A Local’s Tour Through Istanbul’s Age-Old, Art-Rich Landscape
Erected by the Byzantines on seven hills that overlook the busy waters of the Bosphorus, Istanbul has long-served as the center of a geographic venn diagram where European and Middle Eastern cultures and industries overlap. In the last decade, the art scene in Turkey’s largest and most densely populated city has grown at an unprecedented rate. Non-profit spaces and independent artist initiatives have proliferated; private- and corporate-funded institutions have opened in newly renovated historical buildings; and now three art fairs—Art International, Moving Image Istanbul, and Contemporary Istanbul—have begun to draw the attention of the international art market. Despite the partisan gridlock after Turkish parliamentary elections in June, the cultural vibrancy of Istanbul reveals a city adamant to maintain its engagement with the global creative community.
This September, the city gears up for the 14th Istanbul Biennial: “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms,” curated by “dOCUMENTA (13)” Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, opening September 5th. Christov-Bakargiev’s installment explores the physical, metaphysical, and symbolic characteristics of water in exhibitions that spread along the shores of the Bosphorus strait, which divides the city into European and Asian halves. The projects can be found in the city’s six central districts: Northern Bosphorus, Beyoğlu, Şişli, the Old City, Kadıköy, and the Princes’ Islands.
While some of these areas are home to established cultural institutions, others will become temporary pilgrimage sites, with the art crowd on the hunt for boats, hotel rooms, garages, gardens, schools, shops, and private homes being repurposed as exhibition spaces. While visiting every venue will prove challenging even for locals, this guide to must-see exhibitions and art haunts beyond the biennial is meant to assuage the fear of missing out in a city teeming with creative output.
The central hub on Istanbul’s European side, Taksim Square is currently a giant concrete field and construction area, resulting from prolonged municipal neglect after the 2013 protests. This hasn’t put a dampener on the area’s art activity. Right off the square is Collectorspace, a small nonprofit that publicly displays artworks from private collections—this month from San Francisco’s Kadist Foundation. Across the street and past the Marmara Hotel Taksim is Sıraselviler Caddesi, an avenue dotted with several galleries (and the popular nightclub Kiki), connecting the square to the boho neighborhood of Cihangir.
Along the road is Rodeo, a young gallery representing emerging Turkish and Greek artists. Since opening its doors in 2007, founder Sylvia Kouvali has expanded to London and grown her roster to include the likes of James Richards, Sharyar Neshat, and Iman Issa. While the Istanbul location has recently become more of a satellite space with sporadic programming, this fall “Survival is Not Enough” extends its scope internationally—showing works by BLESS, Susan Cianciolo, Andrea Zittel, and more—across its two venues.
A few blocks down from Rodeo is Co-PİLOT, a small enterprise run by PİLOT Gallery’s Azra Tüzünoğlu while their main space (in a former nightclub next door) is under renovation. This September, Co-PİLOT hosts “There is a Way Out,” a solo exhibition by a multimedia artist from Diyarbakır, Şener Özmen. On the same road, one of the few galleries in Istanbul dedicated to photography, The Empire Project, shows black-and-white photos by Alp Sime this month.
Off Taksim Square, the pedestrian thoroughfare İstiklal Caddesi is the city’s main commercial and cultural artery. Upon entering İstiklal, you’ll find Akbank Sanat, a cultural center currently hosting a solo presentation of works by Louise Bourgeois. Midway down the street is Mısır Apartmanı, an apartment building that is home to commercial galleries Galeri Nev, Pi Artworks, and Galeri Zilberman. Other non-profit institutions along the avenue include SALT Beyoğlu and ARTER, both offering rotating exhibitions in beautifully restored 19th-century buildings.
SALT, funded by Garanti Bank and spread across two spaces, houses an inter-disciplinary, research-based program exploring contemporary art and the social and economic history of Turkey. This fall SALT Beyoğlu, centrally located on İstiklal, presents Turkish, New York-based artist Vahap Avşar’s “Lost Shadows,” a photographic installation drawn from found postcard images depicting Anatolia in the late 1970s. “How Did We Get Here,” an exhibition documenting the decade after Turkey’s 1980 military coup will be on view across both venues.
