Extrastruggle is an enormous project which began in 1997. It works on imaginary demands from imaginary customers. Just like a graphic designer designing a logo for a client, it designs logos for all communities under social pressure.
So begins the introduction to Extrastruggle (Extramücadele in Turkish), the “enormous project” belonging to artist Memed Erdener. A graphic designer by both training and until recently by trade, Extrastruggle uses the straightforward language of corporate design to explore the collective Turkish subconscious and express the complex, sometimes contradictory, thoughts, feelings, and needs of the country’s social minorities. “I don’t do art for or about me,” Erdener told me while walking with me through his recent exhibition, I Didn’t Do This, You Did, at Galeri NON in Istanbul’s Tophane gallery district. “It’s about us.”
Us—also to be understood, to quote one of the exhibition’s accompanying essays, written by artist Nazım Dikbaş, as “that strange crowd called everyone.” Erdener’s exhibition turned the gallery space into a stage, displaying a frozen scene from the drama of contemporary Turkish society, populated by characters and character-types both fictional and real. A totem pole of fiery red heads of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, balanced precariously atop a white star, a symbol of the Republican government. Its state of unbalance stood in sharp contrast to a second, steadier pillar positioned a few feet away, comprised of pairs of cartoonish female eyes peering out from beneath a single black veil, topped by a crescent moon, a symbol of the Ottoman tradition. In these twin sculptures, is the star an unstable foundation, the crescent a proudly worn crown? Or is the latter a pair of demonic horns, the former providing a vehicle for multiple perspectives and greater flexibility? Despite their physical proximity, the many gazes of the two totems do not meet, each refusing to acknowledge the existence of the other.
“Extrastruggle has no political views,” the introduction concludes, “It does not take sides. It is impossible for it to do so.” Erdener’s project is an exploration of signs, of iconography, of the linguistic possibilities of graphic design when removed from the field of commercial advertising and applied to other communicative purposes. In this sense, Extrastruggle is as much an artistic experiment as a sociological investigation, the veiled girls, Atatürk portraits, and other familiar figures from Turkish politics and culture all red herrings in a body of work that is less concerned with politics than about pushing the boundaries of design.
Not surprisingly, given his background, Erdener has a sharp eye for visual rhetoric and the ability to cut to core of a concept, to reduce it to a handful of deeply effective images. For example, in the reoccurring character of Türban Şoray (whose name is a play on Türkan Şoray, a Turkish actress from the 1960s and 1970s), he has succeeded in crafting an undeniably adorable figure. Türban’s sweetness makes the terror she evokes in military officers twice her size seem all the more absurd, and her egg-like roundness, gigantic, thickly fringed, teddy bear-like eyes, tiny mouth, diminutive stature (even in her high yet sturdy platform shoes) and invisible arms render her completely non-threatening.
Yet in spite of Türban’s defenselessness and excessive cuteness, there is an ambiguity regarding her true intentions, the thoughts that lurk behind the giant eyes; like the paired totems, her image poses as many questions as it does answers about the nature of the veiled woman.
Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed PKK leader, rendered as sleek green merman, flashing a peace sign while floating atop a sea of gold and jewels and surrounded by exploding mountains; the scantily-clad stylish young woman who lounges on a beach towel and reads Kemalist propaganda literature while an American-built bomber plane balances on her petite foot; the cocky young capitalist who, surrounded by the modern skyscrapers he has built in a historical place, stands atop a pedestal, his obscene gesture to the world a reflection of his work; the generals thumbing their noses at the Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum; Atatürk himself, depicted as a fallen angel. Along with Türban Şoray, these are the “clients” for whom Extrastruggle works, offering nonsensical brand designs and fake marketing solutions to the nation—and the world’s—irrational problems.
Like the Dadaists who found artistic inspiration in the senseless destructiveness of World War I and the moral ambiguity of war, Extrastuggle is inspired by and reflects the confused and cloudy gaze through which the world currently views Turkey. It also speaks to Turkey’s own inability to see itself clearly or resolve the tensions between social groups that persist in looking past each other, relying on simplified media images and their own imaginations to provide fodder for their nightmarish conception of those with whom they occupy the stage of present-day Turkish society. “That strange crowd called everyone”—strange, and full of strangers. Extrastruggle’s refusal to “take sides” or offer anything besides answers that provide no solutions and directions that point nowhere is reminiscent of Francis Picabia’s inoperable and useless machines, or René Magritte’s pipe that is not a pipe. The Extrastruggle project reminds us that images betray, that representation alone is not enough to effect social change, and that it is no substitute for dialogue or action.