H.B.K.: I’m not very fond of the chronological approach. Let’s make this interview a bit more thematic. These days I’m rereading a book, which I had already read a few times: Noontime In Yeniflehir by Sevgi Soysal. It recounts the 1970s, and in my opinion does justice to that period. So on the one hand I’m reading this book, and yesterday evening I talked to Erda¤ Aksel, who is also in Paris, and this business of the 1970s ca- me up in our conversation. Meanwhile there’s an election in France to- day, people are voting. A country like France is moving to the right and one could say that in a sense the 70s have long been finished.
You graduated from Gazi Institute in 1969. During the 1970s you came to France, to Paris. Let’s start there. What did it mean to come here in the 1970s? What was it like the day you graduated in 1969? When you graduated, what kind of person were you, who were you, how did you view the world? Let’s make that our starting point and talk ourselves in- to the past as well as toward today.
O.D.: To answer this question let’s speak a bit about the Painting De- partment at Gazi.
H.B.K.: That’s the department you attended...
O.D.: That’s right, the painting department, or excuse me, the “Depart- ment of Painting and Crafts”. We applied to this department in order to become art and crafts teachers in middle schools, high schools and te- acher training schools. That’s how we were trained, and it was very well-rounded training.
H.B.K.: Just a minute! This is the heart of the matter; you say you “app- lied.” With you personally, how did this come about, how did the idea take shape to enter the department of painting and crafts at an educa- tional institute?
O.D.: Well, I was a high school graduate. Very few of those entered Ga- zi, which in those days by and large drew its student body from kids who had gone to teacher training schools. For those kids, the educati- on institutes were the only way available to get a higher education. The- se institutes accepted very few high school graduates. In fact there we- re only three of us in painting and crafts from our year. Why did I choo- se Gazi? It wasn’t part of my original plans. After graduating from high school I took the university entrance exam and had the chance to go to a number of schools. But the key point was, at Gazi I could study as a boarder. That is, the moment I entered Gazi my father could stop pa- ying my way. You see, when I went to Ankara to enrol at the university he was flat broke. He had sold a few kilos of wheat from my uncle’s wa- rehouse and stuck the money in my pocket so I could travel to Ankara and register. The idea was I’d both register at college and take the Ga- zi exams. If it worked out I’d go to Gazi, otherwise to Medical School.
H.B.K.: Clearly, enrolling at Gazi Institute had to do with the fact that you could board and that expenses would be paid by the government. Very well...
O.D.: There were two reasons, and that was one of them. As you know, people don’t usually do things for just one reason. It’s when several causes converge that things take shape.
H.B.K.: All right, what was this other reason?
O.D.: The other reason was art.
H.B.K.: To enter the painting department...
O.D.: The other reason, or rather the major one, was getting into the pa- inting and crafts department.
H.B.K.: When and how did this feeling develop in you? Or I should ask what your relationship to paining was until that time.
O.D.: I’ve made pictures since I was a child. In primary school, for example, I’d do pictures of Mehmet the Conqueror or Süleyman the Magnificent and hang them on the history strip in our classroom. In middle and high school I had schoolwide fame. They’d already begun to consider me an artist. Although I was a very shy person, I used to hang the pictures I made in our classroom. It was like my exhibition hall. I’d always hang the work, and everyone would look at it.
H.B.K.: Were you a shy boy?
O.D.: And how...
H.B.K.: Why? Was that your personality?
O.D.: That was my personality. It was a genetic thing.
H.B.K.: Really? Was your family made up of reserved types as well?
O.D.: Right, right...
H.B.K.: Very well, I’ll also ask...
O.D.: Or rather, originally being peasants...
H.B.K.: Well, I was just going to ask that; did that have something to do with this shyness?
O.D.: Of course, of course...
H.B.K.: You were born in a village, in 1948...That’s where you went to primary school, is that correct?
O.D.: Sure, sure.
H.B.K.: And then you went to a town to enroll at middle school? O.D.: To a city, Denizli.
H.B.K.: But your family stayed in the village...
O.D.: That’s right, or rather, in Bozkurt. It was something between a town and a village. I had to move to Denizli if I wanted to go to middle school. Later one opened in Bozkurt, and still later a high school. That’s how it was; that village—why do I keep saying village; Bozkurt—produ- ced four kids in our family, two girls and two boys. We all went to De- nizli for our secondary schooling. I very badly wanted to go to school, and even went on a hunger strike for it...
