The title of Ahmet Öğüt’s ten-year retrospective, ‘Vooruit!’ (Forward!), is spelled out in bright white lights at the entrance, but the directions taken by the Kurdish artist over the past decade are hardly linear, and the titular injunction to move ahead doesn’t mean he is leaving the past behind. Replete with mixed-media work – including sculptures, installations, photographs and video – the exhibition somewhat curiously captures his dynamic, project-based and process-oriented practice in a freeze-frame. It’s almost as if the professional cyclists he once hired to race the lighted letters V-O-O-R-U-I-T around an indoor velodrome (On the Path of Vooruit Universe, 2012) have suddenly screeched to a temporary halt.
The museum captures, but it doesn’t contain: some works are installed outside the main galleries, and the route through the exhibition is circuitous. The massive backside of Bakunin’s Barricade (2015) can be accessed by pushing through The Swinging Doors (2009), made out of police riot shields, but one has to retrace steps back through multiple installations to see that Öğüt has covered the front of the barricade with works by John Baldessari, Marlene Dumas, Pablo Picasso and others from the Van Abbemuseum collection. Here, Öğüt was inspired by Mikhail Bakunin’s revolutionary idea to use artworks as protest-protection, but other artists, namely Chris Burden and Bas Jan Ader, turn up as references in other works. Öğüt restaged Burden’s 1979 radio piece Send me your money as a sculpture-sound work comprising a radio on a table with banknotes tucked under its wobbly leg (Send him your money, 2010), and he relocated Ader’s fateful sea voyage of 1975 to an Amsterdam lake, requiring each participant to take a ride in the boat alone (Guppy 13 vs. Ocean Wave; A Bas Jan Ader Experience, 2010). A Bas Jan Ader Experience is partially rendered here as an installation of documentation in vitrines, decorated with a sail, and the boat Guppy 13 is anchored in the river outside the museum.
Öğüt’s work is social and political in its orientation, collaborative and discursive in its methods, and its projected outcomes are not pre-determined. He is as much a thinker and writer as he is an emphatic producer of artworks. This is most evident in the central room, devoted to learning and collaboration, which is designed and furnished in greyscale tones to resemble an office. Öğüt’s printed ‘Strategic Diagram for Non-hierarchical Participatory Radical Democracy’, (from a 2011 text he published in Gagarin Magazine), immediately confronts you from a facing wall and will serve as the springboard for a series of workshops with the public. Cube-shaped seating is placed in front of tables mounted with flat-screen monitors, each of which plays a film that explains or promotes Öğüt’s projects, like the Intern VIP Lounge he set up at Art Dubai in 2013, or a teaser-trailer for Reverb (2015), an audio-visual stage performance he conceived with the band Fino Blendax. The best-known of these projects is his ‘Silent University’ – a ‘knowledge exchange platform by and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants’ – that he set up during a residency at Tate Modern in 2012, which now has branches associated with Tensta konsthall in the suburbs of Stockholm and at The Showroom in London. Day After Debt: A Call for Student Loan Relief (2014–ongoing) is a timely activist effort for which Öğüt and other artists (including Martha Rosler, Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Superflex) created sculpture-donation points for visitors to contribute to debt-relief organizations.
An exhibition like this should serve as a cautionary tale for a reviewer – or an artist – who tries to grasp all the criss-crossing narrative threads that lead to, and emerge from, such projects to form singular judgments or expressions. In many cases, the formal confidence and slickness of Öğüt’s installations resolutely sets them apart from ‘mere’ documentation, but that poise can also tend to obscure the hosts of intriguing and messy stories and encounters that are integral to them. Sometimes Öğüt makes those elements explicit, as in The Muscles Behind My Eyes Ache From The Strain (2013), photographs and textual documentation from a lecture-performance about the censorship, abuse and theft his work has endured. It’s because narrative plays such a crucial role in this artist’s practice that one cannot take this exhibition at face value. Everything in it and surrounding it demands multiple levels of reading, and individual, as well as collective, acts of mediation.