On the 4th floor of SALT Beyoğlu, don’t miss Robinson Crusoe 389, a well-curated bookstore and neighbor to artist Fritz Haeg’s edible roof garden where you can sit and enjoy a recent book purchase among bean sprouts and lettuce leaves. On the other side of the street, ARTER brings Turkish and international artists (like Mona Hatoum, Füsun Onur, and Sarkis) to its towering space for solo and group shows, accompanied by well-designed bilingual publications. This month, they’ve given their entire building over to the biennial.
A side street takes you to Pera Museum, another privately owned foundation—currently adorned with a work by Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett crafted from 10,000 eyeglass lenses—in which a must-see collection of Orientalist paintings is on permanent display. On September 4th, head to Pera for “Bring-Your-Own-Beamer,” a screening of experimental videos by Istanbul-based artists and filmmakers, produced in collaboration with Moving Image. Before or after, grab a drink at the Grand Hotel des Londres’s rooftop terrace, where the Istanbul art crowd often gathers.
The perch is also the ideal spot to view YAMA, a low-resolution digital screen atop the Marmara Pera Hotel, where curator Övül Durmuşoğlu is screening The List, a poignant and timely video by artist Banu Cennetoğlu, listing the names of immigrants who lost their lives between January 1993 and 2015 on their way to the European Union.
Karaköy and Tophane
At the end of İstiklal Caddesi is Tünel, where the nostalgic one-stop tram-ride down the hill connects to Karaköy. There, SALT Galata—which has excellent views of the Golden Horn, the estuary separating the historical peninsula from the modern city—is preferred by those seeking a quiet place to work or do research in its library, against the grandiose marble-clad interiors of the former Ottoman Bank headquarters. After visiting the library, curator Zeynep Öz likes to walk past the Galata Greek Primary School (another biennial venue) to grab lunch at Karaköy Lokantası, where the menu is filled with Turkish culinary classics.
In the same area, ArtSümer, a small commercial gallery, hosts a solo show by Egyptian artist Basim Magdy in September. From there, follow the minaret of Mimar Sinan’s Kılıç Ali Paşa mosque and make a detour left up the hill to Boğazkesen street, where Mixer presents emerging artists and affordable artist editions. Behind Mixer, a civic-minded non-profit named Depo tucks exhibitions into a former tobacco warehouse. The space will play host to biennial projects in addition to their own programming this fall.
Another stop just off Boğazkesen Street is the Museum of Innocence, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s surrealist cabinet of curiosities based on his novel of the same title. Back on the main road and past the shisha cafés, you’ll come across the construction site of M.S.G.S.Ü Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum, a former customs building in which the state art collection, run by the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, is due to re-open later this year.
On the water, just a stone’s throw away, is Istanbul Modern, a privately owned museum with a permanent collection of modern and contemporary Turkish and international art. Paintings by modernists such as Fahrelnissa Zeid and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, and videos by Kutluğ Ataman and İnci Eviner, join a program of temporary exhibitions and architectural commissions by young architects in the museum’s courtyard. After visiting the museum, walk down the main road to Studio-X, an event space and urban futures think-tank run by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation that produces exhibitions and talks related to art, architecture, and urbanism.
A bit further up the Bosphorus, stop by Rampa Gallery in Beşiktaş, where an excellent show of the late Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s works are on view. Close by, art ON Istanbul’s “Our Wounds Our Ballads” features recent Venice Biennale participants Hera Büyüktaşçıyan and Serkan Taycan. North along the water, near the foot of the second Bosphorus Bridge, is Borusan Contemporary, a weekends-only museum where the new-media heavy, colorful corporate collection activates the “haunted” Perili Köşk building. Beyond the second bridge, Sakıp Sabancı Museum is located within a lush garden and offers expansive views of the Bosphorus. This month, stop by to see standout works from the ZERO movement of the 1950s and ’60s, along with their admirable collection of Ottoman calligraphy.
Up the hill from Emirgan, in the financial district of Maslak, the Elgiz Museum is the vessel for a broad private collection of works by local and international artists. Make sure to head up to the rooftop terrace where “Skyline” sets sculptures against the backdrop of Istanbul’s ever-growing forest of skyscrapers. By then, it will be time to find a spot along the Bosphorus to enjoy a well-earned glass of wine—or better yet, rakı, the local anise-flavored spirit with an acquired taste that offers its own heady rewards.