In 1997, Time magazine asked readers to vote for a Person of the Century. A great way to promote the brand, no? Well, yes, but not necessarily the brand that the newsmagazine had in mind. Six months into the poll, more than a third of the 5 million votes cast were for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
They may have been shocked at Time Inc. - all right, they were shocked - but no one was in Istanbul. The creator of modern Turkey, Ataturk was president from 1923-1938. He transformed Turkish society, so much so that he remains the dominant figure in the culture and polity. Just how dominant - and what that dominance indicates about the nation that sustains it - is the subject of “7 Turkish Artists: Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari.’’ It runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through Nov. 12.
“7 Turkish Artists’’ is an unusual show. For starters, it’s unusually intelligent and ambitious. A small show, it seeks to put us inside the mind of a country of 75 million people. For another, its title is a misnomer. The show features not seven artists, but two, only one of whom is Turkish.
From 1997-2010, Mandel and Zakari worked on this project of examining Ataturk’s enduring impact. The show includes photographs, newspaper front pages, plastic busts, and postcards. The first thing a viewer sees is a display carousel, the kind found in museum gift shops. It’s filled with postcards of Ataturk. Zakari writes in wall text, “There [aren’t] that many photos of him, maybe twenty or so, enough to create the myth of Ataturk. This collection became part of our shared Turkish identity.’’
She and Mandel have ranged far and wide - so far and so wide that “7 Turkish Artists’’ looks like a group exhibition, hence the amusingly misleading title. (Another possible cause of confusion is that the images lack captions, though there are extensive wall texts.) That an examination of national identity bears a misidentifying name is an indicator of the sly wit that informs much of the show.
An even deeper incongruity underlies “7 Artists.’’ Its survey of Ataturk’s contemporary iconography is an implicit - sometimes explicit - act of iconoclasm. We now use that term figuratively, as a synonym for contrarianism or skepticism about those in power. It originated in the Byzantine Empire, meaning the literal destruction of religious paintings, or icons. The Ottoman Turks conquered the empire, and it was the Ottoman sultanate that was in turn overthrown by Ataturk. Turkey, you might say, knows from iconoclasm. So Mandel and Zakari start with history and proceed from there. The many layerings of meaning in “7 Artists’’ - secular and religious, West and East, innovation and tradition, the individual and society - verge on the gleeful.
Not that we should get too cocky this side of the Bosporus. Political ancestor worship isn’t unique to Turkey. Mandel and Zakari include a wall of photos with replicas of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Technology has had an enormous impact on book publishing in recent years. Most of the attention has gone to electronic publishing. But the effect on the production of bound books has also been considerable.
No one has used advances in publishing technology to better effect than artists. Advances have made it much more feasible to publish small editions of a book or even just a single copy.
Last year, Larissa Leclair had an excellent idea. She founded an archive, the Indie Photobook Library, or iPL, to document and encourage the preservation of very limited edition photography books. “Threefold: Selections From the Indie Photobook Library’’ includes nearly 50 examples of such books - though “books’’ may not be quite the right word. “Industria, Virtus, et Fortitudo,’’ by Adam Murray, Robert Parkinson, and Jamie Hawkesworth, is more pamphlet, or brochure, than book.
As befits their bookishness, many of the works emphasize the verbal as well as visual. Note the punning title of Beth Dow’s foldout “Roam,’’ which contrasts Roman ruins with Minneapolis buildings. Sebastien Girard makes distressed autos the subject of “Desperate Cars,’’ its title a play on John Bunyan’s phrase “great and desperate cures.’’ More important, of course, are arresting and funny images.
“Threefold’’ runs through Nov. 12. But long after it closes the books in the show (and many more besides) can be viewed at www.indiephotobooklibrary.org. Viewed, though not held, something the PRC lets visitors do. Wondrous as the Web is, it still can’t satisfy all our senses.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.