Monsters That Remember: Tracing the Story of the Workers’ Monument in Tophane, İstanbul – Part I

Meltem Ahıska

Hope is a memory that desires.
–Balzac

What could Balzac, the great novelist of the nineteenth century, have meant when he said that “hope is a memory that desires”? Interestingly, both Roland Barthes and David Harvey, who wrote at different times on very different subjects, refer to the above quote by Balzac in order to emphasize a distinct critical attitude to the present. Barthes’ concept of the pleasure of writing feeds on a memory that desires, because for him an influential piece of writing is nothing but an unfinished or lost one, since one could not have written it herself/himself, and one always needs to re-write, thus re-find it. Writing is a desire to re-write, says Barthes (2010: 132). In a very different vein, David Harvey quotes Balzac to argue that we need a “space of hope” that is nourished by memories, but only activated by a certain desire to change the present (Pender, 2007: 21). Despite the differences of their subject-matter, both authors share the concern of seeking hope in the desire to change the incomplete or destroyed present. The present can neither be taken as a fixed point of arrival from the past, nor merely as a point of transition to the future. Walter Benjamin had already pointed to the potential of memory for changing the content of the present in connection to the past and argued that “what science has ‘determined’ remembrance can modify. Such remembrance [Eingedenken] can complete what is incomplete (happiness) and make incomplete what is complete (suffering)” (1999: 471). The desire to re-write or re-build a space of hope runs against the dominant power imperative in our societies to celebrate and consume the present, as if it were a wrapped-up commodity with a capacity to deliver us smoothly to the future.

Monuments, as typical landmarks of “modern national society” have been part of this power imperative. Monuments have been erected with a claim to embody the will to remember; yet, paradoxically, they have mostly served to reify the present as a fulfilled moment of arrival, canceling the need to re-find and remember the past in the present. In other words, they contribute to the closure of the past as a dead body. As Harvey has noted, “the authorities want to corral memory into a monument; they wish to memorialize and monumentalize in some way or other. They don’t want it to be alive, they want it to be dead” (Pender, 2007: 21). However, monuments do not just kill memory, they also forge a regime of memory and desire that serves power. The monumental seduction, for Foucault, represents “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us” (1983: xiii). The monuments are dead but alive, or “undead” like vampires, seducing people to play a lethal game with power. “The monument is essentially repressive. It is the seat of an institution (the church, the state, the university). Any space that is organized around the monument is colonized and oppressed. The great monuments have been raised to glorify conquerors and the powerful” (Lefebvre, 2003: 21). They usually ask for more blood for keeping alive the spirit of the imagined community, which they claim to represent.

I argue in this article that monuments lead a life of their own in between life and death. One needs to question their “life” and the desire that derives from that within the frame of power in both its productive and destructive capacities. I take up the issue of monuments in Turkey in that interstice between life and death-or in other words, in their “monstrosity.” The depiction of monstrosity with regard to monuments in Turkey not only resonates with the terms of a current public debate on monuments, which I will elaborate on later in the article, but also invites a new discussion on memory/counter-memory. The term “monster” points to unacceptable forms of life, cast aside as “abnormal,” and can be of use in tracing how certain memories are crushed or abandoned and become aberrant. I contend that remembering cannot be understood as a process of invoking the past in its entirety; instead, it should be studied through its destruction, hence through the fragmented traces in the present. This is important not just to introduce plurality into the field of memories, but also to notice the workings of both constructive and destructive dynamics of power in the process. As Andreas Huyssen has argued, “(t)he clashing and ever more fragmented memory politics of specific social and ethnic groups raises the question whether forms of collective consensual memory are even still possible today, and, if not, whether and in what form social and cultural cohesion can be guaranteed without them” (2003: 17). If the consensual memory that monuments “normally” assume is so problematic today in contested and fractured political histories of nation-states such as Turkey, the “monstrous” may reveal the counter-memories of destruction against the oppressing imperative of official history.

