As Istanbul’s #OccupyGezi Protests Continue, (Performance) Artists Make A Global Impact

A "Wish Tree" inspired by Yoko Ono, created in Gezi Park during the first days of the Istanbul protests

When John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a week in bed for peace in 1969, they created a performance work that came to define a movement, then and for the future.

Now something similar is happening in Turkey – and among Turkish citizens around the world – as performance art enters the realm of politics during the summer of #occupygezi.   Begun as a simple, peaceful protest – a sit-in in Istanbul’s Gezi Park – the #occupygezi movement, and the violent clashes with government and security forces that became part of it, now stand as the struggle for freedom and democracy against Islamization and despotism, for art against religion, and for what one Turkish art critic, Hatice Utkan, described as “the use of ‘disproportionate intellect.’”

Writing in Hurriyet Daily, Utkan put it this way:  “While graffiti around Taksim [the neighborhood surrounding Gezi Park] showed remarkable ingenuity, the use of art was not just limited to the non-kinetic variety; performance art also put its stamp on the protests, particularly with Erdem Gündüz’s ‘standing man’ demonstrations.”

Gündüz set off a countrywide trend with his performance on June 17, just over two weeks after police had begun attacking protesters with tear gas and water cannons: for eight hours, he stood perfectly still.  Hundreds of others followed suit, not just in Gezi Park, but across Turkey, creating the quintessential form of “peaceful protest.”   As Utkan writes, “Gündüz’s performance art-inspired act of civil disobedience quickly became dubbed the ‘standing man’ (duran adam)” and was celebrated everywhere online, from Twitter to YouTube.

And it did not stop there: groups have continued to respond artistically to the crackdown by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development  Party (AKP) and the mass arrests that have roiled the country all summer – not to mention the thousands of injured and those who have been killed by police and security forces.  Most recently, a group known as Article 19 organized Standing Man events outside the Turkish embassies in London, Brussels, Bucharest, New York,  Paris, and Toronto on July 28, the two-month anniversary of the protests in Gezi Park.

They were not alone. In London,  large groups also gathered in a flash mob event outside the Tate Modern where a series of musical and dance performances preceded a march to the Millennium bridge.  There, protesters carrying handmade signs with letters performed a series of balletic steps, winding through and around one another across the bridge to spell out messages: “STOP THE VIOLENCE IN TURKEY,” they wrote, and “RESIST TURKEY! LONDON IS WITH YOU.”     And in Istanbul, the city has already started gearing up for this year’s Istanbul Biennale , opening September 14, and to be joined this year for the first time by a new contemporary art fair.  The two celebrations stand as testament to the flourishing of the arts in Turkey despite the conservative censorship of its government  – a treasured reminder of Ataturk’s own immortal words:”A nation devoid of art and artists cannot have a full existence.”   More and more in recent years, Turkey’s art and – especially — its artists have helped to make that “full existence” part of the Turkish identity. Now, the country’s very future rests on whether – and how strongly — they continue. But the signs are in its favor.

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