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Issue 160


A sprawling city of more than 15 million inhabitants split between two continents, Istanbul is home to a relatively compact constellation of privately funded foundations, artist-run spaces and commercial galleries. H.G. Masters and Nazli Gurlek survey this art scene’s recent past, and consider what the future might hold in the wake of the Gezi Park protests, a contentious edition of the biennial and little state support

BY H.G. Masters AND Nazli Gurlek in Critic's Guides | 11 JAN 13

Hale Tenger, The School of Sikimden Assa Kasimpasa (The School of I Don't Give a Fuck Anymore), 1990, mixed media, dimensions variable, installation view at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Courtesy: The artist and Galeri Nev, Istabul

H.G Masters 

When you are marooned in traffic somewhere on a two-hour bus ride from Taksim Square to Sabiha Gökçen domestic airport, Istanbul can feel like the ugliest city in the world. Looking down from the highway on the city’s Asian side, you see interminable neighbourhoods, a low sprawl of concrete blocks and tin roofs. Unpaved streets are populated by idle groups of men and the occasional stray dog. Around these gecekondu areas – shanty towns, mostly built in the 1970s and ’80s by internal migrants – have sprung up a new breed of generically futuristic high-rise apartments, many created by the shadowy government housing administration, TOKI, directly controlled by the prime minister’s office. Circling these new structures are American-style shopping plazas packed with cars, and the hemispherical domes of cheaply constructed, neo-Ottoman-style mosques – resembling deformed, plagiarized offspring of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.

This is the landscape in which most of Istanbul’s more than 15 million inhabitants live. Beyond them, more TOKI islands rise in isolated, mushroom-like clusters from once-green hills, as captured by Serkan Taycan in his ‘Shell’ (2012) photographs. Soon the city will grow to encompass them, as central neighbourhoods become gentrified, inner-city populations are displaced to the outskirts, and more migrants arrive from the rest of the country. Until then, packs of dogs roam the periphery, losing track – as they do in Annika Eriksson’s video I am the dog that was always here (loop) (2013) – of ‘whether these buildings are being constructed or being taken down’.

Most international visitors arrive at Atatürk International Airport, on the European side, and zoom along the comparatively scenic seashore road in well under an hour, through the crumbling Byzantine city walls, around Topkapı Palace before beholding the wide Bosphorus, and the Europeanized hills of Beyoğlu where they will spend their time in the city. Historical and newly prosperous, this is the Istanbul the world sees, but not the reality that most citizens of the Turkish Republic experience day-to-day.

Turkish culture is rightly famous for its hospitality and, in more than two years of living here, I’m deeply grateful for the copious amounts that I have been shown. But hospitality’s corollary – at least, it seems, in the Turkish context – is hostility. I’m paraphrasing the title of a series by the late artist, poet and teacher Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin (1957–2007), the subject of salt Beyoğlu’s inaugural exhibition in 2011. His ‘H-Fact: Hospitality/Hostility’ (2003–07) comprises hotel signs bearing the names of far-off locales (Hotel Odessa, say, or Tirana Palace), suggesting a space that welcomes the arriving traveller but inevitably disappoints those on the inside.

When asked, I always say the same thing about Istanbul’s art scene: it’s still a community of people, not an industry. The city has successfully resisted becoming the next ‘hot’ art destination – despite various proclamations in the international press – along the lines of Beijing or New Delhi. In the last few years, there have been many murmurs that such-and-such a player in the global art market is shopping around for a space in Istanbul. They rarely end up opening, or lasting long if they do. Just try receiving a single package in Turkey and you’ll immediately understand the infrastructure you are up against.

Exploitation and abuse, here, are domestic issues. Deep-seated and long-held grudges exist between various factions usually affiliated with the large institutions or personalities in the city. They derive from petty, egoistic disputes (often tinged with misogyny or classism) from decades prior, which have festered into genuine factionalization. They severely limit meaningful cooperation and coordination between the city’s network of corporate-backed art centres, galleries and non-profits. Yet, the most regrettable part of this is how a younger generation – who almost always have nothing to do with the original disputes – are conscripted into unspoken camps via their affiliation with one person or institution, just by virtue of working somewhere (as if, in a tiny art scene, young people really have the luxury of choosing). Baby boomers, in Turkey as elsewhere, remain hung up on their own generational culture wars and personal disputes, seemingly oblivious to how they are poisoning the garden they are at once so proud of seeding. Consolidating power and securing their personal legacies (not to mention wealth) is today their primary concern, which, in turn, fuels the restive discontent of today’s generations.