In order to discuss monstrosity, power and memory, I will focus on a particular monument in Tophane, the Workers’ Monument, which has been subjected to destructions ever since the time it was put in place in 1973 and which still stands in the same place as a crippled and unidentifiable body. I will argue that the story of the destruction of the Workers’ Monument cannot be read independently of the performative command of the state, best observed in erecting Atatürk monuments all over the country as visual embodiments of power and furthermore securing and protecting them against destruction by the force of law.

Visits to Tophane in search of the culprits of violence and destruction

The fragments of memory can be found in particular sites. Yet, the relationship of memory to locality is highly complex. If, as Arjun Appadurai has reminded, locality is always a historical context that is relational and contextual and does not directly refer to the site per se, then one has to produce the locality. I find Appadurai’s emphasis on the production of locality especially insightful: the “task of producing locality (as a structure of feeling, a property of social life and an ideology of situated community) is increasingly a struggle” (1995: 213). Then the researcher also shares a responsibility within that struggle, which would mean that she has to re-visit the locality several times, each visit with a different scale in mind, yet each embracing the same persistent question about the forces of production and destruction. This could be a way for tracing the historical and social palimpsest of memories. Therefore, I suggest to take the reader to several visits to Tophane, to the site of the Workers’ Monument, in order to contextualize the process of its destruction and to trace the monstrous memories it may embody.

At this point, I should note that Tophane is an old district very close to what is considered the cultural center of İstanbul. Tophane has a long history: from a dock area in the Ottoman times, over an early example of a “free industrial zone” in the first years of the Turkish Republic with an automobile assembly factory of the Ford Motor Company,[2] to forced changes in its ethnic make-up through displacements and migrations, it is now an area of art venues, including the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. The dock warehouses (antrepo) on the shore of Tophane are silent witnesses to these changes. They once hosted maritime trade, then an industrial complex, now contemporary art and international cultural events, such as the Istanbul Biennial. The social impact of the not yet realized and highly debated Galataport project in the same region, which is envisaged to extend over an area of 100,000 square meters and to contain a series of luxury hotels, restaurants and shops around a port for international cruise ships, is yet to be seen. In this process, we see an intermingling of capitalist and nationalist impetuses that could be interpreted simultaneously on the local, national and global scales. For example, Pelin Tan’s comments are interesting in that they show how the recent changes in Tophane are informed by larger-scale dynamics; she has diagnosed the change in the “locality” through her own observations interpreted in the light of a critique of neo-liberalism: “The change began when the ‘rather ordinary’ little house of the muhtar [municipal officer responsible for and elected by the neighborhood] was converted into an Ottoman-style wooden house. The whole process was finalized within a few weeks. The structure is now shining in the middle of the Tophane Park, fulfilling the desire for the revitalization of ‘pure’ Turkish identity” (2007: 487). Yet, as Tan has noted, this re-invention of an Ottoman neighborhood amidst the gentrification of the area, “would naturally be experienced as completely asynchronous by residents” of Tophane (2007: 487).

The existing population of Tophane at the moment mostly consists of migrants with Arabic origin from Eastern parts of Turkey, who practically replaced the non-Muslim minorities-Armenians, Greeks, and Jews-who were forced out of İstanbul through hostile nationalist campaigns culminating in the violent events of September 6-7, 1955.[3] There are also Kurdish and Roma people living as minorities in the district; they are subject to discrimination by the majority of the residents in the locality. Therefore, the majority of “the people” in Tophane are already complicit with the hegemonic practices and discourses of the state; furthermore, they are known to have “strong” ties with extreme right-wing parties, such as the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP, Nationalist Movement Party) and the Büyük Birlik Partisi (BBP, Great Unity Party), as well as with the pro-Islamic Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party) in power and the municipality represented by the AKP in İstanbul, through the existence of political and religious organizations in the district. Yet, “the people” in Tophane also constitute a social group that is underprivileged and highly vulnerable in the face of the recent transformations. As I have noted above, Tophane is undergoing a rapid process of change, renovation, and re-building-the newly founded art galleries being one of its apparent symptoms. The recent and proposed transformations in line with the gentrification process in İstanbul threaten most members of the existing population in Tophane with displacement.

