An exhausted machine
Outsourcing bread in Istanbul
Presented as a fragmented mechanical assemblage, Sibel Horada’s most recent video installation is named Untitled Machine. The name accurately captures the impression a viewer has upon first glance: that these decontextualised close-ups of gears and chains spread across several dilapidated television sets could be one machine as much as any other.
“How can something so simple to make involve such a difficult process?”
It is, however, a specific machine: the centerpiece of the Istanbul Jewish community’s now-defunct matzoh factory. The factory, located in Istanbul’s Galata neighbourhood, was closed in 2007 when the community began importing its Matzoh from Israel.
Horada’s piece tackles the effects of neoliberalism on a Turkish minority community and provides a compelling meditation on remembrance and loss.
The work was part of an exhibit, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place, which ran from March 29 to April 20. Housed on the second floor of the old matzoh factory, the exhibit was a collaboration between Horada and three other Turkish Jewish artists, co-curated by Lara Fresko and Jasmine Taranto.
“It’s about breaking the linearity of the machine, of the assembly line,” Horada remarks as she gestures toward the nearby televisions.
Each of the 14 televisions displays a similar loop of some mechanical piece. Since the individual mechanical components are removed from their place in the larger machine and reordered on the various screens, one cannot understand the function of each individual piece.
But Horada takes this disassembling a step further. The video loops themselves are composed in such a fashion that it is impossible to discern the beginning or end of each video. The result is a never-ending cycle of mechanical parts in motion for some unknown greater purpose or, perhaps, for no purpose at all.
This effect makes it impossible for the viewer to mentally reconstruct the forward movement of the assembly line. Thus, Horada manages to disrupt the linearity of the machine in terms of both space and time. In the same gesture, the artist emphasises the repetitive, never-ending production process of the assembly line itself.
The overall effect of the myriad televisions, themselves worn-down and nearly obsolete machines, is to emphasise the mechanical complexity of the matzoh machine itself. Taken together, the images and sounds form a mechanical symphony lacking a conductor.
“How can something so simple to make involve such a difficult process?” Horada asks. “Matzoh is something our ancestors made in a hurry while fleeing from the pharaohs. My work shows how a simple thing became a complex thing.”
“This factory held the community together. Matzoh is a symbolic item for Jewish communities and this piece is about losing that symbol.”
When one sees the matzoh machine itself her meaning becomes readily apparent. Still present on the ground floor of the old building, it is a hulking 21-metre-long metal rectangle. One cannot help but wonder why producing a food made only from flour and water requires such a contraption.
In 2007 the factory ceased to produce matzoh. An Israeli rabbi inspected the factory to assess whether the traditional Jewish flatbread it produced was kosher. He judged that it was not. Perhaps with his own country’s economic self-interest in mind, he suggested that the Istanbul Jewish community would be better off importing its matzoh from Israel.
To their surprise, the Jewish community soon learned that it would be cheaper to import their matzoh than produce it for themselves. It is a testament to the economics of neoliberalism that it is cheaper to import the simplest form of the most basic food on earth — unleavened bread — than to produce it locally.
Furthermore, the Jewish community in Istanbul is relatively small and there is obviously a much higher concentration of Jews in Israel. The economics of mass production dictate then that an Israeli factory can produce matzoh more efficiently and at less cost than a Turkish one.
But when we reduce production to raw economics, we lose sight of the intangible aspects of production.
“This factory held the community together,” says Horada. “Matzoh is a symbolic item for Jewish communities and this piece is about losing that symbol.”
In addition to producing Matzoh, the factory also used to ferment kosher wine. There is still a kosher meat shop nearby in this area of Istanbul that also houses the Italian Synagogue and the Istanbul Jewish Museum. The latter is a converted synagogue, evidence of the fact that fewer synagogues have become necessary over the years due to a combination of emigration and secularisation.
“My piece has to do with a certain kind of dismantling within a local community. The fractured machine becomes a metaphor for the effects of globalisation, as the production of goods takes place further and further away from us.”
Despite the work’s somewhat melancholic relationship with the past, Horada maintains that the work is not one of nostalgia. It is not expressing a longing for the past. Instead, she insists, it is a remembrance of what has been lost.
Loss and remembrance are recurrent themes in Horada’s work. Her installation, “As If It Never Existed,” was a tribute to an ancient tree on Yildiz Technical University‘s campus which was cut down in 2009. In both works she is concerned with how communities might not realise the importance of their symbols until they only exist as memories.
“The fractured machine becomes a metaphor for the effects of globalisation, as the production of goods takes place further and further away from us.”
The Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that to know the past “means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Unlike the 1930s Europe in which Benjamin was writing, today there is no singular moment of danger. There is only the sustained, methodical, machine-like progression of neoliberal globalisation.
Meanwhile, the future of the machine itself is up in the air. Some in the community want to see the space converted into a museum in order to remember the factory. Others would prefer to discard the past and send the machine to a junkyard. It remains to be seen if a suitable balance can be found between an idealised longing for the past and the disassembling of the past piece by piece until it never existed at all.
For her part, Horada is interested neither in mythologising the past nor progressing headlong into the future. “I think the machine should be taken up by an enthusiastic baker, modified, and used for its original purpose. It’s still functional and only needs a little touching up. In a bountiful country like Turkey, it’s sad to have to import this simplest kind of bread.”
If the machine is fated to be turned to scrap metal, perhaps a piece will find its way into the construction of a new shopping center, fulfilling Prime Minister Erdoğan’s pronounced vision of a “modern Istanbul built on an historic foundation.”
Edits by Aidan McMahon.
2 thoughts on “An exhausted machine”
Fascinating. Beautiful work of art, and a great article, too. Thanks for writing.