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Fast and Best is a single-screen video installation produced in an edition of six plus two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is second in the edition. The video, shot in a single take with a hand-held camera, is just over seven and a half minutes long. It shows a group of young dancers practicing a traditional dance in what appears to be the hall of a municipal building. Recorded traditional Kurdish dance music plays in the background. The camera focuses exclusively on the dancers from the waist down, showing their legs as they perform a detailed and precise series of steps. The dancers are uniformly dressed in dark jeans and heavily worn casual shoes, making it difficult to discern whether they are male or female. At the beginning of the video the dancers stand in a line one behind the other and advance in formation towards the camera. As the dance progresses they re-group in a row standing hip to hip. Towards the end they break away into pairs before coming back into line. The performance is underway when the video begins and continues after the camera switches off, suggesting that the dance is endless.
As the work’s title suggests the dancers move quickly and almost flawlessly. Occasionally their footwork is synchronised so accurately that they appear to move as one. Their precise movements recall the stylised march of a military drill. At other moments the individuality and idiosyncrasy of the performers are more evident. One dancer breaks away to tie a shoelace. The teacher leading the group moves in briefly to re-position a slightly out of place foot.
The video was filmed in Atay’s home town of Batman in the Kudish region of Turkey close to the Iraqi border. Batman lies in an ancient region of southeastern Anatolia; its modern history has been dominated by oil production. Years of political oppression and military intervention have left the city devastated and poverty-stricken. Atay has described the conditions he faces making work in Batman, saying, ‘I live in a town where it is practically impossible to produce art ... To penetrate daily life, to find the depth of the time in the moment, to reflect this in the town in which one lives and to struggle for understanding... these are the difficulties faced in producing art in this town’ (quoted in Poetic Justice, p.72). Atay’s videos are improvised quickly, often with borrowed equipment. Restrictions of time and finances mean that he and his collaborators have no time to rehearse. The informal, spontaneous quality of his videos is the result of these constraints.
By only showing the dancers’ legs, Atay focuses attention on the skill of their movements but also imposes a degree of distance on his subjects, emphasising their otherness to a Western audience. Kurdish culture has been subject to severe repression yet its unique cultural traditions have survived. The dance recorded in Fast and Best may be interpreted as a defiant assertion of Kurdish culture in the face of an encroaching Western influence exemplified by the dancers’ jeans and trainers.
Dan Cameron, ed., Poetic Justice: 8th International Istanbul Biennial, exhibition catalogue, Istanbul, 2003.
Vasif Kortun, Undesire, exhibition brochure, Apexart, New York, 2003.
Adrian Searle, ‘Lost in translation’, Guardian, 16 March 2004, www.guardian.co.uk/arts/critic/feature/0,1169,1170190,00.html.