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Friday, July 19, 2013

An Essence of Light

"A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful implanted in the human soul."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

One of Germany's greatest literary lights, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a lover of light himself. It drove his interests in science and poetry, and his ambition to turn the German language into living texture. In doing so, he generated his own light, causing shutters in countless minds to open, eager for enlightenment.

A play on Goethe's last words, Turkish music artist Tarkan had sang for "light, more light" in an unreleased track recorded in the mid-nineties. Goethe's final metaphor for a questioning mind had become a resounding anthemic appeal for Turkish youth.

Had Gezi Park been a time for songs, Tarkan's unreleased song would have made a relevant track for the times, singing of hopes decades old, and still stirring. This is one reason why it would be unfair to relegate the iconic pop artist simply to the pages of Turkish pop culture.

I am not claiming Tarkan has given to the world what the literary genius of Goethe has, but I do believe both shine from the same light. If an artist's work (and sometimes his character) can inspire towards personal enlightenment, or even just to some aesthetic peace, then the work transcends the bounds of its genre.

Tarkan's cover version of "Firuze" is a big hit with me at the moment. When it was first released, I purchased it immediately and now have it on constant replay in the office. I heard my personal assistant humming it the other day, and when I gave her a quizzical look, she replied, "What? You finally wore me down!"

It had nothing to do with me, however. It was all Tarkan. Even with the saddest songs, his interpretation fills it with hope, with a light that shines throughout all his works. With Tarkan, even if the tune does not permit, you still want to dance against despair.

It is this quality - which has increased as Tarkan has matured and improved himself - that attracts so many of his admirers, not only to the artist, but to each other. Light bonds with light.

One of Tarkan's "light sources" emailed me the other day, about the news that the singer's long-term producer was working with a "musical rival" and asked whether that signalled some kind of break-up of their successful musical partnership, and what it would mean in terms of a new release. There had been rumours last year that Tarkan would release a studio album this year, but one has not been forthcoming.

<< Read more new stories on Tarkan | UPDATE: A Çolakoğlu-Tarkan rift? >>

It is only my own opinion, but Tarkan has not had a rival in terms of the Turkish music industry for nearly a decade or more. Moreover, Tarkan's readiness to collaborate with other artists (so long as they donate to charity), and his producer friend's own prolific career with other artists, is enough evidence to assume this story does not mean it will affect any Tarkan release adversely.

Turkey's light source Tarkan
Tarkan: Turkey's leading light source/Fatih Karaman © 2010

I would be very surprised if Tarkan had such a petty mindset at this stage of his career; any past rivalry would have grown friendly by now. Whether the Turkish entertainment media will want to spin it as a "split" is neither here nor there; Tarkan has worked successfully with other producers, as the song "Firuze" shows. Not to belittle his producer friend's impact on Tarkan's music, but even he accepts that the "wow" factor in his work is the light Tarkan shines on it. Whoever Tarkan works with for his next album, he is sure to breathe his own essence into it, which is what matters with any artist.

I can appreciate why Tarkan fans would be worried about him falling silent, though. Even if it is simply a single song that touches the hearts of millions, we need more light. There is much need for Tarkan's own unique luminescence, if from art, to politics, to culture and back again, we hope to continue in a cycle where the creativity of one will enlighten the other.

Many of us feel that as a species we are on the cusp of something. Our world continues to shake and shimmy with unrest. Some regard hot and dry weather as "earthquake weather", and I wonder if there is a connection with heat and unrest, too. Like storms that chase the summer, as the temperature rises in the northern hemisphere, so does the unrest in certain parts of our planet. Nations eye their own public warily, wondering from where the next protest is going to come.

If I had to boil down the current sense of the world into one word, as I see it at this moment, it would be "upheaval", but this is not necessarily a bad thing; we need to turn over the soil for new things to grow. What is established must always be questioned.

It seems the lessons of Gezi Park have been heeded, if not in Turkey as yet, then around the world. After the danger of protests turning violent in America - over the acquittal of a man who killed an unarmed black boy in a hoodie - the country's first black president, Barack Obama, made very few comments during the initial protests except to say that "a jury had spoken". Things settled down, and his first comments on the case since last week's verdict were that the murdered boy "could have been me, 35 years ago".

There is nothing more potent that private pain made public. It certainly paints a far clearer picture of how to calm things in a country, rather than to swiftly take to the podium and make incendiary remarks - something Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could do well to learn.

This is when the character of a person matters more than his or her politics. We need to listen to dissidence with a little more calm, and a little more understanding. Can you imagine the scene if Obama had said that the nearly all-white woman jury was a bunch of racists? Or started to spout conspiracy theories about how the defence had manipulated the case?

I am sure Obama has domestic corporations, like the BBC is for Erdoğan, to fuel his paranoia, but you need to be rational in times of crisis. Fighting fire with fire should never even be a last resort, unless you make it one.

