BY Carlos Kong in Opinion | 04 AUG 22

A Tribute to Fulya Erdemci (1962 – 2022)

Carlos Kong reflects on the late curator’s poetry of the public domain

BY Carlos Kong in Opinion | 04 AUG 22

Renowned Turkish curator and writer Fulya Erdemci, who died last month at the age of 60, had a radical vision of art’s role in the public domain, which she understood as an open forum where multiple publics, narratives and histories collide. Her career-long conviction that art opens poetic spaces of political encounter left its mark on Istanbul, where she lived and worked. With her focus on public art, Fulya influenced art production, curatorial practice and exhibition making throughout Turkey and the wider art world.

Born in 1962, Fulya worked as an independent curator and held various curatorial positions throughout the years. She served as director of the Istanbul Biennial from 1994 to 2000, consolidating the event’s international profile while promoting the city as a centre for contemporary art. She was director of Proje 4L (now Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, Istanbul) from 2003–04, exhibitions curator at Istanbul Modern from 2004–05, director of SKOR Foundation for Art and Public Domain in Amsterdam from 2008–12, curator at Cappadox Festival in Cappadocia from 2015–18, and curator at KØS Museum of Art in Public Spaces in Køge from 2020. She also organized numerous exhibitions, notably the Turkish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and the 13th Istanbul Biennial (2013).

Fulya Erdemci, 2013. Courtesy: Istanbul Biennial; photograph: Manuel Çıtak

Fulya was a deeply enthusiastic and rigorous interlocutor, a friend and mentor to multiple generations of artists and curators. I came to know her through my participation in a workshop she taught on art and public space in 2017, which shifted into correspondences from afar and dialogues in Istanbul while conducting research for my PhD. The artist Ayşe Erkmen described her perfectly in a social-media tribute: ‘Fulya loved and lived art like no one else I know. As radical as art should be.’ The many of us whose practices and careers she supported will remember her remarkable generosity, sprawling intellect and eccentric spirit.

The two iterations of Fulya’s ‘Istanbul Pedestrian Exhibition’ in 2002 and 2005 (the latter co-curated with Emre Baykal) forged a mould-breaking model for public art in Turkey by presenting interventions in everyday environments by contemporary artists such as Ayşe Erkmen, Hale Tenger and Canan Tolon. Both exhibitions foregrounded the emerging contemporary art scene in Istanbul in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They moreover inaugurated Fulya’s career-wide practice of curating art in public space as a means of creating the public domain.

Invitation for ‘Istanbul Pedestrian Exhibition’, 2002, curated by Fulya Erdemci

At the heart of Fulya’s approach was her belief that art’s poetic capacity could foster modes of storytelling, dialogue and dissensus that would politicize our right to public space. It is thus no coincidence that her projects often referenced literature and language. Named after a story from Marcel Proust’s Pleasures and Days (1896), the exhibition ‘Regrets, Reveries, Changing Skies’ (2001), for instance, displayed artworks in the open spaces of the historic Alhambra Passage, using its Proustian motif to question the gentrification surrounding Istanbul’s late Ottoman arcades. Her 2017 iteration of Cappadox Festival took its title, ‘Let Us Cultivate our Garden’, from the final sentence of Voltaire’s Candide (1759) as a point of departure for presenting artworks in the vast rock formations and ancient settlements of rural Cappadocia.

Fulya’s most controversial project was her 13th Istanbul Biennial, ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’. Titled after a 1998 book by Turkish poet Lale Müldür, the exhibition invoked the Greek etymology of ‘barbarian’ as the antithesis of the citizen. In her curatorial statement for the biennial, Fulya wrote that the word ‘barbarian’ conjured ‘the language of the “other” […] those who are marginalized, illegal and perhaps aspiring to debunk or change the system: the recluse, outcast, bandit, anarchist, revolutionary, poet or artist’. Prior to the show’s opening, the Gezi Park protests erupted – initially in response to development plans for Taksim Square but soon escalating into a nationwide protest against the rising authoritarianism of the ruling Justice and Development Party. Unwilling to appropriate the resistance movement and to collaborate with city officials who violently suppressed the civic protests, Fulya adapted for indoor venues the works she had planned to exhibit outdoors to draw attention to rapidly gentrifying public spaces. She then eliminated the entrance fee, drawing record audiences. The exhibition demonstrated Fulya’s lucid, imaginative exploration of contemporary art’s engagement with geopolitics, state violence, urban gentrification, gendered labour, civil disobedience and collective claims for participation and justice – topics that remain urgent today.

Invite for the 13th Istanbul Biennial, designed by Ruban Pater, LAVA Amsterdam

Throughout her career, Fulya was committed to the utopian potential of art in the public domain and, amid the political conflicts that her exhibitions addressed, her perspective remained optimistic. ‘Art can open up the possibility of loosening the seams of reality,’ she wrote in her statement for the 13th Istanbul Biennial. ‘It can provide an experience of otherwise-utopian moments within our daily routines.’ For Fulya, the poetic power of art was essential to imagining the future: ‘In the wake of a new world, we all feel that existing systems, structures, theories and formulas are falling short. To imagine another world and to envision what is to come, we need to invent new languages and learn the languages of the most invisible, repressed and excluded.’

Main image: Christoph Schäfer, The Køge Water Garden, 2021, installation view, ‘Hummings - An Exhibition of Art in Public Domain in Køge’, KØS Museum of Art in Public Spaces. Photo: Torben Eskerod

Thumbnail: Portrait of Fulya Erdemci. Courtesy: Unlimited Publication; photograph: Elif Kahveci

Carlos Kong is a writer and art historian living in Berlin. He is currently a PhD candidate in Art History at Princeton University and in Film Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz.