THE HOT SPOT OF GLOBAL ART, ISTANBUL CONTEMPORARY ART SCENE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL AND CULTURAL CONDITIONS AND PRACTICES – Beral MADRA
THE HOT SPOT OF GLOBAL ART
ISTANBUL CONTEMPORARY ART SCENE AND ITS SOCIO-POLITICAL AND CULTURAL CONDITIONS AND PRACTICES
In this text I will deal with a period of twenty years (1987-2007) in the development of contemporary art system and practice in Istanbul. There are two prerequisites in my attempt. Firstly, I will focus on Istanbul and not on Turkey, because even after twenty years of fundamental infrastructural transformations the contemporary art is being produced, promoted and issued only in Istanbul. Secondly, the international art experts have hardly penetrated into this contemporary art scene and therefore could not contribute with any kind of theoretical or critical oeuvre, I think that Istanbul art scene is not being evaluated with a professional objectivity or even subjectivity but with optimist prejudices or with entrepreneurial endeavor. Istanbul has two faces: the seeming, which is promoted by the art experts of the mainstream global culture industry and the real as reflected in the art works and the local critical theory. Based on these hypotheses, the text aims to give the reader the socio-political, cultural background of contemporary art in Istanbul, the development of the essential transitions in culture industry and the relations with EU within the framework of its enlargement and cultural integration policies.
The emblematic moments of contemporary art making throughout these two decades follow the path of the political and economic episodes.
In the 80’s in spite of the military intervention and the anti-democratic constitution the art got rid of its modernist dust and formalism due to the transition from state capitalism to liberal economy and international communication amenities. The artists embraced the concept and minimal art forms and mixed media installations and spiritually jumped into a parallel course with international stream of interdisciplinary production. The infrastructure of contemporary art scene was barren; it consisted of two main universities (Mimar Sinan University and Marmara University) with their yearly art festivals, a few independent artist’s group exhibitions, private galleries and some corporate culture initiatives. The artists enjoyed their position as the fosterer of post-modern culture and the new visual aesthetics. The earnest attempt to fund or built a modern and contemporary art museum failed due to lack of interest from the state and the private sector.
This decade is decisive in the sense that the first Istanbul Biennale in 1987 opened the way into the liberal culture industry, to the international mainstream and incited the autonomy of the art production. After the military intervention in 1980’s Turkey slowly but surely lost its modernist nation state homogeneity. The socio-political and cultural transformations due to the liberal economy, to the mass emigrations to Istanbul and other urban centers, to the international communication and travel facilities have also effected the concepts, contents, aesthetics and form of art making, connecting it to the popular and mass culture, to consumption and advertisement culture and to the daily life issues. Before being assimilated into the urban life in Istanbul the emigrant population isolated itself and tried to preserve their traditional culture and identity through conservatism and fundamentalism. On one side the ethnic differences and patriarchal order resisted to the urban modernism and standardization and on the other side a heterotopia hand in hand with dystopia appeared in an underground or marginal urban culture. The heterotopia and dystopia manifestations and images which in the 90’s infiltrated into the mainstream art, found their best field of expression in the entertainment and media culture. Yet, the artists of the 80’s were still distanced to these fundamentalisms and to heterotopia and dystopia manifestations. They were still dealing with the heritage of an ideologically polarized 70’s and to begin with they had to close the gap between the Western and the local art forms. Moreover politically they were silenced by the military repression and by the tragedies of their fathers and friends. However, in a group movement, which is called Art Definition Group (STT) some artists gradually changed their traditional image as painter and sculptor and modified their skills, materials and technologies to the requirements of the new era. The founding members of this decisive group were Şükrü Aysan, Serhat Kiraz, Ahmet Ökten, Alpaslan Baloğlu, Ergül Özkutan and Ahmet Öner Gezgin. Calling themselves “Turkish Avant-gardes” throughout the 80’s they organized group exhibitions with a changing group of artist such as Ayşe Erkmen, Canan Beykal, Füsun Onur, Cengiz Çekil, İsmail Saray, Gülsüm Karamustafa, Erdağ Aksel, Selim Birsel as well as painters such as Tomur Atagök, Bedri Baykam, Hale Arpacıoğlu, Balkan Naci İslimyeli. The corpus of work that has been produced during the 80’s is not so visible, because it was not properly documented and preserved and it was not bought by the collectors. In 2005, on the 25th anniversary of the 80’s military intervention, I initiated and curated a retrospective exhibition in Karşı Sanat Gallery under the title “A Balance” and our research certified this deficit. It was a team work of volunteers. One of the aims was to revive the memory of this decade and make the young generation of artists aware of this production, to confront their lack of interest in the recent art history.
In the 90’s the winds of globalization reached Turkey and the rapid transformation from modernist isolation to global inclusion started in intense relationship with the art scenes in EU countries, particularly those with the majority of Turkish emigrants. With the zenith of corporate art and culture centers, with the total privatization of the art scene and with the emergence and domination of the local and international curators the artist’s position changed from fosterer to perpetrator or implementer.
Without doubt the relations with EU within the framework of its enlargement and cultural integration policies have definitely changed the course of art and culture in Istanbul. The process started in the 90’s on strictly individual networking level and gradually developed into an institutional relationship, mainly between private museums, fine arts faculties, artists associations and other NGO’s, mostly funded by EU resources. This interaction was mostly possible in accordance with the process of global economy and politics so that the culture gained independency and autonomy and the interest of the private sector. Precisely this progression prepared the rupture between the Istanbul based contemporary art productions and Ankara based cultural policy. While the state monopoly on the arts as the cultural manifestation of the modern nation state ideology is still prevailing despite the current privatization plans Istanbul art scene has turned its face towards EU.
To my opinion, the cultural relation of Turkey to EU has romantic commitment and the orientalist discourse is still prevailing. Culture is being used- not to say abused – by the state, by the local governments and by the private sector, as the polished extension of the official policy for their goal to enter in EU. On the other hand the professionals of culture industry are still too frail and unsure, so that there is little resistance to manipulations. Moreover it is still a one-way relationship; we are still receivers rather than givers.
Throughout the 90’s when Turkey’s hopes to come near to EU was almost choked within the turmoil of PKK terrorism and suppressed civil war, the demand of displaying culture and art from Turkey radiated from the EU centers and their interest in Turkey’s contemporary art restored the situation. Numerous contemporary art exhibitions with selected artist from Istanbul have been realized particularly in Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Austria from 1992 on.
Since almost a decade the cultural entities in EU and independent groups in Turkey are showing interest to discover and know each other on the platform of post-modern reconciliation, i.e. on a basis of recognition from Western European art and culture institutions, curators, theoreticians and culture managers. In tune with this endeavor EU funds have opened their doors to numerous projects that has been realized by mostly officially appointed curators and culture managers in EU art institutions which throughout the last half of 20th century were unimaginable for an artist from the Non-west. Projects motivating inter-cultural dialogue between local marginal groups and NGO’s, or between the artists and art experts of neighboring countries, networking and residency programs have been frequently funded by the Mondrian Foundation, Prince Claus Foundation, European Cultural Foundation, Roberto Cimetta Foundation, Anna Lind Foundation. The whole art scene diligently learned how to make a project and how to write a project. Nevertheless the official and public funds of the Turkish state are hardly reachable for the individuals of the contemporary art scene because central and local governments show no response, no reaction, and no action for contemporary art yet. The institutions and individuals are dependent on private money and cannot respond to the “exchange” programs, which is the basis of an effective relation and so called inter-cultural communication. This one way relation is doomed to be ambiguous, complex and detached. On the other hand, since a decade private sector is becoming very conscious of promoting art and the absence of public money in contemporary art field bestows it with more credit than it deserves. Privately funded Istanbul Biennale, three new museums Sabancı, Pera and Istanbul Modern with eclectic programs, four established corporate art centers Yapı Kredi, Garanti Platform, İşsanat, Aksanat with interdisciplinary perspective and public programming, three local art fairs with ambiguous quality and half a dozen serious but local private galleries make up the hype-culture scene of Istanbul. These corporate and private sector culture institutions present their aim as “to render art and culture service to the public” and the way they accomplish this aim and goal is through exhibitions, forums, events and public education programs, which are mainly free of charge.
From a skeptical point of view, the whole corporate art system is financially and officially dominating the in’s and out’s of the art scene in Istanbul. The quality of artistic and cultural production is maintained in a level that modernist aesthetics is not avoided, post-modernist aesthetics is propped up and the mental limits of an elite public is not mistreated. The corporate art centers set up a cultural monopoly together with the press and the media. Criticism is paired with advertising and promotion. In short the whole system is promoted by PR and advertisement companies and clandestinely rejects disapproval or criticism. Adorno’s 1940’s prophecies find their manifestation in the current panaroma of culture: Advertising and the culture industry merge technically as well as economically. In both cases the same thing can be seen in innumerable places, and the mechanical repetition of the same culture product has come to be the same as that of the propaganda slogan. In both cases the insistent demand for effectiveness makes technology into psycho- technology, into a procedure for manipulating men. In both cases the standards are the striking yet familiar, the easy yet catchy, the skillful yet simple; the object is to overpower the customer, who is conceived as absent-minded or resistant. (1)
This yet incomplete process has now a very crucial momentum. EU started to expand its culture policy at first to the East European countries and later to the Balkans. Although the process is not yet complemented there yet, Istanbul very quickly – maybe too quickly – became the field of expansion of this move towards further East. The policy is being extended over Turkey to South Caucasus, to the Near, Middle and Far East. Therefore, Istanbul is no more the border or bridge, but a “complex” transmitter of EU culture to further east.
There is a problem of identity within the complexity as mentioned above: Seemingly it is an emblematic and charismatic position for all geographic directions, in reality however it is distanced and nonchalant to EU due to the current impediments. The same attitude is applicable towards Anatolia and to east and south-east of Turkey. There are some attempts of linking Istanbul based contemporary art and culture to Anatolia. The first one was Diyarbakır Art Center, which is successfully operating since 2000 giving a notable motivation to creative young people, and presenting an alternative educative space for the larger public. Artist such as Şener Özmen, Ahmet Öğüt, Cevdet Erek, Fikret Atay who gained rightful recognition in the international exchange have profited from the conveniences of this center. The second one is Sinopalia, a two year interdisciplinary event to be launched in Sinop, a Black Sea coast city of intricate affairs related to its past and present. However, the city’s ego is too high with charisma stories and hedonism to be involved in the extension of its art and culture. In reality there are deep problems created by the hegemony of micro-politics against the macro politics; i.e. gentrification of districts and removal of marginal population. The recent operations of the metropolitan municipality are to de-construct the current cultural infrastructure (all the buildings of modernism) and to re-construct it according to the requirements of neo-liberalist urban planning.
With this complex identity Istanbul is in a state of continuous fusion and con-fusion.
Seemingly, the border of cultural expansion is shifted to East and Southeast Turkey, around which the countries are expressing themselves with the cultures of their likewise emblematic and charismatic capital cities (Tbilisi, Yerevan, Baku, Teheran, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Tel Aviv) and complex urban life under de-construction and re-construction. The current socio-cultural and architectural status of these cities is astonishingly similar to Istanbul even if they have different internal problems due to the quality and level of the democratization process. These tradition and history laden cities are obviously not centers of welfare and democracy. Evidently, these cities are in globalization distress. For these cities, Modernity was a false appearance and rupture, Post- modernity was the outcome of post-colonial / post-soviet period and the capitalist drive, globalism became a hurricane.
Together with Istanbul, the historical status and the sociopolitical context of these cities determine the “gaze” of EU societies to the Non-EU territories. Despite the efforts of objectivity, dialogue and reciprocity sagas this “gaze” is quite suspicious and anxious. First of all the discrepancy between the culture policies and administrations constricts the channels of communication to sporadic encounters. Secondly, this gaze looks over some fundamental facts: In the course of globalization, the expansion of capital on a world-wide scale produces, as a reaction, all manners of local cultural resistances in the name of cultural, linguistic or ethnic identities. Contemporary art practice is the location of this cultural resistance and it needs a reciprocal communication rather than a one-sided interest.
