What city do we see in these paintings?

Emre Zeytinoğlu

The “Invisible Cities” of Italo Calvino are the cities of which Marco Polo talks to Kublai Khan night after night. To what extent are these cities real? Or are they simply the product of imagination? The reader cannot answer these questions. For sure the reader gets hooked on the stories in the book and is longing to know every single detail about them. According to Calvino, the emperor felt the same:

“One thing is for sure, the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.”

Isn’t it strange that this mighty emperor gets fascinated by these cities though he is not even sure whether they truly exist? When compared with the hundreds of real cities captured and mapped on huge parchments following all those bloody wars, what kind of attraction do these half real half fictional cities described by Marco Polo offer? Calvino, begins his novel as follows:

“In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies' protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell. It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.”

None of us are emperors. We do not conquer vast lands, nor do we defeat powerful kings and their armies. Yet, we may well be entitled to have cities of our own. In fact, the possession of these cities might have cost us a life of toil comparable to that of Kublai Khan. Getting hold on to a city, getting to know it, and finally to love it is a long and arduous process. The first impediment that a citizen has to overcome is earning being a member of the city, to deserve to live there and to be accepted as part of that city (either as native or as a stranger).  Once you hold on to the city, you are going to have to start knowing the city. At this stage, it might be possible to get access to and utilize the city’s areas of pleasure and necessity. And finally there is loving a city: this last stage has nothing to do with holding on to a city or getting to know it. There is no practical explanation that corresponds to “loving a city.” Do we love the city because it is “beautiful”? If so, what does this “being beautiful” refer to? What makes a city beautiful? Large and magnificent piazzas, long bridges, towers that reach out to the sky, temples that reflect the image of God, houses sunk in ivy leaves, iridescent heaps of sand flooded at the banks of a river, or narrow streets visited by winds smelling of acacias? Possibly. However, what Calvino writes about the city of Diomira tells us all these things are not enough for us to find a city beautiful and to love it:

“Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows every morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But this city is different.”

Calvino assures us that Diomira is an elaborately designed city full of beautiful objects. However, objects have nothing to do with the traveller’s affection for the city. We can chance upon beautiful objects in any city; what actually makes a city “different” has to be sought well beyond objects. Where is this place beyond objects? Is it the forests encircling the outskirts of the city where squirrels jump and colourful birds sing? Not at all. The beyonds of the city are nevertheless holding place right in its centre:

“The special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.”

Thus there must be a bond between the city and happiness. Yet this bond is neither easily discerned nor is it capable to turn the place into a “city of happiness”, even if one lives happily in there. And thus the reason for loving a city is neither its “being pretty” nor its being a source of happiness because one has experienced things there. This is where Calvino alludes to the existence of a much more complex bond: first, the accumulation of the Same, continuously lived through and taken for granted; and much later the moment of realization that happiness arises from all those accumulated and meaningless things ...The bond that establishes itself at that moment: when the lady on the terrace blissfully exclaims “ooh!”, when the bond is formed between happiness and the city ... No, the blissfully voiced “ooh!” cannot explain why one loves a city.  There still seems to be something missing.   The meaning of loving a city is buried deeply in Calvino’s short sentence and he expects us to pull it out from there. The meaning buried in those depths,  the meaning of loving a city amounts to the woman recognizing one day that she is happy in that city. It is the moment when we happen to witness and hear her happiness.  More, it is the moment when we hear her happy exclamation and envy her.

We realize that what is at stake here is a city and not the objects of St. Augustine’s “city of glass and stone mounds”. Neither are the events taking place in the city of objects relevant. What is important is the ability to intuit the city that is formed entirely of sensations and to extract it from the strata formed by the superposition of things and events through which there trickles a highly fragile sediment. Maybe this is a dreamt up city of an imaginary world... Such a city certainly cannot be the place that was once defeated and destroyed at the hands of victorious armies.  Neither can it belong to the emperor who upon destruction rebuilt the (much more glorified) city. May it stand as ruin or may it acquire an eye-dazzling beauty, the city can certainly not be heir to past destructions. Thus if a city is to be loved, this is how it is going to be done. 

Kublai Khan loved the cities Marco Poly talked about. He loved them more than many of those glorious cities he brought to his possession by war. This was so, because Marco Polo’s cities were not heir to defeat or destruction; therefore its buildings could no more be destined to crumble:  

“Only in Marco Polo's accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites' gnawing.”

Yonca Saraçoğlu (like Marco Polo) speaks of certain cities in this exhibition. We cannot decide how much of these cities is real and how much is imaginary. But there is one thing we can be sure of: The cities in these paintings are cities the painter deems worthy of talking about, they are cities she loves. Or, as Calvino would have said, they are cities beyond walls and towers, made up of the very subtle filigree patterns of the painting that not even termites could gnaw on. Marco Polo talked about his cities in those filigree patterns and Kubilai Khan could discern them. Even if we do not believe everything the painter tells us, will we be able to discern and carefully keep on listening to her? Maybe yes, maybe no.  But since the painter is speaking about cities she loves, the first thing we have to remember (whether we listen until the end, or whether we change our mind about listening to stories about cities and turn to more enjoyable activities) is that behind each object we see and each story that is being told to us in these paintings, there is the woman’s exclamation of “ooh!”, the exclamation the painter heard at the moment she was passing by. The painter must have heard this voice in each of the cities, she must have separated this voice of happiness from all other voices of the city and she must have envied its owner - a voice which is hidden behind everything that we see.

