Mashups, or how I became Ben Harvey Kenobe
I first watched Star Wars in 1977. But I was only cast in Star Wars some thirty-four years later.
It was the late Hasan Niyazi–the art history blogger and brains behind Three Pipe Problem–who informed me of my new role. In June 2011, some two years into our friendship, he prefaced an email to me with this note: “(n.b. As a mad Star Wars fan, I must admit a great thrill in knowing an older, wiser Ben to seek rational counsel from!)” My knowledge of Star Wars was and remains limited, but even I got the allusion. I was Obi-Wan. Gasp!
Official confirmation of his decision arrived rapidly, in his next email, when he sent me a picture of my new persona, “just in case”, Hasan explained, “your kids get a kick out of it.” Let us call this Ben composite “Ben Harvey Kenobe” or, as Hasan put it in his file name for the JPeg, “BEN as Jedi.”
But this wasn’t all. Oh no. My new avatar needed to come alive, needed to be inserted into a full-blown narrative, and so his email also included a second and larger image (file name: “Ben Composite”). Here it is.
Here I was, a Jedi (presumably a dead Jedi, at that) offering disembodied advice to Luke Skywalker as he fulfills his mission to blow up the Death Star. That’s weird enough. Weirder still is the fact that outer space has been replaced by pictorial space. You may recognized it as a section from Monet’s well-known work Impression, Sunrise (1872).
But wait a minute. How did any of this come to be? What did Star Wars mean to Hasan? Why–of all things!–a Monet? And why, apart from an accident of naming (and, perhaps, my English accent) did I get cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi?
Let me explain.
Star Wars (The Hasan Remix), episodes I, II and III
A long time ago (1980) in a galaxy far far way (Melbourne, Australia) Hasan Niyazi encountered Star Wars. He watched it on Australian TV and immediately became, as he put it, a “giddy Star Wars fan.” When, decades later, Hasan commissioned a portrait of himself, he asked the artist to include an architectural reference to Jabba’s Palace in Star Wars.
Hasan elaborated on what Star Wars meant to him in a letter to Sedef Piker, a fellow blogger and member of the Turkish diaspora. “Star Wars”, he explained, “is essentially the story of a young person who lived very distant from the centre of everything he was interested in. A mixture of events and his own nature finally took him to a position of prominence, but with horrible obstacles, terrible paternal violence and constant conflict for believing in freedom. Yes – I know its just a ‘space movie’ but that is what Star Wars means to me and many in my generation!”
For Hasan, then, Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker and begins with “Episode IV” not “A Phantom Menace”. (Most children of the 1970s will breathe a sigh of relief.) But Hasan is only beginning to warm to his theme. The next paragraph in his letter to Sedef is decidedly less orthodox and more personal: “Everytime I faced something frightening when I was a little kid, telling myself ‘A jedi wouldnt be scared of this!’ would make me rush in head first. I have a similar demeanour now I guess, but I don’t need that catch cry–I just say ‘ben yapamazsam, kim yapacak?!’ and off I go.”
Hasan’s phrase is Turkish: “If I don’t do it, who will?!”
Now with his thoughts firmly on the motherland, he continues: “I think people with our cultural heritage respond to this type of mythos – and that is what it is – it must be said – our history is littered with individuals who seemed to have turned things by their sheer will and intelligence, from Sultan Mehmet II to Mustafa Kemal. Star Wars seems to fit this perfectly. George Lucas, Star Wars creator was actually quite fond of Turkish history….”
To these two different remixes of the Star Wars “mythos” (one autobiographical, one cultural), we can add a third. This was the the version that included me.
The Rebel Alliance
Since 2009, when he had founded his popular art historical blog Three Pipe Problem, Hasan had been waging an art rebel’s battle against an empire of indifference–complacent professionals, inert institutions, and Art History itself. Here, after all, was an entire discipline that barely seemed to recognize the internet’s existence, let alone treat it as an adequate venue for art historical discourse. He so wanted to be part of the debate, but the debate always seemed to be happening elsewhere–in the lecture halls and conference rooms of academe, in expensive books and journals. Once again, Hasan found himself to be “very distant from the centre of everything he was interested in.”
He would prove that there was a different way of doing things, a more inclusive way. Since the rise of the internet was inexorable, he would eventually get his recognition and find himself at the center of the conversation. Art History would have to follow his example and move to his turf. Three Pipe Problem and Open Raphael Online would then be recognised as the models for a new kind of Art History. If Hasan didn’t do it, who would?
And off he went. He assembled a ragtag group of supporters: a princess here, a wookie there; a crackpot translator in Italy, some maverick academics sprinkled across the globe, and–in ever growing numbers–fans of his blog. They were here, there, and everywhere. Hasan communicated with them through Three Pipe Problem, in the comments sections of various blogs, in volleys of tweets, and in countless emails.
The Monet Connection
In June 2011, Hasan published two posts about about the BBC’s Fake or Fortune TV series. The episode in question featured a disputed Monet and thus piqued Hasan’s longstanding interest in connoisseurship and the methodology (or lack thereof) behind making attributions.
