In 587 AD, the monk John Moschus set out from the great desert monastery of St Theodosius, overlooking Bethlehem, on a 40-year journey that would take him across the Eastern Byzantine world. His route passed through the spectacular, semi-arid expanse of Cappadocia, in what is now Anatolia in central Turkey, where he stayed with monks and ascetics living in caves and hermitages carved into a fantastical landscape of fairy chimneys and lunar valleys. Moschus later collected his tales of these desert fathers in a book that came to be known as The Spiritual Meadow, which he dedicated to his pupil and travelling companion: 'Think of this present work like this [...] since you will find in it the virtues of the holy men who have enlightened our time [...] Out of these flowers I have picked the most beautiful, and woven a corona for you out of this imperishable and everlasting meadow.'
I don't know whether curator Fulya Erdemci had Moschus's meadow of wisdom at the back of her mind when she titled the visual arts strand of the second edition of Cappadox festival 'Let Us Cultivate Our Garden'. Taken from Voltaire's Candide (1759), the quotation acted as a guiding principle for this four-day event, which brought together visual arts, music, food, nature walks and pranayama breathing as an experiment in alternative tourism in a region where dawn hot air balloon flights, which fill the pink morning sky like so many baubles, only to disappear before most people wake, are a potent symbol of the transience of the general visitor experience. The culmination of many months of research, 'Let Us Cultivate Our Garden' proposed to draw out and on local knowledge, forging relationships with people in the area in order to open a conversation about what might be cultivated in Cappadocia as it progresses from an agrarian society to a largely tourist-driven economy, and on whose terms. As Erdemci explained one night, there are only a handful of domestic residences remaining in Uchisar, the town in and around which the festival is staged; the rest have been converted into tourist accommodation or amenities.
It's a commendable aim if, in practice, it’s one riven with contradictions. Some of these are re-formulations of the same old questions asked of art festivals and biennials everywhere: How effective a platform is a contemporary art event attended by some 3–4,000 visitors for communicating regional social and economic issues? Who is the work for? (In the double sense of: Who is the audience, and whom does the work serve?) Others are specific to the scope and intentions of Cappadox: In order to make this festival profitable, as its organizers hope, it needs to be scaled up. How can this be done without threatening the 'garden' that Erdemci wishes to tend? And, in the case of the visual art strand, what kind of work can you possibly install in such a spectacular landscape? Can contemporary work stand alongside the region's cultural and spiritual histories without coming off as a comparative flash in the pan?
Cappadox was founded by Pozitif, one of Turkey's best known, most successful live music and entertainment companies, which has initiated numerous other genre-crossing music festivals across the country and runs venues such as Istanbul's Babylon and Volkswagen Arena. Music is central to the programme, and is also its strength. An eclectic line-up of international and Turkish musicians, weighted towards the experimental and encompassing electronica, ambient, folk and jazz (including Sun Ra's Arkestra, whose ‘afrofuturism’ was first brought to Turkey in the early 1990s by Pozitif founders Ahmet and Mehmet Uluğ and Cem Yegül) performed in some breathtakingly scenic locations. I doubt if anyone who followed blinking flashlights down a dusty path to hear cellist Rebecca Foon and harpist Şirin Pancaroğlu play under the full moon, illuminated and tiny in the tenebrous cradle of the Red Valley, came out unmoved. Their semi-improvisatory performance formed a kind of doubled call and response: to one another and to the surrounding landscape.
Music, which is essentially non-mimetic, is able to enhance Cappadocia, rather than compete with it as a backdrop; visual art, on the other hand, cannot help but pit itself against its surroundings, and struggled here as a result. The main site of the exhibition, which included work by more than 20 artists, most of them new commissions, was the luminous Red Valley. Visible from afar, Ayse Erkmen's Prize (2016) made the show's loudest statement: a huge, inflatable red ring, it passed through a door carved into the side of a fairy chimney, encircling it like a significant monument marked on a map. (It's could also be the red circle from a Kandinsky painting or a Bauhaus pattern design: a Modernist building block cast into the natural world as a reminder of abstraction's dual debt to earthly forms and divine inspiration.) With punk spirit and a lack of reverence for its awe-inspiring surroundings, Erkmen's gesture is crude but effective – drawing attention to the more interesting detail of the rock opening itself. Its surreal delimitation of space reminds me of a favourite painting by René Magritte, in which a door stands on the shore, a cloud leaning lazily against one jambe, leading nowhere (La Victoire, Victory, 1939).
