Formicarium: Keeping the collective memory of city of ants

A twenty-nine year old artist from Diyarbakır is questioning the demolition of his hometown’s city walls, comparing his past with today’s Istanbul at his new exhibition at Pg Art Gallery in Çukurcuma. In 1932, the Turkish government demolished the historical city walls of Diyarbakır in order to “let the city breathe”. The destruction was halted thanks to the archeologist Albert Louis Gabriel’s letter to the government.

After his move to Istanbul, Hasan Pehlevan has witnessed demolition of other walls in the name of urban renewal. This time, there are no goodwill letters. Just an ongoing demolition and disappearance of collective memories… As a multidisciplinary artist, Hasan aims keeping memories fresh; he paints, leaves his mark as a street artist on the walls of soon-to-be-demolished Fikirtepe, he photographs pieces of his own ruined art and records his hunt for those ruins.

Sounds of Istanbul

At one of my favorite directors Ferzan Ozpetek’s latest movie, Rosso Istanbul, there was a continuous construction noise in the background in exterior scenes. Turkish-Italian director said that he did it intentionally to reflect today’s Istanbul. In the past 10 years, economy in Turkey has been boosted by construction; demolition, renewal, new living spaces are glorified for the sake of a new, big Turkey. Buildings after buildings appear; more than we need, more than we want. Old neighborhoods are torn down for the sake of “new luxurious lifestyles”. Fikirtepe, is one of these neighborhoods. If you Google it, you are instantly welcomed by the web pages of construction companies offering you “a dreamy life”. On the other hand, someone else’s dreams are crushed. Hasan Pehlevan has visited Fikirtepe many times between 2014-2017 and contributed to this disappearing place with his art. He left his marks on the walls of Fikirtepe before and as the urban renewal project went on. When the old neighborhood was demolished for the “dreamy” life, Hasan went back. Among the ruins, he searched for the pieces of his art. The neighborhood has become an “excavation site” for the artist and he has become “an archeologist”. As Hasan searches pieces of his paintings, you search for the pieces with the artist through a video at his solo exhibition. You walk around in Fikirtepe with the artist, lift, put aside, throw away stones to find the remaining paint on demolished walls through the camera the artist wear on his head and think about the question posed by the artist: Does art have the power to stop destruction?

A city of ants

When Hasan looks at Istanbul, he sees a city of ants. I was very touched by his recent interview where he says that when he imagines the people climbing the stairs at the business plazas every morning, climbing for their careers, climbing to earn money, climbing for the most basic need, to be able to eat, he thinks of ants. As people, we create colonies, build huge buildings and trap ourselves in them in order “to survive”.

I am an ant. I do climb stairs. Everyday. Honestly, I don’t think much about it. I belong to a corporate colony. All those years of public school, then a (corporate backed) university education led me to think that I should be a part of a corporate colony “to survive”.

Based on these observations, Hasan Pehlevan’s exhibition is named after the Latin words for habitat (carium) of ants (formi) and adapted as formicarium. This exhibition is a kind of a space designed to observe and translate the behaviors of human habitat constructed as ant colonies and their ways of living.

As human beings, we build, we cooperate and we survive. And now, as a part of the “new Turkey” vision, we also destroy, we move, we renew our spaces. The ants do not give much of a thought about the destruction. The ants watch, they continue being a part of the process. Therefore, with his different point of view, as an outside observer to the ant habitat, the artist assumes the role of the archivist. The destruction process is archived by Pehlevan through art, to keep the city memories alive, to tell the story of the city of ants.


On the gallery’s walls at Çukurcuma, you are introduced to the art pieces that Hasan found in Fikirtepe (formerly created by himself, then destroyed by the demolition project); some brought together, some trapped in casted white cubes along with the paintings and photographs reflecting the city’s ongoing phase full of bricks, stones, big projects, “new dreams” and construction machines.

You are now welcome to explore Hasan’s “archive”, his solo exhibition Formicarium, until December 15th at Pg Art Gallery. Just walk through the construction area that is called (the good old) Beyoğlu and walk down to Çukurcuma.


This article was originally published on Yabangee, on December 8, 2017:


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