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A Review of the New ANAMED Exhibition, “Intersecting Past and Present: A Photographic Exploration”

by Tuğrul Acar, ANAMED PhD Fellow (2021–2022)

The new ANAMED exhibition, Intersecting Past and Present: A Photographic Exploration,features landscape photographs by the Belgian photographers Bruno Vandermeulen and Danny Veys. The photographs show the historical landscape of the ancient region of Pisidia in today’s southwestern Turkey, including its natural topography with hills and river valleys and what remains of the ancient built environment. 

As stated in the exhibition presentation, the notion of “history-altered landscape” in Pisidia and its surrounding region constitutes the main theme of this exhibition. The accompanying catalogue, The Tortoise Arrived Alone One Day, is published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları and features high-quality reproductions of the photographs that evoke the experience of walking through the impressive Pisidian landscape.

The ancient region of Pisidia is located in today’s southwestern Turkey, north of coastal Pamphylia and Lycia and between the regions of Caria and Isaura. Located in the Taurus mountain range, its topography is composed of plateaus and valleys irrigated by rivers. Historically, while the Pisidian climate was too dry for timber, rivers provided sufficient water to grow crops and fruit trees and manage husbandry. Although this distinctive geography led to its relative isolation from the outside world, the region was able to thrive thanks to its natural resources. Sagalassos, Termessos, and Selge were major cities of the province until the Late Antique period. Sagalassos was one of the greatest Roman cities in Asia Minor, and it is also one of the best-preserved cities, having a nymphaeum, two agoras, and an imperial sanctuary dedicated to Antonius Pious.

Before the age of modern archaeology, several European antiquarians and amateur archaeologists traveled to Pisidia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in search of antique ruins. Among the earliest such travelers was Paul Lucas, who journeyed to southwest Turkey on the order of the French king, Louis XIV. He was the first European to visit the ruins of Sagalassos in 1706. Visitors to the exhibition can see a copy of his travelogue. Later on, the British diplomat, antiquarian, and epigraphist Francis V. J. Arundell (1828) rediscovered the city’s name through its surviving inscriptions and published his findings.

Interestingly, Vandermeulen and Veys’ photographs do not focus on the well-preserved and monumental buildings of Sagalassos or nearby towns; instead, in most of the photographs we see unrecognizable structures and dilapidated buildings. Rather than being the objects of focus for the camera or centerpieces within photographic frames, the photographs capture architectural ruins seamlessly blended with surrounding nature. As such, this exhibition is not about photographs of great ancient monuments from Pisidia, but instead asks: “Can a landscape bear witness to a distant past?” Taking this as a jumping off point, Vandermeulen and Veys use photography to “re-discover” historical layers of the landscape and reflect on how the passing of time left traces on a specific space and altered this built environment.

Accompanying the exhibition are selections from a poem of Judith Desmyttere that bears the same name as the book published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları,  painted in white on the red gallery walls. These texts are like aide-mémoire in that their content speaks to viewers and invites them to think about the multi-sensory experience of a landscape. For example, one wall reads: “This morning I saw the bird and wondered what it would be like to live in the sky instead of on land. Nothing equals the longing for that which can never be. Seeing waves in the mountains, floating in valleys.” These words are intended to help the viewer imagine seeing and experiencing the Pisidian landscape from above and from a bird’s perspective. It reminds them that we as humans are not the only living beings that have inhabited this landscape.

Relatedly, a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition is the interplay between the founding of settlements and their abandonment. While humans had abandoned cities and towns for such varied reasons as war and economic crises, these places continued to be inhabited by other living organisms, and trees and plants grew over them over the years. One such town is Termessos, which is built on top of Mount Solymos at 1000 meters above sea level. The large size of its surviving amphitheater is a witness to the bustling population of the town during its heyday. Yet, it was gradually emptied, and, by the fifth century, encroaching pine forests covered many of its public buildings. Quite distant from urban centers, later builders could not easily access and procure materials from the abandoned city, facilitating the preservation of the town’s architectural heritage. The photograph nicely demonstrates the confluence of nature and time on the one hand and architecture in landscape on the other.

As the following words of the wall text indicate, the exhibition asks the visitors to remember the city: “I see the city. Think about the way it used to be and what remains of it now… Can memory attach itself to the ground or to the things that hide in it?” Architectural remains help us remember not only what the city looked like but also how ancient people lived and interacted socially there, fulfilling a lieux de mémoire for modern visitors. I have been attracted by one tryptic photograph, which shows a beach with people picnicking amongst the scattered blocks of an ancient stone wall. The photograph prompts me to think that some ruins are not left in a distant past and distant locations, but people continue to have contact with such ruins in contemporary times. I was also interested in the notion of time and seasons in the photographs. The artists probably took these photographs in the summer, the usual excavation season. Despite the black and white color, bright meadows and open sky are quite discernable. It is fascinating to see how this landscape appears in the summer and I wonder how it would have been in the winter.

Overall, this exhibition has a very interesting subject and some successful aspects, yet it could have been more informative and could have impressed general audiences more with certain improvements. Wall texts written by Bahattin Öztuncay do a great job of giving explanations of different printing techniques. An average visitor, unknowledgeable about printing techniques, may wonder about how certain levels of brightness and details are achieved in these pictures. I learned about cyanotype and silkscreen techniques and could observe them in the works. The historical and geographic context of Pisidia, however, remains somewhat insufficient and superficial. While I recognize that the main concern of the exhibition is the relationship between landscape and history, an explanation of the political and social transformation of Pisidia from the Bronze Age through the Late Roman periods for a general audience would have offered deeper insight into understanding the history of this region. Likewise, the current explanatory texts on landscape and history next to the photographs could have been more precise. In any event, this exhibition offers Istanbul’s cultural scene a thoughtful meditation on the relationships between landscape, the built environment, history, and memory.