“Soliciting the Regulation of the Look”, Lewis Johnson

Soliciting the regulation of the look: art and the politics of gender and space in Turkey

Lewis Johnson


As part of an analysis of Meret Oppenheim’s justly famous 1936 Objet: déjeuner en fourrure [Object: Fur Breakfast; figure 1], Briony Fer argues that what is important about the selection of a cup and saucer from the French department store Uniprix that the artist then wrapped in the fur of a Chinese gazelle was not simply the functional rationality of the design, or any other more particular connotation of the form of the object. She argues instead that it is the relative ‘ubiquity’ of this cup and saucer, as signified by its widespread availability from a department store, that Oppenheim’s piece puts into a sort of topographical play, across France and beyond as if to the wilds of China, making of this alteration in the surfaces of the familiar cup and saucer a solicitation of imagining breakfasting on something other than a conventional French coffee or tea:

It is the ubiquity of crockery that matters here, not its mass-produced character; the familiarity of the form of the cup and saucer is shattered by the unexpected material, the fur of whch it appears to be made, and the sexual connotations. (Fer, 174)

Fer’s interest in the question of the significance of the likely whereabouts via the distribution of such an object is suggestive. ‘Ubiquity’ works here, however, only as contradicted: relative ubiquity would not be ubiquity, and it is instead an ordering of the domestic along with an eroticising of an object or body for orality that indicates that Oppenheim’s authorship invites us to question gender as framed, the norms, via their transgression, of where and for what bodies, not excluding gendered bodies, are to be found. Oppenheim, indeed, went on to suggest this more emphatically, with her subsequent piece Nurse [figure 2], a pair of high heeled shoes, upturned on a silver serving platter, with the heels dressed with the paper decorations traditionally used on ribs of meat. With the upturned shoes suggestive of a sort of erotic fetishism of the female body, crossed with oral incorporation, the piece plays across developmental stages of the libido, as proposed by Freud. Unlike the obvious Freudian familial romance, however, Oppenheim’s piece invites readings that involve both wet nursing, as well as the class differentials that would have accompanied this in early twentieth century bourgeois culture. Once again, as with Object: Fur Breakfast, this in turn invokes what Derrida, conjoining ‘topos’ with the ‘political’, has called the ‘topolitical’ (Derrida, 57) meanings of space as gendered, as if the piece serves up an assemblage haunted not just by the feminine and/or animalistic body, but also by the spaces that such a corporeality would have traversed, from kitchen to dining room or other spaces of eating.

In my investigation of the fate of an uncannily comparable piece by Murat Morova, Şehir or City [figure 3], that also problematises of the meanings of what may initially be termed the spatio-temporalities of gendered bodies, I shall be seeking to show that the issue of such meanings is not just – as my beginning with the case of work by Meret Oppenheim should suggest – a matter that ought to attend consideration of recent artistic work done in Turkey. Nor, indeed, would it be something that ought to be restricted to so-called visual or spatial art. The theoretical stakes of this essay concerning such spatio-temporalities might be summarily proposed as follows: traditions – or, more precisely, as I shall explain, traditionalities – of the territorialisation of gender; work that deterritorialises those meanings of gender, interrupting their being held of spatio-temporal bodies – an object-text, like Oppenheim’s, that, by recalling bodies, recalls us to them as existing, across spaces as it were, if only across the differences – or, more precisely, the différance – between here and there; reminding us of gendered bodies as haunted by and normalised as genderings of differences – from the différance – between looking and seeing; but also, as being able to haunt and interrupt these norms, reminding us of the existence of bodies across the norms, functional as well as social, of particular spaces.

