Kutlug Ataman gained great acclaim in the capital for his project for Artangel in 2005, when the Turkish filmmaker filled a floor of an Oxford Street building, formerly London’s largest Royal Mail sorting office, with 40 television sets. Each showed an interview with a different resident of the independently minded Istanbul neighbourhood Küba, and together their testimonies constructed a rich vision of the place in which they lived.
For his latest work in London, an 80-minute double-screen projection at Thomas Dane Gallery in St James’s, Ataman leaves the Turkish metropolis for a remote village in Anatolia. But an even more marked departure is his movement from documentary to fiction. Although Journey to the Moon uses documentary techniques – photographic stills, audio interviews and talking heads – its subject is a fictional event: a 1957 attempt by some villagers to fly to the moon in a minaret with the help of some huge helium balloons.
Kutlug Ataman, 'Journey to the Moon', 2008. Two channel video installation, with sound. Running time 80 min.
The left screen shows a succession of black and white archive photographs of the villagers (all, of course, constructed by Ataman and his collaborators), which are overlaid with the English subtitles of an audio interview with one of the participants. These are intercut with footage of interviews from academics and professionals, from an engineer and a historian to an aerospace expert, who discuss the villagers entry into the post-war space-race as if it was fact.
The work is highly humorous. One series of stills shows the village Imam anxious about which way the astronauts will face once in space if they want to pray towards Mecca; this is followed by a deadpan astronomer explaining that, once at the moon, they would just need to face towards Earth. The action even briefly embraces farce when an old woman’s sheep is tied to a helium balloon as a test – the woman ties a knot around said Imam instead and he gravitates off into the atmosphere.
Journey to the Moon seems to examine Turkey’s ambitions, historical and contemporary, and how closely they might mimic the activities and achievements of nations such as the United States. But I found its form was so close to mockumentary that the work’s meaning became muffled. The line between artifice and reality could not be treaded carefully once played so keenly for laughs.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine