Digital purgatories: Bora Akinciturk’s dystopian visions.
Hailing from Istanbul in Turkey, virtuosic artist Bora Akinciturk is most known for his hyperrealistic paintings and posthuman digital installations, all of which draw inspiration from the heterogeneous visual culture we are bombarded with in daily life, be it through TV, the internet, or even works by other creators themselves. This is perhaps partially explained by his movements from Turkey to Basel and London at a young age, which enabled him to quickly learn the nuances of how different cultures concoct. Of particular interest to Akinciturk is the way that “online platforms that are narrating and sometimes shaping society.” Whether it’s diamonds from the trailer of an ITV4 reality show, political aesthetics ranging from QAnon to Brexit and Thatcher or advertisements formed by religious groups, Akinciturk recognises how images can be used as a form of control in society, asserting that he is more interested in their authority than their message. To this point, the relatability and reappropriation of memes, perhaps under-recognised as some of the most transgressive imagery of our times, is of particular interest to Akinciturk, who remixes and re-envisions these himself, never directly copying them. As he says, “I try not to make them into paintings, for they are strong and sufficient left as they are,” adding that “when I use something that has memetic qualities, I try to disguise it further or make my own version of it.” As he collects these, Akinciturk compares their specific temporal nature to be an almost non-representational autobiography, explaining they “have a direct connection to what I’m personally going through at any given time.” The disguises he renders creates tantalisingly layered results; personal, yet impersonal; specific, yet vague; all with a signature oscillation between shock and ennui: charged, haunting tableaux with clues but no clear resolution…
First things first, when did you realise you wanted to become an artist?
It was around 1998–99, a time when I was going to a traditional painters’ studio to prepare for the Fine Arts university exams in Istanbul. I loved the daily routine, and the fact that one of the residents there was capable of living on selling his canvases. The notion that one could survive solely on their practice was a key inspiration.
Is there any particular artwork in any medium that has changed the way you consider the potentiality of creative expression?
Not a specific one. However, I remember when I first discovered the artist Van Gogh, I realised how powerful and emotionally moving a painting could be. For instance, his own suffering is visible throughout his oeuvre; it sounds cliché, but it is a rare quality of his. Also, his commitment to his practice and the volume of his production in such a short lifetime is remarkable.
Growing up, did moving between different countries like Turkey, Switzerland and The United Kingdom impact the way you understand culture and its power?
Yes, definitely. The language change whilst living in Basel for a year in 1994, because of my father’s job transfer, was difficult, but living in Europe at that time, even if it was only for a brief period, gave me an introductory vision of Western culture, and I found it very refreshing. Compared to being in Istanbul, growing up in the 90s in Europe meant that I could see new films as they were released and access the latest arcades, comics, fashion, and so on… It felt like a huge privilege to be exposed to such a diversity of media.
I was fascinated by the mini fabricated rugs in your studio made using digital collage, collating iconography such as meme cartoon Wojak, slogan ‘Pull The Trigger’ and what appears to be a customised pink EU Flag with an overlaid spider (image 9). How did the idea for these come about?
I made the rugs for my first solo show in America ‘Keep Smiling is the Art of Living‘ at Alyssa Davis, New York, which took place almost a year after Donald Trump was elected as president. Planning for the exhibition, I felt like I could create a position for someone who thinks they don’t really belong anywhere, someone with a blank identity in that sociopolitical climate. That led to the idea of coming up with a platform where cultivated ideologies, ready-made identities and varied theories could be selected or even injected. The show was mostly about building this space. For instance, there was a live feed via an IP camera that reflected visitors back to themselves on an iPad screen as they walked into the gallery. The result felt like a simulation in which one has almost died and was entering some form of online digital purgatory. I wanted it to be something like a character selection menu for a dystopian game. It included two epoxy sculptures filled with dead flies, masks and sim cards in addition to an invented collage flag coming out of a big flower pot. The mats were placed around it, depicting the ideology of the mutant banner or something similar… lol! Artist Shepard Fairey had only recently made his notorious illustration of a young Muslim woman wearing the American flag as a headscarf. I wanted to mash up that image with something else and make my own version of it. Around that time, I was listening to “Invaders Must Die” by the music band The Prodigy, and had the idea to put the ant that appeared on this album cover and video on top of the woman’s face.
