Fatih Benzer, an artist and an academician in the U.S.A.

Calling art “the indispensable way of living”, Fatih Benzer is both an artist and academics who never gave up his identity as an artist. He describes his adventure in art as a road trip to finding answers to the questions and problems he faces, as well as understanding the realities, phenomenons, and past/current events that surround us.

After graduating from painting department in Dokuz Eylul University in 1992, Fatih Benzer left his country to continue his graduate studies in the United States of America. He received his masters degree in painting from California State University and his doctorate degree from Arizona State University. He has been living in the United States for 19 years and working as an Assistant Professor in Department of Art and Design at University of Minnesota in Duluth, USA. Besides being an artist, Fatih Benzer is also very active in conducting research, getting published, and giving presentations. In addition to the national conferences in New York, Chicago, Boston, Louisiana, and Seattle, he also was engaged in round table discussions in Oxford University and gave presentations in world congresses in Japan, England, and Portugal focusing on the issues of “coexistence” and “cultural stereotypes.” He developed and taught a course on “Pop Art Today and Pop Art Tomorrow” at the King’s College in London. Currently, Fatih Benzer has been rigorously working on creating a body of work for his exhibition in Duluth Art Institute, scheduled for the Fall of 2014. His new book chapter, “Living on a Bridge: The Effects of Cultural Policy on Art Education in Turkey,” is in the process of being published by National Art Education Association in United States.

Recently, we had an interview with our artist on his involvements in the arts, the role of his life in United States as a Turkish artist, the main themes and concepts in his art as well as some of the major obstacles in current state of contemporary Turkish art and the problems that many Turkish artists are facing today.

Y.S. : What kind of events were influencial in the development of your art?

F.B. : Both on national and international platforms such as the congresses, conferences, and the round table discussions I was involved in as an academic and researcher had a big impact on my understanding of art and related subjects. Nearly five years ago, I was part of a week-long round table discussions in Oxford University along with 43 American and Britsih scientists, artsits, and novelists discussing possible reconciliation amongst arts, science, and religion. Those discussions helped me further develop the conceptual framework in my art based on the roots of some of the major problems we encounter today. Concepts like “Coexistence” and “Stigma” have played major role in my approach to making art since then. The title of my presentation in this round table was “Let There Be Light: Reconciling Art, Science, And Religion?” During my presentation, we discussed the meaning, role, and origin of light as a unifying element across these three cultures (arts, science, and religion). Richard Dawkins was the guest of honor in this roundtable which provided a ground for those intellectuals from various disciplines to discuss the meaning and importance of “coexistence,” considering the ever-growing problems we witness today in a world that is constantly getting smaller and smaller. Besides being a visual element, the light as a “concept” plays a significant role in my work. The physicist Brian Greene in his books, “Hidden Reality” and “The Fabric of Cosmos,” discusses the nature of reality based on the paradox of wave/particle duality in quantum physics and stretches this version of reality to the limits of a universe simulated by computation. Though there may not be hardcore physical evidences to such theories, Greene’s ideas were instrumental for me to create a sense of space and its relationship to the existence of perceived reality (representational imagery) in my paintings.

Y.S. : Could you talk about some of the main themes and concepts in your paintings?

F.B. : In my recent works, I try to create a new iconography inspired by ancient Greek mythology, Ottoman and Middle eastern miniatures, Rumi’s poetry as well as the ancient Greek and Byzantine architecture. The aim of these paintings is to create a visual bridge between East and West. With such inspiration from our cultural heritage, the imagery and sense of space both being abstract and representational play a dual role emphesizing “coexistence.” Depending on the context in which they are presented, such imagery generates multitudes of meanings detached from the concept of time within a culture, therefore suggesting the possibility of “coexistence” and “pluralism.” We see that the concept of “individuality” doesn’t play a key role in miniatures. In that sense, most miniatures almost become a collective art form. Thus, most miniauture artists not signing their work supports this idea of collectivity. To a certain degree, simply by getting outside of the concept of “individuality,” I try to create common grounds for pluralism and coexistence. The bright and flat colors in my work reflects the influences of eastern miniatures. However, the representational imagery up against this abstracted space in eastern sense is to create an intentional contradiction. More or less like the whirling dervishes, the act of spinning contributes to the conceptual background in my work. This spinning has strong references to the order and rhythm of the universe, representing a transition from material world into the world of spiritual. The repeating geometrical forms and floating representational imagery remind us this act of spinning, coming into existence, and creating alternative spaces. Series of solo exhibitions titled “The Meeting Point” focused on concepts of “coexistence”, “stigma,” and “pluralism.” Not only in imagery but also in my way of creating art has become mor ediverse over time. Nearly 20 years of living in the States and engaging in discussions and facing various political, social, cultural, and intellectual challenges helped me shape my art and my scholarly research. My recent works on woood panels carry influences of eastern cultures as well as the influences of a more traditional western art. Geometrical sense of space and the imagery in my work servet to this very point of view I just mentioned. One can name this approach as “cross-cultural” across times. I see “pluralism” as a necessity on the road to peace in ever-smaller World today.

