Turkey’s art in troubled times: Istanbul gallerists’ view from the ground

Istanbul gallerists describe today’s contemporary art scene in Turkey.

September 2013 sees Istanbul embrace two large-scale contemporary art events, as both the Istanbul Biennial and ArtInternational, the city’s first international art fair, open their doors. While the city still simmers from a summer of street protests and civil unrest, Art Radar sought out first-hand viewpoints from several gallerists to find out more about Turkey’s art scene in these changing times.

Fatih Alkan, 'Tragedy in the Forest I', 2011, photograph, ed of 5, 45 x 45 cm. Image courtesy x-ist.

Fatih Alkan, ‘Tragedy in the Forest I’, 2011, photograph, ed. of 5, 45 x 45 cm. Image courtesy x-ist.

Turkey’s most famous city has had a troubled few months, with civil unrest and a concomitant increase in state oppression making frequent headlines. Contemporary artists were highly visible in many of these demonstrations, with anti-government demonstrations even reaching this year’s Venice Biennale.

The thirteenth edition of The Istanbul Biennial, titled “Mom, Am I Barbarian?”, is curated by Fulya Erdemci and runs from 14 September to 20 October 2013. According to the curatorial statement, the exhibition pivots on the idea of “the public domain as a political forum”, exploring the role of contemporary art and “the given concepts of civilization and barbarity as standardized positions and languages.”

As the art world is set to descend upon the Turkish city, Art Radar interviewed three gallerists to find out more about Istanbul’s contemporary art scene.

Erkut Terliksiz, 'Time And Relative Dimension In Space', 2013, mixed media on MDF, 220 x 170 cm. Image courtesy x-ist.

Erkut Terliksiz, ‘Time And Relative Dimension In Space’, 2013, mixed media on MDF, 220 x 170 cm. Image courtesy x-ist.

Daryo Beskinazi, Gallery Owner of x-ist

The art gallery x-ist was established in 2004 as a space for exhibiting young contemporary Turkish artists. From 10 September to 19 October 2013, x-ist is hosting the photographer Lale Tara’s second solo exhibition, “Everyone Carries a Shadow”.

Istanbul is the gateway to both East and West; is that geopolitical position important in your day-to-day work as a commercial art gallerist? What advantages does it provide? And disadvantages?

Well, Istanbul is a hub point to both cultures, that’s indeed a fact. It is quite possible to say that my position as a gallerist here is more or less like in all the other countries in the world. All those frequent and sometimes unstable political developments, which lead to interactive societal metamorphosis as a sine qua non of an unstoppable production process, seem like an advantage of [that geopolitical position] and form an endless variety.

However, such variety might also make it insanely difficult for a gallerist to decide if the [resulting] artworks are in fact just good ideas with bad implementations or vice versa. Furthermore, the minds of the collectors in Istanbul are still rather finance-oriented, which may unintentionally affect a gallerist’s decision for going with a commercial work that will surely sell or with a less commercial one that might not.

Turkey’s artists were vocal during the recent Gezi park and related protests. Do you expect there to be any sort of unrest or controversy once the Istanbul Biennial starts?

Even if such controversy happens, I believe it will be low profile. The curator of the biennale, Fulya Erdemci, arranged some “park forums” in order to consult the artists about their opinions on the “fresh from the oven” effects of Gezi park events. Then all of a sudden, they decided to change the whole programme, shortened the duration of the biennale and dispersed it to multi-locations rather than a central venue. However, I find that decision very reasonable, because they realised that if they insisted on going with the original theme of the biennale, “art in public space”, it could have been crushed by the explosion of creativity generated by the so called “Gezi spirit”.

The western media is keen to feature stories about politicised Asian or non-western artists; is this part of a postcolonial narrative? If yes, what impact does that expectation have on art and artists in Turkey?

The East has always been a mystery for the West due to its unbreakable introversion. For example, starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, many western artists got intrigued by the idea of the Harem, [something] that they never saw in person. From Ingres to Matisse, many superstars of the time painted it on their canvases based on their personal orientalist point of view (and imagination of course).

I always believed that those artists were the witnesses of their era and somehow acted as a sort of informal media or journalists. I assume this is a subliminal inheritance of that period over western media, therefore they still want to see that kind of art here.

