During the Cold War, the United States created spatial imaginaries through the use of language. Words like “blocs,” “containment,” and “dominoes” emphasized a set of geographical identities like “the West,” “the Soviet Union,” and “the United States,” while the US attempted to discipline cultural differences within these spaces.1 The reductive narrative of a protracted struggle between an essentially democratic “West” and the inherently expansionist “East” understood as its other became the most enduring and influential geopolitical script of the Cold War. Pitting the “East” against the “West,” the US considered Turkey to be a strategic ally against Soviet expansion.2 The US administration understood Turkey through a varied but cohesive set of metaphors: a natural “barrier” against Soviet expansion, a “deterrent” to a Soviet attack, and a “challenge” to the Soviet Union’s southern flank.
The US concretized these metaphors through several bilateral agreements with Turkey in the 1950s, agreements which established over thirty “Joint Defense Installations” in Turkey.3 These installations inscribed within Turkey’s territory the US’ geopolitical interests by stationing more than 5,000 US military personnel within the country’s borders. These personnel engaged in intelligence gathering as well as in developing a strong logistic supply-chain between the US and its allies.4 This relationship was also cemented at the level of cultural policy. Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s prime minister from 1950 to 1960, attempted to, in the words of Turkish president Celal Bayar, “creat[e] a little America.”5 The 1950s were as such defined by the “Americanization” of Turkey’s built environment, as skyscrapers and shopping malls were built en masse and ads praising the “American lifestyle” dominated Turkey’s televisions. This embrace of the US’ Cold War values and interests was, however, resisted at the time by the rise of the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist revolutionary movement, a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic coalition which sought progressive reform at home and international peace abroad. Members of the movement argued that Turkey did not become an equal ally of the US but instead became a colony. They voiced their concerns over Turkey’s internal and external affairs being shaped by US interests and accused the US of cultural imperialism.
Since the beginning of the Cold War, 183 skyscrapers have been built in Turkey, almost equaling the total number of skyscrapers in the US, alongside 453 shopping malls. The introduction of these large-scale buildings into cities across the country drastically and permanently intervened in the existing urban context. Among them, a unique architectural site still stands in Ankara: Emek İşhanı, now known as Kahramanlar Business Center. Designed as one of the first International Style buildings in Turkey, Emek İşhanı is commonly accepted as the high-rise building that started the country’s skyscraper boom. Inspired by the Lever House, a glass-box skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, Emek İşhanı became the first high-rise building in Turkey with a glass curtain wall facade. The building was commissioned by Emekli Sandığı (abbreviated as Emek), administered by the Social Security Administration of Turkey, and built as a revenue generating property. The architects Enver Tokay and İlhan Tayman were selected by Emekli Sandığı from a national competition.
While becoming the tallest skyscraper in the nation after its completion, Emek İşhanı uniquely amalgamated the opposing sentiments of anti-imperialism and pro-American rhetoric that marked the Cold War in Turkey through the commission of a public artwork by leftist Turkish-Ethiopian artist Kuzgun Acar (1928-1976) to be hung on its entrance facade in 1965.6 As part of his practice, Acar worked with the scrap materials he was able to recuperate from refuse collectors of Istanbul, which later constituted his artistic identity.7 As his contemporaries depended on imported art materials to produce work, the idea that discarded materials salvaged from shipyards of Istanbul could be transformed into art set in place a major shift from the preceding artistic practice in Turkey at that time. Acar’s practice disavowed entrenched tropes about individual artists working in isolation in their studios, looking to an inner voice for inspiration, and intuitively fashioning an art object using untouched materials intended solely for an artistic project. Through his deep engagement with recuperation and recycling, Acar was able to negate the elitist justifications for “modernizing” Turkey not only by rejecting the depoliticization of the language of Modernism at a theoretical level, but also through his use of industrial refuse produced by Turkey’s own rapid and uncontrolled development. By this acknowledgment of environmental destruction at both the representational and material level of artistic production, Acar inscribed his use of recycled materials in more explicitly eco-political terms than many of his counterparts—both in Turkey and abroad.8
In turning to the city of Istanbul for materials, Acar created a more sustainable approach to acquiring what he needed to make work while recording the materiality of his local environment. In doing so, he separated himself from key orthodoxies of art-making as exemplified in the work of his mentors, such as the Afghan-Turkish artist Hadi Bara (1906-1971), whose monumental early works were identified with nationalist projects supported by the Turkish state.9 Thus, Acar explored the dehumanizing effects of the Second Industrial Revolution, expressed disillusionment with increasing mechanization, and directly represented local and timely revolutionary concerns within his work, showing solidarity with the workers’ movements through the analysis of environmental problems.
