BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin

SALT Beyoglu

BY Sam Thorne in Reviews | 01 SEP 11

Huseyin Bahri Alptekin 'Capacity', (detail), 2003, Digital prints mounted on forex, dimensions variable.

Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center closed its doors at the end of 2007. The next phase for this non-profit organization – backed, like many arts institutions in Turkey, by a high-street bank – was a major expansion, filling out its original six-storey building on Istanbul’s main shopping strip, as well as opening a separate home for its extensive archive. The former opened in April, under the name SALT Beyoglu, while the latter, SALT Galata, will house Platform‘s former archive in the former Ottoman Bank Headquarters nearby. Three and a half years is a long time for an organization so instrumental in developing Istanbul’s art scene to be closed, but then its founder, Vasıf Kortun, had big ambitions: in 2009 he said he was envisioning ‘more or less an encyclopaedic institution’. What does this entail? For the most part, a broadening of Platform’s work: exhibitions, conferences, talks and film programmes, with a special emphasis on research, the importance of which is difficult to overstate in the context of Turkey’s chronic lack of public funding. The only discontinued aspect is the international artists’ residency programme, a decision I’d guess was partly due to reduced international funding and partly a reasoned response to there now being more artists based in Istanbul than when Platform opened a decade ago.

‘Salt’ in Turkish means ‘only’, ‘simple’ or, according to the online translator I used, ‘unvarnished’. It’s this latter definition that came closest to the state of SALT Beyoglu when I visited: the wooden gallery walls were left intentionally bare; nothing much was growing in Fritz Haeg’s rooftop greenhouse garden; even the mutating typeface of its new brand identity catches some of the in-progress feel. While the breadth of SALT’s stated ambition is admirable, there are notable mismatches between its declarative rhetoric and a new institution which is still, in practice, only tentatively open: for example, its columned ground-floor space – dubbed the ‘Forum’ – has been left largely empty and open to the street, hoping to broker an easy introduction with a new public. Apart from a cloakroom, some flatscreen displays of programme information and a smattering of benches, the Forum is more no-man’s land than meeting place, and could have been put to better used for exhibitions (or anything else). And for an institution putting so much emphasis on its archive, there is little explicit description of what its archive and library actually comprise at this point, or how they will be presented in the Galata space. While SALT may well have laid the foundations for something encyclopaedic, its form hasn’t yet come into focus.

SALT Beyoglu’s two inaugural shows, both of which were strong, signalled its possible institutional priorities. Organized by Kortun and Duygu Demir, and split over two of its three floors of exhibition space, the main show was the largest survey to date of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, who died in his studio at the age of 50 shortly after representing Turkey in the 2007 Venice Biennale. A prolific artist, teacher and writer, Alptekin (whose archive SALT has acquired) was an important figure for many of his young contemporaries. Made together with Michael Morris, his early ‘Heterotopia’ series (1992) – collages and shabby wall-based assemblages of trinkets and clippings from Ankara markets – cemented what was to be a tirelessly collaborative, determinedly nomadic practice. The sense that another place can be gestured to or assembled from the odds and ends of cross-cultural detritus is the fragile hope that brightens Alptekin’s deeply depressive work: as he once told Kortun, his abiding themes were borders and boredom. ‘Capacity’ (2003), for example, is a cluster of photographs of hotel and restaurant signs – Napoli, Dallas, Berlin, Libya, California – never taken in the eponymous city. Life or excitement, here, is always elsewhere.

Opening the retrospective, a wall text by Alptekin gave an overview of his working methods but also read like a list of obstacles to a representative posthumous survey: ‘I am not a studio artist’ (also the exhibition’s title); ‘I like site-specific works’; ‘Most of the works I have done are unphotographable’. These impediments weren’t insurmountable, mostly because Alptekin didn’t play so strictly by his own rules, though another assertion – ‘I like to collaborate with other artists’ – was more problematic. In addition to the inclusion of the pieces he made with Morris, this was attended to by the curators’ invitation to five of Alptekin’s friends and associates to exhibit work informed by or related to his life and work. Not all of these were welcome (such as Camille Rocha’s tiresome videos), though many were. Gabriel Lester, for example, recreated the billowing lace curtains caught in a mournful series of photos Alptekin took while visiting a sanatorium, while three riotous new videos by Nedko Solakov caught something of the eternally exasperated tourist ground down by his destination: ‘It’s truly fucking me…,’ he mutters, while struggling along the Great Wall of China (‘Tourist’, 2011). Can Altay, who collaborated with Alptekin on the Bunker Research Group, presented Merzbahri: global hangover (2011), a reworked version of a project he initiated last year in a public park in Istanbul. The title is a pun on Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau – with all of its associations with seclusion and itinerancy – though ‘global hangover’ is more oblique, relating to the obituary Altay wrote for Alptekin, in which he quoted William Gibson’s claim that the soul cannot keep up with air travel. Depression as the undiagnosable condition of globally mobile modernity is Alptekin’s most poignant – even upsetting – theme. The inclusion of younger artists such as Altay, as well as Ahmet Ögüt, whose installation Across the Hump (2008) was shown in the first-floor gallery in the inaugural exhibition of the ‘Modern Essays’ series, which will seek to examine westernization and modernization, points to the historicizing activity that SALT seems to be pursuing – emerging careers are nurtured, archives are preserved and dots are joined. SALT is the most recent addition to a rapidly expanding group of privately funded foundations and galleries in Istanbul, but what sets it apart from these (often slick, often underperforming) spaces is the way that it plans to privilege research; when its second space, devoted to libraries and archiving, opens in a few months from now, it will be interesting to see where, as an institution, its heart resides. Now, though, it is too soon to say – for the moment, at least, SALT’s unvarnished ambition surely holds a lot of potential.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.