In developing these arguments in connection with the fate of Morova’s 1999 piece, I shall be suggesting that Judith Butler’s formulation in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity concerning gender as ‘a stylized configuration, indeed a gendered corporealization of time’ needs to be re-read with care, not only when it concerns obviously spatial texts such as Morova’s, or obviously spatial frames such as those of an exhibition in Beyoğlu, İstanbul from which that piece was withdrawn, following the relay of threats by a local gang whose sense of masculine privilege had been challenged and who threatened to reinforce that privilege in a way that betokened a certain territorial control over gendered bodies that had been called into question by the meaning-effects of the exhibition of the piece. The care that is needed involves, on the one hand, something more on the side of the subjective, concerning the identities of agents, and, on the other, more on the side of the objective, the meaning-effects, or rather what are often treated separately as meanings and effects: that is, respectively, the limits of an understanding of gendered bodies as stylized, and which might be indicated by means of a question of what counts as an idiom of style, and what relation this has to the subjective understanding of being gendered; and, more on the objective side, what ‘corporealization of time’ means here.

My argument is not quite that gendered bodies need to be understood as spatio-temporalities: this sense, it could be argued, can be attributed to Butler’s phrase, if we read ‘corporealization’ as a process of making remarkable of matter, of ‘materialization’, as she has indicated in several contexts. This ‘making remarkable’ of gendered bodies, of human and other bodies as gendered, is not simply a gestalt of any particular body, an imagined completeness, etched against a forgotten ground, that sometimes conforms to and sometimes subverts dominant norms. I shall try to show that this limited understanding of looking and seeing forgets the identification with the act of looking at the other, and tends – as in much work that has subsequently used the notion of the performative in connection with visual texts – to understand the performativity of gender as a matter of deliberate performance. Butler’s questioning of the grounding of gender fails fully to expose the limits of this visual rhetoric, or provide an account of looking that acknowledges the histories and traditionalities of the relations between gender, space and place (Butler, 179).

How this has also played out in her more recent Precarious Life (2004) as an account of the problems of US culture, in particular US media representations concerning Islam, evil and terrorism I can only suggest here. There is, it seems to me, a sort of blind spot that relates to what can be thought of – quite normally enough – as a sense of the identity of others as deriving in part from how they move in a concern for the more distancing viewing associated with the notion of the face. The demand that Islamic women unveil at least to the point of being visible so that they signify an ideal availability to the gaze of others as face would be part of this problematic. Butler tries to displace this preoccupation with the face of evil in the US media via a use of Levinas, reminding us that the boundary of the face is itself not stable. But the responsibility for the dogmatic decisions that subtend these inter-related demands for the legibility of the good/bad other through the face that Butler pursues is not, I think, quite identified as such. The sense that gendered others do not just conform to models of good (and bad) objecthood and bad (and good) subjecthood by ‘keeping’ their distance, performing the signs of their desired gendered traits, but negotiate the meanings of their genders in relation to different framings of space, differently inherited, needs to be acknowledged.

What the case of Morova’s piece City suggests, read in relation to the contexts of its exhibition and withdrawal from exhibition in Turkey, is that critical questioning of gender and its norms bears on the ‘corporealization of time’ in such a way as to expose as legible some of the norms, transgressions and alterities of the inter-related belonging of genders, bodies and spaces. Gender thus emerges in this case not just as a spatio-temporality, but also as a temporal spatiality: as a meaning-effect that exists across the spatio-temporalities and temporal spatialities of relations between differently gendered bodies, pasts, presents and futures, there, here and elsewhere. It occurs to me to indicate that this argument recovers the significance, if not the necessity of the history of the politicisation of gender in respect of the exclusion from and assigning of women to particular spatio-temporalities or temporal spatialities, such as nature, or the home, that would point back to a question of the excesses of these excluding/including belongings that gendered bodies or texts thereof have provoked – as I shall try to review in connection with the piece by Morova.