The BBC also seem to have changed their tack (or returned back to form) when they report on protests now, as their coverage is far less incendiary than it was over the Gezi Park protests. A little bit of historical bias may have meant some hard lessons were learnt by the BBC, too, because the delightful bear-baiting way it threw its correspondents at the Turkish government might have helped to inspire the riots on their very doorstep. You can read all about it in the second part of my Gezi Park long-read series, "In the Eye of the Beholder".

During the Belfast riots the BBC, exhibiting establishment bias this time - something they derided the Turkish media for doing to the extreme - made sure they reported from the police point of view, with regional editors publishing articles on exactly why the British police force treated protesters in Northern Ireland more violently than the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Turkish media could take tips from the BBC on how to have establishment bias, but disguise it under impartiality. Now, as protesters in Bulgaria pack the streets of Sofia each evening, their patience with their government growing thin after 35 days of unrest, and anti-government protests start in Spain, the BBC is taking its time on providing full coverage.

We shall certainly not read anywhere near the anti-government reports we did for Gezi Park. The similarities are as obvious as their differences: One was against perceived Islamism, the others over European corruption. Hacktivist group Anonymous has already knocked out the ruling People's Party website in solidarity with the Spanish demonstrations.

Spanish protests 2013
In a call for Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy's resignation (will he be an Erdoğan or an Obama?), protesters have taken to the streets across Spain - in 30 cities including Madrid and Barcelona - to get thousands of people protesting against government corruption, while the BBC decided their first report would be a little video of a "scandal".

Even with protests turning violent, this is the way it should be reported - calm unloaded reporting, allowing the necessary time to actually work out what is happening at ground level. Pity the BBC did not treat its coverage of Gezi Park in this way.

But then they did not need to; if Spain's economy takes a beating over any escalating violence in the protests it might have a knock-on effect for the rest of Europe and the UK, but helping to dent Turkey's economy is not an issue for the BBC when it comes to impartiality - only when it comes to its own.

If I were a Turkish citizen, I would read anything the Turkish arm of the BBC reports with a pinch of salt. If it shows establishment bias in its UK reports, does it show the same (for its own government) in its Turkish ones? No wonder BBC correspondents were accused of being agents by Erdoğan. Absolutely rubbish of course, but you can understand why he would think that looking at the lack of impartiality with which the BBC reported on the Belfast riots.

The BBC news articles should still be read, but as with all news sources, we need to keep their editorial biases in mind when we read their political items. We all need to be more sophisticated in our reading; we should read with a critical, questioning mind. However, lessons have been taken; when the heat rises, it is time for calm, even if it is not always easy.

I always joke that my Turkish Cypriot genes mean I have a Mediterranean mojo that springs into life with the hot weather. I need to be out in the sunshine, and the heatwave we are experiencing in England this month is ideal for me. The warm climes fill me with childish exuberance; it is a great feeling of being alive, of being in the light. Dinners are usually picnics, and I yearn to sleep in the open air, as I did for all those childhood summer trips spent in Cyprus.

In the island's daytime sweltering heat, during the local siesta my father would take me to local museums and galleries. If they were closed, my father could usually get them to open. Having acclimatised with the British way of life, he found it difficult to nap in the afternoon. My mother never had any trouble, and while she and the rest of the island slept (or it seemed so to me as a child), he and I traversed through history.

By day it was a chance to get out of the heat, while at night we visited theatre productions staged in open air arenas next to the sea. My young questioning mind feasted on beauty. The current hot weather has been a strong reminder of those magical times.

Of a weekend, therefore, whenever I get the chance to escape the office, I usually try to drive down to London to see a Punchdrunk show - their "immersive theatre" productions are an eye-opener - or drive up to Derby to visit one of its greatest treasures - the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

John Wright's work at the Derby Museum
John Wright's work at the Derby Museum.

I discovered the place while studying law in Nottingham. It houses the world's largest collection of works by one of Britain's most significant 18th Century painters - Joseph Wright of Derby, who began his career in the 1750s as a portrait painter of fashionable society. His ambition, though, was to be a serious artist. Based in Derby, Wright observed the Industrial Revolution take hold and saw the city become a hub of scientific discovery and invention, a period later named as the Enlightenment.

This era of radical transformation was captured in paint by the young Wright, who came to be known as Britain's Caravaggio and the master of light. Wright's intriguing masterpieces have been the been the subject of many years' research for the Derby Museum. It is said that you can tell how talented an artist is by his or her ability to capture light on the canvas, and when you see Wright's works, they are like tiny torches of light flaming in the darkness.

For a guy with a fetish for light like me, it is not surprising I am drawn, like the proverbial moth, to the brightness of things, and so I guess it was only natural that an artist like Wright would draw me to his works. Sparked centuries before, they are flames that continue to burn brightly.

