A Decade Strong, Contemporary Istanbul Continues Pushing Its City onto the World Stage
One of the first galleries to be spotted at Contemporary Istanbul (CI) featured a wall of nude men and women in bizarre poses. These images by Chinese photographer Ren Hang at Galerie Paris-Beijing, which were exhibited by the same gallery in September at ARTINTERNATIONAL, are striking, perhaps especially for a country whose conservative government has just triumphed again. Nudity—and there was lots of it at CI’s tenth edition—is a non-issue for fair organizers. “The government’s people come and design her route prior,” laughed Ali Güreli, CI founder and chairman when asked about Sare Davutoğlu, the prime minister’s wife, potentially visiting the fair.
Hang, a “protégé of Ai Weiwei,” says the gallery’s Elisa Azzena de Fleurieu, was apparently a hit with Turkish collectors, who “really like to negotiate prices.” Close by, Michelle Maigret from New York’s C24 Gallery says Turkish buyers are “quick and buy immediately when something strikes a chord with them.” The New York space’s fifth participation at CI saw swift sales from its booth, which featured predominantly figurative painting, with works sold to Turkish and American collectors for between $25,000–75,000.
Painting was prevalent across the fair, as were younger artists taking cues from more established forebears. Áron Zsolt Majoros at Faur Zsófi Gallery recalled Jaume Plensa; Movana Chen at the Australia China Art Foundation looked eerily familiar to El Anatsui; Hong Yi’s paper works at Mark Hachem evoked Nabil Nahas’s fractal pieces. And once again, the crowds packed the fair’s 102 gallery booths like sardines during the vernissage. Attendance remained above average on subsequent days, with a total of 86,000 visitors reported this year. That’s up from 74,000 in 2014, when it was the fifth most visited fair in the world. Sales-wise, CI reported 64% of artworks sold. Twenty-three galleries were freshmen to the fair; 39 were Turkish.
A couple of booths stood out from the crowd. BERLINARTPROJECTS presented arresting sculptures by Yaşam Şaşmazer and an awe-inspiring installation by Eda Soylu, both Turkish artists. Though the gallery declined to disclose sales, prices stood at between €600–30,000 with buyers “about 70% Turkish and 30% foreign,” according to gallery director Gianni Hilgemann. Another showstopper was Istanbul’s X-ist, which had split its booth between a group show and a solo exhibition, with the latter, by Bahadır Baruter, drawing in swarms of visitors. The booth sold out to exclusively Turkish collectors, with prices falling between €12,500–17,500. However disturbing the Turkish artist’s ghostly figures in silicone were, there was something alluring about the crypt-like booth. “They’re alive dead,” said the gallery’s Gözde Ulusoy of the 10 epoxy, plaster, and cloth works. Elsewhere, the six-month-old London space Karavil Contemporary, brought a thoughtful solo booth of works by Turkish painter İhsan Oturmak and sold five pieces for between €2,500–7,000, mainly to Turkish collectors. “I think this year, buyers were more receptive to emerging artists rather than established ones,” says the gallery’s Giulia Campaner.
For CI’s Focus section, which annually promotes the art of a specific city, Güreli chose Tehran and welcomed, among others, Dastan’s Basement, a young gallery that presented a tightly curated booth of works on paper by three generations of Iranian artists. Several of these, priced between €400–11,000, were sold to Turkish, Bulgarian, Italian, and American collectors. “We’re not going to break even, even if we sell everything,” said the gallery’s Hormoz Hematian. “Our artists deserve the exposure.” Nearby, New York and Tehran space Shirin Gallery hadn’t sold anything by the second day. But “my pieces aren’t cheap,” said the gallery’s president and director Shirin Partovi Tavakolian. However, according to prominent Turkish collector Ayda Elgiz, of the family-owned Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, this rhythm is the norm: “In Turkey, the first day you say hi to friends, the second day you say hi to galleries, and the third day, you try and buy art.”
Increasingly, Istanbul residents aren’t lacking in opportunities to buy art. Aside from CI and ARTINTERNATIONAL, the former’s charismatic director plans to launch Step, a 30-40 gallery fair for emerging spaces, next May. Güreli says he has “felt a need to support younger galleries with no budgets to participate in larger fairs.” The CI director is also lobbying for the government to work on the 18% VAT and offer new incentives in the cultural sector. Art, so it seems, is the hotelier-turned-fair founder’s business venture of choice these days. He conceived of CI during a trip to Art Basel in 1999, and 10 years into the fair’s run, his passion for pushing Istanbul onto the international stage with a Hollywood smile and red-framed reading glasses has little waned.