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Myth and meaning

Exploring the humane and deeply moving video art of Kutlug Ataman

From tales of ageing transsexuals to the engaging obsessions of a mildly eccentric Englishwoman with a passion for cultivating amaryllis bulbs, Kutlug Ataman’s work has always been driven by a desire to tell stories. So the Turkish artist, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2004, has made something of a departure with his latest film project, fff, now showing at Thomas Dane Gallery in London: there are no words, and Ataman, who trained at the acclaimed University of California, Los Angeles film school, hasn’t shot a single piece of footage. Instead, the work is a low-key but finely edited compilation of silent home movies from the 1950s and 1960s featuring two middle-class British families – the Fryers and their friends the Howards. Ten solo piano pieces written by Michael Nyman provide the elegiac soundtrack for the ten short films which comprise the finished work.

The title, of course, suggests the work’s musicality, though it is also an acronym for “found family footage”. This might suggest that the footage was chanced upon by accident. In fact, like all of Ataman’s films (most of his subjects are friends or people he’s been acquainted with for years, except for Veronica Reed, the amaryllis-mad woman who nonetheless shared his passion for bulb-collecting), this one, too, is personal. The footage belongs to the family of Ataman’s partner of 15 years, Martin Fryer.

Though aware that fff would inevitably evoke a sense of nostalgia, Ataman tells me, when we meet before the piece’s premiere, that he was keen to avoid anything “schmaltzy”. He says that sometimes he gets worried about people “liking the work for the wrong reasons”. He is neither precious nor prickly about it, but he does express the hope that audiences learn to avoid what he calls “those first-degree readings of my work”.

He mentions Küba, the ambitious, multi-screen installation for which he was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 2004, and which was shown in London, in a cold and cavernous shell of a former Royal Mail sorting office, to similar acclaim. Named after the shanty town on the outskirts of Istanbul in which it was filmed, and featuring 40 old-fashioned television sets screening 40 talking heads, the building provided an appropriately desolate setting in which you were privy to tales ranging across routine domestic cruelty, alcoholic despair, forbidden love between those unable freely to choose their path in life, and the general grinding hardships that accompany unrelenting poverty. It was riveting stuff: video art that was humane, relevant, involving and deeply moving.

There is no harm in being moved, naturally, but Ataman had no time for critics who saw the work simply in terms of it “lending a voice to the dispossessed”. Shortly after Küba was shown, Ataman went off to one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in California, a place called Paradise, and filmed the residents there. It was, he felt, a necessary riposte. Ataman’s real interest lies in showing how communities create their own mythologies through the telling of such stories. “Mythologies are important because they’re like the bible of communal identity,” he says.

For fff, Ataman focuses his gaze on footage that presents a nostalgic stereotype of Englishness. A stereotype it may be, but he recognises its worth. “When you come into a society as an outsider,” Ataman says, “you are visiting an existing set of values and you have no input in it. You come and you have to learn to interact somehow with that existing structure and give it new meaning.”

Both he and Nyman decided that the soundtrack should be written independently of the edited film. Having seen a little of the raw footage beforehand, however, Nyman knew that ­children would feature. So when Ataman went to see him a second time, Nyman brought out an ­array of children’s toy pianos. “He wanted to do it on the toy pianos,” Ataman explains, “because he said that the piece was all about learning how to play. And he saw that it was also about ­learning a new language and coming into this country and trying to figure it out and making mistakes. He really got it – and suddenly I thought, OK, so this is the exciting moment, ­because this is when I saw that we were really talking the same language.”

“fff” is at Thomas Dane Gallery, London SW1, until 18 April. Details:

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009