The conflict of inter-cultural dialogue between the welfare EU countries and the rest is also put on stage in the welfare capitals. Not only the Non-EU but also EU nations are undergoing a profound cultural crisis of identity because globalization as mass immigration is depriving them of their Eurocentric cultural identity. Transculturality in the form of immigrant art and artists is a mirror that reflects the profound cultural crisis which is accompanying globalism. Most of the EU countries with emigrants from the global South are dealing with this cultural crisis through new programming in their contemporary at institutions.
Istanbul is commissioned and designated not only to be a territory of transculturality, but also has to construct a genuine exchange – which I hope is a communication based on equality – with Turkey in the whole but also with all these cities around its borders. This is a twofold task; a task that should have been fulfilled long before… As a curator in this territory I prefer to go after the artists who are fully aware of this crisis and phenomena, who are thinking and creating art beyond the visible and official facts of the cultural relation with EU, who are carrying the burden of transmitting micro and macro culture entities– which is obviously inevitable – with criticism, with a rare consciousness and an unpredictable sense of humor.
The main objectives of this acknowledgment should certainly be evaluated within the theoretical discourse of globalization as well as within the inevitable fact that most of these countries/cities have large communities of Turkish origin which should be amended with their own contemporary cultural vigor in their self-inflicted isolation.
Since a decade curating, which brings the curator into the centre of this system, is the main topic of discussion and antagonism. Istanbul Biennale exhibitions in 1987 and 1989 were curated by me with the support of international and local advisors; however unknown at that time this title was never used in the catalogues. In 1989 I curated an exhibition with Turkish artists for Bari Art Fair, where Mediterranean countries had a special organization. Through this exhibition and in the course of curating the pavilion of Turkey in 1990 and 1993 Venice Biennale my title as curator was registered. From that date on I had some influence on making curating a profession by accentuating my function in fund raising, as coordinating, concept building and executing in the exhibitions despite the antagonist approaches from the older generation artists, galleries and university circles. During the 90’s Vasıf Kortun, as the curator of the 3rd Istanbul Biennale and other independent shows and a few art historians and sociologists have contributed to the establishment of curating. One should also emphasize the foreign curator’s role in this transformation from artist and gallery initiated exhibitions to curator’s supremacy. Rene Block was the first foreign curator, followed by Paolo Colombo, Roza Martinez, Yuko Hagesawa, Dan Cameron, and Charles Esche. All of these curators switched on some sparks in the art scene, have supported some Turkish artists in their endeavor to reach the mainstream recognition but did not generate a genuine interest or criticism into the contents, theory and issues of contemporary art in Turkey.
My curatorial contribution to the international exchange during the 90’s consisted of some twenty exhibitions which I organized in my art centre or in the public spaces such as Atatürk Culture Centre and some historical buildings. Among these I co-curated the “Iskele” exhibition in Berlin and Stuttgart, curated “Orient Express” in Künstlerhaus Bethanien, “Istanbul in Berlin” in Kunstamt Kreuzberg, “Xample” and “Dialogues-The Lost Idea of the order of Things” in AKM, “Concrete Visions” in Kadıköy. In 1995 I was invited by The Rockefeller Foundation to co-curate an exhibition of Islamic countries for 49th Venice Biennale. “Modernities and Memories, Contemporary Art from Islamic Countries” was a turning point in my vocation as curator. I turned my face to the East and South-East of Turkey; since then I have been organizing exhibitions, networking events and publications in collaboration with South Caucasus and Middle East artists and art experts. The last example of this undertaking was an exhibition with eleven artists of this territory, entitled “Neighbours in Dialogue”, realized for the collection of Ars Aevi, Sarajevo Museum of Contemporary Art in April 2007. Solidarity, collaboration and one to one contact is what I have found during my visits to Tbilisi, Baku, Beirut and Cairo. After all, I think that in the first decade of 2000’s, living in this geo-political territory we are onlookers of a global politics that ruthlessly divides the world into two religions and blatantly formulates the economy as stock market. The societies living in and around Turkey through different phases of democracy can hardly proclaim their thoughts, proposals or opposition; they are more silent then loud. The most detectable criticism and opposition comes from artists who with their challenging art works can analyze, scrutinize and shake the roots of the order of the things. The works are mostly based on research of recent history, on sociological and anthropological observations, on underground and marginal cultures, on cultural policies and mirror the varied levels of enlightment within the unfinished modernisms.