Acar’s material engagements committed him to conceptually expressing the most while using the tightest economy of discarded ready-made materials and modern industrial production methods such as oxy-welding to carefully bind them. His work Eulogy to a Modern Man, entirely made from recycled nails, was awarded the first prize at the second Biennale de Paris in 1961, making Acar the first artist in the nation to bring home an internationally recognized award in the arts and the first black artist from Turkey to reach international recognition. When he was commissioned to create a public sculpture for the entrance facade of Emek İşhanı, Acar was well aware of the building’s popularity and considered the commission a “dream come true,”10 both as a platform that would grant him wide public attention, and an opportunity to engage a broader audience beyond gallery walls. Likewise, Acar’s domestic and international success made him the ideal candidate despite his racialization under an ethnonationalist state,11 leftist commitments, and anti-imperialist views. For this commission, Acar decided to address aridification in Anatolia, a region in central Turkey subject to this pressing ecological issue due to rapid industrialization and the swift construction of hydropower generation projects. Acar based the form of the sculpture on an aridification map of Turkey. He first considered naming the work in a way that’d closely follow his concept, such as “breath of the prairie” or “a breath to the dessert,” and then selected a more symbolic name, Türkiye Rölyefi (Relief of Turkey), attributing the aridification to the whole country rather than a specific region.
Hung over the entrance of the Emek İşhanı, Türkiye Rölyefi was composed of non-linearly assembled pieces of metal with blade-sharp edges. The widely circulated local and timely ecological concerns of Türkiye Rölyefi – and the contradicting message conveyed by the international style skyscraper on which it was installed – places the sculpture within what Suzanne Lacy has more recently called “new genre public art,” a category meant to encompass artworks that are not simply placed in public spaces, but interact with both the site of their installation and the public they constitute by fostering political engagement.12 Acar’s sculpture functioned as a critical reminder of the environmental and ecological impact of hydropower generation projects in Anatolia’s rivers. Moreover, Acar used the local language of industrial refuse to inscribe the work in a process of recuperation and recycling. Türkiye Rölyefi activated the public space in which it was meant to be contained by proposing an intersection between the urban space’s rapid transformation and the destruction of Anatolia’s rivers and, subsequently, of the rural communities directly dependent on them.
In this purposeful deployment of modernist representational strategies, Acar anticipated key arguments developed in Suzi Gablik’s The Reenchantment of Art (1991). Gablik argues against the “purposelessness” of art embraced by a late-modernist commitment to the autonomy of aesthetics, preferring it a “purposeful” and social art practice inscribing itself in a renewed cultural paradigm in which a sense of community, a broad ecological perspective, and an ethical turn towards care which redistribute the aims of artistic practice are prioritized.13 Prior to Gablik’s arguments and more inscribed in modernist concerns than Gablik’s reconstructive understanding of postmodernist practices, Türkiye Rölyefi unsettles the autonomy of artistic modernism to put it to work as a political force, reconfiguring the modernist relationship between a work’s materiality, its representational strategies, and its political inscription within an ecological discourse at the level of production and reception. In Türkiye Rölyefi, the aridification of lands in Anatolia due to the dual pressures of modernization and industrialization is not simply made visible or represented, but is in a single gesture inscribed in the public space and acknowledged as part of a broader ecological system that both public space and Acar’s own practice must function inside of. It is in this sense that we can qualify Acar’s work as ecocritical, as it doesn’t simply (re)present ecological concerns but produces a critical reevaluation of the relationship between artistic production, public spaces, and specific ecological concerns with an eye towards an eco-political program.