My first visit to Tophane, the site to which we will return at different moments in the article, is motivated by a recent incident. On 21 September 2010, when five newly founded, neighboring art galleries in Tophane jointly organized a Tophane Artwalk (a name advertised in English) for a simultaneous opening of art shows in the galleries, there was a violent assault against a group of people who came to the openings. A group of men, allegedly from the neighborhood, armed with iron sticks and pepper gas, fiercely attacked the men and women who were enjoying their drinks and chatting with each other in front of the galleries. Several persons were severely wounded, while others fled in horror. The incident triggered a major debate in Turkish cultural and political circles. While the police was obviously indifferent to the assault and no serious legal action was taken against the aggressors-in other words, the incident was apparently hushed by the authorities[4]-there was a heated debate among various intellectuals, and they were highly divided in their reactions.[5] It was as if all that was at stake were interpreting the possible motives of the locals leading to the aggression, but not finding and penalizing the actual aggressors.[6] The Islamist and conservative intellectuals argued that the reaction of “the people” from the district of Tophane against the art audience was of a moral and religious nature, since those artsy fellows were drinking and enjoying themselves out in the street and especially since most women were dressed in miniskirts and outfits with low cuts, going against the religious and moral sensitivities of the locals.[7] Many left-leaning intellectuals, on the other hand, thought that this was a necessary, even revolutionary reaction of “the people” against the gentrification of the district, aided by the upper-class world of art galleries, the gentrification which displaces or impoverishes the lower strata;[8] other, still leftist, but so-called secularist or laique intellectuals claimed that the conservative “people” of Tophane were to be blamed, since they had no taste for art and no tolerance for secularism, multi-culturalism, and modern life-styles.[9]

Although it is not possible to go into the details of the incident and all the different positions in its aftermath, I find the debate highly significant for revealing how “the people” in the district were taken as a whole and ascribed certain qualities, either negative or positive, without much need for further specific inquiry. This reminds one of Yael Navaro-Yashin’s analysis of the discourse of “civil society” imagined as the site of “the culture of the people” after the 1980s in Turkey, producing a reified construction of “the people.” Her research has revealed how this construction has been enabled by Islamist politics through a discourse of society against the secularist elites and the state, and how it was soon adopted by the so-called secularist elites evoking a similar construct in a competing way (2002). I would furthermore argue that the way in which “the people” have been instrumentalized in the above discussion is symptomatic of a certain crisis of representation: while the locals do not have many opportunities to vocalize their problems and demands, let alone their memories of the transformations in the district, their motivations are over-interpreted according to differing political ideologies.

I contend that neither theories of gentrification, nor easy assumptions about either the conservatism or the resistance of “the people” of Tophane can be explanatory on their own. Although there is a misleading myth of a unified neighborhood, as has been critically noted by the social geographer Jean-François Pérouse,[10] the district is quite heterogeneous in terms of its population and has a long, layered and complex history, with which one has to engage before generating any interpretation of the recent attacks against the art galleries. But my aim here is not to add yet another interpretation to the existing ones regarding the above incident. Instead, I would like to make a detour, tracing the story of a forlorn object-the broken Workers’ Monument-in the same district, not very far from the site of the incident, in order to problematize the representations of the “locality” and “the people” that are produced today, so as to reflect on what remains unrepresentable within the complex history-in other words, to reflect on the problem of power, history, and memory/counter-memory.

The invisibility and visibility of the Workers’ Monument

Years ago, when I was a politically active university student at the end of the 1970s, it was of great concern to us leftists that the Workers’ Monument in Tophane had been attacked by fascists, a term that we used for those organized groups that were extremely violent against leftist organizations and people and seemingly against anything that represented socialism, such as the statue of a worker holding a sledgehammer.[11] I must say that we did not really know much about the history of the monument, why and by whom it was built, but we took it as a symbol of our socialist struggle. And we grieved its destruction in that framework, without actually knowing who, and with what motives, was responsible for its destruction. That was before the 1980 military coup, an important rupture in the social, political. and economic history of Turkey.[12] Much later, in the 2000s, whenever I mentioned the broken Workers’ Monument in my social memory course in the Department of Sociology at Boğaziçi University, as a memory trace that keeps returning to me, none of my students were aware of its existence. Then, I also began to have doubts whether it still existed, or even whether it had existed at all. Although it is placed right at the center of the Tophane Park facing a very busy central avenue and although one passes the park quite frequently, the broken monument had apparently grown invisible over time. I always thought I should look for it, but then, whenever passing by, always forgot to check if it was there. It was as if one avoided such a sight, as something disturbing, something alien, yet so much imbued with the memories of a past time.