Y. S. : Could you explain the contribution of the cultural values to your art a little further?

F. B. : Even though certain aspects of various cultures play a role in my work, I don’t think of my art as a tool, accurately representing any particular culture. Due to the rapid developments in technology, we now have acess to vast amount of information more than ever. Therefore, our job is to create an environement to welcome different ideas and to advocate respect for diversity. I believe art is a great discipline to contribute to the creation of such pluralistic environement.

Y.S. : What kind of expectations did you have as a Turkish artist living in the United States.

F.B. : Living and working in the States opened up new doors for me during my education and professional career. The ducation I received in Turkey was based on the values of western art and that too a turn in the States. What I witnessed in Turkey during my education was the unconditional acceptance of Western art. It was only through my college years and real life experiences in the States that I have learned that living in a diverse society encouraged the acceptance of diverse views and life styles. This was a very positive learning experience for me. Through art, I turned such ideas/concepts of contradictions and conflicts into an adventure, in a way, a process of questioning while engaging my audience in a dialogue.

Y. S. : How do you explain such dilemma between “Western” and “Eastern,” as well as “Pluralism” and “Individualism” (self-reliance)?

F. B. : Quiet often, such dilemma finds its meaning through questioning such contradictions in my work. Such “duality” or even “contradictions” constantly appear in many aspects of life any way. Although creating alternative solutions is essential in the arts, I quiet often switch roles, change positions, and become sceptical of these solutions. Such attitude brings constant questioning of your beliefs and values both in life and art. At times, it is really hard to actually comprehend the difference between “present” and “past,” “subjective” and “objective,” or “existence” and “nonexistence.” For example, in some of my paintings, an image of fish floating in an abstract space can symbolize a journey across different times and places. The shadow of the same fish in the same painting can also represent the relationship between “spiritual” and “physical” existence or nonexistence. I try to understand the underlying principles of nature as well as how nature reveals itself to us visually. The repetition and analogy of certain geometrical shapes can resemble various topograpghic structures in nature as well as referring to antique Greek and Egyptian architecture.

Y. S. : Even though the sense of space in many of your paintings is inspired by abstracted architectural forms, you still implement a realistic approach to your iconographic images. Is it possible to explain this as a mimessis?

F. B. : Depending on the context, the term “mimesis” can mean representational or imitational, even mockery. Apart from its Greek origin, the term mimesis can be used as an expression of physical/material reality. Almost any image I use in my paintings is tied into the concepts I find meaningful rather than representing the mere outlook or likeness of these images. In other words, an image can mean many things based on what prior experiences and knowledge the auidience might have when they encounter the work. My job as an artist is to start such a dialogue between my work and the audience. Dealing with semiotics has become very instrumental for me to create or find meaning in my work. Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and images as being the indication, designation, likeness, signification, and communication of a particular meaning in a particular culture and time. Semiotics is especially important in understanding and discussing the cultural codes embedded in images, signs, and symbols.

Y. S. : How would you evaluate the current state of contemporary Turkish Art?

F. B. : Because Turkey is geographically and culturally positioned as a bridge between East and West, many intellectuals faced the questions about our cultural preferences and identity. If one examines, one can see that a diversity of cultural traditions have flourished in Turkey and intertwined and influenced each other. Thus, Turkish art has developed unique characteristics over centuries. However, since 1960s, being contemporary meant unconditional adoptation of Western values of art and culture which eventually became the major part of higher education curricula in fine arts and art education in Turkey. On the other hand, the cultural policies that focus on preserving our cultural heritage was not able to cope with changing times, needs, and demands of present day-Turkish society. What has been ignored in those cultural policies is tha fact that we need to re-visit and re-interpret our cultural heritage, political and social structures to stay current and to become contemporary. Unfortunately, many contemporary Turkish artists, with few exceptions, did not pay attention this problem. It was easier to “mimic” Western contemporary art without a good understanding of neither their past nor the past of our own. For example, what many artists, art historians, art critics, and curators in Turkey have finally become aware of in the 90s was the fact that the topics such as “assimilation”, “pluralism,” and “integration” was heavily being discussed in even earlier dates in the art world both in the United States and Europe. Due to political and social reasons and atmosphere, such topics have not been discussed or communicated by Turkish artists for a long time. For many years, West has been associated with “progress” while East has been perceived as an example of “stagnation” in the arts. When looked from outside, one can easily see that not only our artists, critics, and curators but also the state and private institutions and organizations have to sentesize the outcomes of being a cultural bridge between East and West. In my opinion, the biggest mistake that the contemoporary Turkish artists would make is to “echo” their peers in Europe and United States, which has been the case so far. Most galleries and even museums in Turkey cannot differntiate the “art market” from the “art world.” Such monopoly only creates obstacles holding back contemporary Turkish artists from contributing to our “art world” and culture. Yet, the success of an artist today has been determined by the price of the artwork rather than the quality of it. Unfortunately, many galleries and museums support that incomplete and one-sided definition of success. It is obvious that Turkish artists have to keep up the fight against the decision makers and so-called authorities who determine who is in and who is out. I believe this is a time consuming, yet, a very necessary process.

Our conversations with Fatih Benzer, an academic and an artist, will continue focusing on the current state of art in the United States.

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