Visual Art

A posthumous retrospective of Mutlu Çerkez’s work, structured by an idiosyncratic dating system of the artist’s devising, challenges concepts of when an artwork begins and ends. By Lisa Radford.

Mutlu Çerkez: 1988–2065

An installation view of Mutlu Çerkez: 1988–2065, at the Monash University Museum of Art.
An installation view of Mutlu Çerkez: 1988–2065, at the Monash University Museum of Art.
Credit: Andrew Curtis

For some reason, it is easier to imagine the end of something than the working through of it.

We have endless end-of-Earth narratives, from the Bible’s Book of Revelations to Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Being dead is a material qualifier, a life ceased. To declare something dead clears a space for something new – a rebirth or reincarnation, be it literal or symbolic. The irony of writing this over Easter is not lost on me.

Death becomes a delineator for a concept of time – a structure and a limitation. By default, an “end” locates another site as a beginning. In this case it is either the site of the first work as indicated in the title of the exhibition – Mutlu Çerkez: 1988–2065 – or the birth of the artist –London, 1964 – as it leads to a yet-to-be-determined end-point: either the death of the artist in Melbourne in 2005, or the date 2065, which was proposed as the end of a future dating system devised by Çerkez for his work. When the objects and subjects of our example multiply – person, animal, plant, artwork, museum, art historian; their life and the lives of others; the bits between birth and death – it means our perception of time as linear is compromised. We ask, whose beginning? Your beginning? What end? End of what? Et cetera et cetera.

Alongside many of his peers, Çerkez pioneered a new kind of suburban intellectualism that drew on lived experience and used it to intervene in art, starting artist-led spaces, speaking beyond the specifics of discipline. For Çerkez, painting was more than painting, and Led Zeppelin – a particular enthusiasm – was more than music: this was the gift he gave us, a kind of philosophical materialism imbued with a cool and observed pathos. The dating system devised for Çetrkez’s work reminds us of this vector-like loop when thinking about time. Each work is titled not with a name but with a specific date set in the future on which he proposed to remake the work, followed, as is convention, by the year the work was actually made. For instance: Untitled 14080 (5 April 2003), 1988.

A conflict between perception, place and time, and how we make sense of our role in it, is revealed by this system. But it is also a contradiction performed by re-enactment and redisplay of Çerkez’s work in the current exhibition and accompanying monograph presented by Monash University Museum of Art. Co-ordinated by a curatorium that included MUMA director Charlotte Day, senior curator Hannah Mathews and research curator Helen Hughes, the exhibition also consulted an expert panel and advisory committee in order to address the questions arising from presenting, or rather re-presenting, the work of a deceased artist. In a short essay from 2000, reprinted in the catalogue, curator Victoria Lynn asks, “What happens when an artist dies and what happens to their work?” Çerkez replies, via Mary Eagle in 1990: “... anything that is written about a work of art, even this thought, that I am writing now, intervenes”. Here, we might find an exhibition as intervention into the work of art.

An absence of explanation is characteristic of what we might call conceptual art. As a generalisation, its interest in the structures and limitations of language creates a distance between the work and us, confronting our desire for legibility and revealing the inherent lack of it. We interpret this in many ways, most often as either arrogance or being beyond our reach. Looking closer, or rather, thinking closer, it shows the contradiction between wanting legibility and being refused it. This reveals our own unsettling relationship with who and where we are – the limitation is understanding our own presence, asking: What is it that can be seen or heard and from which vantage point am I looking?

As soon as we enter the gallery at MUMA, this question of time and space is made present. The first work we see is shown in its crated and stored form. A series of meticulously carved tangles – knotted, multiple, entwined möbius strips – are stuck to square boards and painted with mission-brown enamel. These are stacked in a crate, purpose-made by the artist. The work’s storage-as-presentation is curious. As one of the few works Çerkez did get around to remaking, the stored form reiterates the lack of legibility in limiting our ability to view the original work. Beside it hangs its reincarnated singular other – a painting that depicts the corner of one of the tangles, which we cannot know because it is in the box. The title of the stored works range numerically but all were made in 1988 and remade in 2003. The painting declares which stored work is rendered in its title: Untitled: 11 April 2003, 2003. The “birth” work collated and compressed, its “death” work is a painting of the corner of another painting, rendered as a Vermeer might be, with warmth yet cool. This is the experience of being between Çerkez’s work – a perforated-loop of detail lacking detail.