Urban structures such as the Emek İşhanı were regarded as the primary symbols of modernization and industrialization in Turkey during the ’50s and the ’60s. Therefore, it is important to note Acar’s sculpture is not only a coherent ensemble, but also one that diverges from the dominant cultural significance of the building. Indeed, Acar’s decision to place such a conceptually and visually charged work at the center of the building shows the artist’s commitment to his ecocritical program at a time when such a discourse was not only marginalized, but would jeopardize his safety and well-being. In deliberately linking the pressing problem of aridity with the logic of Turkey’s rapid industrialization and the proliferation of skyscrapers as its symbol, Acar implicated political and governmental realities in his ecological plea, drawing societal attention to the extent to which Turkey’s modernization project, accomplished at the price of extreme environmental degradation, is entangled with that degradation. Thus, Türkiye Rölyefi reappropriates the space created by the skyscraper to function as a public forum and subverts its symbolic import to tackle the ways in which the power of the state operates through the administration of nature.
Unfortunately, in 1974 Türkiye Rölyefi was removed from its place and destroyed by the Turkish Military following the US-supported coup of 197114 due to the work’s progressive content. Acar stated that the government started debating the removal of the sculpture right after the coup. In a letter to his partner, Bige Perker, Acar wrote: “Think about it, they are taking down the sculpture we made for the skyscraper with copious efforts. They’re going to take it down and put a sculpture of the founding father. People are infuriated by this act…”15 Shortly after this letter, the artist was detained by the military for being a member of the Workers Party of Turkey, which had been banned during the coup. During his two-weeks’ detainment, the artist was subjected to torture and psychological abuse, a typical treatment of leftist detainees in the hands of the US-backed Turkish military.16 After his release, Acar suffered greatly as both he and his work were continuously targeted by the military. After the removal of Türkiye Rölyefi, Acar wrote again to his partner stating: “I knew it. They’ll leave no public sculptures made by me but I don’t think they’ll be able to remove my name too.”17 Indeed, the military forgot to remove the concrete plaque with his signature from the facade of Emek İşhanı while removing his metal sculpture, and the plaque stayed intact until 2004.
All that remains of Kuzgun Acar’s Türkiye Rölyefi is a 24 x 18cm black and white analog photographic print.18 The photograph was taken by an unknown photographer for the national newspaper Yeni Gazete and published on January 31, 1967, with the intent of documenting Acar’s work and announcing its completion. The image is striking. At its center, non-linearly assembled pieces of metal with sharp ends form an afterimage of the now-lost work. The photograph, taken in portrait orientation with diffuse lighting conditions, shows the entrance of Emek İşhanı and Türkiye Rölyefi. Under the sculpture, a dozen people are waiting or walking, slightly underexposed and blurred by their movement. They are the audience for which Acar produced the work, constituted as a public by its presence yet seemingly unaware of it, using the entrance of the skyscraper to protect themselves from the rain. The photographer seems to intuit the interconnectedness of the sculpture and its surroundings by deciding to include a large portion of the skyscraper in the image and bringing to attention the public nature of Türkiye Rölyefi.
Acar’s broader political commitments and his dedication to the specific cause of Anatolian aridification extended past the production of Türkiye Rölyefi. After finishing Türkiye Rölyefi, Acar paid close attention to a public-led campaign to stop the damming of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. These rivers are considered ideal for damming because of their significant drop in elevation and other unique geological characteristics, favorable to the operation of hydropower plants. In 1970, the Turkish government approved an ambitious project, known as Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi (GAP), to build twenty-two hydroelectric power plants along the main body of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers over a period of twenty years. The goal of this dam system was to provide 8,900 gigawatt hours (32 PJ) for the rapidly industrializing country making the project one of the largest series of hydroelectric power plants in the world.
