Love in Objects: The Museum of Innocence
BY TESSA AYSON
The Museum of Innocence is located in the Çukurçuma neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey, conceived of in tandem with its eponymous novel by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. It is set up across three floors, each no larger than a few small feet wide and a few tall people long. The objects are organized into exactly eighty-three boxes, which correspond to the eighty-three chapters of the novel. This novel spans eight years of obsessive love, charting protagonist Kemal’s ruminations on the nature of life and love. He falls in love with his cousin, Füsun, but their relationship is doomed before it even begins; Kemal is engaged to another woman. He breaks off the wedding, loses Füsun as well, and spends the next eight years pilfering items from Füsun’s family household where he eats dinner every night with her family.
The objects that Kemal collects ward off the profound melancholy that threatens to overwhelm him, and he is able to take solace in their comforting aroma and touch, knowing that Füsun has touched the very same surfaces. “Sometimes I would see [the objects] not as mementos of the blissful hours but as the tangible precious debris of the storm raging in my soul,” Kemal tells the reader, whom he addresses personally throughout the novel. Eventually he wins Füsun back, only to watch her die in a fatal car crash a few short weeks later. The novel culminates in Kemal’s hiring of Orhan Pamuk to carry out the museum project that is to commemorate Füsun.
The Museum’s collection could well have been curated by a nighttime spirit ransacking the pages of the novel, making away with the objects described within its pages and depositing them in the tiny, tottering, nondescript family apartment that is the home of the collection. There is something unearthly in the still air of the Museum; excessive noise is discouraged, and the objects hang in their boxes, dangling from invisible string, suspended in time and space. The Museum itself seems similarly suspended, tucked away mere minutes from the sensory-pummeling madness that is Istaklal Caddesi. Lilting Turkish and stilted English, wafting smells of roasted chestnuts, the clicking of shutters and noisy people doing noisy things in noisy excitement – all of this explosive, living energy subsides as you step off the street and into the Museum.
Through the novel’s expansion into the spatial realm, these eight years of longing are marked not through days but through objects, and by endowing the objects with the ability to track the movement of time itself, Pamuk gives them a unique power. Through the displays we learn that time is nothing more than a way of charting change in form – form of objects as well as living things. The constancy and stillness of the collection is therefore all the more haunting, a beautiful illustration of the suspension of time that Kemal endures throughout his separation from Füsun, his lost love.
The absolute ordinariness of the objects, the cigarette butts, tickets, and jewelry that comprise the exhibits, is the focal point of their magic. The objects expand beyond the realm of the novel into real life, disrupting our awareness of real versus fantasy. Imagine your favourite book being made into a film. Seeing the words lifted off their page, entering a three-dimensional space, becoming concrete, solid visual images, is always a disconcerting feeling. Now imagine that same feeling, but with the objects there—right in front of you, not separated by the mediation of cinema.
In his accompanying museum catalogue, Pamuk discusses the “massacre of objects” in Turkey that occurred as society’s focus in the mid twentieth century shifted towards Western ideals and the remnants of its Ottoman past were destroyed, leaving behind an “eerie emptiness”. For Pamuk this massacre is a societal and cultural threat; because of his belief in objects’ spiritual importance, the massacre effectively destroyed a large portion of Turkish history. Istanbul was once the centre of the mighty Ottoman Empire, the East and West combining to augment its might. But the same east-west fusion that previously made Istanbul so powerful now seems to be working against it. Istanbul is balanced on the geographical divide between Europe and Asia, teetering like a tightrope walker on dotted map lines.
The sense of melancholy that resulted from the dissolve of this empire encompasses all of Turkish society, Pamuk argues, and is manifest in the resolute solitude of the objects. They are neither Eastern nor Western, but very specifically Turkish. Raki, the national alcohol, is displayed, as well as çay, the ubiquitous national tea. There are Turkish newspaper articles and photos; one particularly powerful box shows a collage of images, seventy or eighty newspaper pictures of women with black bands over their eyes to conceal their identity. If a man tried to escape marrying a girl he slept with, her furious father would take the unfortunate male to court and the press would publish the poor girl’s photo with the concealing band so as not to besmirch her honor. The same band was used for prostitutes, adulteresses, and rape victims. Pamuk uses this piece to illustrate the terrifying complexities of dating in 1970’s Turkey – put a foot wrong, and end up as another lost identity in the masquerade of hidden faces.