Apart from the numerous exhibitions that have been realized in private and official spaces in Istanbul through these two decades, most of the artists from Turkey could show their works in the established institutions all over Europe. Among these Kunsthalle Fredericianum, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Bonn Kunstmuseum, ZKM, IFA, MUMOK, Kunsthalle Wien, Villa Manin should be mentioned. They were also hosted by almost all the biennale (Busan, Kwangju, Havana, Sydney, Sao Paolo, Prag, Cetinje, Tirana Bienale and Manifesta) since the middle of 90’s.
When we look to the list of these exhibitions we can see a certain repetition of the names. Since 1997 Halil Altındere, Gülsün Karamustafa, Hale Tenger, Esra Ersen, Füsun Onur, Aydan Mürtezaoğlu, Bülent Şangar, Hüseyin Alptekin are almost in every exhibition. Artists such as xurban collective, Fikret Atay, Can Altay, Şener Özmen, Cevdet Erek, Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz, Canan Şenol, Oda Projesi, Nomad, Neriman Polat, Gül Ilgaz, Denizhan Özer, Genco Gülan are frequently invited. While Gülsün Karamustafa, Füsun Onur, Hale Tenger, Ayşe Erkmen, Halil Altındere are constant names of Rene Block exhibitions, Aydan Mürtezaoğlu, Bülent Şangar and Semiha Berksoy (died in 2004) are the one’s of Roza Martinez’s exhibitions. Artists like Ayşe Erkmen, Sarkis, Kutluğ Ataman, Ergin Çavuşoğlu, Hüseyin Çağlayan, Haluk Akakçe are mainly living and working in EU cities and being promoted by by established galleries and official institutions; I am inclined to evaluate their professional success within the EU context even if their work is inspired by Turkey’s peculiarities.
Taking the risk of differentiation, I can put an emphasis on the position and art making of women artists, because they are supposed to reflect the most enlightened face of Turkey throughout the modernism or as part of the reserved feminist movement in Turkey since 1970’s. We can describe the female art making in Turkey with the words of Katy Deepwell (2) feminism is not a singular approach but a broad umbrella term for diverse number of positions and strategies amongst women involved in the production, distribution and consumption of art. The contributors include critics, curators, academics and art. However, in Istanbul art scene the recognition of art making and art works of women artists is an overdue procedure that need more accentuation.
As Turkey is one of the most modernized Islamic country, the Western gaze also fixes the position of the women artists from Turkey into an emblematic position. Indeed the women artists played a significant role in the emergence of post-modern art with a restrained feminist touch. The first group of protagonist women artists, among them Füsun Onur, Ayşe Erkmen, Canan Beykal, Gülsün Karamustafa, Hale Tenger, Handan Börüteçene produced space based installations with socio-political and cultural content during the 80’s and early 90’s. Canan Tolon, İnci Eviner, Tomur Atagök, İpek Duben, Hale Arpacıoğlu and Selma Gürbüz’s mostly neo-expressionist paintings differed from the previous generation with their daring subjects and elaborate techniques. The next group with Şükran Aziz, Özgül Arslan, Şeyda Cesur, Elif Çelebi, Esra Ersen, Gül Ilgaz, Şükran Moral, Neriman Polat, Gonca Sezer, Sermin Sherif, Canan Şenol, Mukadder Şimşek upset the scene with performance, photography, video.
Throughout the 90’s the western gaze was still branding the women in the Islamic world with the veil. Even if their interest were dragging them to the blind alleys of the patriarchal society and they were ardent to reflect the distress of the women population, the women artists of Turkey did not tackle the veil as visual manifestation. The veil became the visual manifestation of the Diaspora artists of the Islamic world and the curators exploited their production for their own pursuit of being politically correct or update.
