Artist and guest blogger Ginger Geyer is based in Austin, but her North Texas ties include a career as an exec at the Dallas Museum of Art and, more recently, a show at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. This essay is a thoughtful meditation on processing all we saw in Turkey. And the slideshow will give you an excellent idea of how much there was to take in.
After two weeks in Turkey, I’m having a bout of pattern exhaustion. When I close my eyes to fend off jet lag, Turkish rugs hurl at my feet, Byzantine mosaics pulse against my eyelids, and Greco-Roman marble debris relentlessly march me down to the sea. Not to mention the patterns found in scarves, pavements, and food. We even saw a portrait of Obama made in colored squares of baklava. This is not a bad thing, but for artists, an embarrassment of riches can create an overload that takes time to process. Turkey has a unique layering of east and west; it is all about coverage, in more ways than one. After many shots, I gave up trying to record the “all-over-the-placeness” quality. Here are but a few of the textures of Turkey:
Friends have asked if this intense visit will affect my art. How could it not? Art history provides rich fodder for my sculpture and stories. I’ve read about the geometric symbolism in Islamic designs, contrasted with the sweeping linearity of calligraphy. But so far, the sole Islamic art influence on my sculpture has been on the odd piece called “Chlora’s Bathmat.” Here it is on my website in all its glory, a rolled up, rubber-backed mat (made in porcelain) that magically became an Oriental flying carpet:
Now I know a lot more about Turkish carpets. Our group visited a traditional carpet weaving school, where we had a fascinating tour of silk cocoons, naturally dyed wool, and young apprentices endlessly tying double knots (up to 1100 per square inch!) and trimming the pile with specialized scissors. I love the tools of the trade. Then we were sitting ducks in the rug salesroom, politely sipping our scalding Turkish tea in the sweltering heat. Slick salesmen unfurled carpets until the floor was deep in overlapping beauties. We gingerly tested the pile with our toes, jumping aside as yet another rug was slapped down. We were surrounded with more pattern than a pair of eyes can possibly take in. Sales were expected, and our group did its best to support the Turkish economy.
We got similar treatment at a pottery factory in Avanos. I call it a factory because the work was mass-produced by art automatons who hand-painted every piece, often using a squeeze bottle with a metal tip. Again, those tools… believe me, it is not as difficult as it looks. Buyers pay a lot of lira for materials and labor to support the continuation of a traditional craft. This is noble I suppose, but does all of it have to be so derivative? It struck me as a case of pattern exhaustion in the archaeological sense, which denotes a state of creative decline, when former styles are repeated rather than enhanced. Plus, those plates and bowls look better en masse than when isolated in a contemporary American home.
Islamic designs are bewilderingly symmetrical, requiring the type of precision that makes me cross-eyed. Like ritual, such patterns intend to make us focus on what is beyond the tangible. Too much of it can be stupefying, like in Rococo horror vacui décor where every surface is jammed with detail. For my eye, the visual excitement was greatest where the patterns interacted with space—
-that open-to-the-sky courtyard shop in Goreme where three-story carpet covered walls turned into floors
-the vibrant frescoes eagerly crowding one another, like a full-body tattoo, in the Goreme Valley cave churches. Those volumes were carved out—how often do you find architecture made by subtraction rather than addition?
-the intense blue sky chopped into negative shapes by indestructible columns and pediments in that two story Library of Celsus in Ephesus.
-the crooked tombstones in fenced cemeteries, as phallic as the wild fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, all of them jabbing the air, making patches of place, a flowing, asymmetrical relief from the grid.
-masses of colorful scarves waving us into tiny crammed shops in the Silk Bazaar of Bursa, where one imagines Ottoman traders and clomping camels. Or was that in Kayseri?
-the shimmering gold calligraphy disks hovering in the honeyed air space of Hagia Sofia, initially like an imposition on Byzantium, but stating that this is where Christianity and Islam may peacefully co-exist
– those Iznik tiles—the real ones where the glazes have dimension—in Topkapi Palace’s circumcision room for young princes, where hopefully frightened young boys were distracted by the cool beauty of the walls
-the streets of Istanbul where ancient aquaducts abut vertical rubble of the exhausted architecture that houses twelve million people. It is rare to find minimalist architecture in this metropolis. Is this due to the need for pattern?
– outside the Grand Bazaar, in the uncovered part, the overhead limit was made by a clothesline full of ubiquitous cotton raincoats swinging in the breeze (again, for coverage!) Contrast this with windows crammed with glitzy costumes for belly dancers, leading to more warrens of the sacred and profane, where icons nestled up to backgammon sets, spices spiked the air along already full of the mournful call to prayer, evil eye marbles cemented into the sidewalk near the nut-stuffed apricots.
-the long row of Roman portrait heads in the Antayla Archaeological Museum, installed at eye-level as if asserting their individuality over their sameness
-the linear, human scale spaces of the Kariye Djami, especially the funerary chapel where the frescoes take advantage of the concave shapes in the apse, and lap like waves up to the culminating expanse of the Anastasis, cool, resolved, and majestic
-the view down into a wobbly square room where stark white dervish skirts spun over a red filigreed carpet, five circles in slow motion, their mesmerizing movements creating a star shaped space between them
The individual art works that linger days later had to be extracted from this buzz. These are the ones I may have to deal with in my own art. It is like getting an earworm of Ravel’s “Bolero”, how these are stuck in my mind: that bizarre, newly uncovered seraphim mosaic presiding over Hagia Sofia. The fragmented female figure in the Antayla Museum, reassembled with so many chunks of marble that it looks like a painful postmodern sculpture. The heart-breakingly beautiful mosaic of Mary the container of the uncontainable over the portal of the Kariye Djami, and the nearby mosaic of the Wedding at Cana with water jugs made out of terracotta tesserae. (I wrote a paper on that one in grad school and what a thrill to finally see it!) Years ago I copied the Anastasis on a mandorla shaped bowl, and seeing the real image is now off of my bucket list.
At their appointed time, these masterpieces will come back around in my own ceramics. But the piece I really want to do next was inspired by an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner waiting in the wings in the Ulacamiye mosque in Bursa. An entry pile of headscarves and miles of wall-to-wall carpeting makes one wonder if there is a conspiracy between the textile industry and Islam to cover all women and floors. Did the carpeting, striped to regulate rows of crouched prayers, invigorate the space or flatten it? After all those bare feet and socks, mosques need good vacuum cleaners, if not steamers. Not only the floor was patterned; the walls were squiggled in gigantic gold calligraphy and the ceiling popped up into dome after dome like soap bubbles. These surroundings must certainly prompt the admirable spiritual discipline of Muslims. For me, a Westerner given to much-of-muchness, the multi-layers and mixed messages are fascinating and exhausting. I choose to be fascinated.
Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum…perhaps I’ll create my own porcelain version of horror vacui–an upright vacuum cleaner with a bag patterned after a real Turkish rug. Or the whole thing might be covered in pattern, as if it sucked it up from the carpet and absorbed it into its very being, along with the quiet residual of prayer.