In the next room, a line of year-per-page calendars wraps the far corner, just above head-height. The work is called Untitled 36891 (17 September 2065), 1990. Reading left to right, we find 1964 as the beginning and 2075 as an ending, the dates in the work extending beyond the period prescribed for its remaking. The individual calendars are small, domestic or home business in form, covered in clear, adhesive film. Resting on their timber shelf, each slightly faded calendar could be mistaken for a small-porcelain tablet. Beneath them – between 1965 and 2075, and below 1990, the year of the work’s making – hangs a painting of the nature-morte genre. This rendering of potatoes from the artist’s garden belongs to another era – perhaps the 16th century – but the canvas board on which it is painted and the office calendar pages drag us back into the present. Curiously signed and dated, the first line scripted at the top and centre reads “Mutlu Egemen Çerkez 1990”. This marked a name change for Mutlu, from Hassan to his mother’s maiden name followed by his original family name. Below it is the date “17 September 2065”, rendered in the painting as a marker that places us in Çerkez’s time line. The distance between his birth and this “unmarked” date in the future is 101 years. A prime number. A clue where life and death are divisible only by themselves or simply a red herring?

Walking through, or rather inside, the rest of this exhibition, the quandary that is re-creating the work of a dead artist becomes more pressing – the physical limits of architectural space in competition with the desire to show as many works as possible, of those works that are left having neither been burnt nor lost, as so much of Çerkez’s work was. How close to follow a rule that even the artist has recognised should be broken? How to position work that had an ambition to be remade? Was that ambition ever really literal?

The exhibition continues to unravel and loop back in on itself the more time is spent within it: dated mirror numeral paintings that reveal the process of their making; dot-matrix Led Zeppelin bootleg posters for concerts never played; self-portraits and portraits of friends and lovers imaged as make-up proposals, delineated by their titles. All the while, in the background, you know there is an apiary somewhere in the gallery. If you are quiet enough you can hear it, and if you are patient enough you might see the queen bee. One has died already, but the process of supersedure comes into play: the workers will raise emergency queens by switching worker bee larvae to a diet of royal jelly, a food that turns female larvae into queens. It’s an ongoing process – humble in scale, mammoth in effect. Another time line, making and remaking.

There is no solid chronology to the presentation of works in the exhibition. Instead, chronology is revealed time and time again to be a fallacy or a question. This exhibition isn’t easy to visit – the handy exhibition guide and generous exchanges with invigilators help and to some degree seem part of this loop now. The catalogue is the hardcopy articulation of this dissemination – the finite information produced in an artist’s short life and then the infinite variations this content can produce, a quantum physics and hermeneutic phenomenology that looks to loss as much as to love.

It is hard in this show to overlook the intimate, yet stark black negative spaces that transcribe telephone-dating messages verbatim and without punctuation. It is, in a sense, the most obviously personal work, meaning of a person rather than necessarily of Çerkez, and one that now, if we think of swipe-to-swipe actions, could easily be an algorithm. It is here that the pathos mentioned earlier is most evident. These pictures speak as one absent body looking for another, the desire for intimate exchange becoming something that more closely resembles a transaction. In the past we left shaky voicemails on answering machine tape. Now we carefully construct shaky introductory “texts” after our crafted descriptor has been swiped. Çerkez’s works reveal a remarkable generality to this search for companionship, determined by the mediating medium, be it analog or digital. He transcribes the materiality of the illusion of choice if no risk is actually taken.  

Billed as a finissage – an apt title for a wake of the highest regard – Various Responses: Mutlu Çerkez: 1988–2065 will take place at MUMA next Saturday. It will see close friends, writers and historians intervene with a walkthrough, a lecture and a reflection – a concert for art history. Commenting on his interest in Led Zeppelin and the bootleg, Çerkez once recalled that Led Zeppelin had an appointment to make a future work that they could not keep due to death – that of their drummer John Bonham – which forced the cancellation of a concert in Chicago. Çerkez designed an album cover for this impossible concert bootleg using the ticket from the impossible concert. This exhibition is an impossible concert but if we look at Çerkez’s work, it is also one he planned. As Robyn McKenzie has pointed out, futures are contracted by a past. Çerkez makes last stands that will always leave open another question.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 7, 2018 as "Been a long time".

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