1. According to your website, your childhood seems absolutely incredible, as you were exhibited at a very young age and traveled all over Europe. How did you discover art, and, what’s more, what childhood moments influenced and continue to influence your work?
-My childhood was quite unique in a way. I was probably the child prodigy in art that was the most talked about in the history of painting around the world and believe me, because there are no other relevant comparable examples to many people, I know that those lines do not even make much sense when they are read here. I started painting like many other kids when I was about two. But as soon as I was maybe three, my mother noticed first that it had nothing to do with children’s art. Then a Turkish artist, Kayıhan Keskinok saw them and he was appalled. Every word he said and every article he wrote about me quite funnyly enough was almost repeated word to word within the comments of other important critics and writers around the world. I was compared to Matisse, Klee, Dufy and my spontaneous lines, expressionist style and sense of composition in using the white areas of the paper were inciting to headlines such as “The Mozart of Painting”, “Young Master Has His Say”, “The Painter of the 21st Century” etc. I had my firts shows in Ankara, Bern and Geneva when I was six. All major newspapers and main channels talked in large about my shows in Europe and the USA. To be honest, since nobody could believe that I was the one doing these works, they asked me often to paint live in front of TV cameras and it did not bother me at all. I loved drawing anyway. But when I say that, people think I had a terrible childhood, that I did not have a nomal life etc that is not true at all. My parents got very healthy counseling and I lived happily as a kid, playing freely with all my friends in the street. I was not a secluded star. I traveled every year to 3-4 shows to cities like Vienna, Paris, London, Munich, New York, Washington DC, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Rome, made my interviews and press conferences then I got back to school. I was sent to French school for two reasons: One because that was the only school that did not have a painting class and critics were very persistent that I should not receive any courses in art. The second reason was that my parents wanted me to learn French since I was “obviously” going to become a painter! Which meant for them that “you had to know the language of art”. Overall cowboy war scenes and horses influenced me a lot im movies and cartoons and I wanted to recreate my version of them, showing their sped and action in my world. It was another form of playing for me. Actually more important than being a child prodigy, was becoming an adult artist later on. For that I had to survive my teenage years, which meant going thru the “teenage tunnel”: I managed to put art slightly to a lower rank in my life. I played professional tenis, studied, got interested in girls etc. Then after 21, I came to an adult life where I did only art again. Le Monde wrote once in Paris, in 2002 I think, “Every country or generation has had its prodigies. Still, Bedri Baykam is the only one that lasted beyond.”
All of your artistic periods are referred to as the locations in which you worked—“Late
2. California Years”, “Paris Years,” “Istanbul Years.” How have you utilized your surroundings in your artwork and how have your various environments been translated into different mediums?
-Probably, to have a good answer to this question, the American reader should learn Turkish and read my two volume autobiography till 1987, about 1300 pages! That is the most worked among my 20 books and probably the most detailed autobiography in the world, not just the art world. You have probably never seen such a complete and open cross-referential synthesis that includes archive pieces, letters, memoir lines and very personal life stories, and all their links to my art. Obviously each of these cities had an influence on my art, although, of course that was not the only thing. For instance in Paris as I was moving slowly from a teenager to an adult, I kept making expressive nude drawings or typical Parisian scenes. When I decided to go to California and live an artist life only, then it was time for an explosion of size and colors, starting with1980. New expressionism was not labeled and I did not discover the existence of this trend till fall 1982 with those famous issues of Art in America. I was more than surprised to discover other artists of New York and the world that kept were painting like me. Then with those couple years of delay, with 1983 I started showing my work in SoHo. I also kept doing grafiti on SoHo streets with readable tags like “meet Bedri the Turk”. I showed my “neo-expressionist” work in those years, in the same streets and same time as Basquiat, Fetting, Schnabel, Chia, etc. Obviously California, the size, the wild ocean, the girls, the easy life style, the friendliness had a serious influence on my life, not just then, a lasting influence. I still feel I am from Berkeley as much as İstanbul. Please learn Turkish and read the second volume of my autobiography “Timeless Ocean”!
