Robert Smithson

2 Stories


NeueLoves: Robert Smithson

NeueLoves_Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970)

Spiral Jetty, 1970

Photography: Robert Smithson

MIKE NELSON:
THE YENI OTEL

The sense of journey

Artwork by Mike Nelson | NeueJournal Issue 1

British artist Mike Nelson creates an original piece for NeueJournal that blends photography with non-fiction narratives – all while exploring the mysticism of coincidence. 

 

For the fourth time in my life I checked into the Yeni Otel. A man in his twenties sat behind the familiar desk, paraphernalia of two decades still intact. Behind, hung a portrait of Ataturk – the same one, faded slightly. It still exuded an otherworldly presence that existed beyond chronological time, as opposed to a terrestrial incongruity that I had once experienced. The building had remained the same and was situated not far from the cut-through, past the underwhelming train station, on a side street marked by an old Land Rover sign. The real Istanbul terminus existed over the water on the Asian side. The rusting steel sign, with its familiar text and font, exuded the sense of journey beginnings no longer achievable by today’s backpackers. This was where the Yeni Otel – as I remembered its name – had always been.

 

Artwork by Mike Nelson | NeueJournal Issue 1

Mike Nelson, MAGAZIN, Büyük Valide Han, 2003). Installation view at Büyük Valide Han, Istanbul Biennial, 2003.

 

I had come to Istanbul this time to source material, to rebuild an imagined building based on one that had housed a work I’d made for the Biennial in 2003. At that time, I had spent a month living in the city and working in the building – the Büyük Valide Han – to produce the work. The Han had been built for the sultan’s mother in the seventeenth century and was the greatest and grandest in the city, located in the Eminönü district of the city, just up the hill from the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and tucked behind the street of hunting shops with their guns and associated paraphernalia. However, its grandiosity was in decline; structurally it had seen better days, almost as if the encroaching mercantile streets of the vicinity were spilling over, out of a city with a cumulative history of trade; the mass of street traders and shops crushing and eating away at their once-great stately neighbor. Over the latter part of the twentieth century, the demands of this recent epoch were written clearly in the crumbling walls and piles of rubble; the resultant crude structural alterations and reinforcements were made from whatever material was available, but usually involving roughly-poured concrete and rusting steel. Its existence as a Han, and its relationship to Robert Smithson’s documentation of Hotel Palenque in southern Mexico, seemed somehow very apt. The Han, was of course, a hotel of sorts, but unlike the Hotel Palenque it wasn’t under construction—however both were being mended in a rudimentary manner as they fell into dereliction; a process that mirrored one another, in that the direction of purpose was not dictated by design, but by need, speed, and economy: two visions of the entropic – one from the old world and the other the so-called new world. At the time I was there, the Han was a walled settlement around three courtyards, locked at night and on weekends like a small fortress. I worked alone with the occasional help of a young translator and a carpenter, Murat, from the eastern city of Van. However, communication here often led to misunderstandings on a level beyond compromise, and led to me secretly undoing and rebuilding things to avoid upsetting him. The Han was accessed via huge wooden gates through which stone steps led you to the upper corridor. The fourth or fifth step was of uneven height and often instigated an upward stumble. Once up, a corridor the size of a small road led in a broken loop around the courtyards; steel and wooden doors from different eras opened onto various worlds of differing trades; from steel work to aluminum casting, to weaving on nineteenth century looms. The rooms I occupied were previously occupied by Iranian gilders and were suitably blackened by the process, giving the space an exaggeratedly cave-like feel. After a day of working in the Han, I was totally blackened as well, returning conspicuously to the Biennial-sponsored hotel, whose staff seemed totally unprepared for such an incongruous vision. My evenings were spent predominantly alone in disengaged conversations about foot- ball with bored waiters in the small cafes around the Sultanahmet, and then later in the mosques, silently watching evening prayers and the rising moon from the domed halls, and open courtyards of Sinan’s fantastical late edition to the oeuvre of mosque architecture. The looming presence of the Hagia Sophia emanated its knowing psyche across the ornamental gardens; this Byzantine Godzilla of the city skyline the obvious father in a pointless paternity suit. Here was the most prominent evidence of a sibling relationship with the city I was to reimagine the work within, Venice; these two capitals of a lost empire, of Byzantium and the site of two biennales, and evidence of a constant shifting discourse of political power. Later in the evenings I would circle the old city, retracing my steps from previous visits in 1987 and 1992, a city still reeling from a military coup. On my first visit, I stayed in a succession of cheap hotels—it was these that I now searched for, as if I could find my former self represented in their ad hoc architectural forms. I returned to the Yeni, following the steep steps up from the station. The Russian-speaking brother of the owner, who had fed me yogurt and garlic during a fever on my second trip, was still there. He was a man who spoke English in the syntax of another language, Turkish or Russian, I wasn’t sure. Words jumbling out like a cascading fountain, but somehow making sense. He was gray now. An illicit relationship with the women of a recently-uncovered world had taken its toll. Only one hotel eluded me. In 1987, next to a small mosque, we had slept upon the concrete roof of a five or six story building. My recollection was hazy. It was somewhere near the old walls, a short walk from the unofficial youth hostel, around the corner from a wood-paneled, alpine-style cafe on a corner… the pudding shop… I had a memory of a building that stood up high as you approached, the bright sunshine contrasted by the dark interior of a stained wood desk, seemingly constructed around the demonic portrait of Ataturk. All buildings seemed to rotate around this figure, as did my construction and its doppelgänger in Venice that was yet to be. The silent presence of this figure seems pivotal to the recent history of the Middle East, marking out Turkey as its only secular state, but also echoing the wider region’s near-religious obsession with state figureheads. Within the symbolism of this new state is the reminder of its predecessor, the empire of the Ottomans, for whom this man fought, and their far reaching influence in the lands that are so troubled now; from Syria and Iraq to the gates of Vienna and the Balkan wars of the nineties – a precursor of related unrest to come. The concrete floor was hard and unforgiving, as was the five o’clock call to mosque. My sheet was little protection against the cold night, and the angular projections of my teenage frame—already prominent from an unfamiliar diet on a bud- get of subsistence—exaggerated an already-uncomfortable surface. The search became obsessive. Almost in lieu of anything else to do, I expanded my quest, each night working my way down each side of the hill from the mosques and their gardens. I seemed to walk every street in the Sultanhamet peninsula, visiting hotels that could potentially have been or might provide some possible direction. Young men—smoking lazily on verandas and behind ottoman styled desks, with contradictory gloomy overtones of Eastern Bloc ideology—happily spoke to me about this illusory space, but none illuminated its whereabouts. The more I saw, the more the memory dissipated and became confused. As the opening of the exhibition approached, I felt a sense of apprehension that I might actually discover it, and it became a relief somehow that it should remain buried, ungraspable and dream-like; a part of myself still in process. The opening came and I left, leaving a glowing red space in the heart of the city, with the pensive glare of Ataturk at its center. I had come to Istanbul this time to source material, to rebuild an imagined building based on one that had housed a work I’d made for the Biennial in 2003. At that time, I had spent a month living in the city and working in the building – the Büyük Valide Han – to produce the work. The Han had been built for the sultan’s mother in the seventeenth century and was the greatest and grandest in the city, located in the Eminönü district of the city, just up the hill from the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and tucked behind the street of hunting shops with their guns and associated paraphernalia. However, its grandiosity was in decline; structurally it had seen better days, almost as if the encroaching mercantile streets of the vicinity were spilling over, out of a city with a cumulative history of trade; the mass of street traders and shops crushing and eating away at their once-great stately neighbor. Over the latter part of the twentieth century, the demands of this recent epoch were written clearly in the crumbling walls and piles of rubble; the resultant crude structural alterations and reinforcements were made from whatever material was available, but usually involving roughly-poured concrete and rusting steel. Its existence as a Han, and its relationship to Robert Smithson’s documentation of Hotel Palenque in southern Mexico, seemed somehow very apt. The Han was of course a hotel of sorts, but unlike the Hotel Palenque it wasn’t under construction—however both were being mended in a rudimentary manner as they fell into dereliction; a process that mirrored one another, in that the direction of purpose was not dictated by design, but by need, speed, and economy: two visions of the entropic – one from the old world and the other the so-called new world. At the time I was there, the Han was a walled settlement around three courtyards, locked at night and on weekends like a small fortress. I worked alone with the occasional help of a young translator and a carpenter, Murat, from the eastern city of Van. However, communication here often led to misunderstandings on a level beyond compromise, and led to me secretly undoing and rebuilding things to avoid upsetting him. The Han was accessed via huge wooden gates through which stone steps led you to the upper corridor. The fourth or fifth step was of uneven height and often instigated an upward stumble. Once up, a corridor the size of a small road led in a bro- ken loop around the courtyards; steel and wooden doors from different eras opened onto various worlds of differing trades; from steel work to aluminum casting, to weaving on nineteenth century looms. The rooms I occupied were previously occupied by Iranian gilders and were suitably blackened by the process, giving the space an exaggeratedly cave-like feel. After a day of working in the Han, I was totally blackened as well, returning conspicuously to the Biennial-sponsored hotel, whose staff seemed totally unprepared for such an incongruous vision. My evenings were spent predominantly alone in disengaged conversations about foot- ball with bored waiters in the small cafes around the Sultanahmet, and then later in the mosques, silently watching evening prayers and the rising moon from the domed halls, and open courtyards of Sinan’s fantastical late edition to the oeuvre of mosque architecture. The looming presence of the Hagia Sophia emanated its knowing psyche across the ornamental gardens; this Byzantine Godzilla of the city skyline the obvious father in a pointless paternity suit. Here was the most prominent evidence of a sibling relationship with the city I was to reimagine the work within, Venice; these two capitals of a lost empire, of Byzantium and the site of two biennales, and evidence of a constant shifting discourse of political power. Later in the evenings I would circle the old city, retracing my steps from previous visits in 1987 and 1992, a city still reeling from a military coup. On my first visit, I stayed in a succession of cheap hotels—it was these that I now searched for, as if I could find my former self represented in their ad hoc architectural forms. I returned to the Yeni, following the steep steps up from the station. The Russian-speaking brother of the owner, who had fed me yogurt and garlic during a fever on my second trip, was still there. He was a man who spoke English in the syntax of another language, Turkish or Russian, I wasn’t sure. Words jumbling out like a cascading fountain, but somehow making sense. He was gray now. An illicit relationship with the women of a recently-uncovered world had taken its toll. Only one hotel eluded me. In 1987, next to a small mosque, we had slept upon the concrete roof of a five or six story building. My recollection was hazy. It was somewhere near the old walls, a short walk from the unofficial youth hostel, around the corner from a wood-paneled, alpine-style cafe on a corner… the pudding shop… I had a memory of a building that stood up high as you approached, the bright sunshine contrasted by the dark interior of a stained wood desk, seemingly constructed around the demonic portrait of Ataturk. All buildings seemed to rotate around this figure, as did my construction and its doppelgänger in Venice that was yet to be. The silent presence of this figure seems pivotal to the recent history of the Middle East, marking out Turkey as its only secular state, but also echoing the wider region’s near-religious obsession with state figureheads. Within the symbolism of this new state is the reminder of its predecessor, the empire of the Ottomans, for whom this man fought, and their far reaching influence in the lands that are so troubled now; from Syria and Iraq to the gates of Vienna and the Balkan wars of the nineties – a precursor of related unrest to come. The concrete floor was hard and unforgiving, as was the five o’clock call to mosque. My sheet was little protection against the cold night, and the angular projections of my teenage frame—already prominent from an unfamiliar diet on a bud- get of subsistence—exaggerated an already-uncomfortable surface. The search became obsessive. Almost in lieu of anything else to do, I expanded my quest, each night working my way down each side of the hill from the mosques and their gardens. I seemed to walk every street in the Sultanhamet peninsula, visiting hotels that could potentially have been or might provide some possible direction. Young men—smoking lazily on verandas and behind ottoman styled desks, with contradictory gloomy overtones of Eastern Bloc ideology—happily spoke to me about this illusory space, but none illuminated its whereabouts. The more I saw, the more the memory dissipated and became confused. As the opening of the exhibition approached, I felt a sense of apprehension that I might actually discover it, and it became a relief somehow that it should remain buried, ungraspable and dream-like; a part of myself still in process. The opening came and I left, leaving a glowing red space in the heart of the city, with the pensive glare of Ataturk at its center.

 

On this later trip in 2011, I would finally find the hotel; not by an obsessive hunt but by chance, as I took a short cut back to the Yeni Otel. The roof has now been built upon, but a terrace remains that looks down upon the mosque. The reception with its desk and portrait were gone; a mild sense of relief and nostalgia was all I felt.

 

Artwork by Mike Nelson | NeueJournal Issue 1

Mike Nelson, 35mm photographs from MAGAZIN, Büyük Valide Han, 2003. Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York; Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; Matt ́s Gallery, London; and neugerriem schneider, Berlin | Thanks to: Lisa Spellman, Kathryn Erdman, Frances Scott

 

Back at the Yeni Otel, Mustafa took me upstairs to see the room, and in a typical fit of Englishness I spoke in order to alleviate any awkwardness that I might pre-empt:

“I first stayed here in 1987,” I said. “And again in ’92…” “I was born in ’87,” replied Mustafa. “August.”
“When, exactly?” I inquired with increasing curiosity.

 

Mustafa thought for a moment to compute the date into English. “The 20th.” As we looked into the twin-bedded room with the roughly-cut linoleum floor that curled up the skirting board, I realized that I too had been here on that day. It was my birth date, and I had spent that day—my twentieth birthday—in Mustafa’s father’s hotel while he was born.

 

My erratic and largely unplanned visits to Istanbul have acted like a marker in time within my adult life, and the Yeni Otel seems to hold part of me. This seemingly meaningless coincidence continues to compound that sense.

 

Artwork: Mike Nelson for NeueJournal
Featured Image: Mike Nelson The Yeni Otel, 2011