The visibility of women artists of today reveals itself in their daring and vigorous performances, photography and video works as well as paintings and wall drawings arranged as installations in the given space. Exposure of taboos on female body and other gender issues, daily life and consumption stereotypes, press and media exploitations and ethnic or ideological identities were depicted and transposed into documentary, semi-documentary or fictitious video or photography images in the works of Selda Asal, Yeşim Ağaoğlu, Nazan Azeri, Nancya Atakan, Gülçin Aksoy, Özgül Arslan, Deniz Aygün, Nezaket Ekici, Gül Ilgaz, Aydan Murtazaoğlu, Neriman Polat, Ani Setyan, Canan Şenol, Dilek Winchester. Narrative, surrealist or memory based paintings with implications on the complexity of subconscious or obscurity of desire, delicate drawings reminiscent of illustrated story books or basic teaching strategies and urban or nature scapes are being employed in the paintings and drawings of Leyla Gediz, Yesim Akdeniz Graf, Elif Uras, Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz, Banu Birecikligil, Banu Cennetoğlu, Ayça Tüylüoğlu, İnci Furni, Ceren Oykut, Nalan Yırtmaç. A large group of artists living in EU cities and identifying themselves as the third generation emigrants are keeping their interest in the Istanbul art scene by being continuously in touch with Istanbul artists and curators. In most of their works, for example in the works of Nevin Aladağ, Hatice Güleryüz, Nilbar Güreş, Gülsen Bal one can observe the concern of tracing their roots and re-construing their relationship.
This classification is not an attempt to discern the works of male artists, but to underline the fact that female artist’s presence in the art scene should be mentioned. Evidently there is no difference in the works of male and female artists apart from the particular implications on feminism, on female body and on issues related to female positions as seen from the angle of a woman living in Turkey (or in the region in general).
Thus in general, the contents and forms of the current artworks of three generation of artists reveal an affinity to Popart and Fluxus with a frivolity in utilizing the aesthetics and forms of these movements. The over-all intellectual approach reveals a skeptical view towards the new and the real, towards a stabile subjective standpoint and towards the legitimacy of the order of common things and order of art. The desire to be visible in the mainstream context forces the artists to test their limits of knowledge, skill and self-confidence. Even if they are dealing with very local micro histories or stories and memories they feel contented in challenging sophisticated international experts and the public with their daring documentary or fictitious digital or moving image productions. Since the 90’s two generation of artists articulate in diverse techniques with different materials; they use drawing, painting, photography, and video, sculpture side by side, evidently not escaping the risk of making an inconsistent hybrid installation. The art works disclose autobiographical instances, desires and goals, childhood memories, observations into the daily life of their neighborhoods or risky urban districts. With their fictional or conceptual works, professional photographers such as Ahmet Elhan, Nazif Topçuoğlu and Sıtkı Kösemen have reallocated the photography into the contemporary art milieu. Photography and video documentation of performances or personifications and self-portraits which represent the social or mental and spiritual position of a generation or a group are popular ways of expression. These aspects can be seen in the works of Halil Altındere, Fatih Balcı, Başir Borlakov, Şinasi Güneş, Denizhan Özer, Ferhat Özgür, Şener Özmen, Çağrı Saray, Bülent Şangar. Some of them (Serkan Özkaya for example) daringly journey into the 20th century art history – even if it is partly the art history of the West- and borrow theories and forms which they transform into the needs and conditions of the day. Others pursue their roots in the Ottoman and Islamic art (for example Murat Morova) and find in the tradition similarities in thinking and spirituality. After all 20th century innovation in painting and its reverberation in Turkey’s painting history one cannot expect miracles in painting. However, painting is still the artwork that finds its collectors. What should a painting reflect or represent today? Some artists such as Kemal Önsoy, Mithat Şen, Ahmet Oran, Tayfun Erdoğmuş, Kemal Seyhan respond to this question with abstraction, minimality, monochromatic, repetitive renderings. Painters from older and younger generation Mehmet Güleryüz, Hakan Gürsoytrak, Mustafa Pancar, Murat Akagündüz, İrfan Önürmen, Temur Köran, Mustafa Horasan, all most popular painters comment on the human condition with figurative paintings.
There are common features in the works of the recent decade. All moves to all directions reflect black humor, misanthropy and mischievousness that stems from the socio-political and economic suppressions, disappointments, and desperations. The displays of these remarks, explorations and statements are not for the sake of the viewer to walk through (3) and look at them. In the deep crevices of these folds of narration and imagery there is a desire to insinuate into a reciprocal relationship with the viewer. Nicholas Bourriaud, in his book “Relational Aesthetics” deals with this phenomena and pinpoints it as artwork as social interstice(4).