O.D.: Sure. I mean, I put up a big fuss over going to school. In fact my father, too, later decided that everyone should get an education...
H.B.K.: So before that he was inclined to think his children shouldn’t go to school...
O.D.: Not at the beginning. That view evolved because at our school there was a wretched teacher who had taught for 30 years. While he was still there no one went to school. A couple of people went to a mi- litary academy and the like, but apart from them no one went to scho- ol or tried to get an education, and no one went to middle school or high school. That man just couldn’t instill the love of learning, in any- body. Later, when two good teachers started working there, young pe- ople, things changed. That was the early 1960s, of course. I went to De- nizli for school in 1960. After the May 27 revolution. Things freed up, and this was felt all the way down to the village level, so that’s when we decided to go and get an education.
H.B.K.: A kid from the village who has finished primary school then says he can’t go on with his studies. What did this desire to study me- an to you, why did you want to get a further education?
O.D. I’ll tell you as far as I can remember, with the mindset I had then. Physically I was a weak kid. I had herded animals, been a kind of cow- boy. From this childhood experience I knew that was a hard life. You’ve got to understand, I’d herd the cattle before school and then when classes were over go back and herd them some more. So I was cut off from social life, and must have felt that I’d just fade away unless I did something. The only way out seemed to be more education.
H.B.K.: Driving a herd, plowing, leading the life of a cowboy, and in ge- neral village life apart from school—what was that like in the first half of the 50s?
O.D.: What was village life like...Well, in the first place it was very diffe- rent from today. Technology hadn’t come into it. When we were kids, in the second or third grade, there was just one tractor in the village. Ot- herwise, because it was a village of Balkan immigrants, farming tech- nology there was a bit more advanced. People used horses, they plo- wed with them. They used heavy steel or iron plows, with double and triple blades. Back then the village had five smiths, I mean men who made horsedrawn wagons and heavy plows... But ours was neverthe- less a feudal society. I remember as a child I always used to stand out- side the smith’s shop and look in. The hammers strewing sparks as they struck the iron fresh from the fire, the mallets, the music of the hammer and anvil—stuff like that. Of course these were the things that laid my foundation. My mother came from a family of smiths, they we- re all smiths. They had four or five shops scattered here and there. La- ter they started making tractor trailers Nazilli way. As I stood and watc- hed they’d put me to work. “Pump that bellows,” they’d say. So you’d pump the bellows until you got tired, all the while watching to see how it was done. Those smiths understood horses, too, they’d treat sick or injured horses, give them medicine, just like vets...
H.B.K.: Really? Was that the smiths’ job? O.D.: Of course.
H.B.K.: They shoed horses, that much I get, but treating wounds and bruises...
O.D.: There were blacksmiths as well, that was a different calling. The smiths were men who understood horses and their ailments. At the sa- me time this was a European tradition. Our village folk hailed from the Balkans, and there smiths had a special status. Because they were masters of fire, people feared them. That sort of thing. They were strong, powerfully built men...
H.B.K.: What was nature like in those days, how did it figure in village life? Did that count for you, did you have a direct relationship with na- ture? Today, and I know this intimately, nature is among your prime in- terests. In the world of that time, did nature have this kind of meaning?
O.D.: Of course. Is anything else conceivable? When I was six or se- ven I learned grafting, how to graft onto a tree or vine, my grandfather taught me. Hoeing a vineyard or vegetable patch, it was all second na- ture. Or plowing a field...In those days we walked the dusty streets and roads barefoot. When fall came round they’d get us a pair of rubber shoes. Then that winter you’d grow, your feet and everything would grow, so socks and shoes would be a wreck, when spring came you’d throw them out and walk barefoot. And you’d go around that way the whole summer.
H.B.K.: What would happen to your feet?
O.D.: About what you’d expect.
H.B.K.: Would they get torn up?
O.D.: Sometimes. Your feet would get wounds in them, so you’d step in horse piss...
H.B.K.: Would that cure them?
O.D.: I suppose so. At least it stung. You’d get calluses and so forth, and they’d crack. In the evening you’d get a licking if you went in wit- hout washing those feet. That kind of thing...
