Later, I wanted to look closer at two or three things and asked the proprietor to extract them for me. Watching him restore them to their original positions after inspection only confirmed that until an object is sold, or he makes a considered adjustment, everything has an allotted place, just as if an artist constructing a walk-in assemblage had determined the exact relationship of each part. The owner’s name is A. Karaca Borar and he said he had always been a collector — that came as no surprise. According to his website, Borar had his first flea market stand in 1980 on Columbus Avenue and 83rd Street in New York. Much of the material has its origins overseas, though he doesn’t import and said he finds 90 to 95 percent of it in Turkey. Son of a playwright, Borar studied in London and told me he dislikes the Turkish custom of bargaining over prices. On one of the two small items I wanted to buy he refused to budge by a single lira, saying the package was a rare piece of design history and he would rather keep it than sell it for less than the asking price. He tolerated my lengthy picture-taking, observing wryly, after a while, that I could do a book about him.
2. The Innocence of Objects
Earlier that morning, while giving a talk about Surrealism and the graphic image as part of the Grafist design week, I had discussed the cabinet of curiosities — The Works is an extreme contemporary version. After my lecture, as I was about to set out in search of The Works, a French student approached me to mention a nearby museum called The Museum of Innocence, founded by the Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. It sounded marvelous and I would have gone there at once if I had known the address. Next day, in Istanbul’s Book Bazaar, I chanced upon the illustrated catalogue Pamuk has produced for his museum. (At present, it’s only available in Turkish; an English translation, The Innocence of Objects, will follow in October.)
Pamuk’s museum, which opened on April 28, is an extraordinary venture. I might have made it the subject of an entire post if I had been able to take photographs inside. In Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence (2008), the lovelorn narrator, Kemal, constructs a museum of objects and images connected to the woman he obsessively adores, Füsun, an idea inspired by his restless worldwide travels to hundreds of museums strange and obscure. In a chapter titled “The Museum of Innocence,” for instance, in the space of a page, Kemal extols Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, the Museu Frederic Marès in Barcelona (celebrated in a previous post), and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California — all firm favorites of this blog and institutions where the historical and poetical spirit of the cabinet of curiosities still thrives.
The Museum of Innocence occupies a tall, specially converted, burgundy-painted house in Çukurcuma not far from The Works. A cabinet or display assembled in accordance with Pamuk’s instructions by a team of collaborators represents each of the book’s 83 chapters — the chapter title becomes the exhibit title. The illuminated, glass-fronted wooden cabinets, tightly packed together and divided across two floors, often recall the surreal boxed assemblages of Joseph Cornell, the form’s great master. In a chapter titled “The Consolation of Objects,” Kemal describes how it would ease the pain of Füsun’s absence to put into his mouth and taste “an object of our common memories that bore her essence.” All of the objects mentioned in the passage that follows this quotation can be seen in the cabinet: a nut and currant crescent roll, a hand mirror used as an imaginary microphone, a toy Ankara Express train, a space gun, a nutcracker, a cigarette butt that Füsun had stubbed out. Other cabinets are greatly more elaborate, with dozens and even hundreds of objects, including photographs, identity cards, newspaper cuttings, film sequences, and in one of the larger displays, a floral print dress worn by Füsun. Many of these objects were sourced from junk and antique shops in the Çukurcuma neighborhood — one of the photographs of these establishments in the catalogue looks like it was taken at The Works.It isn’t necessary to have read the novel to enjoy the Museum of Innocence, though I saw one couple going round carefully cross-checking each cabinet against a Kindle. Pamuk’s protracted and hugely expensive labor of love, which he always planned to accompany the book, should become a prime exhibit and talking point for students in illustration classes. Has any work of fiction ever received a more ambitious, intricate and exhaustive visual interpretation? (Pamuk originally intended to become an architect and artist.) The project is also a fabulously extended example of Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn’s “Significant Object” genre of writing — in this case, a vast system of objects constitutes a fully realized fictional world, where every item, wherever it happened to come from, acquires a new backstory. At the same time, the Museum of Innocence is a form of history in objects, a scintillating insight into the social life of Istanbul in the second half of the 20th century released by the collision of so many artifacts that enshrine these memories.