3. Upon your return to Istanbul, it appears that your art was driven less by aesthetics and undoubtedly more by politics. This development seems all the more obvious when realizing your substantial political involvement within the past couple of years, as you not only ran for president, but also held a position in the Republican People’s Party. Personally, how do art and politics intersect? How has your political contributions affected your art and, conversely, how has your art affected your participation in politics?
-In 1987, as soon as I came back, what I noticed right away was the dangerous shift towards Islamic fundamentalism. Back in 1987 almost nobody was seeing that yet. So some people thought I was just paranoid. Half of my art became political and I started doing some three dimensional work that I started labeling as “Livart”. It involved sounds, waterfalls, neons, enlarged photos, stage sets, etc. Politics and eroticism became more and more present in my agenda. “The Box of Democracy” or “The Sin Room” or the reference to the Turkish officer killed in 1930, Kubilay, “Kubilay’s Room” were my installations present in the first İstanbul Biennial in 1987. Everything people used later as multimedia installations were present in my work since those years. But on the other hand, I never gave up painting. For the same reasons that I wanted my work to carry risks all the time, I was also open to all type of experiments. Then, although my art raised hell and I kept having literally thousands of people to my openings, I saw the threat to democracy so serious that just art was not enough. I started giving political speeches all over the country writing political articles and working in recently formed democratic political associations with other people seeing the danger. Unfortunately since 1990 many of my friends got assasinated by Islamic fundamentalists. They were fellow writers for the newspaper Cumhuriyet for which I still write and they were secular leftist democrats (“Kemalists” in reference to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of our republic) But all this hot climate influenced my work rather positively. I kept doing large exhibits, analyzing the 20th century of Turkey in all depth, poltical/social. These were blockbuster shows I managed to produce on my own, although they looked like perfect museum shows. All the Money was coming only from my art sales. Then things got worse politically in Turkey because the left kept staying divided because of poor leadership. I became an activist that pushed the Turkish left to unite since 1993. In 1995 after we managed two parties to unite I was elected to the Central Board of CHP, the Republican Party of the People, Turkish social democrats. Than in 2003, I became a candidate to the leadership of the Party. That was very serious and actually the leader did all sort of undemocratic constitutional changes to block my way. This is a long ongoing story. Today I am still a member of CHP and I still fight for the success of the Party against Islamists. but to sum up my answer to your questions, my political struggle which before anything wants to preserve all freedoms in Turkey, all art and freedom to produce it, fight against war and racism, has influenced my art positively and has expanded its borders. Because I had to be influent over millions of people and they were not connaisseurs of art on top of all. Also as you say, conversely my art started raising quesitons and debates over the Turkish political world like when I prepared my exhibition against censorship and torture back in 1988. That was a very critical show. Also there is the one where I defended the revolution of 1960 by the youth and the army against a fascist government, in a big show in 1990. All these exhibits came with at least two years of research and the simultaneous production of big books and newspapers relevant to the show.
4. The presence of erotica and the fixation upon the female sex are inherent in much of your later works. Why is there such a fascination with these sexualized themes? Do you have an interest in psychoanalysis perhaps, a fetishistic obsession, a compulsion to address sexual inequalities, or even a larger scheme in mind when creating such images?
-The interest to erotica and especially female sexuality has been very present in the world of art since art exists! I wish I was as special as you make it sound. But let me tell you that my passion for women can probably compete with the one of Picasso or Sartre. Actually going back to my drawing passion as a kid, let me confess you one of the “secrets” from the first volume “Child Prodigy”: Artistic creative outbursts and masturbation had parallels in my life since I was three or four and I was always a heterosexual. I have always been ready to reconsider all my life plans for a girl. I moved to the USA because I was in love with a girl. One of the major reasons I came back seven years later was another girl. And long relationships and my “womanizer life” have had long intersections. I do not consider sex dirty or bad. It is a gift of life. I have always put women or a woman in the center of my life as many creative people do. I believe American feminism has had a very conservative period, thinking that all reference to sex or pornography was debasing women. Actually I know many women who enjoy porn as much as men do, and I believe that thinking “men use women in sex” or erotic art or porn, totally misses the point that men and women are equal and that in sex a woman also uses man and there are as many publicities, commercials using “studs” as those using “babes”. So sex, or erotic tease or striptease are among my favourite themes alongside history or the history of art, or my own path’s history or the medium itself. Also my artistic drive and my libido, my sexual drive have too much in common. This can be a good case study for psychologs or art historians believe me!