Largely manipulating oil in order to construct hyperrealistic pieces, how important is using digital software as almost a ‘sketchbook’ to play with ideas?
In my early twenties, I used to be divided about the binary of ‘digital vs handmade’, but quickly realised that there is no point in trying to split these up. For each creation, I use whatever is required. I wouldn’t say my depictions are hyperrealistic, or at least I don’t try to make them so; perhaps more generic or illustrative. In any case, digital software is very helpful for certain things.
Your work feeds from a range of internet sources, such as Twitter, tumblr, Reddit and 4chan. These platforms are known for their somewhat ironic, sinister and sardonic humour. What is so appealing about these comedic, evolving, visual vignettes?
I think it’s the source from which some crucial parts of digital culture originate from. Ever since the internet started to dominate our lives, online platforms have been narrating and sometimes even shaping culture, whether it’s through including a specific genre of art, music or even politics, so I find them very important in that sense.
Do you have a certain criteria for translating and transporting these sources successfully into the context of a carefully rendered composition?
I don’t think I do. There are ever-changing things that I’m interested in, and I think that they guide my practice and tend to be transported into the context of my canvases. I’m not sure how successful or careful these are; I try to make the work as ordinary, personal and weird as possible.
Artist Aria Dean described relatability and re-appropriation as important characteristics of memes: “Relatability helps memes sustain a kind of cohesion in ‘collective being’, a collective memory that can never be fully encompassed; one can never zoom out enough to see it in its entirety… Memes are created for the very purpose of virality and, by extension, appropriation. Memes move in cycles of production, appropriation, consumption, and reappropriation” Are these concepts important for your work inspired by meme culture?
Yes, I value relatability. The found images I use often do have that relatable memetic content, but I don’t think I choose them mainly for their online nature. I like to see them as a kind of timestamp for the date I made each particular artwork, bearing autobiographical qualities. I think those elements bring about some amount of relatability. I try not to make memes into paintings, for they are strong and self-sufficient left as they are. That being said, when I use something that has memetic characteristics, I try to disguise it further or make my own version of it.
Could you tell me more about the importance of ‘autobiographical qualities’?
I constantly collect images and do this very consistently. As well as taking photographs, I take screenshots on my phone and save online pictures that interest me on my laptop all the time. Almost automatically, this found visual inspiration ends up affecting my aesthetics in different ways. In an autobiographical sense, they indicate what I’ve been looking at and therefore have a direct connection to what I’m personally going through at any given time.
The pandemic-induced lockdown disrupted the routine of many artists. I understand you moved to focus on smaller paintings. How easy was this transition? Did it alter your conceptual process?
I had this little list of ideas archived in my phone’s notes folder and I had been meaning to try them out, so lockdown was useful for me in that way. Of course, I had to scale the sizes down so I could paint in my flat instead of my studio.
Were you happy with the results? Can you tell us about any particular favourites?
I enjoy making small canvases because they can be manufactured quickly and stored easily. I particularly like ‘How’s your apocalypse coming along’ (2020), because it includes many talking points. The original inspiration came from a self-proclaimed prophet/cult leader artist’s Instagram feed. I was approached by them, as a lot of my friends on Facebook were, around the middle of 2020 with a copy-and-paste message that began “How’s your apocalypse coming along, Bora?” That stuck with me, and I really liked some of the photos they had shared, so I wanted to make my own version of one of them. Unfortunately, they have closed down many of their Instagram accounts, so I can’t share the original representation.
You have exhibited internationally: Istanbul, London, New York. Do you find the political and social references are received differently across divergent geographical locations?
In Turkey, an artist got sentenced to two years in prison a few years ago for depicting a Kurdish town attack with Turkish flags on destroyed buildings! So yes, I can say there is a big difference, especially between the West and Turkey when it comes to freedom of expression.