Hasan’s first post summarizes the episode, while his second deals with the program’s critical reception in the media. That would include social media, for he had exchanged some rather bad tempered tweets with Waldemar Januszczak, the art critic. Towards the end of his second post, Hasan characteristically looks for a silver lining. “Decades ago,” he notes, “such bickering would have occurred in a closed journal, seen only by a chosen few. Today, with the miracle of the web, we have professionals, pundits and punters spiritedly debating a topic in real-time across great distances.” The rebel alliance, that is to say, had been making gains.
As an art historian with a research interest in nineteenth-century French art, I fell into the category of “professionals,” and Hasan and I had been in touch during this affair. In a very minor way, I was giving him counsel. And it was when he asked for my impressions of his second post that he first referred to me as an “older, wiser Ben.” Again, Hasan is identifying himself with Luke Skywalker. For who else would be seeking counsel from an older Ben? (And not that much older, I hasten to add. Just three years!)
My reply acknowledged the Obi-Wan reference, but then quickly shifted to more familiar territory. I told him that, in fact, there was one thing that bothered me about the post: the sulphurous colours of the Monet he had included, the Impression, Sunrise. (See, perhaps, the version in the top-left corner of the grid below.)
So I responded as follows. “One comment: Monet’s Impression: soleil levant. Anyhow, every time I see this painting reproduced it looks different. That said, the colours in the image you’ve chosen seem particularly ‘off.’ It looks like a scene from hell!” Ever responsive to feedback, Hasan swapped out the image for a better one and, by the reproduction, added a footnote concerning “[colour] variation in image reproductions, in print, online and on film…. This problem is exaggerated in impressionist works.” It was in his next email that he sent me the Death Star/Monet composite. The landscape in it served to reminder me of the piece of advice I had dispensed.
The image is also amusing. Hasan’s father was profoundly sick at this time, and absorbing himself in online activities offered Hasan some respite from this grim reality. “My writing is a bit serious at times,” he had recently told me, “but behind the scenes I am always having a giggle – life is too short. I also think when people take things too seriously it is not good for them. With everything that has been going on with my dad too, the occasional relief laughter brings is welcome.”
The mashup also says a lot about how Hasan cultivated his friendships. I’ll readily admit that in my more ruthless moments I wondered exactly why I was spending so much time on somebody I had never met or even spoken to. But Hasan had a way of charming one with his long, courteous, and engaging missives. They felt a lot like old-fashioned letters disguised as emails. (In a quaint touch, he invariably signed off with the phrase “Kind Regards–H.”) Dealing with Hasan involved negotiating obligations and acts of reciprocation. You might spend a few minutes helping him out with something, but then receive an elaborate photo-shopped image in return, which, in turn, meant that it was hard to deny his next request. Invariably, detailed explanations would accompany his symbolic gifts.
Here, then, is how he explained his image to me:
From your blog/tweets, I know you like receiving artworks and postcards from your students. Whilst I may not be a student of yours, as a token of thanks for the time you have put into giving me an art historian’s account of what I am doing at 3PP [Three Pipe Problem], I thought you may like this ‘mashup’ – a composite of a German digital artist named Shasta, Monet, George Lucas and my meagre photoshop skills. As you were imparting advice on this recent Monet escapade, I imagined that scene from Star Wars during the trench run where Luke hears Ben’s voice telling him to calm down and focus.
I only recently noticed that Hasan uses similar language in the acknowledgment section of Three Pipe Problem. I am thanked there for my “wise counsel and calmly considered feedback.”
Hasan’s words return me to the words he included in his mashup, where we hear something beyond the obligatory swooshes of machinery and zaps of laser fire. It’s written in italics at the top of the piece, words I imagine spoken in Alec Guinness’s distinctive voice: “An elegant Art Historian, of a more civilised age.” The language is taken from the scene in Episode IV where Obi-Wan hands Luke “his father’s light saber… the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
We may also hear other words, even though Hasan doesn’t directly quote them. For this is the scene where Obi-Wan returns to offer Luke some famous advice: “Use the Force, Luke!” Here’s how it appears in the script:
At the time I was amused and perhaps a little embarrassed at being inserted into Hasan’s Star Wars fantasies. After all, I didn’t identify strongly with Ben Kenobe. On revisiting this material–and perhaps paying it proper attention for the first time–I see how I missed the point. What strikes me now is the force of Hasan’s continued identification with Luke and how these episodes mattered much more to Hasan than they did to me. They mattered more to the impassioned outsider than the blasé professional.
I’m temperamentally allergic to finding lessons and drawing morals, but it’s possible that Hasan has provided me with some that I should not ignore. What are they? Care more. Be more passionate. Stretch yourself. Find battles that are worth fighting. At the same time, surround yourself with allies and seek their help and advice. In short, be less of a Ben and more of a Luke.
Finally, there’s this irony: in straying from the script and dying before me, we have effectively exchanged roles. Hasan has become my disembodied counselor.
I will listen out for his voice when, at last, I find myself entering the trenches. And then I will mutter to myself the only Turkish I know: “ben yapamazsam, kim yapacak?!”
If I don’t do it, who will?!
With thanks to Edward Goldberg, Solmaz Niyazi and Sedef Piker for all their help.
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Hasan Niyazi. (Who else?) It was first posted on Raphael’s Birthday, 6 April 2014.
[Other posts paying tribute to Raphael and/or Hasan are collected at Three Pipe Problem, or you can follow the discussion on twitter using the hashtag #raphaelhasan.]