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Erbal: A Tale of Two Monuments

An Extremely Belated Anatomy of Two Radically Understudied Makings and One Unmaking

The Armenian Weekly Magazine
April 2012 

PREAMBLE

The annals of Turkish-Armenian “rapprochement,” “reconciliation,” “initiative,” and “dialogue” marked Jan. 8, 2011 as the day when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the Monument of “Humanity” by Mehmet Aksoy in Kars a freak (ucube), overshadowing a nearby Islamic shrine, and ordered its demolition. This position would later be supported by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on aesthetic grounds: “Kars has an architectural tradition inherited from the Ottomans and the Seljuks. This monument does not reflect that architecture. It does not befit these architectural aesthetics.

The Monument of Humanity in Kars. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)

Works in compliance with the architectural heritage of the region should be constructed,” he said.1 Sculptor Mehmet Aksoy, hailed by Today’s Zaman columnist Yavuz Baydar as “a very well-known and deeply respected artist in EU circles,”2 said his work “carries anti-war and friendship messages” and added, “I depicted the situation of a person that is divided in two. This person will be ‘himself ’ again when these two pieces are reunited. I want to express this. … You cannot immediately label this a ‘monstrosity.’ It is shameful and unjust. One should understand what it says first.” He was right in that one should have understood what the monument itself meant, or even how the history and construction of the monument evolved, in the context of domestic Turkish politics or the larger Turkish-Armenian relationship, before taking a pro/con position. Alas, this was hardly the case for either the Turkish or, for that matter, Armenian press.

According to Kars Mayor Nevzat Bozkuş, “a commission of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism had earlier decided to demolish the monument after it emerged that the statue was illegally constructed in a protected area.”3 Strangely enough, the monument was commissioned by no other than the former mayor of Kars, Naif Alibeyoğlu, himself then elected on an AKP (the ruling Justice and Development Party) ticket during the 2004 municipal elections.

In the following week, Erdoğan reacted strongly against accusations that he was not qualified to appreciate the arts, or that he was an enemy of the arts, like the Taliban who in 2001 dynamited the ancient Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan. Erdoğan claimed he had “warned the mayor when the construction of the monument began,” that the “Natural and Cultural Heritage Preservation Agency also decided to destroy the monument,” and that “it was mayor’s responsibility to implement the decision.”4 He also said, “It is not necessary to graduate from Fine Arts. We know what a monument is. I worked as a mayor for 4.5 years and as a prime minister for 7.5 years. I have never destroyed a single statue or a work of art.”5

Echoing Davutoğlu’s seemingly aesthetic concerns, Erdoğan also argued that “[t]he dome of the [Seyyit Hassan el Harkani] mosque and the hilltop that hosts the statue are at an equal height. Then you have a 48-meter-high statue on the hilltop. You can’t allow construction to overshadow such a historic building.”6

As is typical with debates involving the Turkish political spectrum—which now also unfortunately misinforms the Armenian public sphere with its reductio ad absurdum binary nature devoid of any real substance—the country immediately got divided among “conservative” “nationalist hawks” (to whom Erdoğan was supposedly catering to secure AKP seats in Kars in the upcoming elections7) and “non-nationalist” “progressive” “doves” (who wholeheartedly embraced both the statue’s concept and implementation).

The debates also problematically legitimized a whole array of politically national-socialist conservative artists, including the sculptor himself and Bedri Baykam (the former, an avid defender of the national-socialist Doğu Perinçek line; the latter, an avid Kemalist who fell out with Perinçek and later penned an open letter in which he dismissed Perinçek of “leftism” and “Kemalism”)8. Five months into the “freak/monstrosity” debates and during the electoral season, the “peace-loving” sculptor baptized the Talat Pasha March organized by Perinçek—an Ergenekon suspect and genocide denier—in Switzerland as a saga of heroism in a TV program aired by Ulusal Kanal, the channel associated with Perinçek’s national-socialist Labor Party. In an interview with Funda Tosun of Agos, Aksoy claimed the Labor Party’s Aydınlık newspaper had twisted his words from the program, even though Tosun confronted him, saying she had watched the original TV excerpt.9 Aksoy would also come to say that his monument was wanted by Armenians in Armenia, implying it was legitimate. Pressed further, he’d twist his own words into a typical “I’m for all freedoms” line that can qualify for the most famous not-properly-challenged empty-signifier in Turkey. As if the issue discussed on the TV program was one of cherishing freedoms and not of glorifying mass murderers, Aksoy said, “I fight for freedoms, I participate in Dink marches, and I fight for Doğu Perinçek.” Unfortunately what Armenians in Armenia and the diaspora knew or didn’t know about the sculptor’s politics or how the former mayor and the artist defended their project was less important than scoring hackneyed political points against Turkey (and, in the case of Turkish “progressives,” against the AKP).

