« Exposure », by Defne Turker Demir

Les ateliers d’été de l’Institut d’histoire culturelle européenne Bronislaw Geremek, qui ont eu lieu au Château des Lumières de Lunéville les 11, 12 et 13 juillet 2016, avaient pour thème: Objet(s)

Defne Turker Demir, professeure assistante en littérature occidentale à l’université Kültür d’Istanbul, s’interroge sur la perception et l’expérience de la violence à travers les écrans.

Exposure: Can Experience Materialise through Dematerialisation?

Objects or their Lack within a Simulation

This paper is the outcome of a mental exercise, stemming from questions and “what ifs”  intending to enumerate questions in a Postmodern fashion, instead of trying to provide answers. The initial premise is “what if it were possible to expose the people in the West/ the Global North/ the First World, that is the inhabitants of privileged societies, to the conditions of war the rest of the world populations are no strangers to?” Then this would constitute an attempt to immerse individuals in an experience the likes of which are taking place today around the globe, and lately even more so in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the final attacks in Paris, Brussels and finally Nice, it would perhaps be easier to create a simulation of loss and a sense of catastrophe, based on an ever increasing appraisal of mayhem and chaos, since the people in the Global North are no longer mere spectators to these multiple tragedies, but they have become victims, too.

Today, our contemporary appraisal of reality still depends mainly on the information gathered from the visual modes of media. Yet, is the modality, frequency, and plurality of our visual exposure to violence making us shrug our shoulders and turn our heads in disgust from the computer or the television screen? When we are exposed to the visuals of carnage and brutality, are those imploding images overloaded with significance or already deflated, normalised, reduced to third page news? Since we started watching wars real-time, in sync with the actuality of the action as early as the First Gulf War on television, having become practiced in munching popcorn in our cosy sitting rooms as bombs hit the cities of Iraq, have we learned to override visual stimuli of violent content because of overexposure? Are our categories of fact and fiction lay equated as a result of the frequency of our exposure to, and the concurrent normalisation of brutality, be the violence factual or fictional, real-time or Hollywood time? Hence, the virtual images of the real on the television or computer screen have become a mere white noise to the reality of gulping down our mugs of camomile tea snuggling in our comfortable sofas.

Consequently how can we establish the Brechtian alienation[1], the sense of strangeness, the psychic distance that will allow us to get shocked by the images on the white screen? Or how to realise, materialise or solidify experience, if not through visual exposure? How would people feel if they were left in the dark, physically and metaphorically? If they were made to feel alone, isolated in an uncanny atmosphere, unknowing and unknown? Will they then strive harder to make sense of the reality, if the stimuli is audial and not visual? Will the spatial alienation and a different coding of stimuli result in a stronger sensation?

Therefore, if it were possible to simulate such an audial exposure to violence, the assumption would be to engage the participants’ emotions more, so that they would be enabled to try and find a way out of a maze of strong sensations, ranging from discomfort to terror. Instead of didacticism and the obvious, the employment of the unfamiliar, the unheimlich[2] to use Freud’s term, might result in a richer sensation for the individuals. And through an exposure to the unknown, and paradoxically through the ephemeral, the unsubstantial, the unsubstantiated; will it be possible to solidify, and form a concreteness of life-like experience? Perhaps while people remain physically in their comfort zones, it is harder to create an awareness of the plight of the Others. However, through darkness, through the voice of sirens, and by emulating the stench of burning fires, can we possibly disrupt people’s sense of security and affect a keener recognition and empathy? What if not through the intellect but through the senses a more active sensation of participation in misery is created? And finally, and ironically, in the absence of objects, and by the use of the senses, would learning become more physical and acute? Will the lack of material things, objects, constitute a physical emptiness to surround us, and in the process solidify our arcane fears? Then what could be done to materialise experience, to convey a feeling of “the real” or rather “a real” amongst the many partial or synthetic or syncretic “reals” and “realities” we are forced to choose from on a daily basis?

In like vein, imagine a city that stands deserted and wasted. Abandoned by her people, invaded, eventually rescued but stands desolate still, even after its reclamation. The city lays dead, devoid of any inhabitants. This place is Shengal, in Iraq, taken back from DEASHIS/ISIS/IS in the winter of 2015. Shengal’s significance stems from its former standing as the heartland of the Yazidi community, a people misleadingly known as the “devil worshippers”. The Yazidi faith dates back to 1.000 BC, and is a creed that does not uphold a prophet. The Yazidi instead, only acknowledge and revere the seven angels of God. The archangel according to the Yazidi is “melek-i tavus” (peacock-angel), visually represented as a peacock. One of the seven angels is the devil, which accounts for the widely spread misapprehension of the Yazidi population as “devil-worshippers”. This misperception not only marks them the “Other » of any established religious community, but the Yazidi’s unorthodox creed is once and for all coded as the antithesis of Islamic dogma. In their status of religious and ethnic minority, the Yazidi constitute an abomination par-excellance as far as the radical Islamist group is concerned. For this reason Shengal was particularly targeted by DAESHIS/ISIS /IS in their rampage in Syria and Iraq.