The young adults of the Gezi Park protests in May and June are precisely this disenfranchized, nonpartisan crowd. Fed up with the myopia of existing institutions – whether secular, military, nationalist, elitist, Islamic, sectarian or populist – a majority of those active were unaffiliated with the long-warring political powers. They discovered that they have much to learn from one another and very little to gain by repeating by their elders’ mistakes. In the art community, this generous, collaborative and communicative spirit has manifested itself in forums such as Turuncu Çadır (Orange Tent), which now meets almost every Tuesday night to discuss topics ranging from the state of higher education in the arts to the largely non-existent agenda of the cultural ministry and even to critique the recent biennial.

This year, the countercurrents of disaffection have fuelled ongoing criticisms of established art institutions such as the research-focused SALT and IKSV (the organizers of the Istanbul Biennial). Both have been targeted by protesters because their international reputations as progressive organizations belie their corporate sponsors – Garanti Bank and Koç Holding, respectively – who are, or have been, engaged in politically dubious activities, whether in urban development, as military contractors or with environmental exploitation.

Further disaffection comes from the litany of corporate and personal vanity projects that have quickly become wasted opportunities. Young artists and curators don’t even expect much from Istanbul Modern, inaugurated in 2004, the private collection with the specious name that suggests it belongs to the city, rather than to the Eczacıbaşı family. Santralistanbul, a museum on the grounds of the private Bilgi University, opened in 2007 and, despite a couple of notable shows, went dormant, folded in 2012 and controversially sold off its collection in February 2013. The anaemic Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum, run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, has been closed for years, and is purportedly in the process of relocating to an Antrepo customs warehouse near Istanbul Modern. Meanwhile, the well-funded Sakıp Sabancı Museum is more intent on importing blockbuster content such as this autumn’s Anish Kapoor show, while Borusan Contemporary (currently housed in the tech conglomerate’s headquarters) failed to make their İstiklal Caddesi building, opened in 2010, into something relevant – it is now also closed. Akbank Sanat, an older, ungainly İstiklal space, does hold an annual young artist’s exhibition and curatorial open call, but its regular programme lacks curatorial leadership and coherence.

‘When asked, I always say the same thing about Istanbul's art scene: it's still a community of people, not an industry.’

Since it opened in 2010, Arter – Space for Art, backed by the Vehbi Koç Foundation, the charity run by Koç Holding, has become the primary organization that commissions and showcases new projects, and works with younger curators and writers from outside the institution (as well as organizing showcases of international artists). This year’s ‘Envy, Enmity, Embarrassment’, curated by Arter’s exhibition director Emre Baykal, gave prominent space to younger artists like Hera Büyüktaşçıyan – whose sculptures The Island and Somewhere in the Middle (both 2012) were fashioned out of furniture and textiles from her grandmother’s home – or Berat Işık, whose video Hole II (2012) mapped a descent into the dark caves in eastern Turkey where bodies have been disposed of in massacres over the last century. These works were shown alongside those of an older artist such as Selim Birsel, whose Grown in the Backward (2013) mimicked a garden yet was laced with visual and material references to Turkey’s authoritarian-military history, with flowers made from saw blades and trees printed with stamps in the shape of tanks.

What chronically beleaguers Istanbul is a critical shortage of functional, competent organizations that can sustain themselves, and which, in turn, can actually support the ever-growing ranks of the art community. More than 500 artists from Turkey applied to the open call for the 2013 Istanbul Biennial, suggesting a huge pent-up demand for opportunities to exhibit. The city’s congestion will only grow in the coming years, as the handful of art schools – of widely varying quality – take on more students every year, far outstripping existing and planned institutional opportunities for support. The government currently offers none, and that’s unlikely to change given its priorities. However, the patronage organization saha, established in 2011, does use private funds to enable artist-led and independent projects, as well as curatorial ventures. Others see opening a gallery as the most viable path to support artists and mount exhibitions; among the leading commercial spaces, ArtSümer, Elipsis, Kiad, Manâ, non, Pi, Pilot, Rampa and Rodeo were all established by enterprising women. Istanbul’s coterie of independent, artist-run non-profits (such as bas, pist and 5533) have noble intentions and distinctive roles, but are constrained by limited budgets from expanding beyond their personal remits.

Though shown at Galeri Nev before the Gezi Park protests in May, Hale Tenger’s video of the three wise monkeys swaying to a Frank Sinatra hit, Swinging on the Stars (2013), embodied what had been the city’s defining, stagnant mood, this pervasive, cynical humour. As a political allegory, it addresses the Turkish Republic’s refusal to recognize its numerous crimes of neglect and abuse against its own citizens. Applied to the art community, the dancing creatures of Swinging on the Stars could be read as a gloss on how organizations here present themselves in one way to the outside world (‘Smile!’) – eager for recognition and respect – while ignoring (‘I can’t hear you!’) the deficiencies and hostilities at home. Out of necessity, young people with vision and motivation – whether as artists, curators or dealers – will have to establish their own structures, free of the old order’s shackles and prejudices, to circulate and survive in this self-engorging megacity. No matter how informal or transient these organizations end up being, they already have more potential to break the city’s gridlock than anything that exists in Istanbul now. 

'It was a time of conversation', 2012, SALT Galata. Photo: Mustafa Hazneci

Nazli Gurlek

‘I see, I speak, I write, all at once, with no hope of success,’ wrote Edmondo De Amicis, a young Italian novelist in 1874, about his visit to Constantinople (then the capital of the Ottoman Empire). The opening chapter of his account, which describes his arrival by boat, is fascinating: ‘As the fog receded, the city lengthened rapidly along the Bosphorus, and neighbourhood after neighbourhood became visible, stretching from the hilltops down to the sea, jostling with houses and dotted with white mosques; rows of ships, little harbours, palaces by the water’s edge, pavilions, gardens, kiosks, groves.’ The description almost seems to anticipate how film cameras would soon capture this constantly changing city – ‘an intricate network of commerce, intrigue, and mystery, at the mere thought of which one’s mind becomes hopelessly confused’.

Almost 150 years after his visit, many of De Amicis’s assumptions feel oddly current. This is partly due to the way in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s akp (Justice and Development Party) has seized on an Ottoman nostalgia appropriate to the party’s mania for construction and profit. Among the numerous developments currently underway in Istanbul, the planned replica of a 19th-century barracks in Gezi Park on Taksim Square is the most high profile. Combining onion domes with neoclassical details, it was set to house a city museum as well as shops and restaurants. For inspiration, akp are increasingly looking to the time when a declining Ottoman Empire tried to integrate with the West, which catalyzed a period of innovation, reform and adaptation to European modernization. But, when cultural differences became a serious issue, the Ottomans sought remedy in counter-fantasies of how the West might see themselves. In other words, they self-orientalized. Providing the ultimate example of that style, the barracks-cum-shopping-mall on Taksim would have stood as a monument to akp’s neo-liberal appetite. However, late last May, the planned destruction of Gezi was met with what would become an epic resistance. Over the course of only two days, protests started by around 50 environmentalists turned into a nationwide movement. At stake was both freedom of choice and the right to the city.

It’s hard not to think about the past when discussing contemporary artistic practice in Istanbul. A number of notable artists from Turkey have dealt with enduring social patterns and the effects of political ideology. For example, first shown in 1990 as part of an exhibition at Atatürk Cultural Center – a monument of the 1960s Turkish modernism now awaiting demolition as part of the reconstruction of Taksim – Hale Tenger’s The School of Sikimden Aşşa Kasımpaşa (1990) took its title from a Turkish idiom (meaning ‘I don’t give a fuck anymore’). Comprising a huge Ottoman cauldron of red liquid and dozens of suspended swords, the installation was made soon after the assassination of the prominent feminist writer and activist Bahriye Üçok. The piece was shown extensively in Europe during the 1990s, and was more recently included in ‘Dream and Reality’ (2011), a major survey of Turkish women artists at Istanbul Modern. Among the other artists from Turkey who came to exhibit internationally in the 1990s, Gülsün Karamustafa has also touched upon locally pertinent issues in works that deal with migration, displacement and the sentiment of arabesk – an Arabic style of music combining Byzantine, Balkan and Middle Eastern rhythms – as an urban condition. Her first comprehensive Turkish retrospective opened in autumn 2013 at salt Beyoğlu. A younger generation of artists share with Tenger and Karamustafa a tendency to consider how recent political events inform the present. For example, Deniz Gül’s Vitrine (2013) – included in the young artist’s first exhibition at Galeri Manâ late last year – comprises a wooden replica of the Republic Monument in Taksim, with its figures removed. Resembling a large item of furniture, the work suggests that ideology is deeply rooted in the privacy of the home.

‘It's hard not to think about the past when discussing contemporary artistic practice in Istanbul.’

Another way of dealing with local history has been developing through archival strategies. Some notable examples include Tayfun Serttaş’s Foto Galatasaray (2011), a revisualization of the oeuvre of Armenian photographer Maryam Şahinyan (1911–96), and Banu Cennetoğlu’s exhibition of work by Masis Gül (1947–2003) – a bodybuilder, poet, painter and bit-part actor in cult movies – at the 5th Berlin Biennial in 2008. In 2012, Iz Öztat took on the archive of a largely unknown feminist figure called Zişan (1894–1970). But the difference with Öztat’s approach is that she has developed a form of posthumous collaboration with Zişan, who has become for her a channelled spirit and alter ego. A 1928 collage by Zişan was included in Öztat’s solo show at Maçka Sanat Galerisi, an important semi-commercial gallery founded in 1976. The exhibition title, ‘I am not dealing with triangle, square and circle’, was a quote from the octogenarian painter Adnan Çoker, who was arguing in the late 1980s for the potential of geometric forms as a universal language and their rootedness in local heritage.