Those who have the skills to follow the stories of the cities in this exhibition until the end might be able to distinguish this voice and thus understand why the painter has a fondness for these cities. In that sense, one might regard the exhibition as having fulfilled its task. What is left is to get out of  the gallery into the street and to live again for a while the partly real and partly imaginary sensations of these cities.  But still, as we walk on, we might think that what creates these cities is not the simple and short moments of happiness of the artist, that what makes up the filigree lines in the textures of the paintings does not carry the inheritance of simple and short defeats, but rather that there is still a question left unanswered. This unanswered question will keep occupying our mind: The cities depicted in these paintings, the imaginary aspects that the artist created, where do they get their inspiration from? Yes, we know that these paintings are not direct representations of certain cities. Neither are the stories told by the depicted figures a transposition of a remembrance - we know that too. Yet, we cannot help but think that into these more-imaginary-than-real cities, there might have leaked a certain amount of reality, things that were lived there, memories, sensual perceptions.

The viewer who tries to discover the source of inspiration for these imaginary cities, might find herself thinking about different answers to the question of why and how a city can be loved. Maybe loving a city is something similar to what Calvino said - agreed ... But maybe there are other things about cities that spurn our power of imagination and we remember what Barthes wrote about Tokyo in “Empire of Signs”: Tokyo,

 “…does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who. Daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-lie trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred “nothing.” One of the two most powerful cities of modernity is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs, and trees whose own center is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness, forcing the traffic to make a perpetual detour. In this manner, we are told, the system of the imaginary is spread circularly, by detours and returns the length of an empty subject.”

Obviously Barthes is claiming that the imaginary side of cities like Tokyo is already hiding in them: like the wanderings of an invisible emperor in a city that already contains the imagery of him. Taken in that way, do the cities we follow in Yonca Saraçoğlu’s paintings reflect the hidden side of the cities she has seen, or things she lived in these cities? Or, are these cities already non-existent, or are they each utopian cities, like Campanella’s City of the Sun? ...

One thing is for sure: A painter will never depict a utopian city she has already constructed in her mind, because she has not lived anything in that city yet. If, on the other hand, the goal of a painter who tries to depict an utopian city is to tell about what she is going to live there, the painter will know that both the city and what she is going to live there are still-born at the moment of imagining them. There is a very nice passage about this in Aykut Köksal’s book “Obligatory Plurality”: In the chapter “Impossible Cities” Aykut Köksal writes:

“The Marine City of Kenzo Tange and Campanella’s City of the Sun meet at the same point of impossibility. Moreover there is also an example of a city constructed among the utopias of the Renaissance: Scamozzi’s city Palmanova. As Emilio Tempia has also pointed out, Palmanova was born in an instant after it had been completely designed, but  that if cities are born in order to to grow, Palmanova is a still-born city.”

Why is a city still-born, what is it that kills it in the womb? The answer is clear: The impossibility of growth ... But then, how does a city grow? Does it grow by proliferation of some objects? Maybe ... But how can these objects proliferate? Who will multiply these objects, for what reason and by what vital instincts? There can only be one answer to this: The accumulation of what has been lived ... Boring or not, surprising or taken for granted, for reasons of lust or need (or for many other different reasons). A city grows with living. Or if we want to say it the other way around, objects proliferating as a result of living corresponds to the growth of a city. Thus the objects of a city are not equivalent to their own images. They are objects of an overflowing universe full of meaning. This is a meaning which the objects  aquire in the course of their lives and through the incessant proliferation of meanings attributed to them by the those living in the city. A city comprised of such objects is best seen and reflected by an artist. Obviously, a painter will draw best the filigree lines of such a city.  

As we leave the gallery and walk into the street thinking about all this, we may begin searching for the meanings we attributed to all the objects found in the alleys we walked, the streets we passed, and the squares that we walked into. Certainly we must have left our traces there - like the traces Calvino left in space in one of his other stories ... Unfortunately, trying to clearly see the traces we left among the crowds of the city is one of  the greatest impossibilities; because of the traces left by others, ours is lost and has long disappeared – like Calvino who, when passing again by that spot in the universe after millions of years, could not find his trace among the traces that had proliferated in the mean time.  But there is this: just because the traces are lost, this does not mean that they were never left. They are rendered invisible among the others, but they are there. In fact they are precisely the fine filigree lines of the city. You can only feel them and that is how the city becomes “ours”: the city we love ...  

We might have strolled through many cities, like the one we are walking in right now. Many of these contain the traces we left (even if they are not visible). If they ask us about these places, we tell them about the traces: The invisible traces of the cities ... Our “invisible cities” ... And if they were to ask us: “where is the city you are talking of”, most likely the traces will start to mix with each other. And if they were to insist on their question we would have no option but to reply: “The city I am talking about is the city I love most, that is to say, the city where I left the most traces, but also where I lost them most” ... The filigree lines will have already started to connect in our minds and from these lines (from all of them) we might form new paintings of cities into which we might embed what we have lived. Thus these paintings do not become images of these cities, but rather images of their meanings. If one of these paintings seems more meaningful, there will be something seeping from this meaning into other paintings and we might recollect the following lines from “Invisible Cities”:

“Dawn had broken when he said: "Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know."
"There is still one of which you never speak."
Marco Polo bowed his head.
"Venice," the Khan said.
Marco smiled. "What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?"
The emperor did not turn a hair. "And yet I have never heard you mention that name."
And Polo said: "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice."
"When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice."
"To distinguish the other cities' qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice."

At that moment, that is to say the moment we recollect the conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, we realize that we know rather well the city of Yonca Saraçoğlu’s paintings. If anything, this city must have been the city where she began her journey ... It is that first city seeping into the images of all paintings. And what is ours to do is not to follow the cities one by one, but rather the traces that leaked from each of them into the other, just as Kublai Khan did when he encountered Marco Polo ...

(translation:  M. Gürle and M. Mungan)