A brothel, a men’s bathhouse and a rural-village wedding. These are the settings Turkish artist Şükran Moral chose for three major video works, Bordello (1997), Hamam (1997) and Married with Three Men (2010), on view in her exhibition at Es Baluard museum in Palma de Mallorca. Moral’s methods are devilishly humorous, despite the high stakes of this kind of performance in Turkey. Under Moral’s scrutiny, patriarchal frameworks suddenly seem riddled with vulnerabilities.
For Bordello, she dons a nightgown and poses with a cigarette between red nails in the doorway of an Istanbul brothel. She holds a sign reading ‘For Sale’ and another inscribed with ‘Museum of Modern Art’ in Turkish and English. The camera zooms in on men gathering in the street, showing expressions of discomfort as they meet her daring smile. Moral’s directness is both her weakness and her strength. Her works often have a one-liner quality, and the conceit that artists are prostitutes to the market is a tired one. Yet Bordello’s provocation is less about the market than a portrait of intolerance and thwarted male desire. The artist’s autonomous presence in a space of expected compliance is what bewilders the onlookers. Her very performance is hijacked by an old man who plaintively sings a song about heartbreak as Moral looks on smugly. The threat of violence is close at hand, not just from the crowd, but also when police appear, shown only through close-up shots of their groins and weapon belts.
Married with Three Men also stages male discomfort, here with three 18-year-old Kurdish boys who act as her husbands in a village ceremony in southeastern Anatolia. A marriage organized by a woman, let alone an older woman with multiple men, is completely unheard of in a context where the inverse is common. The young grooms smile cautiously. A drum announces the wedding dance, but the tempo is fit for an execution. Moral eventually leads the three men to a bedroom, where she drops their pants to their ankles. They sit in a row on the bed with hands clasped over their knees like children. The screen goes black as gunshots are heard.
Hamam, created for the 5th Istanbul Biennial in 1997, also relies on a transgressive premise: Moral visits a men’s bathhouse. A soft haze clouds the lens as it zooms in and out on the artist’s gleaming, sudsy body scrubbed by a deadpan male attendant. Rolls of skin come off her thighs. Water floods over her. Moral’s quietly thrilled look of deep satisfaction occasionally pierces through the steam. Men are not the focus of this work, but when they do appear, they seem peacefully resigned to her presence. Unlike the abrupt end to the story in Married with Three Men, this work’s prolonged meditative cleansing posits a simple state of co-existence as a conceivable future.
In all three works, the artist seems to put herself on display, while actually laying bare the anxieties latent in our cultures’ machismo. A fourth video, Mirror (2011), is totally divergent in style, yet similarly targets us as narrow-minded viewers. The work was made as a follow-up to Amemus (2010), an explicit homosexual performance that created such backlash that Moral had to flee Turkey. Just over a minute in length, Mirror shows a cartoonish animated rat in a dark sewer, throwing its head back and spitting toward the viewer. The crux of the piece is the spittle, which globs and slides down the screen. As is her trademark, Moral challenges our comfort, and it feels like we almost got wet.
Main image: Şükran Moral, Bordello, 1997, video still. Courtesy: the artist