The Museum’s displays elucidate the subtle beauty that exists within the ordinariness of everyday life, the banality of newspapers and food and drink and odd family photos that do not belong to Pamuk. In a curious parallel to the novel, where Kemal pilfered objects that belonged to others, Pamuk acquired many of the objects that form the collection from the tiny antique stores around the Çukurçuma neighborhood. These oases are magical in themselves; they are crammed to bursting with tottering remnants of the past, curated by tiny old men drinking sweet tea. Dust forms a thick barrier between the past and the present, coating every surface and permeating the air itself with the thick smell of ageing. These stores are a treasure trove of Turkish identities hoarded by quiet shop owners. You can buy someone’s jewellery, cutlery; even their personal family album, peeling black-and white photos stuck onto thick, cracked pages. Pamuk has made full use of this eerie transplanting of identity, appropriating the possessions of unknown people to tell a story that necessarily becomes the story of a much larger social context.
The objects perfectly encapsulate the city’s split soul. They are quintessentially Turkish, and therefore draw upon the influence of the East and the West as well as something else that is defined by Istanbul alone. Wandering the neighboring districts of Istanbul is an utterly bewildering experience. In less than a minute of traversing cracked pavements, all the sights, sounds and smells accosting your senses change radically. One moment, the streets are cobbled, a charming, eclectic tapestry of mismatched bricks that catch your ankle because your face is upturned hungrily, soaking in the beauty of the piled-up apartments and the little old ladies traversing dizzying flights of stairs with pounds and pounds of fresh groceries. The next moment, you emerge into a bustling hub of high-powered businesswomen, barking into iPhones, toting Gucci hold-alls and tottering in stilettos that would certainly not hold up to the patchwork cobblestones of a street that lies thirty seconds’ walk away.
The museum’s exhibits capture this interplay between the scarves and the stilettos. There is a serendipitous beauty in the mundane, the teaspoons and saltshakers and used cigarettes that form the essence of the collection. However, there is nothing serendipitous in their organization; the objects are painstakingly arranged, each telling their own specific tale, both consolidating and extending the novel’s detailed commentary on Turkish society and the ‘[two] souls [of Istanbul that] are continuously in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other.’ (Orhan Pamuk, 2005 interview). These dual souls seem to have taken up residence in the still coolness of the Museum, showing themselves as transient reflections that shimmer across the polished glass exteriors of the exhibits. There is a quiet certitude in the precision of the collection, a knowledge that mourns the loss of everything that has been and will be.
I cannot think of a more literal and powerful example of the phrase ‘bringing an object to life.’ This museum is no small artistic endeavor; it represents the melding of two genres, two times and two genres of artistic expression. It is this last melding that I find to be most interesting, that of the transition between two very different art forms. The novel has been translated into tens of languages, but this particular translation, from the flat off-white pages crammed with words to the evocative three-dimensional representations of the complicated process of love, is certainly its most powerful.
How, you may ask, does one craft a representation of love from teaspoons and cigarette butts?
A valid question indeed. The answer lies in Pamuk’s extraordinary attention to detail; he takes into account the minutest descriptions, down to the colour of Füsun’s lipstick, changing each day she smokes her favourite Samsun cigarettes. 4,213 of these cigarettes are mounted in an installation on the ground floor. Each is pinned to the display, encased in glass; next to it is a number and a date in spidery, scrawling black ink. Many of the cigarettes are stained with lipstick, all of varying shades of pink and red. Taking in details like these feels like the times when you wake up from an afternoon nap and completely forget where you are and what your name is. Everything is blurred; details are slippery and hard to grab a hold of. Perhaps, as you are examining the spectrum of lipstick colours, a shout from the fruit vendors that clatter up and down the cobblestoned streets outside the museum will catapult you back into reality, and you will ‘wake up,’ confused as to whether you live inside the pages of a novel and whether, just perhaps, Fusün is a real person with a real addiction and a lot of different lipsticks.
Photo courtesy of author