A Project by Open Space

Silent dissidence: artefacts as other space
by Artun Özgüner

“I open my eyes in London; I am far away from Istanbul now. You have to travel light these days. Man’s airlines only allow you a third of your own weight. You cannot take all your objects. But how do you choose what to take and what to leave? ”

I close my eyes and I am there, in that space in time. A calendar hangs on the wall, the year October 1987. The page is dusty, hasn’t been turned in nine months. Dust rays penetrate through the blinds. Carpets rolled up. It is July and blazing hot. My mother weeps on the floor. I feel cold and glad that it’s a hot summer. This is my grandmother’s house in Istanbul. She had passed away that autumn. I walk out. The city, Istanbul, Duetera Rhome, Byzantium, Constantinople, which name designates this space? And why? She has no name, she is indifferent to us. I walk on. Taksim Square, gravestones buried underneath the streets, tiresome monuments above, broken slabs of the Opera House scattered around, a concrete mosque rising high. Mark after mark…Man writes in stone what he cannot write in the heart. The heart beats. It has a place in the rib cage. Surrounded by the lungs. That is its place.

Man hopes the stone will turn the space into a place. But no stone stays in place forever. Man is greedy. He overwrites the other’s stones. He makes the space another. When did it happen? Since when do we name space? For how long are we going to disillusion ourselves with the idea that space can be owned? All overlap and coalesce. All there but none now, except for the roads. Red light. Stop. I will not. I will cross. Michel de Certeau says that rather than planners, it is pedestrians that give meaning to the city by their own walking on it, in it, around it and out of it.[1] The city does not belong to the planner who names it. The city is my memory of walking about it. There is a photograph of my grandmother and me in front of Istanbul’s Taksim monument built in 1928. It frames my grandmother, the monument and me. But it does not belong to this space anymore. Where is this space? Why do I think about this monument if it is not about my grandmother and me? The space occupied by the monument is not the man’s, it is my grandmother’s, it is my grandmother. You should have a place in a city, a space that is yours only. But this is a city with many spaces and I have no place in it but in that photograph. This photograph is my place in Istanbul. I close my eyes, I am there. But it is not a physical space. The photograph opens up, it becomes a place. The monument moves, it encapsulates my grandmother and me. We are the monument and the monument is us. The monument that I know cannot exist without the photograph of my grandmother and me in front of it. This is not the man’s monument. It is not a monument to man. Like Roland Barthes’ Winter Garden photograph of her mother, I cannot reproduce this photograph; the way it exists is peculiar to me only, much less would its’ digital copy pay justice to its flaking corners and its dusty chemical scent.[2]

I open my eyes in London; I am far away from Istanbul now. You have to travel light these days. Man’s airlines only allow you a third of your own weight. You cannot take all your objects. But how do you choose what to take and what to leave? Objects are the surplus of an individual. They make us who we are no matter how much we disillusion ourselves to think that we make them. With every object left behind, an aspect of an individual is also left behind to linger in that space. How can an arriver turn her new space into a place without her objects? The Romans bought copies of Greek statuary to dwell in their spaces. Victorians bought copies of Roman statuary to adorn their meaning-making machines, their museums. None could do without the other’s objects to make the space a place. But the Romans were everywhere. They built walls from Istanbul to Britain. Hadrian built one in North England in 122 AD. He did not want intruders trespassing. He did not want the objects of another. But Romans were everywhere, making places out of the space with their monuments. That is why Trajan built his column in Rome in the second century; to record his victory over the Dacians.

 Interior space of the copy of Trajan’s Column, painted plaster cast, 1864, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

I am at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Museums are now filled with the others’ objects. They are banks of memories; written, shaped, chiseled, woven, painted, torn, broken, restored…Museums give meaning to the space occupied by earth. They are full with man’s hopeless attempts to turn the earth we inhabit into the world we rise on. In the mid-eighteenth century, Napoleon III ordered a cast copy of Trajan’s column in Rome and then made copies out of an electrotype master. One of these was bought by the South Kensington Museum in 1864 and is still in the V&A’s cast courts today. Like the photograph of my grandmother and me in front of the Taksim monument, Trajan’s column is a copy. But no copy is identical. My grandmother’s photograph is my own copy and the cast of Trajan’s column is Queen Victoria’s copy. Castings, the V&A catalogue says, work like photographs, they “record the moment the cast was taken”; they are truthful records of all the wear, dust and dirt accumulated on the monument in 1864.[3] Like a photograph, the cast froze the monument at that space in time. Trajan’s original column still stands in Rome now. It has been standing at the same spot for 2000 years. It has not moved. It is tired. The rocks beneath it are more tired. They have occupied that same space for a long time now. Are they the same rocks? Is Trajan’s column really in the same place? Is the column today identical to its 1864 copy at the V&A?