In Responsibility and Judgment, Hannah Arendt recounts how the debates about Eichmann in Jerusalem ended up being “a controversy about a book that was never written”; then she refers to the words of an Austrian wit: “There is nothing so entertaining as the discussion of a book nobody read.” The non-substantial quarrel and campaigns surrounding the Monument of “Humanity” were precisely that. As the proverbial bookmark of the book-nobody-read-but-everybody-discussed, the cherry on the cake, the co-chair of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee Hélène Flautre, visited the sculptor and joked, “Kars should be chosen as the European Capital of Culture in order to save the sculptures.”10 We should all be thankful that her proposition—a much funnier joke than Flautre then likely realized—indeed did remain a joke. If it were not for Erdoğan, who pushed forth the execution of a former decision by the Erzurum Regional Directorate of Pious Foundations, for a seemingly nationalist political agenda, Armenians and others, with the ideological guidance of their Turkish “progressive” friends, would have baptized the sculptor who applauded the Talat Pasha demonstrations in Switzerland, as the poster child for peace and Turkish-Armenian “re”conciliation.

Barring the pro-AKP director Sinan Çetin, who agreed with Erdoğan on his aesthetic choice11, and a few scholars12 hinting on the margins about the aesthetic value or political meaning of the statue, a well-rehearsed but one-dimensional “Art can’t be destroyed” drumbeat started against the destruction of the “statue” of “humanity,” and even led to a comparison of Erdoğan’s move to “Entartate Kunst” exhibition of the Third Reich,13 a periodical analogy that some Turkish journalists throw in once in a while, nonchalantly, to spice up their exaggerated arguments against the authoritarian policies of the AKP.14,15

Before I move forward, I would like to end this preamble with an observation of what I think became a circular regularity of things Turkish-Armenian in the last decade. Ever since the 2005 Bilgi University conference “Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire,” whose date was modified several times, finally matching the then-upcoming Turkey-EU round of talks,16 Turkish-Armenian civil societal politics has operated on a dim-witted and dumbing—but notwithstanding working—formula that was also at the basis of the Monument of “Humanity” drama: Turkish “progressives” preempt/dictate an action, a campaign, a commemoration, or erect a monument, all without true deliberation.17 In doing so, let alone their complete disinterest for deliberating with a broad base of representative Armenians18 they fail to deliberate even among themselves or with the people they think they are “educating” top-down. Then, very much expectedly, the ultra-nationalists attack them either directly or via the AKP (as in the case of Ucube).

And Armenians both in the diaspora and Armenia issue either call to action or some political statement exhilarated by whatever scandal-du-jour where the Turkish side looks bad. From a distance, it looks like a win-win situation, where Turkish “progressives” win the unchallengeability of their position because now they are not only the victims of the Turkish state but also of the Turkish right, and where the Armenian side wins showing for the n’th time that the Turkish elite are notorious for throwing the ball out of the game. This is how a complex web of problematic policies, arguments denialist at core, ideological lines, and personal/political/national interests are reduced to a meaningless and empty set of binaries where it’s impossible to criticize any kind of form, text, content, action, workshop, persona, or larger than life character because there’s always a crisis, some half-baked “progress” to be defended against the ultra-nationalists. Neither in the intellectual sphere—as in the debates over the Monument of “Humanity”—nor in the political sphere are the parameters of the discussion set or shared by Armenians with representative power themselves; instead they are altogether instrumentalized in a political quarrel between the right and the left of a country not yet committed to a post-genocidal normative institutional order. Imagine an institutionally non-committed post-World War II Germany whose left will be framed and defined by a relentless German right who has a track record of having used violence in intra-ethnic conflict.