H.B.K.: All right, when they didn’t buy shoes was it out of poverty or be- cause they thought children should have contact with nature?
O.D.: Not just because they were poor, but partly because children didn’t count.
H.B.K.: Really? Didn’t children count?
O.D.: Up to the age of four or five children in the village are princes and princesses. After that they get driven out in the street with a kick on the butt. Then children meet up with life.
H.B.K.: So until they’re four or five kids are loved and kissed, is that it? They’re coddled, and after that told to make a living and get by...
O.D.: They start working. Because the lambs are born in the spring they have to be separated from the sheep. So they put a kid in charge of those sheep. Well, that kid was me. Because I was the oldest in the family. Well, my grandfather had three sons, and each son had five or six children. I was the eldest of that lot. So I kept watch on the flock.
H.B.K.: So these were of course ties to nature...
O.D.: Very close ties...
H.B.K.: Close but at the same time natural ar objective ties. You have this kid, and he’s supposed to herd the flock of sheep, so he does. Still, I’ll go back to my question: apart from all this, did nature at that time in- terest you in any special way? That is, what did the phenomenon cal- led nature mean to you then? Or of course you might answer that it did- n’t mean anything...
O.D.: Actually it was something like this: In those days I, and I guess everybody else, lived in a state of symbiosis with nature, intimately wrapped up in it, part of it. But there was something else: think of a fi- eld, say a field planted out to beets. Then think of weeds that spring up among the beets. Before you harvest the beets you have to hoe the we- eds, which may seem simple, but it leads you to a number of terrific ob- servations. For example, not squashing an ant, or, in the other directi- on, catching a bird. You catch that bird, but at the same time you love it... So you’re devouring nature, but also in awe of it...
H.B.K.: This is important, something I was preparing to ask you. That rural life harbors a dilemma. On the one hand nature I suppose is the source of bad news: it brings storms, blizzards, downpours, monsters, wolves and wild beasts that tear into the herds and do a great deal of harm. On the other hand, nature feeds and nourishes humankind. Not squashing an ant, or knowing the worth of a bee, certainly that’s impor- tant, but that same bee may sting you. In a way you have to struggle
with it. Isn’t it a love-hate relationship? Well, hating nature is meaning- less. Not hate, but mastering nature, protecting yourself from it while recognizing that nature is the mother, the source of all good. If we call it that, what sort of thing is it
O.D.: I just thought of something interesting. At the moment I’m making “Rain Fountain,” isn’t that right? There were lots of bees where I grew up. In those years when I was and wasn’t going to primary school, I’d carved a hollow into rocks to put near the hives and fill with water. We’d use those constantly, passersby would pour in a little water so the be- es could drink it. Whereas anyway there were troughs for the animals to drink at...For instance that was my first sculpture—at the time I did- n’t do it with the idea of making a sculpture—but my first.
H.B.K.: Isn’t it something like this: Our relationship with nature depends on utilitarianism. Bees are useful animals, so you give them water. Yo- u give them water and they give you honey. Otherwise, let’s say wol- ves, they’re of absolutely no use to people. Quite the opposite, they te- ar people apart and kill animals too. So we have no desire to give wol- ves water, do we?
O.D.: There were no wolves left in those parts, near the Aegean. H.B.K: Well, let’s say scorpions, then...Or jackals.
H.B.K.: Yellowjackets. Bees that make no honey.
O.D.: Wasps, what we call wasps...Whenever we saw one we’d kill it. Because they ate honey bees. There was a grocer, at the same time he was a bee keeper. We’d bring him a dead wasp and he’d give us candy.
H.B.K.: Here’s what it shows: The relationship is very utilitarian, very ra- tional. I see something similar in your work. A mutual friend asked you a question when you said you were a sculptor; “Abstract or concrete?” And I said, “This man does abstract concrete and concrete abstract.” Since way back that’s what I’ve thought of your work, it wasn’t meant as a witticism when I told him.
O.D.: I could put it this way: I do figurative works that tell their own sto- ries.
H.B.K.: Figurative sculptures that tell their own stories...Very well, ha- ven’t you got any abstract sculptures?
O.D.: In the sense of contentless, not directed at any signification or purpose; fully abstract in that way...Of course I do. I have many such sculptures. Sculptures without a name, you can’t tell what they’re go- od for or where they’re headed. I’ve got lots of sculptures. A number of my sculptures from one period have no title.
