Kutlug˘ Ataman’s 80-minute film Journey to the Moon (2009) is so full of metaphor, historical reference and subtle, self-deprecating humour that it’s difficult to know where to start. The two-channel video installation, which is the narrative centrepiece of the Turkish artist’s ‘Mesopotamian Dramaturgies’ project (2009–11), was presented in isolation at Thomas Dane Gallery, the complete works having previously been shown in different configurations internationally.
The film is set in 1957, in Erzinean – a small village in rural Anatolia from where Ataman’s family originates – and tells the story of four villagers who attempt to escape by launching a minaret into space. On one screen a seemingly never-ending sequence of black and white stills document these improbable events, which are narrated in lyrical Turkish prose. As the stills roll and roll, it soon becomes clear that this exhaustive archive is, of course, fictional. Containing little in the way of historical or geographical reference, they take on the appearance of incomplete or unreliable memories. Interrupting these on an adjacent screen are a series of interviews with Turkish intellectuals – a sociologist, an astronomer, a journalist – who each reflect on the narrative, using them as a parable to consider a slew of national, historical and intellectual phenomena. The significance they place on the events in Erzinean is such that we can’t help but become transfixed by the story’s outcome or, at the very least, what the story might say about its protagonists and where it takes place.
Ataman’s film is captivating for a number of reasons. Set in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, seven years after Turkey’s first democratic elections and three years before the military coup that saw the ruling party ousted, it is situated at a pivotal moment for the country’s liberal, democratic project and its complex relationship with the world’s central powers. In Journey to the Moon this relationship is played out on many fronts. Within a global, historical framing, the film – like Ataman’s ‘Mesopotamian Dramaturgies’ series as a whole – reclaims Mesopotamia as a historical site for the present, prompting a reconsideration of the former centre of civilization in relation to today’s complex geo-politics.
Within a national, more historically specific setting, the narrative reflects the then ruling party’s reliance on the rural vote and the promise of their own version of the Modernist dream. Indeed, the film’s peculiar sequence of events is set in motion by a politician’s impromptu speech, which promises the impressionable villagers factories, jobs and the chance to ‘turn this place into America’. That the protagonists climb inside a minaret attached to helium balloons to reach the moon is partly Ataman’s dig at Turkey’s halting relationship with technological progress. But this is also a striking caricature of modern, secular Turkey’s ambivalent relationship with Islam, which in recent years has taken on a more conservative hue under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The film comprises a finely considered parable of Turkey’s past and future trajectories, of how it has been constructed (and here re-constructed) along its own distinct lines.
Historical and narrative construction has often been a preoccupation of Ataman’s, yet with Journey to the Moon the yarn he spins seems to hit a more sincere tone. Equally, compared to some of the artist’s more grandiose installations, the film’s relatively conventional devices (stills, interviews, a two-channel display) makes it at once more understated and persuasive.
So, having been let down by the politician’s empty promises, four villagers, led by an alcoholic mechanic and a vagrant dancing farmer, decide to restore pride in the village by attaching balloons to a minaret and climbing inside. Their act becomes both an absurdist escape and one of defiant self-empowerment. Does it speak, as one of Ataman’s panel of experts suggests, of ‘the anarchistic energy of non-western society’? We are only left to guess at the fate of the four space travellers. How far did they make it beyond the mountains? Such is the optimism of Ataman’s film that their ultimate failure is neither ‘documented’ nor addressed. Rather, we are left contemplating a narrative without a defined outcome or fixed ending. It is here that Ataman’s relationship with history – its necessary and perpetual reconsideration – is at its most unresolved. It is also where it’s at its most genuine.