Butler claims her arguments effectively de-naturalise gender, and show it to be fully historical. Her critical questioning of the norms of the phallic, of having or being the phallus in Lacanian accounts of masculinity and femininity for instance, and of the theoretical fiction in Freudian psychoanalysis of primary bisexual disposition that stabilizes by distinguishing the masculine from the feminine according to the Oedipal-like construction of a teleology of a normative heterosexuality, points towards a particular interlacing of fantasy, the stylistics of bodies and object-choice that comprises the repetitive performances of the dominant of reproductive heterosexualism. As such, however, and according to the critical value of the notions of performativity and iterability, the effects of identity through sameness are produced only along with alterities that accompany the ‘repetitions’ that would constitute stable and discrete gendered subjects.

In accord with an argument such that the condition of possibility of discrete and stably gendered identities is also the condition of their impossibility, Butler proposes that bodies only ever approximate to the ‘sexually factic’ and that this goes for bodies that instantiate the norms of the dominant as well as those that parody or subvert them:

‘… this failure to become “real” and to embody “the natural” is, I would argue, a constitutive failure of all gender enactments for the very reason that these ontological locales are fundamentally uninhabitable.’ (Butler, 186)

Butler tries and succeeds in clarifying the rhetoric of her text as pertaining to the ontology of gendered bodies, but the suggestion of an existence of a non-fit not only between women and men and the meaning-effects of gender, but also between women, men and the locales that, as bodies, they inhabit or move through haunts her text. Indeed, the concluding sentence of Gender Trouble concerning ‘local strategies for engaging the “unnatural”‘ (Butler, 190) re-states this topic as a significant, if programmatic, thematic of Butler’s important work. However, in so far as the localization of gender on or as the body keeps on working – at certain limits – only by not working, we may find that the assigning of relation to space and spaces of gendered bodies plays a more than subsidiary or programmable role, a supplement, at once apparently secondary and yet necessary, in the constitution of what counts as the legibility of gender. I shall suggest, therefore, in what follows, that, across the norms of a Christian inspired West to a Muslim inspired East, there are different localizations of gender as the body at stake and that the understanding of the subversion of these norms can be served by following through on topics of the apparently supplementary ‘topolitical’ of gender.

When I first heard of the piece by Murat Morova called City [figure 3], I also heard that it had been removed from the exhibition Shoe Store that took place in September 1999 at Apartman Projesi, Sehbender Sokak, Beyoğlu, İstanbul following representations by Beyoğlu local council. I later learned – though not before I had submitted my title for a paper to this conference – that this was not the case. The removal of the piece from its place in the window, visible from the street [figure 4], was made, with much reluctance, and following several attempts that sought to mitigate the offence that the piece was reported to create, by the organiser of the exhibition, who had become the target of those threats, reported by local shopkeepers, but issued by a local gang, as mentioned above. Research into that exhibition and the fate of this piece has entailed becoming the agent of the recalling of the traumatic difficulties of those days, just before and just after the opening of that inaugural exhibition of Apartman Projesi. I am pleased to be able to report that Apartman Projesi continues to exist, and to provide a site where artists can make as well as show significant work: being the first such artist-run space that combined working as well as exhibition facilities in Istanbul, it has succeeded in sustaining a reputation for non-partisan encouragement and support for artistic work. The founder of the project, Selda Asal, continues to make work: recently, Hard to Die, a multi-screen and dual video projection piece, in English and Turkish, concerning the lives of women who have fled their husbands following threats to their lives on show at Galeri Nev, Maçka Caddesi in Tesvikiye at the time of the ‘Gender Trouble’ conference. That she has survived the difficulties of the events of those days to make such work that impresses even as it still risks criticism, censure and worse, concerning these critical questions of gender and territory is testimony to her intelligence, strength, courage and passion, if also to her sense of vulnerability.