Çoker’s statement suggests both the private hope of an intellectual trying to understand an uncertain future and a historical idiom typical of Turkish modernism, the earliest form of internationalism in Turkey. During the 1940s, he studied painting at Istanbul’s Academy of Fine Arts, where he went on to become a professor, and also went to Paris on a scholarship supported by the Turkish state. On his return, Çoker was to educate his peers and students based upon what he learnt from the West. This was a familiar trajectory at the time. Just like Çoker, all the assistant professors sent to Paris on state bursaries were required to bring back copies of works they had made there, to be displayed at the academy’s museum in Istanbul. It was there that the artist Sarkis, a student at the time, spent a lot of time during the late 1950s – an experience that would prove influential to his thinking about originality. A few years later, he would move to Paris, where he still lives, and was included in Harald Szeemann’s ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ in 1969–70, which was recently restaged in Venice. A contemporary of Sarkis, Yüksel Arslan – the subject of a 2012 survey at the Kunsthalle Zurich – had moved there three years before him; this came after his planned trip to participate in an André Breton-organized exhibition of surrealism had been thwarted by visa issues. Indeed, Sarkis and Arslan were among the very few Turkish artists of their generation to venture abroad without state support.

During the 1990s, a younger generation of artists and curators – such as Erdağ Aksel, Ali Akay, Canan Beykal, Selim Birsel, İpek Duben, Vasıf Kortun and Emre Zeytinoğlu – came to situate local issues within a global context. Several had moved back to Istanbul after having studied or worked abroad. One concern they shared was the articulation of the so-called periphery in relation to the Western art world and its canons. As a result, the first issue of Art-ist journal was self-published by artist Halil Altındere in collaboration with a circle of peers in 1998. Not long after, Şener Özmen and Erkan Özgen made The Road to Tate Modern (2003), a video in which a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza-like duo rides through the mountains of southeastern Turkey in search of the museum. In 2005, Serkan Özkaya produced a double-size styrofoam reproduction of Michelangelo’s David (1501–04), proposing that, ‘such iconic works no longer exist in reality as originals, they have become verbal legends, all about the replicas, the copies, the reconstructions and the fakes’. 

Although it was never exhibited there, as it fell and broke during installation, Özkaya’s work was originally made for the 9th Istanbul Biennial in 2005, curated by Kortun and Charles Esche, who delivered a low-key, rangy exhibition simply titled ‘Istanbul’. The show marked a new approach in the history of the biennial (which was founded in 1987, some years before many European counterparts), one that was elaborated by the following two editions, organized by Hou Hanru and the Croatian collective whw, respectively. Kortun and Esche’s exhibition abandoned historic buildings in favour of vacant spaces – an apartment block, a former tobacco depository, a shop, an office building, and the streets of Beyoğlu and Galata – to look for the potential in the everyday life of the city. Hou’s ‘Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War’ (2007) scrutinized the project of modernization in the non-Western world. With ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ (2009), whw extended the biennial’s reach to the surrounding territories, to investigate the dense ideological, social and cultural strata of the Middle East, former Soviet Union, the Balkans and Turkey. The 2011 edition, curated by Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa, abandoned this tendency by delivering a museum-like exhibition, while Fulya Erdemci’s 2013 biennial withdrew from the streets to traditional exhibition venues in order to avoid the contradiction of collaborating with ‘the same authorities that do not allow the free expression of its citizens’.

In a city of interrupted histories, attempts to historicize Istanbul’s art world have only been sporadic. However, this is beginning to change. The two-day conference ‘Remembering Istanbul’ (2011) focused on the history of the biennial, with contributions from many previous curators and participating artists, while salt’s archival exhibition ‘It Was a Time of Conversation’ (2012) revisited three key exhibitions from the early 1990s. As the history of exhibitions in Istanbul is only just beginning to be written, it comes as no surprise that what has come to light so far has created vocal communities of participants. Because, perhaps, Istanbul is still what it always used to be, as the novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote, ‘not an anonymous multitude of walled-in lives – a jungle of apartments where no one knew who was dead or who was celebrating what, but an archipelago of neighbourhoods in which everyone knew each other’.

Nazli Gurlek is an independent curator, writer and artist and founder of UMA, an interdisciplinary platform for creative research and production rooted in ancient pagan traditions of Anatolia. She lives in Istanbul.