However, the truth is far beyond this. The East is and will always be the swiftest transformer among all civilisations, thanks (or curses) to its complex political structure. Therefore, I believe that [even if] the western media were to play an active role on directing the East, as it used to be in the colonial era, the media will never be fast enough to achieve its expectations today. So I can say, even if the influence of western media may be partly in force, their effects will always be limited.

Ekin Saçlıoğlu, 'Kingdom', 2012, mixed media on canvas, 190 x 200 cm. Image courtesy x-ist.

Ekin Saçlıoğlu, ‘Kingdom’, 2012, mixed media on canvas, 190 x 200 cm. Image courtesy x-ist.

How has Turkey’s commercial art sector changed over the two years since the last biennial? Are any of those changes directly attributable to political factors?

Politics, as I stated before, is inseparable from the content of artworks in the East, especially in Turkey where everything changes so quickly. However, I should also say that the influence of politics on general purchasing decisions is relatively limited. People here still want to see what they can purely understand (a horse painted like a horse, no metaphors, nothing) and can peacefully live with.

What do you think the future holds for Istanbul art, both during the biennial and beyond?

I can’t foresee the future with mathematical accuracy, unfortunately. However, contemporary art is surprisingly good in Turkey and surely has great potential. I believe that if the collectors, galleries and institutions understand the fact that art is necessary to embellish people’s lives rather than something to buy and sell like stocks and bonds, things will be much better. This, of course needs time. But please remember that what makes you ask all those questions has derived from an insanely fast growing structural organism mainly started in the 2000s, only ten or twelve years ago. So I say, just watch and see.

Akşam Güneşi, 'Evening Sun', 2013, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy the Empire Project.

Akşam Güneşi, ‘Evening Sun’, 2013, oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Image courtesy The Empire Project.

Kerimcan Güleryüz, Founder of The Empire Project

The Empire Project was established in 2011 as a nonprofit space exhibiting contemporary art “from the regions which have historically been within the cultural sphere of influence centred upon (or significantly affected by) the imperial locus we today call Istanbul,” as their website states. This ambit encompasses most of the Mediterranean and Arab worlds, Eastern Europe, Anatolia, the Black Sea region and Central Asia.

Istanbul is the gateway to both East and West; is that geopolitical position important in your day-to-day work as a commercial art gallerist? What advantages does it provide? And disadvantages?

I’m not a fan of the overused analogy of gateway, bridge, etc. as these are never the ultimate destination but something one goes over or through. I prefer the concept of a hub in regards to Istanbul. In this sense Istanbul provides an advantage in regards to location and access, and generally it is a place people are very curious about; unfortunately it also has an element of projected Orientalism which can be bothersome.

Turkey’s artists were vocal during the recent Gezi park and related protests. Do you expect there to be any sort of unrest or controversy once the Istanbul Biennial starts?

Turkish artists have been very vocal since the 1960s, not just since Gezi. Artists in Turkey have been and continue to be activists in social and political issues. Gezi is an experience that we are all still trying to come to grips with, and what appears from the outside as just a single event that ran its course has [in reality] been the source of a shift in focus and a desire for change. We are likely to experience these effects for quite some time to come, especially when considering this crucial stage in the development cycle of the Turkish art market.

Currently, the active Turkish scene is trying to decipher the game of dominance in the art market: who leads, who follows, who sets the tone. In this light, the country’s art scene could be divided into three major segments: well-meaning institutions and patrons of the arts with corporate affiliations, at times unwittingly acting as power brokers; collector-driven or owned galleries with exaggerated commercial expectations; and a handful of galleries with idealistic expectations looking to bring context and continuity to this developing region.

This biennial has probably been one of the most hotly debated and criticised ones in recent memory. The curator has an unenviable job. The major question has been whether what the Biennial has to offer is even relevant at this point, in light of the Gezi events and the responses they engendered.

The western media is keen to feature stories about politicised Asian or non-western artists; is this part of a postcolonial narrative? If yes, what impact does that expectation have on art and artists in Turkey?

It is hard to be a Turkish artist and not be politicised. But Turkey does not fall into a postcolonial narrative. This is not an applicable context, more a colonialist projection trying to over-simplify this complex region. Regarding whether politics is used as a sales tool, this can always be the case at any given time and in almost any part of the world, not just Turkey.

Mehmet Güleryüz, 'Good Deed', 2011, oil on canvas,  250 x 180 cm. Image courtesy the Empire Project.