There have indeed been changes concerning sex and gender in Turkey since 1999. The changes in laws pertaining to crimes of rape, abuse or sexual harrassment in 2005 that de-classified these crimes as ‘sexual’, seeking to remove the possibility of defence on the grounds of morals or custom, is perhaps the most notable of alterations in the frameworks concerning sex and gender, and the imaginable relations between them, since the difficulties attending the exhibition of Morova’s piece. As Selda Asal’s recent work attests, however, with its carefully edited footage of women who have fled to women’s shelters and are still haunted by having to flee from threats to their lives, what is customary, accepted and not accepted, does not change so easily. Perhaps footage that shows their drawing – of nooses, gallows, guns – in black and white, in grey and red [figure 5], given the way that it calls up senses of silence, if not of infantilization, attending the lives of these terrified women who have fled to shelters for women in fear of their lives, would – given a chance – change something.

In what follows, I want to try to explicate the tensions over the exhibition of Morova’s piece, including the anxious, fearful if not terrified reaction of the curator seeking to mitigate the offence that Morova’s piece had occasioned, or, at least, been the occasion of. A fuller account of Asal’s recent piece might support my strong sense that there is something to be shared out here concerning gender, spatiality and authorship, in the affective charge that accompanies the videoing of the drawing of the women in Hard to Die as much as in an account of the significance of the mode of making of Morova’s piece. It may be as well, however, as a frame to the wider consideration of the tensions over the meaning-effects of gender, to suggest how that rumour of council censorship of the earlier working together of these two artists might have circulated and been taken as credible. To imagine that it was the intervention of a legally enabled body such as the local council that provoked the removal of the piece is itself indicative, I believe, of a desire for a legibility of gender that the case of Morova’s City, despite its involvement in certain signs of femininity, nevertheless in part resists. Given my credulity, I should not exempt myself from such a desire and I would not want to exclude in advance that my analysis is partly of my way of being taken in by this rumour. If my hypothesis concerning the spatio-temporalities and temporal spatialities of gender is correct, allowing for an understanding of differences between traditions of the norms and their trangressions of gendered bodies as spatial, then the desire for such a legibility of gender for a somewhat disoriented Westerner living in Istanbul such as myself would likely tend to be augmented. Morova’s piece may be understood to address this desire: it is entitled City, after all. This would then not just be with the effect of bringing to notice a style of dress associated with either Western or Westernized women and, in turn, either approvingly or so as to encourage censure. At the least, it also implicates, via its titling, an understanding of a localization of these differently related meaning-effects.

Following the hints given by Fer’s analysis of Oppenheim’s work, I want to suggest that the piece succeeds in so far as it involves us in a play with the legibility of colour, a play that may be understood to solicit the involvement of a look that would discriminate between bodies according to the colour of their skin, but which also invites a participation, across the chiasmus, of Western or non-Western, good or bad, that this solicitation may sustain, in a topo-logic of the body that allows us to remark the spatial dynamics of this piece, and of the exhibition in which it briefly appeared, as something that cannot be caught in that chaismus. I want to suggest, then, that the similarity of beige-ish fleshy colour between the inside of the outside of ‘the shoes’ and the dildos attached to those ‘shoes’ where their heels might be expected to be, or may have been found (the temporal chiasmus of anticipation and retrospection here being a clue to the implication in spatiality), implicates them not only in an imaginable thematics of the auto-erotics of the bodies of those ‘shoes’, but, by linking them via the thematics of auto-erotic pleasure to something similar, both invites censure and invites us to move beyond such judgements. Thus, the invitation of the censure concerning the narcissism of woman, a traditionality of gender in which the non-relation of the feminine to the masculine may be remarked, is nevertheless solicited as a phantasmatic.

I shall suggest later what it is about Morova’s piece that tends to support this difficult reading, something that concerns the performative value of the mode of making of the piece – what I shall refer to, more and less simply, as attachment; and I shall try to explain how this piece in that space solicited the informal, violent and illegal regulation of the look. The law in Turkey subserves a desire for the regulation of the look that would take the signs of the gendered and sexualised body as its objects. As in the US or Britain, there are laws against obscene display in Turkey that have been framed to control the trade of sex shops. Unlike in the US and Britain, at least as far as I know, the law in Turkey has not been used to make art galleries withdraw work from being visible from outside the premises as Morova’s piece was, in the window of the Shoe Store exhibition. It was not wholly implausible to imagine, however, that such a law might have been deployed in this way, the rumour that I swallowed perhaps being partly sustained by this, if also by the partly explicit interest of the exhibition concerning the conjunction of commerce and display. Local councils in Turkey also have the power to enforce restrictions on activities in their districts that would tend to corrupt the ‘moral health’ of the public.

