Orhan Pamuk: art novels and egoistic collectors (an interview)

Stefano Pirovano

In occasion of the Museum of Innocence’s exhibition at the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi in Milan Orhan Pamuk discusses with CFA the message of this unique narrative project and his view on collecting.

Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is on tour around the world conveying its unique eighty-three vitrines’ narrative and compelling cultural message. After having been exhibited at the Somerset House in London (2016), and at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo (2017), twenty-nine faithful copies of its vitrines – the largest selection up to now ever presented outside the Museum – are currently on display at the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi  in Milan, which is also one of the novel’s main character’s five favourite museums in the world. Pamuk visited the charming Milanese house museum three times during the writing of the book (first published in 2008). In occasion of his last visit, a year before the novel was published, Pamuk wrote in the museum guestbook: ‘I love this house, the idea and the imagination that hide behind these walls. They influenced me a lot for the novel I am writing, The Museum of Innocence‘. That is why this Italian episode is so relevant for the evolution of Pamuk’s multimedia project. Moreover, last year the Accademia di Brera gave him a Honorary Degree and organized for that instance a seminary dedicated to the Museum of Innocence (Un sogno a Milano, Johan&Levi, 2017). This fascinating collection of memorabilia from the love story between Kemal and Füsun not only questions in depth the fundamental relation between form and information, but also that between collectors and museums. Here what the author told us about the Museum of Innocence’s past, present and future life.

Did you have clear in mind since the beginning how the Museum of Innocence would have looked like? Or, was it a work in progress linked to the writing of the novel?

Orhan Pamuk: I conceived both the Museum and the novel together. I didn’t write the novel first, and after its success, decided to create a museum out of it. They were born together. At the beginning, I was thinking that the novel could also operate as an annotated catalogue of the museum without pictures. But the museum was moving slower than the novel. Following the initial enthusiasm I thus finished the novel . Then I did the museum, which however I had already thought about, including many details. While completing the museum, I also started to care more and more about the aesthetics of the vitrines and the beauty of the things that I put together. That’s why maybe I didn’t exhibit some of the collections related to the novel, like my collection of outdated Turkish matches or the one of Hilton Hotels’ ephemera.

Could you elaborate on this latter point please? Did the aesthetics of the museum influence the selection of the objects it was going to preserve?

Orhan Pamuk: As I was finishing the museum, I realised Turkish matches and Hilton Hotels’ ephemera didn’t look nice; or I didn’t know how to make them look good. So I put them aside and focused on my label as an artist… installation artist, museum artist or conceptual artist. Although I thought of the museum and the novel simultaneously, because of the time difference, the museum developed later. Hence, I decided that a visual catalogue of the Museum of Innocence was legitimate. So I made a third work, the real catalogue of the Museum, even if initially I had thought of doing only the novel and the Museum. Now, there are three pieces of literature, the Novel, the Museum and the Catalogue of the museum. Later, a British documentary director came about and wanted to do a film not only about the Museum, but also about Istanbul and its relation to the museum. So I wrote some texts for that and made a book which also added more to the software.

Did you ask for the advise of any visual artist or museum curator?

Orhan Pamuk: At the beginning I hadn’t developed any ideas about the style of the museum or of the installation. I thought I would just treat them as objects in a white cube, to put on a pedestal. After a while however the dead artist in me resurrected and I spent more and more time on forming the units, the boxes. In order to put the objects in these compositions, I then needed the help of assistants more than of artists. More or less this is how it developed.

Would you consider yourself also a visual artist or a museum director?

orhan pamuk: First you do things, like a child, in a very playful way. You don’t ask yourself this kind of questions. Only later, professors, conceptual people or journalists start to ask you what this is, whether it is conceptual art or installation, or a museum…

So, what is it?

Orhan Pamuk: If you ask me, I think it should be considered as conceptual installation art. In the end, the whole building is an art installation, even if it was already existing. Although it’s a bit complicated, I do enjoy talking about this breaking of the boundaries, of these sometimes arbitrary yet necessary academic distinctions between things. But it is also nice to transgress and play around with them. Once these distinctions are made -conceptual art, installation art, literature and art, word and object-  it is up to artists and creative people to combine these different categories.

How are the art people responding to your unconventional approach?

Orhan Pamuk: There are some friends of mine, maybe a little naïve, who tell me that, for instance, there shouldn’t be any picture in a novel. This is what they had been taught in school and that had formed their minds. I also remember that, when I was ten years old at school in Turkey, our art teacher told us “On a painting you shouldn’t write anything!”. These rules are arbitrary and it’s nice to transgress them.

As a novelist, will you go on combining literature with visual arts?

Orhan Pamuk: Yes, I want to continue intermingling texts and pictures, more than I did before. It’s a good subject. Biographical novels about artists is one thing; composing a novel in such a way that there is the plasticity and acrobatics of a playful artist is another thing. I do care about combining literature and art but this shouldn’t be about glorifying an artist. 

What does “collecting” mean for you?

Orhan Pamuk: In the last twenty pages of my novel, the Museum of Innocence, I argue that getting attached to objects is a common thing. We all get attached to a movie ticket, or a picture of a beloved, or a little doll, or in fact to any object from our lives because we project symbolic value to them while they trigger some of our memories. In our attachments we almost behave like dogs which keep their bones in a corner. However, this isn’t not about collecting. Kemal – protagonist of the novel – raises to the level of collecting when he wants to glorify his love affair and lend a meaning to his objects.  I would say that a horde of objects is raised to a level of collection if there is a logic behind it. If, for instance, I collect the photos of all the blue boats that pass in front of my window, then that’s a collection. But If I randomly take photos of any boat, I wouldn’t define it as collection but as something I may get attached to. A collector is a person who, after a while, cares about exhausting the possibilities of description of that collection.

Would you call collecting an intellectual practice as writing or researching?

Orhan Pamuk: Let me provide you with an example. A book collector is a person who doesn’t read books but who cares about finding that one single book no one has just to honor the logic of his collection ‘all the books with blue titles’. But that doesn’t mean that person is reading or using these books. He is a collector and for him, the object has to respond to the theory, or motivation of his collection. Once the collection is done, It can be put into a building to be exhibited. In that case, we would call it a museum.

We are aware of Kemal’s favourite museums but we don’t know much about his, or yours, favourite collector. Do you have any?

Orhan Pamuk: I like collectors from a distance. I think they are very egoistic and slave to the logic of their collections. As I said, they collect books but they don’t read them; and if you ask them one of their books because you want to read it they are very very afraid you may never return it. We need collectors, they honor their systems but they are less thinkers and more ambitious people. A lot of vanity is also involved. Most of the collectors are essentially men, vain and frustrated with the society. One day I will write about the general profile of the collector… but I don’t want to say more. One of your female collector readers may get upset and answer back.

December 29, 2019