The original plan of GAP was immediately criticized by environmentalists, cultural preservationists, and activists as a danger to the biological, ecological, and cultural diversity of the region surrounding these two rivers. Thanks to ongoing protest and activism across generations the project has slowed down, but unfortunately their efforts failed to halt it, as sixteen dams have already been completed. One of these sites, Hasankeyf, an ancient settlement alongside the Tigris River, was in the process of being designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, but lost its accession due to the flooding of the town in 2020 as part of the Ilısu Dam project, part of the GAP. Water levels reached an elevation of approximately five-hundred meters covering the whole town and displacing its indigenous residents. In retrospect, Türkiye Rölyefi, with its ability to symbolize complex ideas in a concrete way, had a unique potential for raising political awareness and advancing the call for a shift in the government’s decisions towards the Tigris and Euphrates river basin’s ecological sustainability and its community’s survival and well-being.
It is important to note that Acar was one of the only artists in his milieu to resist the tendency to conceive of only one perfect method, a single way to effect change through artistic expression. Instead, he actively sought multiple means to reach a diverse audience: directing a documentary about aridification in Eastern Anatolia, joining an experimental street theater troupe which staged plays in public calling for social and environmental justice, and participating in community projects that sought to ameliorate failing infrastructures in Eastern Turkey. In 1969, he joined the community project “Boğaza Değil Zap Suyuna Köprü (A Bridge for the Zap River not the Bosphorus)” led by the socialist political organization Devrimci Gençlik (Revolutionary Youth), which opposed the governmental plan to build the first suspension bridge to connect Istanbul’s Asian side to the European across the Bosphorus. Instead, they campaigned to build a bridge over the Zap river in the city of Hakkari, in Eastern Turkey, to help the indigenous community who were forced to cross the river in dangerous conditions to meet their daily needs related to agriculture and to access health and education.19 After receiving funding from one of the national newspapers Milliyet, Acar, Devrimci Gençlik, and a group of art students from the Istanbul Fine Arts Academy travelled to Hakkari and built a bridge across the Zap River with its community. Named Devrimci Gençlik Köprüsü (Revolutionary Youth Bridge) by the locals, this bridge still aids the surrounding community.
The legacy of Acar’s multifaceted practice, similar to the remaining photographic print of Türkiye Rölyefi, continues to haunt its audiences with a dilemma that is yet unresolved as Turkey still struggles the deleterious effects of the inequalities produced by its rapid modernizing process, a process which cemented not only an inequitable distribution of resources, but also a steady, ongoing march of ecological devastation. Although Acar did not live to witness the catastrophic environmental disasters plaguing Turkey today, it is important to examine Türkiye Rölyefi’s potential as an artwork attempting to mobilize all of its resources to activate public space. In this work, Acar not only acknowledged the realities of environmental destruction, but also modeled political engagement with these said realities. Indeed, the destiny of Türkiye Rölyefi encapsulates Acar’s ecocritical gesture not only as a work suspended and interrupted by authoritarian repression, but also as a call for a model of ecocritical practices yet to come.
Hande Sever is an artist, technologist and theorist working at the intersections of decoloniality, vernacular architecture, ecosophy and emerging technologies. Her writing has been published by Getty Research Journal, Art Institute Review, Stedelijk Studies, Journal of Arts & Communities, and X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, among others. As an artist, her work often takes up her family’s history of persecution to explore divergent lines of inquiries addressing military violence, surveillance, and censorship. Sever’s works have been presented at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, UK; MAK Museum Vienna, Austria; CICA Museum Seoul, South Korea; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, IL; A.I.R. Gallery in New York; BOX Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. Sever received her MFA in Art and Technology from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and her double BA in Visual Arts and Computer Science from Emory University. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Art History, Theory, and Criticism program with a concentration in Art Practice at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), and prior to joining UCSD she was a visiting faculty member of CalArts’ Photography and Media program. Sever’s works have been supported with grants from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, California Arts Council, Getty Foundation and Henry Luce Foundation.