I am apprehensive about my choice of medium. Mostly because you, my recipient, have had the sole distinction of being the only person I know to have confronted me about my un-self-conscious obsession towards it. I wasn’t sure if your casual investigation of my preference for the epistolary was an observation or a critique. It could have been both. It could have been neither. It could have been aroused by your genuine curiousity. I didn’t dare to ask. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know. We were just beginning our dialogue with each other after I had ascertained my ideological and aesthetic position in a presentation during the Khoj workshop in Goa last year where you were an invited artist, and I, the resident critic. Though we inhabited the same bungalow—The Pinto House—my first real encounter with you was when I found you walking on the road while I was riding my rented scooter. I picked you up and took you to visit the Corjeum Fort; an ex-Portuguese bastion. We cemented our friendship over the next two weeks over post-midnight conversations over uraq, local Goan liquor made from the first process of the distillation of the cashew fruit. After we parted ways, you seduced me into visiting you in your studio in Büyükada by sending me tantalising images from your ferry rides across the Marmara Sea to Istanbul. In late June, I traversed those waters so I could reside with you for a momentous week. You returned the gesture when you came to visit me over Christmas, first at my tiny apartment in Mumbai, where I grew up, and eventually in my home in Goa. It seems we have been in constant communication. Our relationship has been punctuated by the luxury of visitation, so much transcending of borders. It has had vast stretches of distance interspersed with moments of great togetherness. Presence and absence. It has never quite necessitated this formal intervention. It has never demanded an epistle.
Here I am more than a year later after our first encounter, stewing in my uncertainty about whether the sight of this letter, whether your glimpsing of its most direct addressal to you, whether your recognition of my ambiguity will please or confuse you. Maybe that is what I seek when I write to any intended recipient—the retrospective pleasure of imagining the tenor of its inevitable reception. I want to say that in the world we live in, the so-called 21st century (this appellation being commonly used to telegraph the notion of a contemporaneous modernity), there is no absence of guarantee that a letter, once dispatched, will reach its destination; that it will inevitably arrive, in one’s real or virtual inbox. But to say so unabashedly is to deny all the other realities that simultaneously exist in which letters cannot be sent because of the collapse of the systems that had otherwise normalised such an assurance. I am thinking now of the title of the late Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems from 1991 to 1995—The Country Without A Post Office. When the American edition was published in 1997, Edward Said complimented the extraordinary formal precision and virtuosity of the poems as well as their searing imagery, which, he believed, derived from Shahid Ali’s responses to Kashmir’s agony. “But this is poetry whose appeal is universal, its voice unerringly eloquent,” he wrote. The blurb refers to the land Shahid Ali speaks of as one of “doomed addresses”. He begins his titular cycle of poems by invoking a two-line excerpt from “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”, a poem by the Irish Jesuit priest-poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins—
… letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
It is a reference to dead letters, those that are un-deliverable, because their addressees cannot be located. Writing in the time of depression in Ireland, Hopkins feels his prayers have been unanswered, like dead letters. Shahid Ali describes Kashmir as a once-idyllic land of continuing conflict, where each post office is boarded up.
Who will deliver
parchment cut in paisleys, my news to prisons?
Only silence can now trace my letters
to him. Or in a dead office the dark panes.
Immediately following the 24-line, four-poem cycle is “The Floating Post Office”, which is focused on the relieving sight of an astonishingly “alive” postman arriving on a gondola that Shahid Ali calls the post boat, to deliver the mail to each houseboat. Before he arrives, Shahid Ali sets up the urgency with which his presence is anticipated—
Curtained palanquin, fetch our word,
bring us word: Who has died? Who’ll live?
Has the order gone out to close the waterways … the one open road?
The postman is a clerk carrying weighing scales to measure the stamp value of each letter, and is armed with a bell to announce arrivals. Shahid Ali ends his poem with hope:
His hand on the scales, he gives his word:
Our letters will be rowed through olive
canals, tense waters no one can close.
I know I will see you soon enough and I know also that in the light of this information, my letter to you seems redundant. Can we even call it that—a letter—considering its arrival to you is not punctuated by convention; it has not been picked up or dispatched; it has not been stamped by authorities; it doesn’t come concealed in an envelope with a prescribed pin code. It has merely been digitally composed and digitally transmitted, from my inbox to yours, facilitated by an Internet connection. Its contents have been typed out, but not as meticulously as it would have been had I used my non-electronic typewriter. No catalogue exists of its many erasures and re-insertions. There is no visual proof of my syntactic anxiety, the shadow of linguistic despair that haunts the creation of any piece of writing or the persistent technological failure of my keyboard.
Because you are perpetually itinerant, because it would require immense strategy and pre-planning to track you down to one location long enough for a letter to reach you; this ‘email’ is my best bet. Forgive me my audacity in wanting to call it a letter instead. The demands of poetry often conflict with notions of truth. You of all people know this well … that poetry must sometimes be summoned to supply evidence when fact cannot, or where fact fails because it has been appropriated by poisonous ideology.