5. Throughout your nearly 50 years as an artist you have experimented with varying mediums, such as painting, installation work, photography, and currently performance art among others. Is there one you prefer over another?
-Yes, drawings, paintings, photography, nudes, videos, installations, graffitis, happenings, big livart circus type shows, all these are part of my artillery. Painting is just my best weapon. But not at all my only one. Actually within my painting I use very rich textures, colors, contrasts and I vary from figuration to abstraction. My art does not repeat just a gimmick as many artists chose to do. I want my art to be free and in my first “adult” art manifesto I wrote in 1983, some 25 years ago, I said “I want to be recognized by my attitude towards art and not the mere repetition of a stereotype same image, as trade mark of the artist. It ws a much more tiring road but also much more rewarding: I am a free artist! I do not have to imitate Zaire stick figures like Penck, paint my men upside down like Baselitz, repeat the same running ghost like Haring nor the grids of Mondrian… There is nothing I will do tomorrow that will shock my audience. They know they can expect anything from me and that my vocabulary has no limits. Yet, one can still recognize “me” or my style! That was the hard bet to win. In those senses, I can be more compared to Polke, Richter or Schnabel in their versatile approach. Well, when you read those lines, you might say “hey who are you to compare yourself with those big stars of the West?” That is a whole different answer. You must read my book “Monkeys’ Right to Paint” and my manifesto “Modern Art History is a Western fait accompli” distributed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on June 30, 1984. It goes down as the first rebellion against Western hegemony in the arts and comes some eight to nine years before the wave of multiculturalism in the 90’s. It is the artistic side of Edward Said’s well known book “Orientalism” which I encountered and read few years down the road, in the mid 80s. So, the distribution of that manifesto is also an artistic happening. I like to intervene in life, to change the world. This is also part of my personality and art. Coming back today and politics, you have seen on TV’s, the millions of people marching in Turkey. I was among the “seed team” that made all these people stand up and protest against the Islamist Party, tresspassing the red borders of secularism. Now I do not know if that is enough to explain you my art as well, but that as much as I can do in an interview. The problem is that there are no much comparable counterparts in the West, so that I can be understood more easily. But mostly political art stays “museum art” in the West. It does not really shift the position of a country its “reel politic”.
6. As well as having a career in art and politics, you are also an acclaimed writer and your most recent novel, The Bone, is believed to have somewhat predicted 9/11. In comparison with politics and art, how has your experience as a writer differed?
-Among my 20 books, if I died this year, the most important one together with “Monkeys’ Right to Paint” would be “The Bone”. “Monkeys’ Right to Paint” is social and political intervention in world’s history of art. “The Bone” is a philosophical intervention to the passage to the 21st century. I hesitated in writing it as a philosophical essay book or a novel. Than I decided to proceed as a novel. I am also happy I did! The central character, the 37 year old photographer Selim Targan, is like a far away cousin of “Meursault” the character of Albert Camus from “The Stranger”. “The Bone” goes until the bone in every aspect of life: Sex, death, psychology, 21st Century’s scientific and technological revolutions. I call this book “my revenge over death”, that is how much it means to me. I have had thousands of readers telling me it is the best book they have read in their entire life; I believe them and it did not surprise me. The book was first banned for 8 months through cencorship committee related to the office of the Prime Minister, and I managed to convince the judge that the erotic/pronographic content was there for philosophical reasons going as deep as the rest, which was the reality anyway. So it got acquilted. So on the day of September 11, some of my best friends started calling me from my mobile, telling me that my book had become reality and that I should run to a TV set to see what had just happened in New York. I was shocked when I saw the scenes. Everything you or anybody lived on 9/11, had been in my book, published 10 months before, on December 2000. (It was written 3 years ago then) In my book it was a 797 jumbo (technology is 25 yeard ahead in my book with “dreamcorder” machines, etc.) that dived on purpose in to the Pan American building, on November 2001 at 9 a.m! Many TV interviews were done with me and articles appeared right away in the Turkish press. But funnily enough the American press did not move. Probably, they were so shocked that they either did not read or listen, or they could not believe it. Now, go read “The Bone” but not just for the paralels with 9/11. Only because you might think you have never read a book even close to that. It is written in what I call “international English”, nicely translated from Turkish, clean sentences, without exceeding quotas of complicated words! Anybody can read it as long as he can digest a great cheesecake continuously! You have to order it from Turkey, from my website (www.bedribaykam.com), for the English edition.