However, I cannot currently confirm the possibility that there had been a greater liberty granted in the enforcement of the law to practices of cultural display in Turkey than in the US or Britain as more than a mere possibility. Moreover, what I have to say about the unauthorised censorship of Morova’s piece from the Shoe Store exhibition will tend to suggest why, if not how, there may have been less recourse to the law regarding obscene display in Turkey than in Britain or the US. Even the shift in the US and Britain towards an empowerment of the police in enforcing norms across the differences between commercial and artistic display, in response to what may be conceived of as culturally normative notions of what is acceptable – particularly in relation to minors – in connection with sex and gender, is not, I think, as widespread in Turkey as it is in contemporary Anglo-Saxon territories. But there are, I believe, reasons other than the acceptance of the cultural conventionality of gender or the informal and legally unauthorised, if not, given the encouragement to defences of rape and other ‘sexual’ crimes before 2005, legally unsupported, censorship of the challenge to masculinist culture in Turkey that can be retraced through the tensions accompanying the exhibition of Morova’s piece in 1999.

To know that a sample punishment for a woman who might only be caught up in the affairs of such local gangs that was current at the time was to be forced to perform fellatio – after which, as is customary with such violent and disgraceful acts, like the women in Selda Asal’s Hard to Die piece about so-called familial honour, the woman is, or was, expected to internalize a sense of disgrace and leave – tends to reinforce that argument. Emine, a woman who, until a couple of weeks before the Shoe Store show was due to open, had lived on the same street, working as a secretary for a company which had crossed some gang member or members, left to live elsewhere. To argue in this way, concerning informal censorship, however, would not be quit to state and perhaps not to understand how that prevalent masculinist culture does prevail.

Selda Asal tried to appease the local gang without withdrawing the piece. Speaking recently, she recalled that, when the threats were reiterated, and when she couldn’t get hold of the artist on the phone, she went out and bought some condoms and – when that didn’t seem to work – coloured condoms to try to cover up the dildo-heels of City. Finally, the cut-off fingers of surgical gloves were tried, following which, still unable to get hold of Murat Morova, she decided to withdraw the piece from the show. The artist was understandably angry, and protested the censorship in the national paper Radikal, while failing to mention the full range of circumstances of Selda Asal’s decision either concerning the threats from the local gang or the attempts to adapt the piece.

But it is via these circumstances and attempts that the then tensions over gender and territoriality can be reconstructed. The regulation of the look is motivated, I propose, as a desire to seek to enforce an ideal detachment from and a non-attachment to certain things as signifiers of gender. I hope that I am not too attached to the terms, detachment, non-attachment or other variants. But I think I cannot guarantee my detachment, if only because I am not sure where the boundary between the literal and the figurative of ‘attachment’ lies. Morova’s piece was made by a more or less literal process of attaching dildos where heels are usually to be seen. But did he remove the heels and replace them with dildos? Or did he find and as it were salvage the ‘bodies’ of the shoes? Was it different for each shoe? Even if there is a remembered or documented truth to this, this would not dictate what we can imagine here, and the effect of a repetition here – that is not stable or pure, and which implicates the possibility of a shifting, across the boundary between the literal to the figurative meaning of attachment – from one shoe or shoe body to another is what marks this piece with a question of which fantasmatic is being played across here by the performative authorship of Morova. Did he detach one heel or both? Was he playing at a castration of a feminine body and seeking to make reparation? Or revealing that there is no such castration by attaching the prosthetic dildos, models that allow for no pure attachment to the masculine as actual and which draw modelling into a possible non-relation of the feminine to the masculine? Significantly, though, in such imaginary movements from shoe to shoe, the localizability of the shoes as belonging to either a particular body or site is rendered remarkable.

