Society is manipulated by the plague of propaganda, which creates a mirage of equality and justice through language spiked by oppressive ideology. Echoing William S. Burroughs’s claim that “language is a virus” in his 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded, the artist Yüksel Arslan has infused his work with political premonitions about his home country Turkey since the 1950s. Born in Istanbul in 1933 and later a student of art history, Arslan decamped from Turkey to Paris in 1961 to show his avant-garde works at André Breton’s International Exhibition of Surrealism. At home among the red French intellectuals, Arslan would remain in the City of Light until he died in 2017.
The son of migrant factory workers from Anatolia, Arslan’s art chronicled the gutted freedoms of civic space, gruesomely obscured by mass oppression in public, pairing them with bestiary studies of deformed, genital vulgarities. His paintings are keen, detailed observations that survey the extent to which short-term financial gain has rigged the socio-political system in Turkey since the Cold War. His sprawling canvas, Le Capital: Circulation du Capital, Arture XXIII (175) (1973-74) is just one of many that frame grandiose architecture with scenes of men with coins instead of heads shaking hands with the devil, which, according to many anti-imperialist activists among Turkish students in the late 20th century, represented America. While setting down roots in Paris, Arslan would have empathized with the riots that ended in heaped corpses, as educated Turkish youth took to the streets to brave their generation’s fight for national sovereignty.
Influenced by the language of the French intellectual elite and the utilitarian understanding of socialist art, Arslan added the suffix -ure,—a signifier of the instrumentation of an idea—to his concept of art. Art, to Arslan, was “arture,” a combination of the words “art” and the French “peinture.” His paintings were art-ings and were assigned pedagogical purposes: unraveling the relations between global capitalism and economic extraction in Turkey. As a Turkish national among untold emigré painters in Paris, the artist undertook the Trotskyian principle of permanent revolution, a strategy of a revolutionary class pursuing its own interests independently and without compromise or alliance with opposing sections of society. Revised under the light of Sartre's existentialism, Arslan’s vision of permanent revolution was achievable through subjectivity in literature, or, in his case, literary picture-making art fueled by socialist thought.
As a manual laborer producing images, he adopted Communist literature to fortify his lifelong visual-literary critique of capitalism’s dystopian hypocrisy, disemboweling its statist claims of equality while political elites and invisible plutocrats accumulated 99% of private wealth. By employing his bodily fluids to create organic, if unseemly, textures over the surfaces of his work, Arslan lifted his otherwise didactic, formalist poise to a more philosophical, artistic degree of human expression, conveying the most taboo corners of psychic and physical existence. Anthropomorphic, graphic insights into the death drive and procreative urge of living beings, his subjects strive to harmonize with their surroundings and stand, concrete and solid, committing bodily and grotesquely to the material historicism of Janáček, Rabelais, Marx, and Ritsos.
One of his scenographic masterpieces is Arture 131. Produced in 1968 at the height of protests in France, this work reconstructs an aerial view of a Western city that suggests a lightly veiled depiction of Paris, its classist arrondissements exposed for all of their rarified architectonics. Designed according to a grid, the urban field is transformed under Arslan’s piercing eye into a board game of sinister, human-animal confrontations. A mob of nude skin-and-bones demonstrators, reminiscent of Holocaust victims, come to a four-way intersection, facing off with malnourished rats, horses, and roaches. The relative calm of surrounding properties contrasts with those burdened by social and environmental conflict. Arture 131 resembles the destruction left behind by the twin earthquakes devastating Turkey and bordering countries in February 2023, denouncing the corruptions of democracy that ensure impoverishment for the masses. This winter, the illegal inhumanity of the substandard apartments that collapsed came to the fore with a vengeance after unprecedented death and destruction, presaging what appears to be the last hour for Turkey’s president after two decades in power (as of the time of this writing, a few days before the May 14 election).
When contemporary artists in Turkey look back at the 20th century’s struggle for civil rights, whether in Istanbul or around the world, they draw ample parallels to the life and work of Arslan, whose peers include the conceptualist Sarkis and the 2019 Young Master’s Art Prize winner Yuşa Yalçıntaş, who directly cites Arslan’s architectural backdrops as an influence in his Escher-like puzzles of a storybook, with their scenographic complexity. Related artists, from Ali Elmacı to Tarık Töre, are part of a long tradition of dystopian social portraiture in late Turkish modernism, their socioeconomic critiques—like those of their comrade Arslan—bordering on horror and fantasy.
After being smeared as obscene by Turkish art critics of the time in the past, Arslan now exhibits work in the country of his birth with the private collection Papko, or the commercial gallery Dirimart. Arguably, such contexts are in stark opposition to the artist’s macabre visions of runaway capital gone haywire in Turkish society, which Arslan viewed as bent on cannibalizing and ravaging the nation’s most vulnerable, personal, and delicate regions, both bodily and socially.
The tendency to rattle off anti-Western rhetoric has since shifted across the political spectrum to become a hallmark of the political right in Turkey. Arslan’s striking visual commentary offers an evergreen perspective, creative and uninhibited in its irreverence of Turkish, Western, or any preconceived mainstream notion about how to think and work among equals. And yet, for all of the anti-imperial political consciousness about Arslan’s work, the historic and natural evolution of his oeuvre of caricatures remains painfully slow in public life, if not unbearably implosive.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Yüksel Arslan, Arture 564, Georg Büchner and J. M. Reinhold Lenz, 2002.
fig. 1: Yüksel Arslan, Arture 326, Etkiler (B)-54 (Y. Ritsos), 1984.
fig. 2: Yüksel Arslan, Arture 278, Influences (B)-19 (Charles Fourier), 1982.
fig. 3: Yüksel Arslan, Arture 471, Man 112: Schizophrenias, collectors, 1996.