Organised by
Benaki Museum in collaboration with the Hellenic Festival, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Ιstanbul Modern. With the support of the European Union’s programme CULTURE 2007-2013.

Paolo Colombo (Art Advisor of Istanbul Museum of Modern Art)

Participating artists
Haluk Akakçe, Natalie Djurberg William Kentridge, Katariina Lillqvist, Jockum Nordström, Lotte Reiniger, Christiana Soulou, Ladislaw Starewicz, Andrew Vickery Kara Walker

Paolo Colombo, In praise of shadows

Catalogue text
In Praise of Shadows is an exhibition on shadows, shadow theatre and silhouettes, based on old and contemporary folk tales and on simple narratives expressed with an economy of means. The title of this exhibition comes from a lecture delivered by William Kentridge at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2001, a title that the artist culled from a pamphlet written by Junichiro Tanizaki in 1935 called In Praise of Shadows.
At the heart of this exhibition, and its central metaphor, are the shadow theatre traditions from Turkey and Greece, and their character Karaghiozis (Karagöz in Turkey), an ever-hungry trickster who lives through hundreds of adventures and misadventures along with a varied set of other characters.
This exhibition explores the formal analogies and the conceptual references that a new narrative spirit in contemporary art shares with shadow plays and the influence that this traditional art form has had on the world of contemporary art in recent years.
Shadow theatre is an expression of popular creativity, a rich heritage transmitted from generation to generation. It is rooted in oral traditions and is in large part based on improvisation. Its domains are language, gestural invention, image making, musical and stage production. It is a universal patrimony that in Europe has a long, and still ongoing, history in Turkey and Greece. In recent years, it has been a source of inspiration for a number of contemporary artists, who have paid homage to, and even appropriated, the modes of shadow plays in their artistic work.
Shadow plays are characterised by the high degree of stylisation that the use of silhouettes entails. In this respect, there is a substantial difference from cinema. Shadow theatre allows the viewer to perceive its simple stage structure: the spectator is never oblivious to the player behind the curtain. The mechanics of the show reveal a world that is artificial and other than ours. In the course of the play, the silhouette appearing from behind the canvas will often subvert the world of its master, to whom it is inextricably tied. De-humanised, and yet too human, it loses its individuality to become the collective voice of a people. Similarly to a large part of the art in this exhibition, it is often derisive, digging deep into the domain of the Id, and into the primordial archetypes of instinctuality – particularly when one considers the way in which Karaghiozis/Karagöz is forever hungry, making do and dedicated to survival.
Like art, shadow theatre openly declares its fictiveness. By privileging caricature and stereotype, shadow theatre resists realism and gives to the shadow player, just as art gives to the artist, the opportunity to delve into allegory, satire and dreams: indeed, into the magic of spectacle itself. This is an opportunity that all of the artists in the exhibition have liberally seized, and each one –whether appropriating the modes or just the popular narrative spirit of this long tradition– has adapted it to his or her own vision of the world.
This exhibition brings together key works by eight contemporary artists: Haluk Akakçe, Nathalie Djurberg, William Kentridge, Katariina Lillqvist, Jockum Nordström, Christiana Soulou, Andrew Vickery, Kara Walker; and two master filmmakers from the first half of the twentieth century: Lotte Reiniger and Ladislas Starewitch. The works in the exhibition have been selected for their specific affinities to the world, and to the modes, of Turkish and Greek shadow plays. They compose a fine web that ties high and low culture with the popular tradition of shadow plays in Turkey and in Greece, allowing for a wide array of cross-references between the individual works, their culture of origin and the plays of Karaghiozis and Karagöz. Finally, they are witness to a new narrative spirit that is at the heart of contemporary art practice.

Paolo Colombo