I summoned the ghost of Agha Shahid Ali not just to cushion this epistolary act of mine in romanticism, rather, so as to introduce into this body of proof the aura of darkness that continues to pervade both our native worlds. I was struck by what you said in an interview with Jason Farago, with whom you had dinner a few days after the 2016 military coup in Turkey. He asked you about the future, acknowledging that by the time his interview with you would be published, you would be back in Istanbul. “I came here with my luggage, but I don’t think I can go back, at least for a month,” you replied. “It appears to me that Turkey is getting very dark. I’m not scared of Erdoğan. I’m scared of this darkness, of feeling hopeless. Maybe I would do much better, not only for my physical being but as an artistic being, with the hope that can only be provided by distance.”
You suggest distance as a salve and a locus. I am interested in this proposition, because it is also the premise of my practice. The letter can only exist where distance exists. Because letters are bridges that seek to transcend time and space. They challenge and embrace geography. They are versions of utopia.
In the same interview with Farago, you speak suspiciously of your own utopic zeal, characterising it as one specific to the artist in dark times. You question your proclivity towards poetry in moments when one’s very survival is under threat, understanding it as a luxury, something perhaps dispensable. “The first thing that came to my mind was the Reichstag fire. When I saw images of the parliament building in Ankara, destroyed by bombs, I thought: what if the Reichstag is happening?” you said. “The problem with Turkish politics, and these political disturbances, is that a lot of journalists are in jail. The idea of journalism has changed in Turkey. There are people who believe something happened, and there are other people who believe it didn’t happen. Everything is based on a halo effect. You lose your perspective, your objectivity. And then you are never after the truth of things.” You added an alarming fact; that most Turkish journalists are currently incarcerated, which complicates one’s expectations of truth. You told Farago about an idea you had, to start a monthly newspaper featuring columns by jailed journalists, a daring, fascinating proposition, considering, as you noted, that they were each of different political stripes—Gulenists or Islamists or Kurdish—and would therefore otherwise never have shared the same newsprint. Even the images, you felt, could be provided by similarly imprisoned cameramen and photographers. “I spoke to many people, and then the war in the east broke out. And most people thought it would never be a priority. That it was too naïve. There are people dying, and cities being bombed.”
Not one to be deterred by the post-Gezi (2013) world, what you did instead as a commentary on the glaring absence of journalists who are meant (like postmen) to deliver the news was revealed the parallel industry that had sprung up in its stead, as substitutes; the astrologers and fortune-tellers who were invited to assume the role of disseminators of “truth”. You called your newspaper, Future Tense (2017), and brought together 50 soothsayers from different political ideologies and ethnicities who consulted sand, lead, tarot cards, coffee grounds, blank sheets of A4 paper, dreams, water, clairvoyance, astrology, pendulums and horoscopes in order to reveal the ludicrous nature of present-day news-casting in Turkey.
You are condemned by the compulsion of your artistic predicament, I believe, to continue to make gestures that bridge conflicting worlds, to distance yourself from the trauma of reality in order to expose to your audience the poetry that is both implicit and fundamental to our survival. You are something of an archaeologist, excavating truth from debris. Except you are critical of the politics inherent in the practice of archaeology. You mine absurdities, perhaps to reveal reality as somewhat clinically ridiculous, but you never detach yourself from the gospel of truth. In fact, you reiterate that there still exists something like truth, and that it is not unknowable, that sometimes it involves digging deeper, going beyond surface tensions.
I love how you articulated this in Goa, at the centuries-old Old Pereira House, which was the site for the workshop. While most of your fellow artists were busy fabricating their work, you began to think about the protests of the indigo farmers in British India, about indigo in general, as material and medium. I don’t know if it’s fair to say you “made” a work, because I watched you pick your surface, a stretch of wall that had upon its center a child-like drawing made by moving a single finger through a dusty exterior. The wall had been painted yellow many moons ago. But you noticed from your observations of the highest ends of it that met with the tiled roof that there were traces of a lost blue. You used a sharp object, and occasionally an adhesive, and began to unearth or retrieve a potential indigo in the stencilled shape of a specimen of its botanical source. On another neighbouring wall, alongside a poster of a Warhol Monroe, you exposed a more rectilinear swatch. The third level of your intervention was to replace one of the terracotta tiles of the roof with a blue-toned glass tile. That was it.
