Collection Spotlight: Night Shift 3 (Gece Vardlyasi 3), Vahap Avşar

Artist: Vahap Avşar, Turkish, born 1965

Title: Night Shift 3 (Gece Vardlyasi 3)

Date: Negative 1988; printed 2015

Medium: Chromogenic print

Edition: 1/3

Dimensions: 144 x 112 cm

Credit line:  Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Gift of Melih and Zeynep Keyman, 2015.4. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Vahap Avşar’s Night Shift 3 (1988; printed 2015) is a black-and-white photograph of a dimly-lit interior of an artist’s studio. Looming in the center is a clay model for a sculpture of a seated man. The figure, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie, turning its head slightly to the viewer’s right is presented frontally, with one hand resting on the arm of the chair, and the other on a book. The scale of the sculpture is not immediately apparent, though the tightly-framed figure seems monumental in relation to the visual field. This, along with the slight lack of focus, compels the beholder to scrutinize the surrounding space. The poor lighting, scattered tools, and large curtains in the background hint at a behind-the-scenes, preparatory setting; one gradually senses that the work is life-size or a little larger. The negative appears to have been scratched; evidence, perhaps, of time passed between the taking of the photograph and its printing.

The sculpture portrays Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), an army officer, revolutionary, and the first President of the Republic of Turkey, whose legacy as the founder of a modern, secular, politically and culturally Westernized Turkey continued to be publicly commemorated throughout the 20th century. To an American viewer the work might bring to mind the famous seated statue of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) inside the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Indeed, the posthumous symbolic use of Lincoln’s image in the United States especially in the 1930s and 1940s was similar to the Turkish government’s use of Atatürk’s image. During the two decades following  military coup of 1980 in Turkey, freedom of speech was heavily restricted and artists used government commissions to support themselves. The sculpture in this photograph is one of many similar projects produced by the artist’s mentor, conceptual artist Cengiz Çekil (1945-2015), who has been “widely regarded as a founding father of Turkish contemporary art” (Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Cengiz Çekil,” Artforum, September 2010). Avşar took this photograph when he worked as an assistant in Çekil’s studio in Izmir on a public commission for Dokuz Eylül University:

Çekil was given six months to finish it but being a perfectionist he wanted make something he would be proud of so he kept […] destroying it and making us build a new version. We were months late finishing the project. Working late every night in a cold poorly lit studio trying to finish, I was exhausted and felt like the task was going to kill me as if I was climbing Everest, so I wanted it to end. Towards the end, I stayed all night reworking the clay model after Çekil left the studio so he did not witness every change and torment himself and me. I wanted to somehow make a work that evoked some of the struggle we had with this statue both ideological and physical.  (Vahap Avşar, email message to Essi Rönkkö, May 13, 2016)

The bleak and lifeless nature of the scene clearly communicates this context and serves as an allegory for the political atmosphere and lack of artistic freedom in Turkey at the time. The statue dwarfs the room around it; an effect that emphasizes Atatürk’s powerful visual and ideological presence in Turkish life and the lingering influence of his policies that continued to control cultural affairs. In addition to the reference to Avşar’s solitary after-hours revision work, the title of Night Shift further evokes the factory-like production of public propaganda. Night Shift 3 serves a poignant reminder of art’s ability to communicate the lived realities and internal conflicts experienced by artists working under governmental censorship.

–Essi Rönkkö, Curatorial Associate for Special Projects

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences. 

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