Biennial Contemporary art Turkey

Istanbul: look beyond the hype

The art scene in Istanbul is active but the protagonists are locally minded and not as truly international as their contemporaries in New York, London, Berlin or Beijing

Istanbul Modern: there is more to the city's contemporary art scene than surface glitter

The most impressive view of old Istanbul can be seen from the restaurant of the Istanbul Modern. The postcard images: the magnificent Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the mosques of legendary Ottoman architect Sinan are seen from the terrace of the restaurant. Since its opening in 2004, this private institution founded thanks to an unexpected alliance of the Eczacibasi family and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has changed its director more than four times. But its establishment, its activities and popular exhibitions and events, including parties for the hedonistic jet set, helped to establish Istanbul as a new, and much hyped, destination for international contemporary art. What has happened?

Turkey, the eternal European Union candidate and its modern and contemporary art were totally unknown until the late 1980s. In 1987 the International Istanbul Biennial was founded. Over its eleven editions it has become internationally accepted in the global art system. Neo-liberal economic policies led to a social and artistic reorientation in Turkey. The breakthrough for contemporary Turkish art began in the 1990s with the first boom in the local art market. The second boom was the focusing of auction houses Beyaz, Antik and Portakal on contemporary art. The last boom was probably generated by the impact of the annual Contemporary Istanbul art fair, launched in 2006. This year it stages its fifth edition (25-28 November).

Today, Istanbul is not just home to a large number of internationally operated art galleries, including Galerist, Dirimart, PG, Rodeo, X-Ist and Daire Sanat, but also to internationally respected art centres, Garanti Platform, Aksanat and Yapi Kredi, and a flowering of private museums: the Proje4L/Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sabanci Museum, Pera Museum, and ARTER-space, which opened in May. Founding museums has become a passion for Turkish collectors and entrepreneurs who are frequent buyers in international auction houses. Sotheby’s latest Turkish contemporary art sale in April saw new records set. Fahr-el-Nissa Zeid (1901-91) became the first modern Turkish artist whose work exceeded the $1m mark at auction.

But while the art scene in Istanbul is active and attractive, the protagonists are still narrow and locally minded, and not as truly internationally oriented as their contemporaries in New York, London, Berlin, or Beijing. The mainstream of Turkish contemporary art is harmless, decorative, hyperrealist and still a monopoly of sales-oriented dealers and the private, mainly bank-sponsored, art spaces and museums. Freedom of speech, critique and interpretation of social issues are unwelcome. The overwhelming facts of class, economic and cultural domination are firmly in place.

One result of this incipient art market dominance has been a flood of decorative works, including multi-media installations and contemporary design. The recent practice of Turkish curators, both independent and institutional, is shaped by a close network of personal relationships and undue proximity to the Turkish art market. Most of the numerous young artists and critics have been drawn from this circle in the past decade.

Younger artists such as Mustafa Kunt, Özlem Günyol, Esra Ersen, Ferhat Özgür, Erinc Seymen, Bengü Karaduman, Ergin Cavusoglu, Yasemin Özcan Kaya, Asli Cavusoglu, Günes Terkol and the artist duo :mentalKLINIK are signalling the creation of a new identity, however, which is characterised by a sense of social responsibility and reflections on globalisation in Turkey. Their ferocity, and their art’s revolutionary gestures is not reflected

in the Istanbul art scene and art market, however. Painting is still “in” because for many art collectors painted images represent a materially visible value. The art market is banking on the classical mediums of painting, sculpture and photography.

The key question is, how can we approach a completely new, rapidly developing and still practically undiscovered Turkish art scene, without running the risk of labelling it as a national phenomenon? The multiple identities of Turkey (Muslim, modern, secular, European) and the never-ending bridge-between-east-and-west cliché does not help. The younger generation of artists and creative intellectuals is looking such beyond old-fashioned images. Yet most recent exhibitions abroad, such as the “Made in Turkey” exhibitions in Frankfurt in 2008, “Istanbul Next Wave” at the Berlin Academy of Arts, 2009, and in Turkey, “Modern and Beyond” at Istanbul Modern, 2007, did not reflect the orientation of the new generation of artists. These shows came to the conclusion that many contemporary Turkish artists were still strongly focused on “identity questions”. These repetitive group shows gave the impression that contemporary art in Turkey is still limited to the same stereotypes that were created by a group of artists in the 1990s, such as Hale Tenger, Hüseyin Altekin and Halil Altindere. But this had began to change already by 2000.

The Turkish art historian and critic Ahu Antmen defines this phenomenon as an “anachronism”. The accepted concept of Turkish contemporary art in the west has become, obsolete, incorrect and counterproductive. Why the obsolescence of such stereotypes is not understood by local and international experts is the key problem that faces young Turkish artists today.

The writer is an independent curator based in Düsseldorf, guest curator, Kunstmuseum Bochum, Germany, and artistic director, Contemporary Art Triennial, Port Izmir, Turkey

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