BY Angel Lambo in Opinion | 05 JUL 23

Istanbul Modern Gets the Starchitect Treatment

The new Renzo Piano-designed art museum reopens in a city reeling from President Erdoğan’s culture wars

BY Angel Lambo in Opinion | 05 JUL 23

During my first few days in Istanbul, I assumed the inhabitants were particularly prone to injury. As it turned out, the multiple people I spotted wrapped in bandages were recovering from cosmetic surgery. Turkey, it transpires, is one of the world’s most popular destinations for medical tourism, which makes the ‘nip and tuck’ a fitting analogy for the revamped Istanbul Modern, Turkey’s first museum of modern and contemporary art. 

Technically, Istanbul Modern has opened three times: first when it was founded in 2004, then in May this year after a five-year reconstruction project, and finally last month with the official opening ceremony. ‘I suggest we open again in the fall,’ the project architect Renzo Piano quipped at a press conference on the museum’s roof terrace overlooking the Bosphorus. It’s not just the museum that is in constant reinvention mode though: the city too has undergone many face-lifts.   

Renzo Piano, Istanbul Modern, 2023
Renzo Piano, 2023. Photo: Enrico Cano

Istanbul Modern first opened in a former dry cargo warehouse in the old dock quarter of Karaköy. Like dock neighbourhoods in other world cities, the area has undergone major development in recent years. Since 2021, Istanbul Modern shares the neighbourhood with Galataport, the city's easy rival to Hudson’s Yard in New York and Coal Drops Yard in London. The new development has literally divided residents, its Dubai-lite complex of luxury flats, shops, restaurants and a new cruise ship terminal is cut off from the city by a 1.2-kilometre fence studded with security checkpoints.

Back on the roof terrace, Piano asked, ‘How [do we] make a building that doesn't betray the humbleness of its beginnings?’ His solution is the same one he deployed in London on The Shard: steel. Istanbul Modern stretches across the waterfront like a giant shipping container, but reflecting the sun like a loose silver coin. Polished concrete floors and exposed ceiling elements in the building’s interior also evoke the site’s industrial past.

Istanbul Modern
Istanbul Modern. Photo: Cemal Emden

The curators commissioned three large-scale permanent works for the reopening. Refik Anadol’s Infinity Room: Bosphorus (2023) is a digital installation that translates real-time environmental data, such as wind, temperature and humidity, into an immersive space where liquid shapes and patterns in all shades of blue shimmer and flow on multiple screens. Hovering in the central stairwell are three geometric mirrored globes by Olafur Eliasson (Your unexpected journey, 2021), and on the ground floor, a site-specific reinstallation of Richard Wentworth’s False Ceiling (2005), a work initially produced in 1995 containing dozens of books suspended from above. 

‘Floating Islands’, one of five new exhibitions, mines the museum’s permanent collection, taking a chronological look at Turkish art from 1945 to the 2000s. Fahrelnissa Zeid’s My Hell (1951), an abstract work on a canvas five metres wide, is the first piece viewers encounter. Zeid’s history is as layered and dramatic as her kaleidoscopic canvases. Before marrying into the Iraqi royal family, she was the face of Istanbul’s 1940s avant-garde art scene. In 1954, she was the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London. Artistic firsts continue with Nil Yalter’s The Headless Woman or the Belly Dance (1974), regarded as the first video work created by a woman in Turkey. On the first floor, ‘Always Here’ showcases new works acquired through the Women Artists Fund, set up in 2016 to increase the visibility of living women artists.  

Istanbul Modern. 'Your Unexpected Journey' by Olafur Eliasson. Photo: Cemal Emden
Olafur Eliasson, Your unexpected journey, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: Istanbul Modern; photo: Cemal Emden

Bar the ground-floor celebrations of Piano in Genius Loci, feminist fingerprints abound in the five inaugural exhibitions. This spirit is seen in the photography exhibition, In another Place', by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose work frequently comments on identity and women in Turkish society. Though, I did wonder if the museum's Third-Wave politics would one day evolve to welcome works that critique the present plight of women and non-binary people under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly repressive rule. 

For many working in the creative industries, Erdoğan’s re-election at the end of May portends an even more calamitous suppression of civil rights, particularly free speech, than that experienced so far during his nine years in power. Osman Kavala, the philanthropist founder of the cultural foundation Anadolu Kültür, faces life imprisonment for purportedly attempting to overthrow the government and financing the Gezi Park protests of 2013. These baseless charges were handed out by a judicial system that Amnesty International Secretary General, Agnès Callamard, called in a press statement ‘a repressive tool to silence dissent’. Kavala’s is just one story among the hundreds of journalists, musicians, filmmakers and artists who face similar sentences.

Floating Islands Exhibition, Istanbul Modern
‘Floating Islands’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: Istanbul Modern; photo: Enrico Cano

Turkey’s creative scene remains defiant, buoyed by the many art institutions that have opened and continue to thrive despite encroaching nationalism and Erdoğan’s war against liberal culture. Notable examples include Arter, Depo Istanbul, Artistanbul Feshane, and the multiple repurposed cultural venues that stole the show at the 2022 Istanbul Biennial.  

The curators at Istanbul Modern have an unenviable task ahead. Piano’s tin box will not insulate the museum from the bitter culture wars raging outside its doors. My hope is that when – and not if – Erdoğan decides to tighten the leash on Turkey’s remaining dissident artists, Istanbul Modern will bite back.  

Main image: Istanbul Modern. Courtesy: Istanbul Modern; photo: Enrico Cano

Angel Lambo is associate editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin.