Jess Chen on Fatma Bucak

Fatma Bucak’s twelve-panel mosaic A tree, 2022, depicts tightly intertwined branches and a splintered trunk that resembles two intertwined people. It would read like an overly sentimental plea for the environment, and stripped of its particular context except for some material details: veined ash leaves, withered wood in place of roots, and grayish slag in the background. The artist cobbled together the work’s twelve gridded panels from rubbish she collected in Turkey after last year’s out-of-control forest fires, a disaster that drew intense criticism from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an. Using regional flora and fauna, some of which are endangered, as instruments of critique, Bucak reduces the politically charged cycles of birth, death and rebirth in the region into a single work. A tree compares a symbolic image of the past and future growth of eastern Anatolia’s forests with its current state, represented by the debris embedded in the mosaic.

‘While the Dust Quickly Falls’, Bucak’s first solo exhibition in Germany, moves fluidly between installation, video and sculpture, his choice of media signaling the political context of each work. Black ink, 2019, is a typescript describing the composition of the ink used to print this same text: gum arabic, water, ash from the remains of a Kurdish book and soot from a burnt-out Kurdish-language publishing house. Although the print explains how Bucak achieved “fine, glossy ink” with a “uniform consistency”, the actual words are faded or erased to the point of being almost illegible. Thick glass protects the framed print, as if the weakness of the words were itself a sign of frailty or evidence of past injury. The appearance of the work opens up an affective space outside the vaguely neutral tone of the text, which implies a feeling of oblivion, even erasure, that one could read between the lines.

The processes of decomposition establish a critical guideline in the exhibition, linking together a wide range of political conflicts. Do an interlude, 2022, Bucak collaborated with herbal medicine expert Bettina Bein-Lobmaier, arranging potted plants from around the world on rows of industrial steel shelving. The installation doubles as a green space for visitor enjoyment and a form of botanical storytelling. Bitten, yellowed, mottled leaves are visible on several of the plants, which when I visited were wilting under the glare of the bare bulbs. Each specimen moved is housed in a generic black container, like those used to transport plants from nurseries to new homes. The containers indicate the limits of a space that is temporary, arbitrary and subject to change. In the harshly lit clinical environment, the installation evokes the sterility of waiting in faceless immigration offices – an apt analogue of the process of human travel.

If the show borders on pessimism, Damask Rose, 2016–, focuses on potential post-crisis strategies. Six years ago, Bucak began grafting cuttings from Damascus roses in Syria, where the civil war had all but halted cultivation and export of the flower, onto native species in Germany, Italy and Turkey. Shown here are two of Bucak’s cuttings, which are cared for by staff and, unlike plants from an interlude, thrive in their new surroundings, with abundant pink petals and dark, glossy leaves. Their almost obscenely sweet and musky scent envelops the viewer in the makeshift greenhouse. The heady scent, for which the Damask rose is renowned, lingers in the air, marking territory, evoking old memories and nurturing new ones. The conceptual movement of Bucak is this distinctive fragrance, the immaterial double of the plant. It floats through the gallery and connects a sensory experience to the past and present of the rose, its traditional connotations of love and beauty, as well as stories of political unrest and migration.

Like its signature scent, roses offer us some lessons: that individual cuttings cannot survive on their own; that growth depends on constant care; and that the rhythms of nature – seed, bud, flower, humus, ash – are inseparable from ours.

About Chris McCarter

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