H.B.K.: They may have no title, but...
O.D.: The reason the works themselves have no title is because I can’t find any meaning in them. For example there are certain sculptures. The outside is iron, inside they’re full of concrete. Like letters of the alp- habet...Not really like letters, but elements hung on a wall, a cross bet- ween iron and concrete. Something like that has very little in the way of a story.
H.B.K.: At the source of all this I see your intense, profound relations- hip with nature. We’ll elaborate on that further up the road, but I’d like to ask a question: In nature is there, can there be, anything truly mea- ningless, utterly useless, utterly functionless?
O.D.: Of course it’s possible. You mean in and of itself, or in our relati- onship to nature?
H.B.K.: In itself, in the structure, the logic, of nature itself. Today too yo- u have ties to nature, you live in Châteauneuf where you have a garden you look after. You go into the woods and gather mushrooms. You’ve lived in the heart of nature since your childhood, and you deal with the subject intellectually as well. Look, here’s a magazine about such things. And you closely follow all those matters of physics and che- mistry. Considering the whole gestalt, let me ask you: Is there anything totally useless in nature; or is nature a whole woven of completely mea- ningful relationships? We haven’t yet solved all those meaningful rela- tionships. For example cancer, is cancer something useless? After all, it’s a disease that kills.
O.D.: There’s nothing meaningful in nature. Meaning is entirely the pro- duct of our mind, a point of view. Nature has no meaning, nothing prep- rogrammed. We attribute the meaning, for example as meaning is pro- duced by someone looking at a picture...Regarding a natural scene, someone gives it meaning on his or her own cultural level. First they sense, they intuit, something there, a mathematical—ultimately mathe- matical—relation, and then feel nature in their own way. But it’s human- kind that assigns meaning in nature.
H.B.K.: All right, then, we assign meaning; so let’s put it this way: the meaning we assign has nothing to do with nature.
O.D.: Nothing. But in the course of history humankind has created thre- e universes. The first was a magic universe, the universe that saw hu- manity cease to be an animal as the concept of time began to deve- lop. Until recently this magic universe still existed. Our thinking went li- ke this: even stones have a spirit, the earth has a spirit, people must beg forgiveness when slaughtering a goat or sheep. Such a universe was magical. Later humanity created a mythical universe, after the transition from a gathering to a productive society. When they invented tools, or the stick, the stone and other tools...They asked who the gre- at master was who had made this world. Of course at first that age went through a polytheistic period. Then this universe became monotheistic, everybody knows that but saying it still matters a lot to me. After the mythical universe humankind created a cosmic universe. Galileo’s te- lescope and then Einstein coming to add new dimensions in the wake of Newton... We became aware of something new; until then, in the ma- gical and mythical universes, the earth was at the center of the univer- se, but in the cosmic universe things worked out so the center and axis disappeared. A symmetry vanished. Now we live in a universe where the horizon changes, the horizon line is skewed. A universe where everything revolves around everything else.
H.B.K.: It’s obvious that we produce meaning, but at the same time isn’t meaning the attempt to find the mathematics and utility linking natural relationships?
O.D.: Of course, of course. Certainly.
H.B.K.: In nature don’t objects have a relationship to each other in the positive sense, and doesn’t this hold true even when certain elements in nature harm each other?
O.D.: It does.
H.B.K.: It holds true. In that case...
O.D.: The situation in nature is “a bit random, a bit causative”...
H.B.K.: At that time was there any aesthetic dimension that nature arou- sed in you? The beauty of a sunset or the splendor of its rising, the fact that a landscape had its own language...Nature, landscapes; beauty, aesthetics, did this relationship emerge in any way during your child- hood?