Who profited of these exhibitions? No doubt the artists who could reach wider and more involved audiences, no doubt the few curators who gained international recognition, no doubt the secondary sectors (PR companies, photo and video laboratories, insurance and transportation companies etc.) of the culture industry. Despite the lack of financial profit and despite the lack of interest of the local and international market the artists could gain an experience and encounter different publics. Possibly, the EU curators could also overcome their orientalist tendencies through their short but valuable visits to Istanbul. And no doubt Istanbul gained its popularity through this global cultural exchange in contemporary art.
No doubt the public profited. However this is a different public. In the global West the art has its mass public by acquiring all the structures of consumption, popular and event culture, such as art fairs with banquettes, parties, celebrations, and exhibitions with interdisciplinary context, social happenings and youth culture. In tune with these enrichments artist’s function and effort has split into two contradictory directions: to be the dissident, the oppositional individual and to fiddle with the new strategies of reaching the mass public. In the global East however, the art has not yet reached its mass public and the art is not a vehicle for thought (5) but stays as a privileged field for the art experts, business sector, media and intellectuals.
Here, the artist’s position is again twofold in consideration of his/her attachment to social goals and his/her relation to the under developed culture industry. For the eastern public the context of art is not a location where everything is consumed and re constructed. The artist is obliged to take some strategies from the popular fields such as the media and the advertisement. In that way the art may loose its self evidence and the inherent criteria; however the artists knows to maneuver from this danger by adopting the strategies of other fields in such a way that the seriousness, intelligence, sensibility and perceptive power is emphasized against the triviality and frivolity. The whole system is intended for towards more recognition from the public; in the global West this public may be more homogenous in its right to reach and consume the art and culture knowledge. In the global East though there is a privileged class and the corporate art system determines the quality of their public with their opulent buildings, safety measures and intermediary agents such as presidents, directors and curators who are more in the focus then the artists and art works. In both territories the sophistication of the system with exceptional curators and managers and the proliferation of promotion and advertisement make the art scene a spectacle rather than a forum. These spectacular events, such as biennale and art fairs are mentioned by the name of the curators and managers; and the list of artists is being announced as late as possible, as little as possible. Only the “star” artist can compete with this fame and glory of the curator.
What kind of chance artists have to be a “star”, if they are not networking or not working with a powerful gallery or a curator, if they are not visible in biennale and art fair? What kind of a chance does an art work have which with its complex content and detailed execution needs a certain devotion, time and commitment from the public? Regardless of the quality and excellence these artists and art works have little chance to enter into the system. This bottleneck which ends up with major questions “what is art now?” or “who is the artist now?” created its own solution. An elegant and tactful resistance of artists is now visible in Istanbul art scene. Not long lasting but effective group movements were popular since the 80’s, but became a survival and visibility strategy now. On of the first examples was Hafriyat (excavation) . In the 90’s a dissident group of artists with unfathomable involvement in underground and popular culture as well as political criticism founded Hafriyat, which referred to the growing of the peripheries with continuous emigration and ongoing construction and re-construction of city districts by the municipalities and by the investors. The group organized yearly shows in alternative spaces and has now a devoted public, so that they opened their own gallery in Karaköy. Other artists intiatives such as Apartman Projesi, Oda Projesi, Altı Aylık, K2 (İzmir), Galata Perform, Nomad, Pist, YAMA emerged out of inevitabilities; they have flexible agenda, assess the benefits of the street and use every opportunity to be visible within the formal cultural agenda of the city.
With this artistic and cultural panaroma Istanbul will be Europe capital of culture in 2010. This year 10th Istanbul Biennale will be celebrated with a retrospective in Istanbul Modern. When I started my journey into the contemporary art territory Istanbul was an outpost. After two decades and with its now a global “hot spot”. The 10th Istanbul Biennale, even if it is now an affiliate of bienalization, is a hot spot not only because of its exotic and sustainability and because of its reflection of buoyancy and motivation to the region but because our region is a hot spot in the global politics. This process of becoming a hot spot of the 2000’s out of an outpost of 80’s had its decisive phases: The artist gained its independency out of the state cultural policy and lost it in the private enterprise policies, artwork became a promotional and commodity object within neo-liberal capitalism; curating became an intellectual privilege and zenith for several professions; inclusion of artists into the mainstream by the mainstream curators divided the local art scene into “in” and “out”; the public sphere of culture and arts is finally privatized and exploited by the private sector; the art making and art events became trend setting events rather than aesthetic and critical field of debate; the artists and curators are learning and experiencing to work and produce within the bienalization (a hybrid system and network of dissident art making, culture industry, event culture, art market).