7. “This Has Been Done Before” is a series that focuses on art from the past and places such works within a progressive and personal context. In looking at your own works, I believe there is an undeniable Surrealist, Dadaist, Expressionist, and even Abstract Expressionistic sub-themes. How did this series come about and which previous movements have played roles in your works?
-In fact, “This Has Been Done Before” was among the last works I did in California in 1987. In those days, whatever show there was, there would always be a critic or art historian that comes to say: “Hey, I have seen this kind of work before, This Has Been Done Before”.This was their all time and all circumstance key sentence that they adored without really acknowledging it. So the day I was writing that line on a canvas, I knew that it was one of my most important works that was being born right there and then. I really think that had Duchamp produced that work, it would have been one of his most important three-four works. Now that piece will still be as important in time. But since it is “just a Turk” who did it, it will take some more time! Later I started doing a series of references to art history, recreating like my own personal “best of “ Museum with historical works. I called that series “Real Fakes” half way into it in 1991. I did remakes of David, Géricault, Delacroix, Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso. I see painting as a continuous history where all is linked genealogically. I write so much about art history that discovering all those layers melting into each other is an outstanding endless research happiness. Frustrating too. But anyway, “This Has Been Done Before” is like a general hat on post-modernism. It is like the name of the period where the artists of the world have done their best to stay original when supposedly everything had already been done before. You know how every decade some critics like to try to “kill art” for ever, or at least proclaim the “death of painting”. Anyway tell them that painting will just do fine and only gets stronger with those stabbings! On the other hand my work, does carry a natural “unconsciously edited” synthesis of 20th century and all its inherent movements.
8. I’ve already asked about the ways in which politics and writing taps into your artistic work, but “Innertraces” seems to be much more personal. Have there been any significant events in your own personal life that have transcribed into your art?
-Yes, “Inner Traces” is very personal. Maybe too personal form me to talk in depth about its content to anybody in this world, maybe not even in the third volume of my autobiography, even if I get the chance to write it. Yes, one thing you can know is that they contain traces of a girl that influenced my life since I was 15. A Swedish star tennis player of the 70s who has been on and off my girlfriend. But there are many things around that and beyond that. Also my father and now my son who has the same first name “Suphi” have been very influent and deep in my skin (as well as the one of his mother!). My revolutionary side comes from him, he was a famous young revolutionary activist in the 50s and was a parliament member after 57 until 1968. My art now, makes sudden returns to my past styles and periods, while expanding itself in its own line, going thru labyrinths... A constant search…
9. In one word, how would you describe your evolution as an artist?
-My evolution as an artist? Honestly? Not anything you can encounter in the west, due to extra-artistic reasons. Does it shock you to hear that? I apologize then. Just come to my posthumous retrospective in 2057 on my 100th birthday and check for yourself. My problem is that the Western artist does not need to cross those desert or oceans and that is why maybe they can never understand this story board the way they should.
10. Could you please describe what your most current artistic projects and whereabouts they will be exhibited?
-My current “artistic” (!) projects include my new political book that hopefully will succeed in discreting the false democratic claims of the Islamist Party, the AKP in Turkey. Before my show in New York, I will have a show in Istanbul, at the Piramid Art Center which I founded a year ago approximately. This fall I will also have shows in Italy, Aria Art Gallery and a show in Mac Art Gallery in Istanbul. Next year, I have a show in Monaco and a group show in Korea with the group 9 Dragon Heads of which I am a member. There is also in my agenda show that has hurt me for a long time, an international group exhibit around Picasso that I am curating. But do not ask me more questions than that, for “Inner Traces” reasons. I am bleeding right now.