A Breath of Desert Air: Sandstorm at Depo

ArtDog Istanbul I 13 November 2020

Co-authored by Matt Hanson & Rana Kelleci


“There are always millions of tons of dust in the air, just as there are millions of cubes of air in the earth and more living flesh in the soil (worms, beetles, underground creatures) than there is grazing and existing on it.” Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient


How can an urbanite make sense of a sandstorm? While the closest we get to a sandstorm in İstanbul’s city center is the dust of ever-growing construction sites, the common phenomenon of Middle Eastern sandstorms at best evokes indistinct images. The theme of the Istanbul Design Biennial — empathy — leaks into my thoughts. How can we empathize with something we never experienced? How can we draw connections and why does it matter?


There are many kinds of storms that whip through the deserts of the world. In the Middle East, their diversity, lure and power is mythical, epic, puncturing the veils of popular culture, as in the novel and film, “The English Patient”. The enigmatic Hungarian protagonist spoke, seducingly, “Let me tell you about winds”, before Arabic colloquialisms fell from his lips in the Cairene night.


Voiceovers reciting a poem in an unknown language, Sumerian and Akkadian, speak in their obscurity of the distance between us and the land, its ways of existence, its history, its peoples. “Planting Gilgamesh” (2020), Ayat Najafi’s multimedia installation, occupies a corner on the second floor of Depo’s latest exhibition Sandstorm — And Then There Was Dust. The spell of such poetic, ecological phenomena comes with a rare gust of presence by Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish artists, and with the urgency of environmental justice.


“Sandstorm — And Then There Was Dust”, and this particular curation at Depo also offers a refreshing demographic representation for contemporary arts and culture in Turkey, which typically exhibits creative, socially engaged work by the citizenry’s majority to reflect mainstream, national concerns aligned to more Westward trends.


The exhibition, albeit the mythical evocations of its title, opens with a piece that explicitly states the raison d’etre of this exhibition that is the environmental urgencies of the region. The piece Habitat Loss (2020) by the Istanbul-based climate artivist collective Birbuçuk brings together the voices of researchers Akgün İlhan, Adnan Mirhanoğlu and Sinan Erensu.


Voices are conveyed through two headphones, alongside with a poster noting the keywords and the waveforms of the sound clips. I sat down and started to listen to one, a dual talk. In my right ear, a woman was mentioning the dams built in the southeastern region of Turkey, which left several settlements under floods. Meanwhile, in my left ear, a man, in a slightly lower voice was talking about wells and droughts. The other pair of headphones held a broader view on the issue of ecological destruction, drawing links to neo-liberalism and protests against government-backed projects.


The show’s curator, Berlin-based art historian Sarah Maske opened the exhibition with a large-format piece, rightfully titled, “Sand In A Whirlwind” (2015), an archival pigment print by the Urfa-born photographer Sinem Dişli. The tornado of a blistering funnel halving the image blasts from the heavens to the vulnerable earth, which by comparison is wretched, bleak and exposed against the descending force of nature.


I was reminded of the curious tendency of natural disaster to coincide with human affairs, such as when, a decade ago, I, a student in Cairo, witnessed the immense horror, the unimaginable scale of the Sahara Desert’s sands taking flight in a burst of gales, looming over Tahrir Square just before bread riots encircled the storied square.


And rounding the bend of Depo’s interior, the ground floor of the old stuffy tobacco warehouse opened to reveal a complicated panoply of installations integrating sculpture, video, photography, virtual reality, and texts printed onto flowing, hanging fabrics. I gravitated to the video interview that Maske produced with environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an eloquent Iranian-American woman.

“We have technology to clean up these areas of highly polluted soil. If it is not contained it has the possibility to go everywhere, into water, into soil, into air, into vegetation, into your food,” said Savabieasfahani. “The dust that’s created Iraq includes a lot of pollutants that can easily get out across Iran.”


Mostly caused by military waste left by the U.S. Army in Iraq, war’s material toxicity, as spread by increasingly volatile sandstorms, has regional impacts. In this light, the shared histories between Turkey and its eastern frontiers is of immediate environmental concern.


Right next to the interview a corner gift shop was erected, caps, mugs and hanging t-shirts read; Uranium Generation Design. Black walls, shelves and frosted showcases display a somewhat wide array of merchandise including uncanny creatures which at first can be mistaken for cute stuffed mascots. Mahmoud Obaidi’s spatial installation Uranium Generation Design (2020) exhibits dolls and animals that are mutated and wrecked, constituting explicit symbols for the effects of mining on the regional habitat.

Not only with the extraction of subterranean resources that the habitat suffers but also with the introduction of capitalist entertainment concepts, often with aims of repurposing no longer profitable facilities into a profitable venture. It reminded me of what I witnessed on a trip to South Africa’s Johannesburg gold mines, once a lucrative source of wealth for the colonizing empires, yet since transformed into a mock-village exhibiting the lives of the settlers and miners. There is no need to mention its gift shop.


In a way, one can sense a similar disconnect in the exhibition space.Between the dazzling VR-installation, “Al-Mashroof” (2020) by Tehran Platform on the ground floor, and the ethereally abstract video, “Rotor” (2020) by Kerem Ozan Bayraktar located on an isolated room at the upper floor, the drier, informational maps of disappearing Mesoptomian marshlands by Tehran Platform, Mahmoud Obaidi’s turtles installation, sound excerpts from environmental seminars, or even Dişli’s compelling “Fields on Fire, Urfa (North Mesopotamia) photo collage are at a loss for integrated design. To engage with such pedagogies of studied reflection and aesthetic admiration demands the meticulous attention of the visitor. It is comparable to confronting the opaque and impalpable convolution of a sandstorm, only one cerebral and disjointed.


If “Sandstorm — And Then There Was Dust” is a manifestation of approaches by which to visualize, comprehend and empathize with the victims of these noxious sandstorms, it is rife with failure and success. Maske departed from the phenomena of sandstorms to draw out unifying motifs between Turkey, Iraq and Iran to explore concepts related to ecology, discipline in the natural sciences that stresses symbiotic interactions between organisms. As a brief investigation of humankind’s disastrous relationship with its land, waters and air, the exhibition proposes alternative forms of interaction.


Negar Farajiani’s, “Tehran Monoxide Project” is one viable alternative, realized as the result of many independent projects with artists and citizens from Tehran since 2011. The exhibition hosts extensive documentation of some projects which, in curator Sarah Maske’s words, “examined the changing ecologies of Iran and the communication of these within the Iranian school system”. These documents include the photos that children in Tehran schools, taken in response to the question, “What pollutes our city’s air?”, including project posters, a video and albums of photographs.


Select photos from the workshops are compiled in albums and presented on desks with a comfortable seat and a desk lamp, proposing an environment of hospitable interaction with socially engaged artistic practices as well as with the overall idea of the exhibition as a kind of ecology in and of itself, however theoretical and removed from the soil and dust of sandstorms.