Throughout the 90’s the biennale, which started as a dissident one – because from the beginning it adopted curating, artist and art work based system rather than the national representation- slowly but surely became an affiliate of Western mainstream art system. Now after twenty years of sustainability Istanbul Biennale should be re-examined in its goals and structure. It was founded in1986, 91 years after Venice Biennale, which was a model for great exhibition throughout 20th century. The course of Venice Biennale was slightly changed in the 90’s. Some African countries were included, women artist were presented in the pavilions (Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois (USA) and Yayoi Kusama (Japan) . In 1993 Achille Bonito Oliva tried to push this process forward with his theme: “Cultural Nomadism”. He wanted to destabilize the traditional nationalistic structure. Six years before the attempt of Oliva, the first Istanbul Biennale (1987) founded its main concept on artist’s presence rather than national presence. In this regards when we think about the role of Istanbul Biennale we can say that it represented the post-colonial discourse of the non-West. With it’s at that time peripheral and isolated character it succeeded in performing its function to go off the road and to rebel. During the decades this has transformed itself within the neo-liberal economy conditions and EU integration process, from the dissident role to an affiliate of the mainstream.
Istanbul is said to be a city that can compete with New York in the energy, dynamism and color of its entertainment or popular culture. Yet, culture in the sense of critical, theoretical, spiritual and aesthetic creation has a modest space within this amalgam of popular heterogeneity. It is a modest space because of the absence or inadequacy of the official, local or private institutions, because of the ignorance and reluctance of their administrators or managers, because of the submissive behavior of all the existing creative communities.
The art scene in Istanbul, which now encompasses three main districts ( Şişli Beşiktaş, Beyoğlu) in the center of the city, has sprung up in the past 20 years. You find galleries scattered in a few blocks in Nişantaş, which is now the dense luxury shopping center, along the İstiklal Street, which is now the entertainment center with numerous music bars and theaters, a few corporate art and culture centers and book stores, and several so called culture centers within the malls in Şişli and Beşiktaş. Striking contrasts can be found on every block in these three districts owing to the gap between the extreme affluent groups and deep poverty. Spray-painted graffiti covers the walls of the modest three-to-five story abandoned buildings in the side streets along the Istiklal Street.
What fascinates about Istanbul at present is not the possibility to examine the forces that are reshaping its contemporary art world, but the possibility of escaping the sterility, the order, the institutional discipline of EU cities. Here it’s possible to witness the borderline situation of every kind. Here you can enjoy the challenge of being mounted to the establishment as a foreign newcomer in one week – and a surprising percentage of the newcomers are from EU countries. And, here you can realize that although glamorous, Istanbul is not a city of international intellectual celebrities to live and work. They only travel to Istanbul to be inspired. Although a city of historical architectural wonders, Istanbul is full of scary contemporary architecture. Although a city of pleasant surprises and contradictions, the quality of daily life and utilities are dropping behind the EU cities. The challenges of traditional, modern and post-modern urban structures, the gap between the rich and poor districts, the difference between the social classes, the antagonism between the rural and urban communities and the discrepancy between the macro culture and micro-cultures still make this city the object/subject of orientalist approaches and also the cultural object/subject of Turkey’s integration to EU.
And here you can discover that the rest of Turkey and the whole geography beyond is an outpost for Istanbul.
1. Adorno-Horkheimer, the Culture Industry, 1944
2. New Feminist Art Criticism, Manchester University Press, 1995, p.1
3. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du reel, 2002, p.15
4. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du reel, 2002, p.14
5. Mika Hanula, The politics of small gestures, art-ist, 2006, p.6
Partly published in Third Text, Turkey, The Space of the Min(d)Field, Special Issue,guest editor, Gülsen Bal, 90, Volume 22, ıssue 1 January 2008, Routledge