BY Jennifer Allen in Reviews | 20 JUL 11
Featured in
Issue 2

Nil Yalter

Galerie Hubert Winter

BY Jennifer Allen in Reviews | 20 JUL 11

Nil Yalter, Temporary Dwellings, 1974–76

I speak a little bit of French, but I cannot read and write, says a Turkish worker living near Lyon. Hes one of many immigrants legal and illegal whom Nil Yalter captured on video. We are ten thousand Turks in this city, we are scared, says another worker, living in Ghent. The subtitled testimonies describe poor working and living conditions as well as a failure to integrate. One almost expects the German politician Thilo Sarrazin to make a cameo appearance and complain about head-scarf girls.

But the year is 1974, not 2011. The title of this multimedia installation Temporary Dwellings (197478) reflects the perishable nature of the run-down places where the workers lived, if not the workers themselves. Yalter travelled through not only France and Belgium but also Turkey and the United States to interview them, much like an ethnographer taking field notes. The videos recorded in black and white accompany cardboard sheets featuring diary-like entries written in block capital letters, Polaroids, drawings and artefacts found on-site all displayed with the sparse facticity of a school science project.

For example, a cardboard sheet dated Wednesday 7 July 1975, documents a temporary Algerian settlement in the Paris suburb Nanterre, where Yalter collects a piece of TOLE ROUILLE (rusted metal) which is duly attached to the cardboard, along with other finds. She draws the blue shade of a kitchen wall and notes ILS ONT ECRIT LEURS NOMS SUR PAPIER (they wrote their names on paper) under the signed scraps of paper, also stuck on the board. In short, the workers testimonies are matched by her own a doubling that gives her perspective a heightened sense of objectivity while reflecting their objectification as a cheap labour force. However makeshift her assemblages appear, Yalter attempts to give the temporary dwellings and the temporary people the perpetuity of a museum collection.

As curator Derya Yücel notes in a text that accompanied this formidable show, Yalters documents attest to an integration into the labour market and a segregation from urban space. According to the video testimonies, these immigrants wanted to integrate; their exclusion especially from language courses likely facilitated their exploitation on the labour market. As long as the jobs lasted, there were no Sarrazins complaining about anyones failure to become part of society. Unlike todays anti-immigration populists, Yalter does not reduce the problems to a Muslim-Christian divide but finds a failure to respect workers the world over, from Lyon to Istanbul. By saving every story and every artefact, the artist reflected the micro-history approach that arose in the 1970s. But today, this work looks more like a prophecy about how temporary people fail to become permanent citizens.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.