On the Threshold of Desire
Nazif Topçuoğlu staged photographs are uncanny constructions that waver between dramas of the absurd and erotica. His images offer a humorous glimpse into the odd activities of pubescent girls, funneled through the carnal fantasy of Topçuoğlu. Drawing on a cinematic narrative, as if the photograph is a movie still, the eerie images isolate a peculiar moment for our inspection. The work selected for this show, excerpted from a series that the artist exhibited at Galeri Nev in Istanbul in 2001, depicts young girls holding bloodied animal viscera in their bare hands, in settings that are devoid of culinary activity.
Female flesh, in the sense of nudity, does not play into the sensual undertow of these photographs. It is, instead, the unsettling juxtaposition of blood-red meat (directly from a butcher’s block) with the unblemished perfection of youth (not even the shadow of a popped vein on their skin) that yields a tangential erotic charge to Topçuoğlu’s images. The school age girl, whose gaze engages the viewer, is the sole player here. Caught in contemplative play, she is preoccupied with raw meat, enacting scenes of domestic, maternal, or other psycho-sexual attitudes. While the male gaze may be drawn to the incidental revealing of her thighs underneath her pleated school skirt, it is her gaze, directed coolly at the same viewer, that frustrates it. The viewer, seeking excitement, focusses on other goings on in the scene. The raw meat, with references to sexuality, violence, and, viscerally, to life, entices and distracts. The coupling of the raw meat and the youthful girl, and the remnants of violence attached to innocence, become crisscrossing clues to decipher the underlying meaning. The associations of temptation and fear, lust and violence; danger and death hover in these photographs.
In an attempt to tone down the offbeat sexual charge of these compositions, Topçuoğlu settles his models in interiors tempered with flowery wallpaper and upholstery. The corner of a gilded picture frame, or a landscape, often intrudes into the geometry of his compositions, working both as a formal element of design and also as a sociological marker for class privilege. Carpets and wall hangings, embroidered curtains and coverlets (the handiwork of women) render a sense of normalcy (middle class values) to these settings. Contrasting with the murky reaches of male desire is the confrontational attitude of the young girls, who appear fearless and vindictive in their activities.
In the transcendent emotional charge of these photographs, goaded by the subversive undercurrent of desire and death, life and fear, Topçuoğlu allows the young girls to stand by. Tempting with their presence, yet forbidding in their gaze, the girls suggest a new order of aggression and vindication that attempts to halt male dominance. Coming from a country such as the Republic of Turkey, which has had to go through its own re-evaluation of male-female relationships since the founding of the Republic in 1923, these photographs become important cultural references that question and identify, not just the male gaze, but its response. Within the order of its unaccustomed logic, the young girl, who poses as the subject of these photographs, fulfills her role in the artist’s oeuvre, with aplomb.
She becomes witness, not just to the meat between the floorboards, but also to the viewer. It is at the crossroads of this confrontation that the viewer participates in the photograph’s impending meaning, a facet of being and lust, the very matter of existence, itself. Derived from the same source that fed the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, Balthus, Lewis Carroll, Hans Bellmer, Vladimir Nabokov, and others, Topçuoğlu brings the viewer to the threshold of desire, held back with the sense of implicit danger in the air. With a subversive undercurrent running through his work, he allows his young women to stand as unaffected objects of desire, exposing hand-held sweetbread, instead of flesh.
Text: Gülşen Çalik