Banu Cennetoğlu: What Transforms Information Into Political Action?

From international newspapers to the artist’s personal image archive, an exhibition at K21, Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf, examines the mass of information and its impact on agency

In Banu Cennetoğlu’s exhibition at K21, curated by Anna Goetz, a cluster of 22 black helium balloons, shaped like letters of the alphabet, are slowly deflating. Gradually, despite one of the balloons being absent (perhaps having burst), a sentence becomes legible: ‘Ich weiss zwar, aber dennoch.’ (I know very well, but nevertheless.) Taken from the French psychoanalyst and ethnologist Octave Mannoni’s eponymous 1969 essay, the phrase encapsulates his conception of a double system of consciousness wherein, even when an illusion has been systematically exposed as such, people continue to cling to it in a way that parallels superstitious or fetishistic behaviour. The relevance of this notion for Cennetoğlu is obvious: her practice interrogates what transforms information into political action or inaction, and where the fine line lies between being aware of the ideological distortion of information and choosing to remain oblivious to it.

‘Banu Cennetoğlu’, 2019, exhibition view, K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf. Courtesy: the artist and K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; photograph: Achim Kukulies

In the first two rooms of Cennetoğlu’s show, multiple long tables are covered in open newspapers, laid out in neat rows, taken from the collection the artist has been archiving for almost a decade. 20.08.2010 (2010) is an assembly of Turkish newspapers, 02.11.2011 (2011) of Arabic titles and 04.09.2014 (2014) of British dailies – in each case published on the day of the work’s title. 11.08.2015 (2015) comprises almost every newspaper printed that day in Germany. Hardbound in black, the volumes are embossed in gold on the spine with the date.

‘Banu Cennetoğlu’, 2019, exhibition view, K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf. Courtesy: the artist and K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; photograph: Achim Kukulies

Cennetoğlu’s practice seeks to make visible the often-obscured mass of information characteristic of contemporary culture. She questions the point at which it becomes news and, consequently, gains agency and political sway. But it also complicates the historicization and aestheticization of conceptual art itself by substituting the conceptual content of previous serial and minimalist practices with the historical, social, political and economic documents of our contemporary society. Further, the inclusion of Arabic and Turkish newspapers directly challenges the Anglo-American privileging of that conceptualism.

Theoretically, the volumes facilitate the perception of social and political events from myriad political standpoints, serving a range of editorial agendas. However, only an ideal and imagined visitor with extended access to the exhibition who was also capable of reading in Arabic, German, English and Turkish could come close to attaining such a big-picture perspective. If the artist is enabling the site of contemporary art to become a place within which we might pause in the face of monumental information overload, by burdening the gallery-goer with an impossible task, she is also asking us to be more self-conscious of our inability to ever fully ‘know’ anything – both before and after the internet.

‘Banu Cennetoğlu’, 2019, exhibition view, K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf. Courtesy: the artist and K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; photograph: Achim Kukulies

In the final room Cennetoğlu’s recent film commissioned by the Chisenhale Gallery, 1 January 1970 – 21 March 2018 … (2018) is screened. It comprises 127 hours of unedited digital footage – all of the visual data from the artist’s electronic devices since 2006. Montaged in chronological order, much of the material is trivial: poorly shot photos of the artist’s travels, friends and family; shaky videos with too much reverb. We see Cennetoğlu visiting New York or on a road trip to Albania. But we also see political events, such as the student protests at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University. Cennetoğlu is keen to materialise the ways in which subjective and psychological experiences distort and dramatise perception on both the level of the individual and the State. What does this uncompromising deluge of trivial and occasionally political imagery proffer? Perhaps it attempts the painful training of a new kind of viewing: one aware of the ocean of digital information we all increasingly spew out but also need to try and swim through.

‘Banu Cennetoğlu’ runs at K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf, until 10 November 2019.

Main image: ‘Banu Cennetoğlu’, 2019, exhibition view, K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf. Courtesy: the artist and K21 Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; photograph: Achim Kukulies

Sarah James ist Dozentin der Kunstgeschichte am University College London.

Issue 207

First published in Issue 207

November - December 2019

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

September 2019

frieze magazine

October 2019

frieze magazine

November - December 2019