Muzaffer Ertoran, “İşçi”, 1973. Designed as a postcard for “7th Man” performance realized by Hafriyat-Yenisinemacılar-HaZaVuZu-İstanbul, 2010

The Austrian novelist Robert Musil has written that “there is nothing as invisible in the world as a monument” (cited in Huyssen, 2003: 32). Here Musil is referring to a pacifying closure brought by the monumental. However, in the case of the broken Workers’ Monument, the monument became invisible not because of a closure, but because of an open wound, which, when “normalized,” can also be pacifying for a different reason. When discussing the selectivity of remembering as always informed by the present context, Freud has argued that forgetting shields against unwanted and shocking registers of memories. In Turkey, the memories of the 1980 military coup and the political struggles that were crushed by its violence are still far from having been worked through, and the traumas still have debilitating effects on society. Yet, I should add that the present is never perfectly closed in a traumatic case, as the present also bears the potential to unexpectedly bring back unwanted memories as the return of the repressed.

The Workers’ Monument did return indeed. I will now dwell on how the broken monument has just recently become visible once again. Two incidents had an impact.

First, on the night of 15 March 2010, the artist collective Hafriyat[13] organized an art event that aimed to secretly “steal” the Workers’ Monument, just to create awareness about its presence and to make the monument visible. The artist group said that,

in this project, which may be regarded as a ‘memoir-memory’ initiative aiming to raise awareness of collective memories, Hafriyat Group builds its approach upon a temporary displacement of the Worker statue in collaboration with the Yeni Sinemacılar and Hazzavuzu art groups. The project derives from the discreet removal of the statue and the recording and documentation of responses from the public and state institutions, as well as all forms of related publications, news, documents and information. And of course, in this open-ended project, the invisibility of the Worker statue is used to make the issue visible in all its contexts (Akagündüz, 2011: 177).

However, while the project was being executed and recorded at the same time that night, “the people” of Tophane, as it was reported in the media,[14] noticing that there was some activity around the monument, stopped the artists and claimed back their broken monument. This is a very interesting claim that I will discuss below. Nevertheless, albeit a “failure,” the art event enjoyed media coverage, bringing back to us the image of the broken monument.[15]

The broken Workers’ Monument, Tophane, 2011. Photo: Balca Ergener

The second incident that contributed to the visibility of the Workers’ Monument is more recent and has also introduced the term “monster” in relation to monuments. In January of 2011, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan, visited Kars, a city on the Turkish-Armenian border, and when he saw the tallest “civil” monument of Turkey (approximately 30 meters high), the Humanity Monument, under construction there, he called it ucube, literally meaning “monster.” The monument, sponsored by the previous mayor of Kars,[16] is designed by the sculptor Mehmet Aksoy,[17] with the declared purpose of sending messages of friendship to the Armenians across the border. Actually, it is so tall that it can be seen from Armenia, the artist has claimed.[18] However, the Prime Minister was quite straightforward in disclosing his dislike and consequently advising that the “monster” be demolished.[19] The term “monster” quickly circulated in different circles and triggered yet another debate on the question of monuments in Turkey.[20] Interestingly, soon thereafter, the term “monster” was associated with the Workers’ Monument in Tophane. In the media there were articles arguing that in Turkey most statues and monuments suffer from vandalism, carried out either by the people or by the state itself, and that the Workers’ Monument in Tophane should be remembered as a typical example.[21] In fact, these articles pointed to the broken Workers’ Monument as a monster. Now, so many years after its construction and the long process of its destruction, the media has urged the public to take notice of the tragic story of the “monster” in Tophane.