Mehmet Güleryüz, ‘Good Deed’, 2011, oil on canvas, 250 x 180 cm. Image courtesy The Empire Project.

How has Turkey’s commercial art sector changed over the two years since the last biennial? Are any of those changes directly attributable to political factors?

The Turkish art market is in a period of digestion after a very active period of buying and selling. The growth of a market is always in parallel with and affected by economic stability. If we consider regional and global politics as a factor that influences the economy, they are sure to have an effect, but I would not attribute any change in market dynamics solely to political factors.

What do you think the future holds for Istanbul art, both during the Biennial and beyond?

Istanbul is a very active and important art scene that has grown from hopeful adolescent to awkward teenager. I expect the market to become more and more important and a regional leader in the coming years. We will most likely see Istanbul becoming more and more active in regards to exhibiting works of an international nature.

There are a large number of new museums slated to open, including the long-awaited Koç Museum as well as a number of others. The entrance of a second international fair has potential to bring out a spirit of healthy competition, which will help to bring better visibility and access.

I consider the Gezi events and the international reflection to have been a very positive contribution to the perception of Turkish art and artists, so it will be interesting to see how this interest will mature and develop.

Nilbar Güreş 'Worship', 2010, C-print, 100 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Rampa Gallery.

Nilbar Güreş ‘Worship’ from the series TrabZONE, 2010, C-print, 100 x 150 cm. Image courtesy Rampa Gallery.

Üstüngel Inanç, Public Relations Manager of Rampa Gallery

Located in the fashionable Besiktas district of Istanbul, Rampa Gallery features Turkish contemporary art and supports scholarly research.

Istanbul is the gateway to both East and West; is that geopolitical position important in your day-to-day work as a commercial art gallerist? What advantages does it provide? And disadvantages?

I think the geopolitical position of Turkey provides a gallery with unique opportunities. As you say, a gallery from Turkey can reach out to the West and to the East more easily, not only geographically but socially too. I believe Turkish artists have the opportunity to understand and reflect on issues both from the East and the West. I believe that makes Turkish galleries very lucky.

Turkey’s artists were vocal during the recent Gezi park and related protests. Do you expect there to be any sort of unrest or controversy once the Istanbul Biennial starts?

Many of the artists from all generations – especially the youth – became part of the Gezi resistance. It is one of the most important uprisings in civil Turkish history. I believe it was a good decision on the biennial side to exclude any public spaces. It would have been impossible to get permission for one. I am sure the biennial will be discussed a lot as its concept directly deals with issues that led up to the Gezi resistance. Whether you like the biennial or not, it already proves that the curator picked up on a vital point to work on.

The western media is keen to feature stories about politicised Asian or non-western artists; is this part of a postcolonial narrative? If yes, what impact does that expectation have on art and artists in Turkey?

I believe this is not exactly true. Of course they feature stories also on politicised artists, but I do not think there are so many stories on non-western artists from all different political views. I believe there should be more stories on non-western artists in the western media.

Servet Koçyiğit, 'Zonkey', 2010, HD video. Image courtesy Rampa Gallery.

Servet Koçyiğit, ‘Zonkey’, 2010, HD video. Image courtesy Rampa Gallery.

How has Turkey’s commercial art sector changed over the two years since the last biennial? Are any of those changes directly attributable to political factors?

The biennial has opened ways for the Turkish art world to meet with the international one and it has been the most important driving force in the development of the art world here.

Ten years ago the number of galleries were very limited and there was no market for contemporary art. This has now totally changed. There are two big art fairs happening in the city; the biennial is the biggest attraction. There are maybe 100 new galleries, many NGOs and artist initiatives, and people are interested in contemporary art. I believe this is an important step. I do not think that these changes are attributable to political changes.

What do you think the future holds for Istanbul art, both during the Biennial and beyond?

I think the art scene will develop and we will be hearing the name of Istanbul on the world art map more. There are three new contemporary art museums opening in the next five years and the new ArtInternational Istanbul fair is due to open the first edition this Sunday, which may bring in high profile international collectors.

Vahap Avşar, 'PrecariousUSA', 2010, oil on canvas, 156 x 126 cm. Image courtesy Rampa Gallery.

Vahap Avşar, ‘PrecariousUSA’, 2010, oil on canvas, 156 x 126 cm. Image courtesy Rampa Gallery.

Susan Kendzulak

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Related Topics: Turkish contemporary art, contemporary art events in Istanbul, Asia expands

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