In Kutluğ Ataman’s fourth show at Lehmann Maupin he constructs a dynamic video portrait of Stefan Naumann, a young German man obsessed with moths. Like other projects by the Turkish artist now living in London, the new work, "Stefan’s Room," uses numerous projection surfaces to create a multi-dimensional viewing experience through which to tell a single story. Ataman’s work often deals with issue of class, race, and gender, and he is experiencing a moment of renown right now, probably because he is able to translate politically charged subject matter into slick, visually gratifying video installations that make institutions feel vibrant and progressive (amongst other honors, Ataman is up for the Turner prize this fall, and was just awarded the Carnegie prize at the Carnegie International). In "Stefan’s Room," Ataman moves away from external social issues to focus instead on an unusual private subculture, and the result is a compelling new take on the personal portrait.
The way Ataman constructs his projection spaces is one of his strongest skills. Acutely aware of how the spectator will engage with the recorded information, he structures the gallery to deliberately locate and engage the viewer amidst a field of shifting planes. The projects are generally screened across multiple channels, and as in this case, Ataman often uses oversized, slender surfaces to create giant sites for viewing. In Stefan’s Room five paper-thin screens hang at sharp, precarious angles to form a circle of varying heights in the center of the blackened room. In the middle of this ring is a small bench. Its proximity to the screens, and the relatively small diameter of the entire space, is both intimate and uncomfortable for the viewer.
Ataman’s staging creates a cinematic experience, and his work is meant to be experienced as a dynamic movie—sort of a visual surround sound—rather than a single element of a larger installation. He invites his viewer to sit and watch, and rewards with videos of substantial length and depth that often approach the style of a documentary film. In "Stefan’s Room," the screen opposite the bench plays the tape straight through, and we learn about Stefan as Ataman follows him through the small and tidy apartment as they talk about the latter’s all-consuming moth collection. Stefan describes the history of his obsession, beginning with the photos in the natural specimen books he saw as a child, and moving to his adult years of collecting, farming, and preserving. Occasionally Ataman baits him, asking questions like whether or not he’s eaten the larvae, but Stefan proceeds steadfastly, the topic far too close to him for glib or ironic remarks.
Stefan’s storage mimics that of a scientist, and he has transformed his apartment into an office that rivals a natural history museum. The walls are lined with ordered cabinets that are stocked with labeled drawers, each filled with preserved moths pinned gently under glass. He traverses the cramped space with precise dexterity, pulling out thin wooden trays of samples and capturing live specimen from a hung black net. The moths themselves are astonishingly beautiful and bright. From the rare and special giant white Japanese varietals, to the more common species found in Germany, Stefan’s collection suggests the extraordinary power of the natural world, and Ataman’s piercing and highly analytic filming style reflects the inquisitive nature of the subject himself.
Like other protagonists Ataman has filmed, Stefan appears to live on the fringe of mainstream society. His singular focus and obsessive concentration allows Ataman the opportunity to capture intensely personal and idiosyncratic footage as his subject forgets completely about the camera. The richness of the video’s content could be screened as a regular feature film, as other Ataman work has been. However, in my experience, the single channel version lacks the dynamism of the multiple screening planes, and relies too heavily on its content, rather than the way content can play within a formally structured installation. Ataman treats the other video surfaces as secondary, but necessary tools to express content. Here they provide the opportunity for detailed inspection of wings, eyes, and colors, or a prolonged shot that lends emotion and tone (for example, Stefan’s tender hold on a fragile tiny creature). Ataman edits like a musician, giving different pulses, beats, and rhythms to different screens. Sometimes the cuts are in sync, but mostly they are dissonant, and the rhythmic patterns and staccato movements of the images around the screens is something like Stefan in his home, something like the flickering wings of the moths themselves.