How did this monument turn into a monster, and what does it signify? How does it relate to other monuments that have turned into monsters? And specifically what does it say about “the people” of Tophane, as suspects of many violent incidents including the recent attack against the art galleries, when they claim back the monster as their own monument? This seems to be a curious case, and at the same time a horror story.

Continue to part II

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[1] A shorter version of this paper was presented as one of the plenary lectures at the ASCA Practicising Theory International Conference and Workshop 2011, later it was published in the special issue entitled “Turkishness and Its Discontents” of New Perspectives on Turkey 45 (2011). We are grateful to the New Perspectives on Turkey journal for their permission to republish the article in Red Thread.

[2] Researched and analyzed in Aslı Odman’s continuing PhD thesis, The Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History, Boğaziçi University.

[3] For a historical account of these incidents, see Güven (2006). For an article that interprets the attacks against the exhibition titled “Incidents of September 6-7 on their Fiftieth Anniversary” at Karşı Sanat Çalışmaları, İstanbul, 2005, see also Ergener (2009).

[4] The artists and gallery owners made a declaration after the event, claiming that this was a pre-planned and organized attack and not just a spontaneous fight with the local residents and insisted that the perpetrators be found. They also pointed out the passivity of the police during the attacks. Seven persons were taken in custody after the incident, but were soon released. The İstanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, on the other hand, attempted to present the incident in his press release as a simple feud between the local residents and the art crowd, due to the latter blocking the pavements during the so-called Artwalk (Radikal, 22 September 2010). The Tophane news website, which claims to be the voice of the neighborhood, had a very aggressive tone against the galleries and their crowd, accusing them of introducing moral deterioration to the neighborhood (www.tophanehaber.com).

[5] The incident immediately triggered various reactions from intellectuals, and there were heated debates in the media. For a comprehensive and critical evaluation of these debates, see Tuncay Birkan, “Tophane Saldırısı Sonrası: Mutenalaştırma ‘Tahlilleri'” (Birikim Güncel, 8 October 2010); Süreyya Evren, “Tophane Saldırısının Ardından Belirlenen Resmi Açıklamanın Bir Reddi” (Birikim Güncel, 14 October 2010).

[6] Tuncay Birkan made the very important point that the “analyses” immediately after the incident, especially from the “left camp” which saw this incident as a reaction of the local residents to the capitalist gentrification in the district, instead of inquiring about the specifics of a possible organized fascist attack (which had its antecedents in the district), could be read as a symptom of the anti-intellectualism and self-hatred of the leftists. “Tophane Saldırısı Sonrası: Mutenalaştırma ‘Tahlilleri'” (Birikim Güncel, 8 October 2010).

[7] “Drinking” and “mini-skirts” were repeated themes that surfaced in several news items about the incident. Yasin Aktay has provided a wider context, arguing that the new “life-styles” that are being imported to the district go against the “family life” established in this “neighborhood” (“Tophane’de ‘Mahalleye Baskı’, Yeni Şafak, 25 September 2010).

[8] The most extreme interpretation in this vein came from Ferhat Kentel who has argued that the attack against the galleries in Tophane had a class base, which opposed the intruding gentrification and alienating capitalist relations into the locality; therefore, one should consider this reaction as an attempt of “protection” or even “resistance” by the locals (www.markist.org, 6 October 2010).

[9] The novelist Ahmet Ümit has best exemplified this attitude in an interview, calling the attack a “barbarism” that goes against the spirit of İstanbul, against modernization, against art, against multi-culturalism and tolerance (Hürriyet, 9 October 2010).

[10] Unpublished round table discussion on the Tophane incident, organized by Read Thread e-journal, Depo, 4 December 2010. See also Pérouse (2011).

[11] The photograph of the original statue taken before its destruction represents a particular monumental style resembling the Soviet workers cult in the 1930s.

[12] The military coup in 1980 was one of the most significant events in Turkey’s history and has set a harsh rupture point, leading to radical changes in the texture of society under the surveillance of a violent military dictatorship. Political organizations and parties were banned; thousands of people were arrested, tortured and killed; many went into exile; many disappeared. At the same time, the economy was liberalized, prioritizing the market as the new motor and mirror of society and producing new discourses about desirable ways of life. See Gürbilek, 2011.