You did little to draw attention to your work. Many may have missed it even, because so many of us are not accustomed to searching for or recognising art (truth) even when it is staring at us. It was unobtrusive, your work. It was in and of itself. Later, months later, I remembered this gesture of yours as I was reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), an exquisite treatise on her notional and chromatic obsession with blue (truth). You had explained to me the process of how indigo imprints itself as a dye only when it is exposed to air, when it is oxidised, but neither of us had questioned the Western perception of this dye. In her 150th statement, this is what Nelson says: “For Plato, colour was as dangerous a narcotic as poetry. He wanted both out of the republic. He called painters ‘mixers and grinders of multi-coloured drugs,’ and colour itself a form of pharmakon. The religious zealots of the Reformation felt similarly: they smashed the stained-glass windows of churches, thinking them idolatrous, degenerate. For distinct reasons, which had to do with the fight to keep the cheap, slave-labor crop of indigo out of a Western market long dominated by woad, the blue-dye-producing plant native to Europe, indigo blue was called ‘the devil’s eye’. And before blue became a ‘holy’ colour—which had to do with the advent of ultramarine in the twelfth century, and its subsequent use in stained glass and religious paintings—it often symbolized the Antichrist.”
In another interview, one I found on YouTube, you were asked about the origins of your Red/Red (2015–17) series. You confessed to being interested from the very beginning in natural pigments and their stories. “I was curious about how to use them, utilize them to tell different histories of different regions through colours. In the very beginning I wanted to do a project about blue, but then blue gave birth to red.” I found this phrasing so telling of the vagaries of the artistic process; how you can begin with one idea, one line of inquiry, and then be led, almost through fate or serendipity, to follow a previously unconsidered strand of thought. Blue gave birth to red, as if blue was this fecund entity that erased itself, in a way, in order to generate something otherly, thus, notionally transforming both colours into physical beings capable of reproductive abilities. You trace the history of a very specific red, one that is close to what is contained on the Turkish flag. You are concerned with the “truth” of this red-ness, in this case, its source: the insect known as “Armenian Cochineal” (Porphyrophora Hameli), indigenous to the Ararat Plain. Your title is a linguistic embodiment of the conceptual underpinning of this body of work: Red and Red separated by a slash, existing within the utopian space of a single sentence or phrase. You emphasise in the interview that this pigment-producing insect lives in the roots of the Aeluropus littoralis plant that grows on the banks of the Aras River, the natural border between Turkey and Armenia. “The carminic acid found in the Armenian cochineal enables the production of a special red that has been known back to the 7th Century BC. This red was used in textiles, frescoes and manuscripts and produced mostly by Armenians,” you write in your text accompanying the series. Both the plant and the insect have been considered endangered species on the Armenian side, while they grow in relative abundance on the Turkish side. Except, in Turkey, it is the knowledge of how to produce the pigment that could be considered endangered since 1915. You tracked down the only person who could still extract this red using recipes from 14th Century Armenian manuscripts—Armen Sahakyan, PhD, a phytotherapist and senior researcher at the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan. I remember you telling me how you urged him to produce the pigment for you, and when he handed you 12 gms of Armenian cochineal ink, you felt an anxiety about its preciousness. You said you spent many sleepless nights worried about whether what you made out of it would validate the rareness of its existence.
I hope you no longer doubt the audacity of the drawings you made with this ink. I felt privileged to catch a glimpse of a few at your home, in your studio, and at the Pera Museum. I am eager to watch you install this work in Eppan. Since I began this letter, I have journeyed from New Delhi to Italy, from Milan to Verona to Bozen/Bolzano to finally arrive last night at Eau&Gaz. In a few hours you will arrive here yourself. The purpose and function of this letter will have become redundant, because you may only receive it by the time we see each other, or just hours before we inevitably do. It will be rendered “useless” like all art and all poetry.
May that fact never tempt us to cease our presumably
Yours (across time and space, across continents and cyberspace, across language and poetry, across medium and material, across truth and fiction, across all boundaries, real, illusory and imagined, across all feeling and emotion …)
P.S. Who adds an addendum to a message already sent? Who inscribes in text that which could so easily be said face to face? You are here now. We have met. Your hair is shorter than it was when I saw you last. You look glamorous, in an understated, suave, woman-of-the-world kind of way. It is a demeanor. Italy has changed you, inflected your accent, added more pizazz to your already elegant gait. After exchanging pleasantries (an understatement—we radiated warmth as we hugged), we headed on down to the Lanserhaus, to mount a selection of your work. I helped you carry your things. Because I was most eligible for the task, given my height, I helped you poise your latest piece upon a hanger. Then, I stood on a chair and placed first my right, then my left leg on a pedestal so I could reach the hook of the ceiling and hang the ode you made to Giorgio de Chirico, in collaboration with your designer friend, Ersöz Ata. I had seen the photograph you’d sent me days before; but I wasn’t prepared for the physicality of the piece, its material yet non-material nature; how it alludes to a presence and is yet suggestive of absent flesh. It is playful, rightfully metaphysical, and cleverly titled Hebdomeros, after the Italian artist’s dream-like novel. In suspending it from the hook, I felt as though I was somehow participating in its construction. I have never read the novel, but I will begin it tomorrow. Meanwhile, as we prepare for dinner, your Hebdomeros hangs in cerulean solitude, quietly dreaming, yearning, cogitating, pondering his (im)mortality, his absentee legs tucked into his wooden shoes, ready to disappear into a starless night.