The politics of the authorship of this piece thus emerges across the undecidabilities of attachment, actual, affective and something in between, haunted by effects of non-attachment. In effect, Morova’s piece can be read as a participation in imaginable processes of attachment that nevertheless allows for some sense of non-attachment to masculine and masculinist fantasies that the piece sustains – unlike the censorious, aggressive and threatening reactions of the local gang that the piece convoked. It is in the difference between ‘non-attachment to’ and any imaginable ‘pure detachment from’ – that sort of detachment that has been supposed to underwrite the ideal achievements of art – that the reconstruction of what was so threateningly subversive of particular norms of gender that are, it seems, still operative today in Turkey (if not exclusively so – Asal’s recent video pieces, See Me! and Who Was I Really? still concerning women of Muslim inheritance, was shot in Sweden) is enabled.

The punishment of Emine was not just a violent crime enacted on her body, but a staging of her humiliation as an object for a look. This form of phallic power would restage the phallic as the looking at the humiliated woman, now unable simply to see ‘the sign’ of the gendered other. The internalization of the disgrace parasites the impossible internalization of gender as norm (see Butler, 179), and acts all the more forcefully as stigma for that. That gender is finally impossible to embody does not mean that injunctions to do so withers away. Quite the opposite: the punishment of Emine, and the punishment or threatened punishment of the women in Selda Asal’s Hard to Die, would insist on the legibility of the woman as gendered other to the masculine gaze as if from anywhere, anytime.

Thus Morova’s piece solicited the attention of the gang not simply by invoking a confusion of the sexual with the commercial, as the Shoe Store exhibition project encouraged, along with a confusion of connotations of power, or even for being readable as a participation in processes of attachment to the dual availability of Western styles of dress or of the phallic as prosthesis. Rather, the staging of the non-belonging of these signifiers of femininity challenged the priority of the look as masculine, as if the shoes erected an imaginary body that looked back, doubling and undermining the ideal of the masculine look as if from anywhere.

It is multiply ironic that this exhibition, planned to be hospitable to a variety of work, of both traditional and less traditional genres of art became the occasion for this removal of Morova’s piece, a removal that was so quickly represented as a censorship of one participant in the art world by another. Ironic not just because that aim of catholic hospitality failed, but because the show itself, as a street-side display, in being a feint towards a staging of the clash between the sexual and the economic, was also, and even primarily, a citation of an idiom of hospitality. Not just that shoes or their removal inside domestic space are important in Turkish culture. Rather, as Selda Asal reports it, on the Apartman Projesi website:

… the saying ‘one’s foot bringing good luck to the place’ (Turkish idiom for visitors in a new place: Ayagı uğurlu gelmek) has inspired this first project. … it is also a kind of wish that this shop brings good luck to the space. (Asal 1, 2008)

The frames of this project thus cited the old place and the new or old new of art, inviting a confusion between them and this idiom of place. Those violently censorious demands concerning Morova’s City resisted the non-belonging of bodies, signifiers of gender and such senses of place.


With thanks to Trevor Hope and the participants in discussion at the Gender Trouble conferennce at Haliç University.



Works Cited


Asal, Selda. (Asal 1, 2008) 2008

Asal, Selda (Asal 2, 2008) See Me! 2008

Asal, Selda (Asal 3, 2008) Who Was I Really? 2008

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

Derrida, Jacques and Steigler, Bernard. Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews. Trans. Jennifer Bajorek. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002.

Fer, Briony. ‘Surrealism and Difference.’ Realism, Abstraction, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars Ed. Bachelor, David, Fer, Briony and Perry, Gill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 171-99.