Reasons for Optimism in Istanbul’s Art World

ISTANBUL — Beginning in the early aughts, the Erdogan regime (2002–present) allowed ruthless urban transformation in Istanbul, damaging its historical neighborhoods, fragile ecology, and cityscape. A new mega-airport and a highway system were built over the Northern Forests. And now, a potential canal, Kanal Istanbul, between the Black and Marmara Seas has been green-lit as an alternative to the Bosporus; if it goes ahead, it will threaten the city’s water resources.

During the first decade of this tragic makeover, Istanbul experienced a brief art renaissance. Between 2003 and 2012, new galleries opened, the emerging educated bourgeoisie started to collect art, and many artists produced work with high production values for gallery circulation. The extravaganza has long been over; the 2013 Gezi Uprising and consequent political developments led to a depressing political situation in which relentless lawfare is waged against the freedom of expression.

Despite all this, there are reasons to be optimistic. Istanbul has a new social democrat mayor who is eager to fill the void left by the Islamists. With an approximately 150-million-dollar cultural budget, the municipality has begun to convert some unused historical and industrial spaces into cultural sites. For instance, Muze Gazhane opened this year in a former power plant and is an accessible public cultural center. A carefully designed library, a climate museum, science center, theaters, and an art gallery provide a much-needed cultural campus in Kadikoy.

The new generation of artists and curators is eager to explore alternative organizations. Residency programs, art groups and collectives, and artist-run spaces provide domains for reflection and engagement. Istanbul’s few art museums regularly present well-executed shows, accessible to the public with little or no entrance fees. However, many of these institutions are run by families and banks who have had complicated ties with the regime. Despite their good intentions, these institutions do not take risks, avoiding openly political subjects and “sensitive” visual materials. The Istanbul biennial, which has played a chief role in cultivating Turkish artists and curators since the 1990s, has taken a low-key approach by inviting the usual suspects of the global art circuit as curators for the last four iterations. This year’s postponed biennial will be curated by a diverse trio based in Singapore and India — a welcome directional change.

Installation view of Serkan Taycan, To the City at Muze Gazhane (all images by the author unless otherwise noted)

During the last year’s COVID-19 quarantines, many artists turned their attention to issues closer to home, and several current exhibitions highlight the city of Istanbul. They explore the city’s transmutations, ecological and natural disasters, and everyday anxieties. For example, at Salt Galata, artist Volkan Aslan’s multifaceted exhibition Stay Safe perfectly captures the current political mood and utilizes water to symbolize cleansing and hope.

In the center of the exhibition, Aslan presents two narrative videos, Sağlıcakla Kal (Stay Safe, 2021) and En İyi Dileklerimle (Best Wishes, 2019), based on imaginary letters about desires and worries. In Best Wishes, the narration switches back and forth between a male and female voice as the protagonist’s journey through the city becomes increasingly claustrophobic. The video ends abruptly at a checkpoint suffused with tear gas — a policeman forcefully pushes the camera down. Ölüye ağlayamayan insanların huzursuzluğu içindeyim (I am troubled like the people who cannot weep for the dead, 2018-21), installed around the museum, is composed of short videos of flowers being gently washed, representing “a constant state of unrest — an uncontrollable cycle of mourning and eternity.”

Still from Volkan Aslan, Best Wishes (2019) (courtesy the artist)

At Muze Gazhane’s gallery space, Serkan Taycan’s long-term documentary project explores Istanbul and its margins. Divided into four sections — Habitat, Shell, Agora, and Between Two Seas — it considers public squares and the relationship between rural life, urban sprawl, and the environment. His mapping project, which is the outcome of four days of organized group hiking, follows the route of the impending Kanal Istanbul development and studies the places that will be destroyed by it.

MAD, Kanal Istanbul: A Dystopia, installation view at Sakip Sabanci Museum

Similarly, Sakip Sabanci Museum’s Past Present Istanbul exhibition brings together works by 22 artists who explore urgent urban issues. The show includes an installation focusing on Kanal Istanbul by the Center for Spatial Justice (MAD). Unlike Taycan’s contemplative work, MAD employs a pedagogical approach by interviewing specialists on the topics of speculative real estate, construction, displacements, land grabs, and related emergencies. MAD invites Istanbulites to steadfastly reject the government’s top-down approach in executing this corrupt plan.

Another exhibition focusing on Istanbul, This Place — organized by Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat and the Istanbul Municipality — presents eclectic collections of archival materials, historical and contemporary works from Istanbul City Museum and Ataturk Archives, and contemporary artworks. The exhibition is titled after Fusun Onur’s 1993 work “This Place”: a metal plate placed on the floor and inscribed with “burasi” (“this place”), referring to political wall writings and the temporality of political witnessing.

Burak Delier, “Courier” (2012) (detail)

Inci Eviner’s commissioned video, Agoraphobia, examines the adjacent Galatasaray Square. Currently cordoned off by the police, it has been the home of many protests, including those of the Saturday Mothers, who oppose Turkey’s forced disappearances and political murders. For the last three years, the square has been blockaded by police and cannot not be used by the mothers, who have regularly staged some of the most critical civil disobedience sit-ins in Turkey. Using CCTV footage of the square, along with animations and video collage, Eviner playfully tackles policing techniques and the spectacle of state violence.

Upstairs, Burak Delier’s fictional video, Courier (Kurye), follows a worker tasked with delivering the artist’s package to Istanbul Municipality. Before delivering the package, which contains audiovisual materials shot around Kanal Istanbul’s route, the worker casually strolls around the city. Delier also presents a scooter that broadcasts electronic sounds and lights that interpret Istanbul’s one-year seismographic data, as part of the installation. In this work, he invites audiences to collectively reflect on precarious employment, environmental justice, and impending earthquakes — all concerns of life in Istanbul.

Yet, there are many reasons to be hopeful and there are confident vibrations in the air this fall. The youth are eager to tackle current social inequalities and the refugee crises, as well as ecological, women’s, and LGBTQ issues, and they are ready for the next chapter. The municipal government has an important task ahead, to support those who take risks to activate social, cultural, and historical matters. And finally, the international art world should pay close attention to Turkey again. This time not for the spectacle, but to meaningfully engage with the essential voices emerging from the trenches.

Inci Eviner, Agoraphobia (2021)

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