In the aftermath of the DAESH offensive on Shengal on August 8th 2014, the Yazidi population was drastically decimated, and the survivors are still living in camps in Iraq today, unwilling to go back to the entirely destroyed city, where they have had experienced brutality of a mythical scale. After their incursion into the city, DAESH executed the Yazidi men en-masse, destroying entire extended families in one sweep, while women were first taken captive, and then the enslaved women were sold off as sex-slaves. Finally male children were made to convert, many raped and then trained to become the next generation of DAESH militants. The female sex-slaves of DAESH we see on media are mainly Yazidi women who have succeeded in escaping from their tormentors, and remain sane. The numbers of Yazidi women who are still held captive is estimated to be around six thousand.

The material objects that remain in Shengal are transformed out of recognition.

Yet they constitute the sole physical remains of an entire people, their culture and way of life. Shengal is a skeletal city now, devoid of life and the city itself exposes one to the havoc and devastation wrought by DAESH. These material remains of war also metaphorically point at the destruction brought upon the  bodies of the people.

Thus, evading the graphic imagery or the soul burning accounts of the people, what if  we were simply exposed to the annihilated cityscape, and made to imagine the worst in terms of the individuals that used to inhabit this now evacuated, ghostly city?

Will this kind of an absence, the absence of the human versus the presence of distorted objects re-shape our understanding, make us look with a sharper eye? What is crucial is perhaps that we see not the human remains, nor the melted flesh but focus on the juxtaposition between humanity and the material remains of humans that once lived, thrived and created these objects, the past actuality of the living accentuated by the present destruction of their creations. Yet these remaining objects constitute a new category now, since they are no longer the same ones created by the living, for the sake of the living. These are objects transfigured through wrath. Brutalised and mangled into new, previously non-existent entities. Can objects distorted beyond recognition, de-created and trans-morphed, make us feel a more vivid apprehension of the overall dimension of the annihilation?

Would this kind of exposure produce an effect similar to the wisps of smoke in Costa Gavras’ 2002 film Amen[3]? In the film, we do not see prostrate bodies nor the actuality of the atrocities of the Nazi death camps. What we see instead is trains packed full with the living, breathing bodies of the Jews, who leave the station destined for the unknown. Only the smoke the locomotive belches foreshadows the fate that awaits the passengers on their final journey. Later on the smoke emanating from the chimneys of the concentration camp not only point at thousands of Jews that perish in smoke momentarily, but it makes us imagine, visualise and project our own worst fears as to what is happening inside the stone and brick. The sky viewed from a window is devoid of any movement but the churning of the hidden machine of destruction and these snaking wisps of death. On the other hand in Shengal, if the stone and concrete could not bear the assault, we are made to ask ourselves how the flesh, the skin and the bone, that is the bodies of the civilians could have born the devastation. In Shengal, objects bear witness to a reality that evades our collective understanding of reality.


Today in our Post-Modern world, epistemology is no longer a possibility and we have come to question the concept on ontology, too. Yet we are free to problematise the categories of objects and their images; the real, the simulation and paradoxically the materiality of lived experience as opposed to the mentally imaged, and imagined. So, what happens when we are actually or through the unknown, and the unknowable, exposed to “the real” or “a real”? Can we make “the Others’ real” our own? Will the ephemeral enhance our perception of “a reality” if and when such a category exists?

The more theoretical implications  of the relationship between objects and reality that come to mind range from Plato’s ideas, to Derrida and  Baudrillard. Hence according to Plato[4], the ideas are the perfect entities, and the world is made up of imperfect reflections. The drawing of a table is an imitation of an imitation, thus it is imperfect. Then so is art, that is twice an imitation, twice removed from the real, and in that respect art distracts from the perfect ideas. Art therefore weakens contact with the truth. This way representation establishes an un-breachable distance between the idea and its image, the real and the imitation. Skipping the two and a half millennia and moving on to Derrida, we finally see the polarity of the Western perception of the world problematised. According to Derrida[5], the Western understanding of the world is built upon an opposition between ideas and the material world, and hence true ideas are deemed universal and eternal in the Western tradition. Derrida on the other hand deconstructs these binaries of Western though, while arguing meaning and truth are inseparable from signification, concluding that ours is a world of signification.

Baudrillard[6]  in his turn contends that in the modern world the distinction between the artificial and the real, the simulated and the actual has disappeared. The media creates a sense of hyperreality which is in fact a simulation. Yet, it is these images of perfection that we are taken in by, which replace the reality. Accordingly, Disneyland is the perfect metaphor for a world where representations replace the real. The difference between the model and the real has eroded, and thus the boundary between representation and reality implodes. The ground of “the real” has disappeared. It is now signs that constitute the “Real”.

My main query then would be, is it the presence or the absence of objects that make the perception more poignant? Is it the darkness and the striving for understanding that is sharpening our senses? What happens when we lose sight of the objects, or when the objects disappear? What do we feel when the images of the objects are no longer perfect, but distorted beyond recognition? What would this transformation signify? Will acts of undoing that re-position the entire components of an object make it more “real” in its uniqueness? Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane[7] define Modernist art as “ … new in a new way, almost in a new dimension… “ (20). Isn’t this true for the brutally “war-forged” objects, too? Can we also assume they have become “…once-and-for-all creation”s (29) in their “…presumed absence of style” (29)? Are these dismantled forms better equipped to  represent the “reality” of war than any other?


Another point I want to probe is the human body as the object of representation. In the age of social media, not only the representation of the body, but its self-objectification has not only become a commonality, but even an overtly enunciated desire for many. On the other hand, separating the on-line titillation of social media from art and representation, what if the artist employed not only the body, his own body, but also his own self-image as the object of representation, as a corrective to the objectification of the body through its representation by the Other? In addition to the voyeurism inherent in all forms of art, what if the artist would choose to subject his own body to the gaze of the Others, adding the level of performance onto representation? Then how viable will that kind of an act be if it is a female body? Since the female form is openly and overtly objectified historically, the exposure of the female body is already crowded with associations of nakedness or nudity and thus has its own over-sexualised connotations.


How significant will then be the exposure of the male body, as is the case with James Luna’s performance The Artefact Piece[8]? Luna moves from the stereotypical appraisal of the Native American peoples as dead, and thus their presence relegated to the realm of history. The understanding of the Native Americans as belonging to a bygone age is confirmed by the way they are featured in museums. While Native Americans ancestors’ remains are parts of the exhibits, this irreverence is remarked upon by Luna in his performance The Artefact Piece. Not surprisingly, we do not find white AngloAmerican ancestral body parts in similar museums, except for the bones of the Saints, or the mummies of indeed dead cultures that date back thousands of years that are exhibited, and therefore belong to a different category. James Luna in his performance The Artefact Piece, places himself, his own body, his own self-image, his own identity as a Native American on the exhibition stand. Laying on his back, his eyes closed, his torso naked except for a loin-cloth, he presents the conventional image of the Native American. The audience is thus made to reconsider the assumption of the “death” of the Native American cultures, in the actual exposure of the body of the artist. Although Luna’s body might look dead, he is alive and thriving, just like the 350 remaining Native American cultures in North America alone. Luna by exposing his body, and appearing to objectifying it, is underlining the objectification of American Indian remains, as well as correcting the image of the Native American as “dead” or “dying”.

Ai Weiwei[9]’s appropriation of the image of Aylan Kürdi in 2015 constitutes another hallmark performance. 3 year old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed off onto the shores of the most popular summer resort in Turkey, Bodrum, on the morning of September 2nd 2015. The innocence of the posture of the body (as if put to sleep by loving parents) is in stark contrast with the very grotesque fact that the young body lies on the border of the sea and the sand, dead. And the dreadful paradox, that one parent survived the wreck, while the baby boy he tried to save from a war and violence ridden zone was through the agency of his parents, laid to rest on yet another border, where again survival lays to one side (this time a very physical line) and death lays to the other. This graphic image of premature death by water, the ultimate life-giving force of nature, is grossly ironical in itself.

The washing off of Aylan Kürdi’s body was followed the leaking ice-truck incident in August 27th 2015. These two events have the panache of plot twists we could be exposed to in Hollywood-style tv, and still objected to. If that was the case, as viewers, we would have argued one is too overtly melodramatic, and the other too disgusting, like an episode from the US tv series Dexter[10] which features a serial-killer who drowns his own impulse for bloody murder in punishing serial killers that evade the law enforcement. Yet, these two grotesque incidents became the pivotal events that drew attention to the Syrian refugee crisis that has been on going since the advent of the civil war in 2011. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the discovery of this wet and dead body of a toddler, Aylan’s pose became the iconic symbol of the war in Syria, and many visual appropriations of Aylan’s body was created. These appropriations imagine and depict the child in various surroundings, while keeping the pose intact, thus describing what ought to have been as opposed to what had actually happened. Wouldn’t we rather see Aylan sleeping on his bed, with the moon and the stars mere toys hanging over his bed? Instead, it was the waves of the Aegean that blanketed his very fragile body, marking the passage the parents intended as one to safety, his passage to an unknown eternity.

As Aylan’s image became iconic, Le Monde[11] in an article entitled “ Aylan’s Death: Lies, Manipulation and Reality” argued the pose of the body was a set-up, that it was re-positioned for maximum emotional impact. Yet the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, also known for his political activism took up Aylan Kürdi’s fate to draw attention to the plight of the Syrian refugees. Posing himself for a black and white photograph that appropriated Aylan’s death pose, WeiWei lay face down on that same border between life and death, safety and war, the sand and the sea. In his final moments, Aylan’s face is averted, or perhaps the photographer refrains from giving us a clear death mask of the toddler. In contrast, we see Weiwei’s face turned towards the camera, his eyes closed, the face impassive, an everyman dead on the ultimate border. Weiwei is casting himself as a dead migrant, as many more before him, but using art in trying to make sure Others would not follow Aylan into premature death.

It ought to be remarked that Weiwei engages in one more act to draw attention to the migrant crisis. The orange life jackets, which would anyway be far too flimsy to save the lives of the migrants on the Aegean, were denied them in that and they were sold fake ones, vests of mere orange plastic. Weiwei in his turn covered the neo-classical columns on the facade of the Berlin Art Museum with orange plastic life jackets[12]. Another installation utilised the colourful “life” jackets outside St. Antoine Church on Istiklal Street in Istanbul, Turkey, on the Christmas Eve of 2015, where the figures in the Nativity Scene wore orange life vests, and children’s cast away shoes could be seen on the manger or the cradle.

On the other hand, we know that DAESH particularly objectifies both male and female bodies. Men are executed in the most horrendous manner, while the whole process is filmed and used on internet to spread fear, serving the function of a public spectacle like the auto-de-fes[13] of the Spanish inquisition. The female body is reserved not for public but private horrors. The female bodies are objectified to such an extent that enslaved and sold, the bodies change hands for a pack of cigarettes or less. Yet this auctioning of the bodies is done very publicly. Since these images would be too graphic, they would serve the agenda of those who engage in these inhuman acts, and therefore become part of the propaganda war they are actually waging. Then, to stop the propaganda machine of DAESH from succeeding, the press ought to refrain from presenting or representing the prostrate, objectified,  materialised, dehumanised bodies of the victims.

Yet, our refusal to represent the body causes the targeted groups to disappear entirely.

The Yazidi who are particularly persecuted are themselves a marginal group and shy of media attention. The result then is the total oblivion of the Yazidi even while they risk annihilation. Going back to theory, loss or absence of the object as a conceptual category as opposed to its remaining physical presence as a signifier is problematised by Paul Auster in his novel In the Country of Last Things[14]. On objects and their relation to language, signification and memory, Auster’s protagonist writes: “These are the last things… One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up” (537). I would argue that the absence of the object in terms of the actual image intensifies the power of the virtually created image.

However, in case of the Yazidi, there remains no reference point for the act of imagining, imaging, and re-membering to start or to proceed. Then the Yazidi remain paradoxically only visible through their absence. Yet even their absence goes unnoticed, since there is no initial starting point, in representation, in collective memory, or in terms of the signifier, sign and signification. On the other hand, although the brutality perpetrated by DAESH reaches its pinnacle in the treatment of the Yazidi, it ought to be remembered that violence is not reserved for the Yazidi only. Paris, Brussels and Nice attacks of 2016 are cases in point. However, while these acts received much media attention, it is not the case when the attacks take place in the East. Then, can we conclude that the non-Western bodies do not merit empathy as much as the Western bodies? Shall we stoop so low as to count bodies and thus compare the East and the West, only to discover not only the very recent bombings in the East do not get attention from the Western press, but when it comes to dying, the East performs far better, and on average the Easterners succeed in dying in larger numbers? When we compare the major bombings in 2016, those taking place in Lahore, Pakistan on March 27th, in Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 01st, and in Baghdad, Iraq on July 04th all resulted in greater death tolls than the Paris, Brussels and Nice attacks.

Likewise, the safe button on Facebook was activated only after the Istanbul Atatürk Airport attack of June 28th 2016, as it is an international hub, and therefore involves more important bodies than the locals’. Yet, the Atatürk Airport attack was no less than the 10th major man-made catastrophic incident taking place in the space of one year in Turkey. Apparently none of the previous ones had mattered enough to merit the safe button attention of the world’s most popular social media website, until the attack was directed against an international assembly.

In the aftermath of the tragedies occurring in this part of the world, the sole images released by the press, perhaps surprisingly belong to the objects distorted out of recognition by the blasts. It is not because the Turkish are too genteel a people who particularly refrain from any kind of graphic imagery. The underlying reason for the scarcity of the gory images in press is the media ban which follows every deadly incident of this kind. Ambulances only arrive after the media ban is issued. Sometimes riot vehicles do arrive before the ambulances. Thus perhaps luckily, we are left to imagine the very drastic results of the violence on the human bodies, and the human psyche through the crisply transmuted images of objects that are the remnants of the tragedy. Maybe, the next logical step would be the creation of names for these brand and brave new objects, too.

Asst. Prof. Dr. Defne Türker Demir

Photo Credits:

The stills are from “Breaking the Bondage” by Sami Solmaz, a documentary on the life of one individual, Cemil Ceto who is a taxi- driver in Iraq. His family members were murdered and the women taken captive by DAESH during the offensive against Shengal. Still living in a refugee camp, Cemil debunks the role of victim assigned him, and has saved many a woman from his own family, as well as others from the clutches of DAESH. This dangerous role he has assigned himself has become his sole reason for existence. The film is to be released in early 2018, and has been accepted by major festivals.

[1] Also known as the distancing effect, coined by playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht first used the term in an essay on « Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting » published in 1936, in which he described it as « playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious ».

[2] The psychological concept of the uncanny as something that is strangely familiar, rather than just mysterious, first used by Sigmund Freud in his essay Das Unheimliche. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet incongruous, it has been seen as creating cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject, due to the paradoxical nature of being simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by an object. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalise.

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280653/?ref_=rvi_tt

[4] Selden, Raman. Practising Theory and Reading Literature. Prentice Hall, Pearson, Essex, England, 1989.

[5]Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK, 1999.

[6]Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK, 1999.

[7] Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane. Modernism 1890-1930. Penguin Books, Middlesex, England. First Published 1976. 1991.

[8]Heather Steinberger. “James Luna Provokes and Entertains With His Multimedia Performance Art”. 12/12/12. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/12/12/james-luna-provokes-and-entertains-his-multimedia-performance-art-146244. accessed 09.11.2016.

[9] Monica Tan. “Ai Weiwei poses as drowned Syrian infant refugee in ‘haunting’ photo”. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/01/ai-weiwei-poses-as-drowned-syrian-infant-refugee-in-haunting-photo. The Guardian. Monday 1 February 2016 02.54 GMT Last modified on Friday 27 May 2016 07.31 BST. accessed 09.11.2016.

[10] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0773262/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[11]Mathilde Damgé et Pierre Breteau. “Mort d’Aylan : mensonges, manipulation et vérité”

Le Monde.fr, 10.09.2015 à 12h04 , http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2015/09/10/mort-d-aylan-mensonges-manipulation-et-verite_4751442_4355770.html, accessed 09.11.2016.

[12] http://observer.com/2016/02/ai-weiweis-berlin-life-jacket-installation-prado-pulls-bosch-paintings-and-more/

[13] An auto-da-fé or auto-de-fé (from Portuguese auto da fé, meaning « act of faith ») was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates that took place when the Spanish Inquisition, Portuguese Inquisition or the Mexican Inquisition had decided their punishment, followed by the execution by the civil authorities of the sentences imposed. The most extreme punishment imposed on those convicted was execution by burning. In popular usage, the term auto-da-fé, the act of public penance, came to mean the burning at the stake.

[14] https://books.google.com.tr/books?id=OI94FekqIMoC&pg=PA537&lpg=PA537&dq

Auteur : Marie Caquel

Doctorante en histoire culturelle à l'université de Lorraine, Marie Caquel prépare une thèse sur "Les transferts culturels gastronomiques entre la France et le Maroc de la fin du XIXe siècle jusqu'à nos jours". Diplômée également en muséologie, elle s'intéresse aussi à la mise en exposition de l'histoire.

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