O.D.: Of course. As I said before, we were intimately bound up with na- ture. Most of our time was spent regarding nature and watching over it. I did drawings from a very early age. It was always done in the dust, and shepherds drew too, what a woman is like and so on...A few years back when I went to visit a cave in southwestern France, I saw things that had been done very spontaneously (8000 years ago). Talking to an official who was responsible for the place, I said that for thousands, tens of thousands of years humankind had always drawn naturally, and in one way or another had always left their mark, here or there. If you ask how I reached that conclusion in that particular spot, it reminded me of my childhood. The children, even the shepherds, were always drawing something or other, then erasing it as if they had committed a sin. Smoothing it out. In Islam drawing pictures is forbidden... They’d draw something, then rub it out of the dirt and dust. Then draw somet- hing else over it. Divide it up into squares to play drafts and so on. When I was a kid we’d pile up rocks trying to make the figure of a per- son sitting, a shepherd sitting. The result was we’d put our mark on that hill. For instance I saw the same thing at Hoggar (in southern Algeria), when we had a nomadic studio with Bourges Beaux Arts students. I saw it there too, people had put or drawn something in this or that pla- ce, and it was still there, the date of execution unknown. I mean they’d put stones up to make a pile. An old Tuareg told us they might be five or fifty thousand years old. When someone makes such a sign, to mark out a place, the place where he’s passed, he’s marking a path or an area. It’s a matter of memory. Of course no one has eradicated that mark during all these centuries. It’s desert there, a vast stone de- sert...We too had a similar impulse. To leave a mark someplace...
H.B.K.: So this is the grandeur of nature, the smallness of mankind in all that grandeur and in a sense our helplessness. At that time had any emotion formed in your mind related to these matters? Or just the re- verse, compared to nature, to a mountain, lake or river a human being is a small presence, but he or she is a creature who has mastered them all, who rules and controls them. Was there anything like that in your thoughts?
O.D.: On that point I couldn’t say much that’s definite. I’ll be reinterpre- ting, but the most beautiful thing in my childhood was rain. I’ve never forgotten how in the spring after a rainfall we’d run barefoot and jump over puddles on the prairie. The big clouds reflected in that water ga- ve me an exalted feeling that I was jumping over the sky. I’ve never for- gotten that. Those moments when it rained were my most beautiful ti- mes. Beautiful for several reasons; the flowers would start blooming again, and leaves would sprout. And on those days you didn’t have to work.
H.B.K.: When it rained?
O.D.: Sure, you didn’t go to work. Because... H.B.K.: There was mire all over, is that it?
O.D.: No, not just that, at least if it was harvest time. You can’t harvest a wet crop. And then, sir, you don’t plow, you don’t turn the soil but just wait. Of course that’s a job for grown-ups, but because they take a ho- liday so do the kids.
H.B.K.: People living in nature; peasants, I mean. Compared to normal life in the cities their life is slow, right?
O.D.: Right. You plant and patiently wait for it to come up. Then the ti- me comes when you go out to see if anything’s happened. Mostly it’s waiting, that’s right, just waiting...And then the relationship of peasants with nature and with each other is much older that the relationships in other modern societies. The peasant culture, let’s call it, or the culture based on agriculture, goes back at least 8000 years. It’s changed pe- ople in a way that is practically genetic. The relationships among pe- ople, the way they sit down and stand up, their respect for each other. In the morning when you get up from your bed on the floor, you don’t get up this way, it has to be that way! And you have to behave just so toward others...Everything has its code. Words, actions, they’re all a code. Or, how can I put it, a child musn’t say such and such a thing. Many things are very different from city culture. For example, the first time I went to the city what surprised me the most was this: In the villa- ge wherever you go, to the fields or anywhere else, if you run into so- meone you must greet them.
H.B.K.: In the village?
O.D.: That’s right, everyone greets everybody they see. The men, the women among themselves, they absolutely must greet each other. With set greetings. It’s coded.
H.B.K.: Fixed sentences...
O.D.: Fixed sentences. We’re Islamic, so we say Selam›n Aleyküm, Aleyküm Selam. Or How’s it going? And so forth...Apart from that, things like asking after other members of the family are also coded.
H.B.K.: Very well, when you came to the city what effect did all this ha- ve on you? Let’s go back to where we started.
O.D.: When I came to the city, for one thing I missed the village. (I met up with loneliness.) In the beginning I’d go back on weekends or on- ce a month. I’d fill up the hollow with great longing.
H.B.K.: You’re twelve, let’s say, and you make your way to the city. A kid, all alone, leaves his village for the big city. Sure, maybe by that ti- me he’s had some contact with the city, but now he’s going to live the- re, attend school, be a student. Was it hard?
O.D.: As I’ve said, I was terribly homesick. But because life was so hard in the village, from the time I started going to school I was on va- cation. Schools and studying seemed like that to me, like a vacation. In the summer I’d go back to the village, back to work.
H.B.K.: A hard life.
O.D.: A hard life. It went on until I graduated from Gazi Education Ins- titute.
H.B.K.: Until graduating from Gazi did you go back to the village every summer?
O.D.: I’d go back home and work every summer.
H.B.K.: What would you do. The crops...?
O.D.: There were crops and orchards. Then it modernized, we got trac- tors. Parallel to Turkey’s development the family developed too. My fat- her’s side were very modern people, keen on technology. For instance our plain is the Plain of Hanbat, and in that plain we were the first to plant fruit trees; but fruit by the hundreds and thousands of kilos went unsold because people weren’t in the habit of eating it. So we lost the trees. Now everyone’s used to fruit, and everbody plants the trees. But during all this I worked steadily summers, watering the garden or go- ing out in the fields to plow, I worked non-stop.
H.B.K: When you first met up with the city, or maybe even before that, what did the concept of modernity mean to you?
O.D.: From primary school onwards the school was a window opening on modernism in a feudal setting. Everyone who went to school, espe- cially in those parts, they were newspaper readers, at that time news- papers were widely read. People would go to meet the evening train and get the papers. All the coffeehouses made sure to have some on hand, and everyone would at least skim them. I was one of the three or four first people to come out of the village and go to middle school. So- me dropped out in the third year, some in high school, some finished high school and then quit. I was the first to get a higher education. When I went back to the village everyone started to show pride in me. At that time my brothers, instead of using the traditional forms of res- pectful address to an elder brother, started calling me “Gagarin,” be- cause he had been in the news...
H.B.K.: The astronaut...
O.D.: Our village was a world unto itself... Like Gagarin, I was the first person to leave it. Important men would come and speak to me in par- ticular. When I say important men, I mean what we now call seniors.
H.B.K.: So living in the village, before you went to the city, I suppose there was such an idea as modernizing—or was there?
O.D.: There was, there was.
H.B.K.: What did it mean? Life changing, city life partly taking over; what did modernizing mean?
O.D.: For one thing, in the beginning modernity swept away a number of superstitions. That was the most vital side of it. For the villagers, of course. Maybe my grandfather still said “It’s this way,” but my father’s generation had started saying “It’s no longer that way, the world is such-and-such a way.” This conflict had started among them. They we- re more modern, or had started to be. And our thinking started being more advanced than our father’s. There was still quite a bit of religious pressure. At least fasting, going to the mosque to pray, and so on.
H.B.K.: Village life is in a sense premodern. Did the magical period yo- u just mentioned have an attractive, compelling side for you? We were just talking about the smiths, this relationship between iron, monsters and fire. From the standpoint of the relationship between the premo- dern era and our collective unconscious...
O.D.: All my work rests on the foundation of that magical period. Befo- re looking at the work itself you should know this: As a child I grew up listening to stories and tales. These were tales transmitted by word of mouth. Stories passed on in the telling, made up or altered, reinterpreted stories. And at that time the culture was an oral one. I come from an oral culture. Everything about me rests on this oral culture, so even now, at the school where I teach, an extension of this oral culture car- ries on. I mean I start classes by telling stories. The students come from various parts of the world, and I sit down to tell them stories. Actually what we do in the art world is tell stories day and night like Sheheraza- de, in order not to die.
H.B.K.: Very well, at that time did you have such a tradition in the villa- ge, telling tales and stories?
O.D.: Of course. In fact, that’s all we had!
H.D.K.: You were surrounded by them.
O.D.: Completely! From day to day I lived in a magical world where, for example, we were afraid to go out at night, ghosts and the like roamed about, spirits too. Passing by a graveyard you’d apologize, say a pra- yer, that kind of thing...Say “I beg your pardon” when you passed by the dead. When we reached a village and passed by its graveyard for the first time we’d pray for the dead as we went by. Or people would say, “If you pass by this place in such-and-such a way, if you put I don’t know what I don’t know where, or hanging something upside down, such-and-such and so-and-so will happen.” They’d say, “It’s dangero- us to line three things up in a row.” Ours was a half magical, half rea- listic society where myths and stories held sway. On the other hand the peasants had their Cartesian side. Looking at a field you’d see it had one tree. If there were two trees the field would yield two fewer kilos of wheat, so just one tree was left standing, and that was to provide a shady spot to sit down and rest. This is a radical attitude. But alongsi- de it, you’d hear that wheat shouldn’t be sown after such-and-such an hour, or that one shouldn’t do so-and-so. The reason was magic! Beli- ef held that seeing a rabbit after noon would bring bad luck. For, sir, it’s actually the devil. Everything’s all mixed up together in village life and village ways, the radical cheek by jowl with the magical.