He was celebrated in his time not so much for the way he painted light (although it illuminated his talent), but for what the light symbolised. His paintings explored some of the scientific and intellectual discussions of his day in a really extraordinary way, and some of his admirers claim that he is one of the few artists to really capture a sense of the excitement of the Enlightenment Age - that frenetic buzz of people questioning everything set in stone.

John Wright's celebrated worksWright's celebrated painting of "A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery in Which a Lamp Is Put in Place of the Sun"
One of Wright's most celebrated paintings at the Derby Museum sees a mixed group of people - men, women and children - centred around an orrery, which is a sort of early form of planetarium for want of a better description.

Effectively, an orrery is a scientific instrument that replicates the movements of the planets within the universe. If you have ever watched a Hollywood movie with a scientific theme, a set decorator might have thrown an adaptation of one in to indicate some technobabble is about to set the scene. The real thing is normally fixed with a clockwork or manual device, to have all of the planets actually revolve in sequence with one another. It is very clever, and a beautiful instrument of which Wright captures all its details perfectly in the painting.

Wright depicts an enlightened group gathered around this instrument to learn the workings of the Solar System. Above a little boy and girl is a philosopher giving a lecture - it is thought on the cause and effect of eclipses. The picture shows the two children - probably siblings - looking at the orrery, with the young girl echoing the philosopher's pointing pose, perhaps for the benefit of her little brother, to show Saturn, as the shadow of one of its moons is cast onto its surface.

In the foreground, beneath the boy's elbow is the reflection of an oil lamp, which has been placed there to replicate the Sun's rays, and Wright portrays this with beautiful effect. It lights up each face in turn. What is so special about this form of painting - and why he is called Britain's Carravagio - is this use of light.

We give that use of light a name - chiaroscuro - which means a very dark contrast of light and dark. Wright captures these effects beautifully, with the bright light of the lamp juxtaposed with the heavy, dark background surrounding the figures. The light acts as a metaphor for the arrival of knowledge, bringing people out from ignorance and superstition. Pulled out from darkness, they are quite literally being shown "the light", as we are shown their moment of enlightenment.

The painting was an epiphany, as many beautiful things with depth are, and I cannot enthuse enough about Wright's masterpiece. It took hold of me when I first saw it "in the flesh" at the museum, as a university student, and it is still one of my favourite paintings today.

I was reminded of Wright's use of light today, when I read of the death of a celebrated female Turkish author, because this talented lady used her own form of light with words. I began this post with one literary genius, I want to end with another.

Leyla Erbil
Leylâ Erbil, one of the most creative writers the Turkish language has had the honour to host, passed away yesterday after being treated in an intensive care unit for weeks following a heart failure, at the age of eighty-two. She was the first Turkish female writer to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature by PEN International in 2002. She also won the association's prestigious short story prize this year.

As someone who reads Turkish as a second language, Erbil fascinated me because she never felt constrained by the rules of language. Her art was a constant rebellion against grammatical constraints, and what she wrote felt like light shining on your face, emanating through a curtain torn by her new syntax.

To me it felt like she was always driven to find the light behind the essence of text, and to reveal it. She believed language was insufficient to understand people, but she did well enough. Her first novel "Tuhaf Bir Kadın" (A Strange Woman), published in 1971, is a Turkish masterpiece. Casting a resolute female gaze over a male world and penned with her innovative use of language, the book's critical success earned Erbil comparisons with Virginia Woolf.

The comparisons stop at literary aptitude, as sadly Woolf struggled with and lost to depression. Erbil, just as much as Wright, is a virtuoso of light. I remember when I had read one of her works for the first time, I felt like Wright's little boy being shown the light by an older sister.

I will miss her sorely, but she still lives. The moment I pick up one of her books, she comes alive, shining with the light that filled her, which in turn she was kind enough to share with us. That light is in so many us, shining hard against the metaphorical dark that yet many others would violently push us into.

As a child I always enjoyed the fable of the wind and the Sun, as bored companions competing with each other to try and make a traveller remove his jacket. As hard as the wind blew, the man clung to his jacket ever tighter; yet an effortless, gentle ray of sunshine made the man remove his jacket as determinedly as he had previously clung to it.

Similarly, enlightened people do not blow hard against ignorance, they bring it into the light. Ignorance is eclipsed only when we shine.

Like the Sun, like the enlightenment of Wright and Erbil, like the musicality of Tarkan, like Gezi Park and the Spanish protesters, we show our light peaceably; we shine it against violence, and in doing so bring a dawn to finally rise against a long night.

And even when night comes again, as it must, the light shall remain as stars to remind us of our way, and to guide our children on their own.

Read more about the Gezi Park protests >>

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