“shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot
I'm going to come all over you
me and my fucking gun
me and my fucking gun”
- Nine Inch Nails, ‘Big Man With A Gun’
On entering this room, our attention is immediately drawn to a large, white surface. From a distance, we unconsciously join the dots to create a face, and our first impression is that of a Middle Eastern man. We can vaguely see a beard and a turban. It could be an Arabian king or a Persian leader. There is no uniform distance between the dots, making it appear less mechanical as a whole.
This large face is the work of Erinç Seymen, an artist born and living in Istanbul, who based the work of art on a portrait of Sultan Murat IV, one of the most barbaric rulers of the Ottoman Empire, who reigned from 1623 until his death in 1640. He murdered two of his brothers and he would personally behead anyone who dared violate his ban on alcohol and tobacco. There were also stories that he was a homosexual, and a film about Murat IV that contained homo-erotic scenes caused outrage in Turkey, where homosexuality is still considered taboo. The film ran contrary to how many Turks view the past - the Ottoman Empire is seen as the Golden Age of Turkish history and a sharp contrast with the present situation where the country must meekly ask to join the EU. Indeed, the situation was once the reverse, where various European countries belonged to the Ottoman empire. Two of the most sensitive matters in Turkey today play an important role in Seymen’s work: national identity and homosexuality.
When we look more closely at the panels, we can see that the dots that make up the face are actually holes. At the front, they are nice and round, but on the back we can see that in places, the wooden support beams are splintered. These are bullet holes. With that knowledge, the image becomes radically different. The artist wanted to create the face by shooting holes in the panel with a pistol. In order to do this, the portrait was first stuck to the panel in print form, then marks were applied which were to be shot at. As this could not be done in the museum, the panels were taken to a shooting range in Weert where an expert marksman made the holes with a .357 Magnum from a distance of 12.5 metres. To get nice, round holes, special bullets called wadcutters were used. In total, 2200 bullets were fired in eleven hours.
The work is entitled ‘Gays Can Shoot Straight Too’, an expression used in the United Kingdom a number of years ago by angry homosexuals who were not allowed to join the army. At the time, this was the most prominent issue in the British male gay community along with the right to marriage. It almost seemed to imply that ‘Gays can be straight too’. The stories surrounding Murat IV add to this: Gays can also be cruel. Shooting is a male act, used in relation to photography, and a synonym for ejaculation.
The ‘shooting of the picture’ has everything to do with the anti-militaristic standpoint of this art project. In contrast with Western European countries, bullet holes are nothing out of the ordinary in many other places all over the world. Nobody bats an eyelid. As weapons become even more commonplace in Turkey, it has become almost as easy in recent years to buy a pistol as a packet of cigarettes. Yet in this museum space, even more so than on our streets, the bullet holes have an alienating effect. The Sultan’s bullet-ridden face is dominating in its presence, and the indistinctness of the ‘drawing’ contrasts with the explicit paintings around it. Together with research curator Esra Sarigedik, Seymen has selected a number of well-known paintings from the collection, wanting as they did, a room full of masterpieces. Such a classic museum space is always a bit removed from everyday life, making the contrast all the greater as a result.
There is a sequence to be found in the choice of paintings from the permanent collection. On the left hand side, we see ‘Bust of a Woman’, a Picasso from 1943. The question is whether or not this object like face can be called a portrait since all the discernible facial features seem to have disappeared. Alongside this hangs Georges Braque’s ‘Still Life on a Round Table’, a sombre work from 1918, in which the objects seem to confirm the flat plane of the painting with their thick, black lines. On the wall opposite Seymen’s piece, is an early abstract by Piet Mondrian, ‘Composition No. XIV’ from 1913, and on another wall hangs a later piece: ‘Composition in Black and White No. II’ from 1930. The series is completed by ‘The Death of Hans Baldung Grien’, a triptych painted by Armando in 1974. We see in these paintings an increasing abstraction, ending with 3 panels painted in thick, black paint. Because the portrait of the Sultan is the only piece that is not painted, a vacuum as it were, is created in the room. Despite this, it is still more of an object than the face in Picasso’s painting.
The empty face is a recurring theme in the work of Erinç Seymen. He often draws or paints silhouettes without the features that usually identify an individual, such as eyes, nose and mouth. According to Seymen, the white space and the holes are also related to theories propounded by Deleuze and Guattari in a chapter on faces in their book A Thousand Plateaus (1980): the white surface is the dimension of meaning and the holes form the dimension of individualisation. It would be going too far to go into this theory here, but for those who want to investigate further there is a link that will take you to this work. We can conclude that this almost abstract ruler’s portrait lacks everything that makes it as impressive and terrifying as it was once supposed to be.