comes from the past at the Academy did not allow this. If a young student of art, goes abroad and seeing what others have to offer rebels against his own institution on his return, this means that institution needs to change. But it is a futile endeavor… Opening of the way to the establishment of the Faculties of Fine Arts in universities with YÖK (the Council of Higher Education) has brought about the existence of many institutions for the furtherance of art education. I think that, as the Işık University Faculty of Fine Arts, with our approach to art education, we have done the best that can be done.
A.Ö.GEZGİN: First I would like to start by saying that our Faculty is only the final link added to Işık University in a 125 year tradition of education under the Feyziye Schools Foundation which has always been aware of the value of continuity in institutionalization. Today, when education, especially art education, is transformed into a commodity that can be bought and sold, and promotions are distributed in order to get a share of the cake, it is inevitable for our faculty, which has set its most important target as raising good people first and foremost, to reveal the difference between the quality of the student centered art education and the production process, versus the other institutions conducting similar programs at the same level. Art is an important means of establishing a lost union between the finite human being and the infinite universe, it has an essence and quality that extends to our intrinsic values. Since this is the case, art is directly dependent experienced teams to carry out programs for the identification and teaching of its boundaries while keeping in mind the ideal educational program to meet the expectations of the time. Essentially, what needs to be understood from the concept of “art education” should be the advancement of intellectual individuals who have the ability to think and are critical and consciousness, who examine each problem intelligently and produce a solution, who research, ask questions and search for the answers to the questions, while also being aware that active learning is not limited to school, and who will contribute to the development of the culture and art of their country. With this in mind, we have been tasked with establishing the ideal conditions for contemporary art education and started out with the most distinguished educational staff of our country, who have proven their experience in the education of art at the national and international level. We believe that our students need to learn the main, immutable principles of art, and to adopt the necessary experience in experimental training including lifelong exercises on the subject, while continuing their artistic work in complete freedom without the barrier of interdisciplinary walls. We are determined to pursue our contemporary view of education, taking into account the constantly changing national and international dynamics.
E.SEKMEN: Being a student had a markedly different connotation in the past. Now students graduate and then they join the contemporary art scene. Are they sufficiently equipped? Is it just a talent? Or is there a resource that feeds it?
A.Ö.GEZGİN: Art students, trained specifically to create an authentic identity in the field of plastic arts, are much luckier today than they were before. First of all, we as educators cannot hold students’ educations and their future ransom based on our own tendencies.
As educators of the arts, our duty is to help students acquire and accumulate the necessary knowledge to determine their own tendencies, to pave their way, to help them express their hidden potential, in so far as creativity, invention and constructiveness. Now that art education is a part of University education, the established profile of the educator has changed. The period when the educator took their own personal tendency into the workshop and presented it as the only correct way, forcing student in this direction, is over. This is why I believe that, it is a necessity of the age we live in that art education, the educator or education programs cannot be maintained as it was in the traditional model of the academy. In putting together the framework for art education, a system focused on only practical application should not be imposed; it should not be forgotten that the accumulation of theory and knowledge is as important as the work itself. Because, in contemporary art, the effort to put art and theory on the same parallel platform are attracting attention. It is the common view of contemporary art philosophers that theory has replaced art and the elements constituting a work of art should not be based on aesthetics but rather on theory. Nowadays, with the tearing down of interdisciplinary walls and when at a time when art is being carried out in an environment of complete freedom, art students are much more courageous than they used to be.
E.SEKMEN: Another side to you is that of a photographer… Where do you place your work in terms of photography?
A.Ö.GEZGİN: During my adventure, which began during my student years at the Academy and continued overseas, I have been most impressed by the manifesto of the Dadaist Man Ray. Man Ray wanted to create a free environment where everything that was forbidden was done, in line with his works and the ideas he had defended; so, he brought a new insight in the name of photography – considered worthless for being the product of a technological process – contrasting with modernist thought, which values to a great extent the purity of the traditional tools of expression. This is exactly what the production of meaning, that is to say an approach directed towards achieving the other reality by using the technological process as a tool, that Victor Burgin has indicated in his article titled “Photographic Practice and Art Theory”. In the process extending from the past to the present, I based the foundation of my works produced both in intellectual and practical dimensions, upon the manifesto of Man Ray. In the 80s, when I brought the aspect of photography that is open to experiment to discussion with my exhibition entitled “Gerçek ve Fantezi” (1980) (Truth and Fantasy) at the Academy, all hell broke loose; I had moved a stone from its place that was established and functioning very well. Thus, the process of debating experimental photography started and there was no going back after that. Did it turn out bad? No! I have led to the creation of a vivacious environment wherein problems were discussed on every platform until the 90’s.
SEKMEN: A tool that documented at the beginning.
A.Ö.GEZGİN: The aspect of photography as documentation, as a technological tool is beyond dispute. Because in the 19th century, as a brand-new tool of expression and as a matter of fact at first completely far from a major claim such as being art, the sole purpose of the earliest practitioners of photography was to present to the world as an image recording device, was the objective and accurate recording of the subjects they were working on, rather than art oriented expression. Photography, which had already emerged as a ready-made image, could not profess to be art, as it did not have the sub-structure of form and meaning development that has been manipulated finely in the direction of social value judgments throughout history, unlike other plastic arts. However, it is also a fact that within the art nouveau movements that emerged in the early 20th century, photography entered into an effort to create its own visual language on the one hand and on the other hand has formed a basis for the process leading to significant changes in the figurative language of painting and sculpture but mostly painting. The socio-economic, political and cultural development of a country shapes the direction in which new technologies are to be used. In our country, because of the reason photography exists, the tradition of documentary photography is still an extension of local and self-enclosed cultures that the generation of the 60s lived through intensively. In the social and artistic development of photography, although the institutionalization of education in the west occurred immediately after the Second World War, a delay of 139 years is experienced in our country. As an art cannot develop without education, today the existence of documentary-oriented education programs in our country also has to be seen as normal. Photography is a technological path that is closely tied to its designated boundaries since its invention. Although the traditional retrospective structure of photography shows differentiation today, this difference should be perceived only as a problem of methodology. In the process of image production and consumption, human beings having to use image creation and photographic image processing programs provided by digital technologies, and they will continue their creative personality just as the traditional structure assumed in the dark room also in the light chamber.
SEKMEN: The old-new debate comes to mind.
A.Ö.GEZGİN: The old-new debate is a dilemma of documentary photography. This is due to the fact that documentary photography does not give much importance to other initiatives, especially to the photography as something open to experiment, except for the constraint of the moment created within a very short period of time, as the hundred and twenty fifth of a second. This has been overcome now. Because, if I use a tool as a subject, I must be able to move it to an interdisciplinary dimension, go for the path of creating my own reality, and be free in this. Man Ray, who strove to create a free environment where everything forbidden could be done, was criticized a lot during his time but he did not give up. Neither did I. I tried to create my own free environment and to create my own reality in this environment just as it is in the theater. Today, at this point, in the experimental context, the critical perception of photographic displays used by artists creating photography-based work is so dominant over the contemporary art that, photography is now only a tool just like other art branches.