In this normatively non-committed state of affairs, the Armenian Genocide is seen both in the domestic and foreign policy discourse as an obstacle to be dealt away by sweetening hearts and minds with the bait and switch policy-du-jour (anywhere from “we hear/share your pain” to “we eat the same dolma” to “don’t talk about recognition, let’s talk about our common ‘humanity’”), rather than by delving into a genuine intellectual quest in understanding what the genocide means for the Turkish state’s institutional framework and the grammar of ethnic relations in Turkey. The circular win-win character of the game distracts from the substance of the game, whose limits are determined, depending on the day, either by the boundaries of the Turkish right or by the “realities” of the situation on the ground.

We have been told several times that the political discourse regarding the Armenian Genocide needs to be formulated first and foremost by catering to the sensitivities of the Turkish people in order to score progress. Incidentally the coup d’etatist generals and their international supporters branded this as the “country’s specific conditions”19 in the past in order to legitimize a top-down institutional restructuring by the military, implying the country is not yet “ready” for democracy. It’s interesting, to say the least, how the discourse of the country’s so-called liberals mimic that of the generals on two counts of Turkish “exceptionalism,” crystalized in their willingness to speak in a language of “specific conditions” on the one hand, and to shelter themselves in a Jacobinist top-down non-readiness argument on the other—claiming the masses are not ready to confront genocide as is, but instead are fed either symmetrical responsibility tales or third-way non-solutions as in the case of the Monument of “Humanity.”

The monument in Igdir

As the attentive eye will remember, both the former mayor Naif Alibeyoğlu and the sculptor Mehmet Aksoy defended the Monument of “Humanity” as “an alternative to both Armenia’s Dzidzernagapert Genocide monument and the monument in Iğdır—the monument that “monuments can’t be destroyed” camp pretended did not exist during the debates of non-destroyability of monuments, both of which “promote a bad relationship and are designed to divide the two people.”20 In an interview that was not translated by the Armenian press, Alibeyoğlu further claimed that they wanted “to have a monument that showed that Turkish people did not commit genocide. There would have been a 35-meter tear of conscience. Water was going to flow as opposed to the fire [of Dzidzernagapert]. We were going to show that we were for peace and humanity, that we did not commit genocide.”21

It is without the knowledge of this background that Armenian parties, including the Armenian Foreign Ministry and several diaspora organizations, reacted to what became the Monument of “Humanity.” We will continue with several key turning points in the five-year history of the monument while problematizing the monument itself and the entire political process from an analytical perspective, taking into account aesthetic, spatial, and political problems that marred not only its destruction but also its conception and inception.

Editor’s note: The second part of this article will appear in the Armenian Weekly in May 2012.

 

ENDNOTES

1. See www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?load=detay&newsId=232071&link=232071.

2. See www.todayszaman.com/columnistDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=232204.

3. See link in Note 1.

4. See www.armenianweekly.com/2011/01/27/not-even-a-handshake/.

5. See www.todayszaman.com/news-232333-turkey-press-scan-on-january-13.html.

6. See www.todayszaman.com/news-232393-the-people-will-write-newconstitution-says-prime-minister.html.

7. Baskın Oran in see link in Note 4.

8. See www.turksolu.org/89/baykam89.htm.

9. See http://arsiv.agos.com.tr/index.php?module=news&news_id=16331&cat_id=1.

10. See http://www.todayszaman.com/mobile_detailn.action?newsId=233449.

11. See www.radikal.com.tr/Radikal.aspx?aType=RadikalDetayV3&ArticleID=1036353&CategoryID=77.

12. See www.radikal.com.tr/Radikal.aspx?aType=RadikalEklerDetayV3&ArticleID=1035819&CategoryID=41.

13. See www.hurriyetdailynews.com/a-tale-of-two-cities–freaks-of-karsand berlin.aspx?pageID=438&n=a-tale-of-two-cities–freaks-of-karsand-berlin-2011-02-16.