Other sculptural incursions were more polite but less interesting. Maider López's Zoom In (2016), for example, saw monochrome tiles placed, like Pantone chips, alongside elements in the landscape from which their colour is derived. There is truly very little that man can imagine that nature has not already anticipated, including the bizarre airborne sculptures of Tomás Saraceno's utopic, quixotic 'Aerocene' project – an ongoing series of works that float as the gases inside them are heated by the earth and sun. At least supposedly: unfavourable wind conditions meant that I did not witness a successful flight during my trip; emission-free air travel is a way off yet, it would seem. Only Nilbar Güreş captured anything of Cappadocia's exultant strangeness – this is after all, a landscape that looks like something dreamed by Salvador Dalí – with an installation of carefully gathered trinkets, natural and man-made, laid out as though for a shamanic ritual. In another cave, her sculpture of a lion and a gazelle sitting cosily alongside one another (Back to Back, 2016) references a famous portrait of Haji Bektash Veli, the Alevi Muslim mystic and philosopher who lived in Anatolia in the mid-13th century. Though assimilated into the Islamic tradition, Alevism has animistic roots based in ancient Turkish beliefs, a syncretism that reflects the layering and commingling of cultural and spiritual narratives in Cappadocia down the centuries.
Back in town, in an empty shop-front near the main square (the festival 'hub'), German artist Christoph Schäfer and his compatriot DJ Booty Carrell created Stüdyo Mistranslasion. While Carrell span records from his extensive collection of Afrofuturism, Turkofuturism and 1970s Anatolian funk, Schäfer painted the walls with an acid dream of mythical creatures and flying saucers: local lore and Byzantine iconography re-imagined and expanded, rendered in a loose graphic style borrowed from the Edo-period Japanese artist Hiroshige. Schäfer and Carrell are based in Hamburg, and explained that some of the best new Turkish music is currently being made there by artists whose parents were amongst the hundreds of thousands of Gastarbeiter (guest workers), recruited in the 1960s to drive the booming post-war West German economy. (A 'rotation clause' in the 1961 German-Turkish treaty originally gave migrant labourers a two-year work permit, after which time it was expected that they would return to their home country. Many stayed on after this stipulation was removed in 1964. and it is now estimated that there are around three million Turkish citizens living in Germany.) Stüdyo Mistranslasion was about music as migration: beats borrowed and recombined; things distinct but shared – including by the guys sweeping the street outside, who came in to listen and discuss, only to return later with music unknown to Schäfer and Carrell. Of all the projects, this felt the most supple: the best attuned to both the possibilities of dialogue (even when wordless) and the realities of its failure.
The morning after I fly back to London, the news in the UK is full of the EU's proposed deal to waive travel visas for Turkish citizens in return for Ankara's co-operation in stemming the flow of refugees from the Middle East to Europe. The figure of 80 million – the Turkish population – is seized upon by the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union as another stick to beat the anti-immigration drum, preaching the dangers of the UK's open border with Europe as though the whole of Turkey were there, barbarians at the gate, waiting to cross the channel. The week I begin writing this piece, the German parliament approves a resolution that officially recognizes the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as genocide and 11 German MPs of Turkish descent are denounced by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; after receiving death threats, they are put under police protection. Later in the week, the polls put the pro-Brexit Leave campaign ahead for the first time. The question of cultivating one's own garden, with its attendant implications of individualism and self-interest, begins to assume a different, less desirable tone in light of these developments. Whose garden are we talking about here, anyway? Cappadocia's? Turkey's? Europe's? The world's? It's a complex and sometimes contradictory demand, to tend to one's own back yard, especially when certain things might be best left to grow wild. I look forward to seeing how this fledgling festival will take root from here.