Long interested in the curious way that the stories we tell about ourselves end up creating our lived experiences, Kutlug Ataman shifted his exploration of memory, artifice and identity into a louder register with fff, his most recent video work on view at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Ataman’s sprawling, ambitious installations have become a hallmark of the Istanbul-born, London-based artist’s hybrid practice that combines the conventions of documentary filmmaking with the presentation strategies of contemporary video art. For his Carnegie Prize-winning piece Küba (2004), for instance, Ataman interviewed 40 people living in an Istanbul suburb that was formerly used as a safe house for political outsiders and the homeless. Presented on 40 old TV sets with matching outdated armchairs, Küba was the antithesis of a Hollywood blockbuster: all dialogue and no action. Twelve (2004) likewise focused on the oral stories of marginalized figures, recording six individuals’ experiences with reincarnation on the Turkish-Syrian border, while Paradise (2007) portrayed another kind of utopianism in the affluent Orange County area of Southern California.
But while these earlier works foregrounded the voices of his subjects, fff (2009) was striking in its quiet refusal to let its protagonists speak. Working with a collection of home movies shot by two English families in the 1950s and 60s, Ataman focused instead on the way that moving imagery not only records but can actually constitute memories. Shown across 10 monitors, short, looping clips of the Fryer and Howard families’ home lives are juxtaposed with footage of the fathers at work for the Royal Aircraft Establishment where they tested the effects of flight and G-force on pilots. On one screen, scenes of children chasing after their dog in a public park are contrasted with shots of fighter planes looping through the skies in perfect formation, while nearby in another pairing, a young boy being spun around by his father in a childhood game of “helicopter” is shown alongside a clip of one of the fathers calmly being catapulted into the air by a test ejector seat.
Though these combinations reveal the strange congruencies between public and private lives, in other moments the original context of the film footage is not as clear. Toddlers awkwardly wading through a paddling pool seem on the verge of being submerged by a churning, seething sea (from vacation footage? from a post-War aviation experiment?) which appears on the screen next to them. Meanwhile, recordings of a beachside beauty competition, a badminton game and military drills are fragmented by Ataman’s editing into a mosaic of tiny screens that jostle and bump into one another, making one family’s memories bleed into another’s.
This confusion of the real and remembered is intensified by minimalist composer Michael Nyman’s soundtrack. A combination of 10 musical scores, composed independently from Ataman’s videos and recorded on piano, they play simultaneously, creating the unnerving feeling of being in a room full of children each playing a different piece of music. The cacophony of these competing memories and soundtracks is perhaps the point of Ataman’s work. Named after its source material, “found family footage,” and referring to the musical instruction forte possible (as loud as possible), fff points to the constantly evolving nature of our personal and official histories which are never complete or pure, but are always works-in-progress.