“Harbor” explores how port areas are reflected in the visual arts as geographical locations as well as sites of social and economic interaction.
The exhibition, running until 4 June 2017 at Istanbul Modern, focuses on “harbor” as a theme of multiple dimensions, situated in a museum that occupies a former dry cargo warehouse in the Port of Istanbul. The show also delves into the symbolic and metaphorical aspects of the concept of “harbour”.
Situated between the Bosphorus Strait and the Black Sea, Istanbul owes its legacy as the largest commercial and economic hub in Eurasia largely to its ports. At Istanbul Modern, the exhibition “Harbor” pays homage to this rich history, focusing on Istanbul’s relationship to the sea between the late 19th century to the present. The exhibition also directly references the 1941 exhibition of the Harbor Painters, a group of artists who focused on socialist realist themes roiling the nation at the time, including the plight of harbour workers and labourers. Founded by students of Leopold Levy at the Fine Arts Academy, the Harbor Painters included Nuri Yelim, Mumtaz Yener, Neset Gunal, Huseyin Bilishek and Nedim Gunsur, all of whose works were united by a desire to represent the social configurations of life that revolved around Istanbul’s port.
Seventy-six years later, Istanbul Modern’s sprawling exhibition posits the relationship between sea and land as a generative, if complicated one. In addition to the works displayed in Istanbul Modern’s galleries, there have been three works commissioned specifically for the show. Antonio Cosentino’s work Star of Syria – a ship made entirely of used tin cans – attends to the idea of harbour as refuge, while Borga Kantürk draws on similar themes of traversal and collective memory in Shoreline Records, which draws upon a survey of his work of the last decade. In addition, Serkan Özkaya was commissioned to produce An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Istanbul, a projection of the Bosphororus that can be seen on the interior walls of the museum, driving home the thematic gesture of intimacy between sea and the people of Istanbul.
Curated by Çelenk Bafra and Levent Çalíkoglu, the exhibition boasts 34 artists whose works span media including photography, installation, painting and sculpture, and are drawn from both 19th and early 20th century as well as contemporary practices. Art Radar highlights four of the artists on display in “Harbor”.
1. Arslan Sükan
In Arlsan Sükan’s photography, digital manipulation highlights the tense relationship between foreground and background. Artificial Blast (2009), on display in “Harbor”, comes from a series of C-prints rendered in red and black that depict warships making their way across an expanse of sea while the horizon is framed by billowing swaths of clouds. Here, the sea functions as stage: against this backdrop of rippling ocean highlighted by patches of bright red, warships move towards undetermined targets.
The clouds, illuminated by the red colour-inverted pigment add to the ambivalence of the scene, making it difficult to determine whether the events in question are occurring during daylight, nighttime, or in a time entirely separate and distinct from either. Sükan, who lives and works in New York and Istanbul, has exhibited these works and many others at Rome’s Maxxi Museum, Maison des Metallos in Paris, Batagianni Gallery in Athens, and Galerist and Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art in Istanbul.
2. Ara Güler
Ara Güler’s photography is notable for its depiction of the everyman. The subjects of his work are those who are engaged in what the socialist realists would mark as “real” work: farmers, bakers, fishermen. His 1952 series of “Armenian Fishermen at Kumkapi”, in which the eponymous subjects frame a pile of silvery fish at the foreground of the image, achieves its realistic and pathos-imbued vigour from Güler’s trained hand as a photojournalist.
Reporting first for the Turkish newspaper Yeni Istanbul, and later as a correspondent for the American publication Time Life and Marc Riboud and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Magnum Photos, much of Güler’s work is an examination of the multivariate ways in which life was lived both within Istanbul and in far-flung locales like Kenya and Borneo. “Armenian Fisherman at Kumkapi” depicts closely the relationship between the harbour as a source of livelihood and sustenance, as well as a zone in which social and economic forces were enacted. Güler’s work was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1968 show “Ten Masters of Color Photography”, and he is the recipient of such accolades as France’s Legion d’Honneur, and Turkey’s Grand Prize of Culture and Arts in 2005.
3. Fausto Zonaro
In 1878, the Italian journalist turned novelist Edmondo De Amicis published his novel Constantinople, written after the author had spent some time in the city in 1874. In 1891, the Italian genre painter Fausto Zonaro, inspired by De Amicis’ text, moved to the Ottoman capital with his pupil Elisabetta Pante, whom he would marry the following year. Zonaro, a reader of the romantic Oriental tradition, would further this Orientalist tradition with his various portraits, landscapes and historical paintings, which were well received amongst the Ottoman aristocracy.
The Port of Galata, painted sometime at the end of the 19th or early 20th century, demonstrates the importance of harbours and ports for the life of the city over the past century. The crowds gathered at the shore, combined with the large ships set against the hazy atmospheric mood established by Zonaro’s thick impasto, establish that activity was teeming at the ports and harbours of the Ottoman Empire, providing both a cultural and economic activity that defined much of life in this era.
4. Burhan Dogançay
The work of Turkish-American artist Burhan Dogançay is expansive in its breadth and draws upon the artist’s peripatetic lifestyle across Turkey, Europe and the United States. His work draws from photorealism, pop art and graffiti; many of his paintings are metacritical images of the materiality of street art and wheatpaste posters unfurling. Dogançay’s 1991 painting Lifesaver III is an acrylic and mixed media work on canvas that draws on his trompe l’oeil photorealistic style.
In this collage, the lifesaver, a common mainstay of ships and nautical imagery, is given serious material consideration as it casts a shadow alongside the wooden hooks and strings on the wall. Dogançay’s work fleshes out the more tangible, obvious connections to Istanbul’s harbour by tapping into the universal and the material rather than the historical; in this way, it functions almost in a meditative, contemplative rejoinder to the other works on display.
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