The V&A’s copy forgot about the Dacians, it is more about the Victorians then it is about those who created the column. But it is not the spire piercing into the museum ceiling that dominates the space. The column has a hollow shaft. That is where its volume lies. That is where you see the space it occupies. It is the space that lives in its hollow inside that is a place. The hollow core subverts the man’s monument; turns it inside out. It reverses what it has to remember. It interrupts the monument’s memory of the Victorians. In its lexical definition, the “reverse side” of an object is given as the less important one. The hollow core of the column is symbolically less important because it does not recount man’s victories. Like my photograph, which reverses the man’s looming monument on Taksim Square and makes a space for me out of a space without spaces. The reverse, or the inside, offers places for seclusion; seclusion from the narrative of the monument, seclusion from the diatribe of the symbolic imposed on space, seclusion from man’s positive occupation of space. A space without spaces. It has been lying there secretly in silent dissidence towards its makers. To annul it you have to raze the monument: they belong together. Just like the Taksim monument that I know of is inseparable from my memory of it through the photograph. Once space is experienced through artefacts, it becomes a space without spaces, one never forgets it. The experience of space lies in one’s own memory in dissidence and indifference to man’s positive domination of space. To annul it one would have to erase one’s own personal experience of space.

Freud once said that Rome could be thought of as a metaphor for the mental processes, for all its layers are superimposed on top of each other.[4] Yet he was wary of the metaphor’s shortfalls, because the older layers of the city’s history were smashed over. In Freud’s model of the mind you should be able to go from Trajan’s Rome to Mussolini’s, from one man’s space to another or from no space to none other. You cannot. We cannot. But memory can. It is simultaneously produced out of space but is independent of its subsequent processes and decay. Both my photograph and Victoria’s Trajan column are reproductions of a particular space and time and they reside in actual space but the space they suggest is a space without spaces.

Artun’s cousin’s magnet collection on her fridge, including a miniature copy of the Palmyra Arch

In April 2016, London Mayor Boris Johnson inaugurated a full-scale, 3-D scanned replica of the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra on London’s Trafalgar Square. The arch originally stood in Syria where it was built in the second century by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. Severus’ arch was destroyed by the Islamic state in October 2015 in an iconoclastic attack. Johnson said that the replica was an arch of “technology and determination […] in the spirit of defiance, defiance of the barbarians who destroyed the original”.[5] The original commemorated Severus’ victory and rule over the eastern kingdoms, his power-lust military dictatorship that had eclipsed the Roman senate. The effigies of once colonial, now forgotten British generals on Trafalgar Square looked in awe at Severus’ resurrected monument. Dead twice, once by time and second by ISIS, and conjured up in death and resurrected from its grave, the Palmyra arch looked uncannily back at them. Unlike my photograph of the Taksim monument, which ties the monument to my memory of my grandmother, or the hollow interior of the V&A column, which subverts Victorian lust for objects, Johnson’s replica cannot be dissident; it cannot be manipulated as it is already too manipulative. It is resurrected to rewrite another man’s victory as Johnson’s own. It is meant to subvert the ISIS-led destruction. But as much as the erection and destruction is other men’s victory, the replica is equally another man’s celebration. How can we then access the sense of space conveyed by the Palmyra Arch if resurrecting it from its grave by a state of the art technology is deceptive? Where to seek the departed Palmyra Arch? It lies in the memories of millions who have seen it, walked through its threshold, hid under its shade in the hot summers, or perhaps demoted it as a sign of resentment to Roman dominion. It haunts the tourist photographs taken in front of the arch in visits to the archeological site. It lingers in the many fridge magnets that were innumerably reproduced in a distant corner of the earth but were then personalised in a kitchen to supposedly remind the household every morning of their visit to the site. It lies within the hollow space of the heart, in spaces without spaces.


[1] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), p. 73.

[3] ‘Collections’, Victoria and Albert Museum (2019) <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O102467/trajans-column-copy-of-trajans-apollodorus-apollodorus-of/>

[4] Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancholia’, in Standard Edition Vol.14 (London: Hogarth Press, 1957).

[5] Boris Johnson, ‘Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph Recreated in London’, BBC News (2016) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36070721>

[accessed 02 March 2019]

ABOUT ARTUN:
Artun Özgüner is a PhD candidate on the RCA History of Design programme in collaboration with the V&A Museum. His research explores the trajectories of commemorating and representing the Turkish nation-state through physical monuments and print media from the 1908 Constitutional Revolution of the Ottoman Empire onwards. His main research interests include practices of commemoration, the nationalisation of material culture and design resources, graphic design history, visual and print culture.