Fountain Cleaning

While on a Fulbright Fellowship in Turkey in 1997/98, I made a series of seventeen interventions in which I photographed disused, garbage-filled Ottoman-era street fountains, cleaned them up, and rephotographed them.

Some before and after images below, and a description of the project written in 1998.

Fountain Cleaning 15

Melek Çeşmesi Sok. and Melek Hatun Camii Sok.

Istanbul, Turkey

July 21, 1998

1:45 to 3:35 PM

Fountain Cleaning 13

Lalezar Camii Sok.

Istanbul, Turkey

April 10, 1998

12:00 to 12:30 PM

Fountain Cleaning 10

Cüce Çeşmesi Sok.

Istanbul, Turkey

March 9, 1998

12:40 to 1:40 PM

Fountain Cleaning 9

Sulemaniye Cad., Kirazli Mescit Sok., and Bogdogan Kemeri Cad.

Istanbul, Turkey

February 26, 1998

4:15 to 4:45 PM


From December, 1997 to September, 1998, in a series of seventeen interventions in Istanbul, Turkey, I photographed garbage-filled fountains, cleaned them up, and rephotographed them.

The fountains date from soon after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 up to the early part of this century, and are made of elaborately-carved marble with beautiful inscriptions from the Koran and dedications to the sultans, grand viziers, and other wealthy individuals who built them. Unlike the purely ornamental fountains elsewhere in Europe, these were both decorative and functional, and were where the people of the city would get their water. Today they have almost all been shut off and are quickly being destroyed, with the brass water taps stolen for scrap metal and the marble basins filled with garbage and used as toilets.

When I began the project I was nervous about the reaction of the people in the neighborhood, but it proved to be overwhelmingly positive. As I photographed and then put on gloves, took out trash bags, and started to gather up all the garbage, people would watch for a while, then approach me and ask what I was doing and why. Almost invariably they would then thank and praise me, saying how beautiful and historic the fountain is and how bad the people of Turkey are and what a shame it is that things are so dirty and what wonderful work I am doing. The provision of water is a particularly pious act for Muslims, and though the fountains are now shut off and decaying, something of that piety clings to them still. People saw what I was doing in a quasi-religious context, as a meritorious deed, and by acknowledging it they shared in it and we could all bask in the light of my virtuous and sacrificial action.

But I would always come away from these interventions feeling unsettled, and I suspect that the people in the neighborhood felt the same. This disturbance was deliberate of course, and I was doing the project in order to raise these uncomfortable feelings and engage with the contradictions of living in Istanbul, but I was never sure I had the right to do it. My strongest feeling was always one of exposure – or myself to others, of myself to the place, of myself to myself – and I think the people around me shared this feeling. I would have to overcome enormous resistance whenever I would start a cleaning, and throughout my work I would be acutely aware of the profoundly contradictory nature of my actions: part reverence and respect, part criticism, frustration, and anger; part humility and part aggrandizement; part sincere hope that the fountain would stay clean, part glorying in how dirty it was and most likely would be again.

Behind all this work is an interest in memory, both physical and cultural, and the way it is erased over time by various natural and social forces. The before and after photographs are a way to bring time into play, and the activity of cleaning itself allows me to spend time at the site, to slow down and really look at and experience the fountains in a way I couldn’t otherwise. Through cleaning, the physical experience of the site can seep in. The cleaning is a way to disrupt and refocus my usual experience, to clean it, and this disruption, clarification, and recognition is what I hope to provoke in others, both through seeing me cleaning the fountains and through seeing the documentation of my work.

[Written in Fall 1998]