14. The analogy itself is a prime example that they know very little about the Third Reich except perhaps having listened to a popular Naomi Klein speech comparing the Third Reich to current American domestic politics.

15. See www.radikal.com.tr/Radikal.aspx?aType=RadikalDetayV3&ArticleID=1040964&CategoryID=82.

16. See www.armeniapedia.org/index.php?title=Conference:_Ottoman_Armenians_During_the_Decline_of_the_Empire

17. Hence highly problematic from conception to inception.

18. We can’t be more insistent on this aspect of lack of representation and how it usually revolves around either a cherry picking, or tribal formula of representation. In this context, cherry-picking means choosing from non-representative Turkish-Armenians whom the “progressives” think should represent Turkish-Armenian political opinion. It would be unthinkable to pick the Taraf or Radikal newspapers as the representative of all Turks, whereas since this is a mostly reductionist orientalist setting when it comes to the little brothers, there are no limits to instrumentalizing a party around our own scheme of political convenience. It’s not what Armenians think of their institutions that matters here; it’s more what their Turkish “brothers” like to see/hear. There’s a similar but still slightly different method of choosing from their friends (so to speak, the tribal method) and baptizing them as the rational Armenians that the world should listen to. Mind you, all these people should be self-declared socialists; if by accident they are pro-AKP figures such as Etyen Mahçupyan, they should be beaten even more than an average Sunni pro-AKP columnist. Yet the same protagonists think they are not being racist in their apparent squared disgust towards Mahçupyan.

19. See a Harold Pinter anectode regarding the specific conditions discourse at www.haroldpinter.org/politics/politics_torture.shtml.

20. See link in Note 4

21. See link in Note 11

2 Comments on Erbal: A Tale of Two Monuments

  1. avatar gregg dourgarian // May 19, 2012 at 6:35 pm // Reply

    As a math guy Ayda I especially liked’ reductio ad absurdum binary nature devoid of any real substance—the country immediately got divided among “conservative” “nationalist hawks”’

    This was a most enjoyable read, and I look forward to reading it again and again.

  2. I agree that Turkish Left/progressives have to engage in a “genuine intellectual quest in understanding what the genocide means for the Turkish state’s institutional framework and the grammar of ethnic relations in Turkey”. First step must be diversifying their communication with Armenians, going beyond ‘cherry-picking’ (focusing on voices they deem “safe” since, as Erbal says, because they buy into the idea that “exceptional” level of development renders people unready to face full-reality). As in the Monument debate, Turkish Left and liberals couldn’t overcome the sentimentalizing discourse (which I may summarize as “oh, everyone suffered, let’s not single any “offender” out in order to respect the “suffering” as a whole”), a rather sterile way of dealing with Armenian genocide. Erbal is right to argue these unilateral gestures fail and I’d add, have no footing in general public opinion in both countries.

    Having said this, Left-progressive-liberal position—entangled with harsh debates surrounding Left’s responsibility in the 1 May 1977 Massacre etc.–is going through a difficult process. This may not be the best time to swallow yet another criticism, given that the Left was marginalized after the 1980 Coup and built its identity around a feeling of victimness (this aspect pretty resembles to the Tashnak position that turns a blind eye on atrocities of the fedayees). Whether timely or not, the fact remains that the majority of Left/progressives and liberals in Turkey failed to find an impartial-moral ground to discuss AG. Yet, this is partly due to the still ‘tribalist’ nature Turkish political culture (“either with us or against us!”). And this is most clearly diagnosed by Mahçupyan, who I think Erbal unfairly deemed to be simply pro-AKP and whose critique receives a disproportionally harsh reaction (whether because of hidden racism or not, given the tribalism, it’s pure speculation to me). Both Turkish and Armenian Left/progressives have much to learn from Mahçupyan’s suggestion of a non-confessional (politically) and impartial stand-point that cuts through sentimentality and could generate truly popular ways of facing the truth. He reminds us our passions can strengthen our resolve for impartiality…

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