Thursday, August 19, 2010

James Hughes, Trotsky and Photographic Memories in Istanbul

James Hughes, Trotsky House Library
Virtually impossible to find, but worth every minute of the search, and every bit of the associated frustration is the new Istanbul Hatirasi Fotograf Merkezi (Memoires of Photography Centre). The Centre was photographer Murat Pulat’s dream, and in its realization, it has all the elements of a dream come true. When I arrived to see the current exhibit of James HughesThe Lost Abodes of Exile, I was greeted with Turkish coffee and taken through the exhibit by Murat himself. The Centre, an old RUM style house (the architectural style used by the Ottomans) in the bourgeois neighborhood of Kadiköy, stages exhibitions, holds classes and offers support to young, aspiring photographers. 

In 2009, Hughes went to the island of Büyükada in the Marmara Sea of what was then Constantinople, where Trotsky took refuge in 1929 at the invitation of Atatürk. If we are to believe Hughes’ photographs, Trotsky’s house is as he left it in 1933, filled with objects of no use to anyone: books overflowing from Trotsky’s library, a fridge, the frame of a bed, a light fixture, a chair. The collage of windows, ceilings, floors, doorways and decayed structures connect us to Trotsky all those years ago in what is said to be his most productive years.

James Hughes, Dancing House Interior

Hughes’ photos are about surfaces: the colors, the texture, materials and transience of those surfaces that Trotsky touched, looked through and at, the surfaces that protected him, embraced him when in exile from the Communists. I find this appropriate in Istanbul: a city whose surfaces the variety and density, the infinite materials of which — paint, ceramics, sculpture, marble, carpets, all pieced together, like a jigsaw puzzle —  are its hallmark. It is a city whose great jewels are its intricately designed narratives envisioned on surfaces, made of many colors and materials, substances and patterns over many many years. It is as though the complexity and impossibly co-existent transience of Istanbul’s surfaces are transposed to the surface of Hughes’ photographs, surfaces that before his photographs he found in this house, on this remote island.

James Hughes, Living Room
Hughes’ process is apparently distinguished by its brevity, taking the photographs in a matter of minutes. And yet, in these exquisitely rendered floors and windows, ceilings and walls, in varying stages of decay and decrepitude, we go deep into the past, into the memories of other eras, not just Trotsky’s sojourn at Büyükada. The infinite layers of history, color and texture are brought to the surface of the image, through variant exposures to tell stories of the walls and the floors, the windows and the ceilings, layer upon layer, arranged on the surface of the photographic image, three dimensional, and yet so obviously a surface. The world in the photographs is, as Murat explained to me, visibly that of the Pashas, home to the banished rivals of the Byzantine emporers and Ottoman sultans. The house still bears the traces of the rambling villa it once was with room upon room, one space always leading to another. The RUM architecture, the opulence of the tiling, the delicacy of the glass windows, are the wealthy signs of the wealthy families who before Trotsky had wandered these same halls. And so the Sultans’ prisons became showcases for the Empire before they would become a haven, and since then have been transformed into the playground of tourists hoping to glimpse the depth of Istanbul’s history on its surfaces.

James Hughes, View Towards Kitchen
Hughes’ photographs are so laid out on the surface that the spaces imagined verge into the plastic, almost artificial as we recognize them to be spaces created for the camera. As we look longer at the living room ceiling, or a detail from the kitchen, the images can become abstract, or even a fantasy, of some far off mysterious world, that could never possibly exist, even though we see it before our eyes, just like the beauty of the Istanbul skyline.

James Hughes, Living Room Ceiling
There is also a stillness to the images: as we look out the back door, or through into the kitchen, we see the traces of a life left behind, abandoned. As such the photographs echo death, everything is gone, a time never to be recovered. And in the continued engagement with contradiction, the artificiality and abstraction effected by Hughes’ digital camera reveals his photographs are unashamedly contemporary, even as they also look old, of the 1950s and 60s.

Given my friends’ disappointment at the fashion show on exhibition at the Istanbul Modern, together with the warm hospitality of Murat and his colleagues, even when Hughes’ exhibit is over, my vote for contemporary art in Istanbul has to be the unforgettable trip across the Bosphorous to the Istanbul Hatirasi Fotograf Merkezi. 

All Images Courtesy James Hughes

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