[13] Hafriyat, meaning “excavation” in Turkish, is the name of a group of artists who defend autonomous principles in art production. They refuse to engage in conventional art practices and instead emphasize collective work that deals with the excavation of cultures and memories in the modern city for creating new spaces of life. They opened their own venue in Karaköy in 2007, which hosted many politically spectacular exhibitions before closing down in 2010.

[14] Many newspapers covered the art event, publishing the image of the broken monument and making statements such as “The art event failed. The Hafriyat Group planned a good ‘action’ in order to attract attention to forgotten and destroyed statues. The worker statue in Tophane was going to be stolen one night. However, it turned out that the residents somehow wanted to lay a claim to their statue.” Radikal, 24 Mart 2010. See also Banu Güven, “İşçi Heykelinin Çilesi,” Radikal, 3 April 2010.

[15] Hafriyat’s video work, which tells of the process of the art event and which is named Seventh Man (after John Berger and Jean Mohr’s book A Seventh Man, 1982) was shown as part of the art exhibition Tactics of Invisibility, co-curated by Emre Baykal and Daniela Zyman, in Vienna, Berlin and İstanbul in 2010-2011. Although the art video Seventh Man aims to reveal and discuss the issues around the Workers’ Monument, it does not really reflect on the “reaction” of the “people” in Tophane during the art event.

[16] The previous mayor, Naif Alibeyoğlu, was a member of the AKP, but due to conflicts with the party resigned in 2008 and transferred to the opposition party, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP, Republican People’s Party).

[17] Mehmet Aksoy is an established sculptor in Turkey, also known for the controversies around his artwork. His statue Periler Ülkesi, which was placed in the Altınpark in Ankara, was removed in 1994 by decision of the Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek of the AKP, with insulting words such as “I spit on such art.” Aksoy took the case to court and won, after which the statue was re-erected in the same spot. See Mehmet Aksoy’s book of interviews (2009).

[18] The former mayor of Kars wanted a monument that could be seen from Armenia. The sculptor Mehmet Aksoy emphasized in his interviews with national and international media that this monument symbolizes peace and not enmity, as do monuments of genocide. He criticized Erdoğan’s insulting words and insisted that he had a contract with the municipality; therefore, the monument could not be demolished. He also filed a lawsuit to cancel the decision. The issue raised a big debate in society. Many people signed petitions against the decision. A public meeting was held in the Beşiktaş Akatlar Kültür Merkezi to discuss the issue of the “monster statue,” and the painter Bedri Baykam, who was publicly speaking against the demolition of the monument, was stabbed by an audience member as he walked to his car after the meeting. Later, a group of intellectuals and artists went to Kars to protest the decision to demolish the sculpture (Cumhuriyet, 23 April 2011).

[19] After Erdoğan’s declaration, there were also debates within the government, and while the Minister of Foreign Affairs supported the Prime Minister’s verdict, the Minister of Culture attempted to give another interpretation, according to which the word “monster” had not been used for the statue, but for the neighboring shantytowns; he also suggested that the monument would not be demolished. However, Prime Minister Erdoğan affirmed that he had used the word “monster” for the monument, re-emphasizing that it was very ugly and that such an artwork could not be accepted to stand so close to the old Islamic monuments of Kars, such as the Seyyid Hasan al-Harakani Shrine and Mosque (www.dha.com.tr).

[20] “Türkiye Heykellerinin Bahtsız Tarihi,” Radikal, 12 January 2011; Emre Aköz, “Ucube Heykellerle Dolu bu Memleket,” Sabah, 14 January 2001; Yılmaz Ergüvenç, “Heykel Alerjisi,” www.kenthaber.com, 13 January 2011.

[21] Kanat Atkaya, “Tophane’deki Ucube ve Kader Ortakları,” Hürriyet, 11 January 2011; “Heykeller Ucubedir, İçine Tükürülür, Yıkılır,” Milliyet 12 January 2011ak 2011.

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