H.B.K.: At that time what was your relation to the mystical? You could include religion in this, as well as the mystical side of nature.
O.D.: Ninety percent of Turkey is Muslim. I was little but I went to the mosque to do the prayers. Before they went to primary school kids wo- uld be rounded up and sent to the Koran course. In fact one of my clo- sest friends, a guy named Davut, knew the Koran by heart and was a muezzin. He was the one who gave the call to prayer at the mosque, and it sounded nice. Then we’d go up into that wooden minaret and play drafts there. Davut would give the noon call to prayer, then we’d come down and go through the prayer ritual. Then we’d go up again, and come down for mid-afternoon prayers without doing any ablutions. “Wait guys,” he’d say, “keep the game while I give the call to prayer, then I’ll be back.” That’s what my religion was like. But my grandfather had been to Mecca for the Hajj.
H.B.K.: For you did nature have any connection with this approach to mysticism?
O.D.: Actually we felt from the outset that God and the internal laws of nature were very different things. We kind of guessed they had nothing to do with each other. When I was seven or eight this became conscio- us knowledge. And then at the beginning we read lots of comics. Even before going to primary school we’d look at the drawings. Davut was older and knew how to read, so he read them. We’d sit next to him and follow. Tom Mix and a few other comics. They had a certain modernity. For example, the Indians were ignorant while the cowboys were more pragmatic and rational about everything. We were rooting for the cow- boys, so we were automatically rational. They brought us a kind of edu- cation. Because American comics generally are moralistic, but they in- troduced a modern dimension.
H.B.K.: But at the time it wasn’t a lack of faith.
O.D.: No question of a lack of faith in those days. In the second year of high school the hisotry teacher asked us to read Dante’s Divine Co- medy. Or rather he asked one of us to read it and summarize it for the class. I said, “I’ll read it.” So I had to read it and give a report to the class. Reading that book a different awareness wakened in me where religion was concerned. Talking in class I let them know a number of my ideas. Of course the history teacher was forced to defend me. He did it by saying, “Let’s hang religious ideas on the door; we’re discus- sing a book here, it’s a positive matter.” In the meantime I made fri- ends, thanks to this, with a group of enlightened students from Deniz- li, kids who toted certain ideas around with them. They were more awa- re and cultivated. Read Naz›m Hikmet’s poetry on the sly, and talked about what social justice ought to be like.
H.B.K.: A secular...
O.D.: Anyway my father and mother belonged to the CHP (Republican People’s Party). My grandfather was keenly for the Democratic Party. My mother’s side voted CHP. Being for the CHP was like being kin with positive learning. The upshot was that already in middle school I had done with the mystical approach. That magical world was finished for me even before middle school.
H.B.K.: All right, let’s open a parenthesis here and ask this question: Looking at daily life from an epistemological standpoint you follow a se- cular, rational line. But the art you produce has a magical, mystical, pastoral dimension...
O.D.: In former ages what mythology did was tell the story of human- kind; or it created the mythology of humankind. That’s all science and learning do today. Write the mythology of humankind. And so do ar- tists.
H.B.K.: What I mean is, where phenomenon which can be explained scientifically are transcended, where we reach the limits of scientific thought and come to the borders of the unknown, can we say that the- re the magical and poetic begin?
O.D.: Yes, that’s it. Indeed, even scientific matters have a magical di- mension. You tell someone who doesn’t know about it, “Light travels at a speed of 300,000 km.” But when you start saying, “Light comes from such-and-such a galaxy in 70 million years,” or “we can see light that comes from 13 billion lightyears away, 13 billion years have gone by for it to reach us,” then you’re delving into mythology.