Religious imagery appears in your production, sometimes disguised as in a recent portrayal featuring a release dove that you appropriated from a pixelated Christian advert. Are you critical of the sometimes virtuous nature of these adverts?
I think I’m more drawn to the banal nature of certain images. I always find these types of generic religious representations interesting because they have an easy entry point which makes them inviting. This implies similar things about the accessibility of the messages found in these adverts, and why they are so approachable. Really, I am more interested in their authority than in their message.
Imagery that I would describe as ‘cute’ consistently appears: birds, emojis, flowers, even Frozen memorabilia. On this, theorist Sianne Ngai recently said, “to call something cute, in vivid contrast to, say, beautiful, or disgusting, is to leave it ambiguous whether one even regards it positively or negatively. Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness. Yet who would deny that cuteness is an aesthetic, if not the dominant aesthetic of consumer society?” Would you agree with this?
Yes, totally. I also would argue that cuteness goes hand in hand with some kind of youthful banality, a major aesthetic of consumer society.
In your studio you mentioned that you find it problematic to make series. Why is this so? Do you ever find yourself returning to any iconic images or individuals?
I think that is a psychological complex I have about not being the type of artist who develops work in strictly cohesive stylistic series. However, I do love many artists that are producing in this manner. I think I envy the discovery and simplicity where they can say “OK, I’ll be happy making versions of this painting for the next five to ten years.”
All of your paintings are figurative. Could you ever imagine yourself making abstractions?
I have often tried to make abstract works, but most of the time the figuration ends up dominating. I have made a few that I have titled “Abstract”, maybe not formally but in a way they are so to me. I have liked them over the years, but not enough to show a group of them together yet.
You mentioned an interest in ‘outsider artists’, and once said that since high school you have felt “a kind of mild not-belonging.” Do you consider yourself an outsider in any way?
I think that the feeling of not belonging is rooted deep in my psychology, and therefore it’s probably visible in my outcomes to a certain level, but that doesn’t turn me into a genuine outsider. I think I want to see myself as one but, in reality, I’m still creeping around the art scene, trying to access it, whilst a real outsider wouldn’t even be aware that a scene even exists.
Could you explain ‘the scene’? What is it about this phenomenon that attracts you?
I guess it’s about approval and being verified in a way, like being part of a fancy fair or being represented by some established gallery or having a show at a cool intellectual institution. It’s like some art person at the top saying “Yes! This is a legitimate artist of value.” I know it’s bullshit and doesn’t really mean anything, but this kind of legitimation is crucial when you want to gain money and pursue a “career” in the arts.
Social media is increasingly being exposed to censorship and de-platforming. Algorithms are also the cause of ‘deleted posts’ or intentional removal of visual content from timelines. In response, many communities are moving to private channels and servers, such as Discord, described by gallery Yancey Richardson as ‘Dark Forests’. I wondered what your thoughts are on this peculiarity?
I find posting freely in private channels refreshing, yet I don’t think they come close to the reach of dominant platforms, which makes the latter inescapable. I think that alternative platforms and servers will become more common in the future, but that they will be accompanied by a more authoritarian, dominating and populist social media.
How do you see the importance of art and communication changing as we move into the world of 5G, Web 3.0, artificial and virtual reality?
I think the art world has been swallowed by a capitalist cloud system, so that the conversation it is generating is dictated and gatekept predominantly by money and power. Although this doesn’t change the importance of the idea of art, it does turn a potentially engaging and prolific community into a boring ‘industry’.
Can you tell us about any works-in-progress to look out for, or any contemporary political phenomenon you feel urged to respond to?
I guess we will have to wait and see what the future holds for all of us!
Thinking towards this coming year, do you have any hopes in terms of your practice for 2021?
I was hoping and planning to go back to Istanbul once this red-list travel madness calms down! I’d like to set up a studio there and be able to make larger-scale paintings and installations for upcoming projects in a bigger space.
Words by Laurie Barron