H.B.K.: Freud defines something he calls the “ocean feeling.” Confron- ted with great bodies we experience an exaltation, and the vastness of those boundaries arouses something mystical within. Can we place what you’ve said within this framework?
O.D.: Totally, he hit the nail on the head, I didn’t know that.
H.B.K.: He sets it forth in a letter written to Romain Rolland. And he says it in an article he wrote for a book commemorating Rolland. It’s known that what we call mentality is, to a certain degree, connected with these boundaries. In fact, it’s my view that in the final analysis if what we call the tragic arouses terror through its grandeur, it partly rests somewhere within this feeling. Very well, what is a work of art? In an art work there’s always something that can’t be explained. Can we say that this inexplicable side of it creates its mythical, mystical, magi- cal elements or feelings?
O.D.: Due to its history, art has a sacred aspect. The beginning of art involved symbols used in sacred matters. It was that way with the church and before the pharaohs. Going even further back, what the witch doctors and shamans used was in a sense plastic. And art’s mystical dimension is rooted in its history. That is, someone who un- derstands art has to have a little knowledge of art’s history.
H.B.K.: You speak of the “sacred” aspect of a work of art, and that’s easier to describe. But what is its unknowable side?
O.D.: Art is a path to narrative, a kind of minor language. That’s the part that’s known, of course, but I don’t know if that’s the real reason. But people say that “you can only create by forgetting.” Things forgotten (the unconscious) make up 80 percent of the human brain, and in my opinion a work of art arises somewhere between this unconscious and the conscious. One might say that a work of art is an iceberg, with 20% visible above in the conscious and 80% below in the unconscious.
H.B.K.: Why is it so? Is this rooted in its relation with the unconscious?
O.D.: Entirely, if you ask me. It comes from its relation with the uncons- cious and is reached by forgetting.
H.B.K.: So could we say that the work of art is our unconscious? O.D.: Yes, we could.
H.B.K.: The history of art also embraces a secular struggle. How sho- uld we explain that, or in your mind does it have this side?
O.D.: At present, being secular is also a kind of spirituality. H.B.K.: How so?
O.D.: It too is a way of thinking.
H.B.K.: Carl Andre put six copper slabs on the floor, and in the 1960s said of this work, which is one of the most important in minimalism, “I have produced the world’s most secular work, and at the same time its most sacred.” Ultimately the work in question is six simple copper slabs. It’s that simple; secular, that is, material, that’s how one takes the assertion of “secular.” But on the other hand, if six plain pieces of cop- per lain side by side can generate in us a meaning, an emotional res- ponse, then it is the most sacred work on earth.
O.D.: Before giving my own take on this I want to say something. Pre- viously Malevich did a black square on a white canvas, and a white square also on a white canvas. But there were icons in Malevich’s his- tory. What he made was an icon, a modern, secular icon. Carl Andre had of course seen it, that’s very important.
H.B.K.: For me, the most important chapter in all minimal art, indeed in modern art, comes out of that white square on white.
O.D.: OK, we know that. Now in putting those copper slabs somewhe- re, Carl Andre put them in such a place that, precisely because of whe- re he put them, the slabs took on a new dimension. Do I make myself clear?
H.B.K.: You mean because of the gallery...
O.D.: As an artist, he could have put them in the garden, or some cor- ner of nature.
H.B.K.: But now you’re saying something else. I mean, is an artist’s aut- hority, his right, to make art more important than the art work itself? Ul- timately this takes us to Marcel Duchamp.
O.D.: The attitude of the artist. He does his thing! This is always more important, of course it is. If you ask me, the person who makes art is more important than the art made.
H.B.K.: In what sense? In the sense that it’s the artist who gives the art work its meaning, its character, its phenomenological dimension?
O.D.: First off, I say this to begin with because I’m an artist. I maintain that, as an artist, I’m more important than the work I do.
H.B.K.: Do you say this more in an existentialist sense?
O.D.: Yes. I’m important because as I give my work form I’m also sha- ping myself.
H.B.K.: What does that mean?
O.D.: Shaping oneself... Here’s what it means: When you set out to ma- ke something you adopt an atiitude. You spend time to make it. You think about its technical difficulties and wrestle with them, your mind is occupied, you produce it using your body and your everything. While making it there are things you think of, your mind wanders and comes back, there are a slew of memories, and so on. Perhaps, like a dervish or Zen master gi