During a 16-century reign, the city now known as Istanbul served as the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Catholic Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. But today, is Turkey’s capital city on its way to becoming the seat of the next art empire? This week, as the art world flocks to Istanbul for the Contemporary Istanbul art fair—in the wake of the 13th Istanbul Biennial and coinciding with the city-wide Art Istanbul art week—Artsy asked a handful of locals for their take on the Istanbul scene. From Arie Amaya-Akkermans, an Istanbul-based writer specializing in contemporary art in the Arab world and Turkey, we learned a local’s perspective on the Gezi protests, his take on the media-hyped art boom, the best local places to experience contemporary art, and how Istanbul’s art scene is engaging with the global art world.
Artsy: How are local protests affecting Istanbul’s art scene? Is there art emerging in response to the anti-government actions?
Arie Amaya-Akkermans: The question is difficult to answer simply because there are too many answers and none at all. I think a lot of people in the specialized media attempted to correlate the Gezi Park protests with the Istanbul art scene, and while this is somewhat true, it’s also false in so many levels. Many artists and people from the art world, Turkish and otherwise, participated in the protests that were recently defined by the biennial curator as “larger than life”. Gezi was an incredibly powerful experience and momentum, but I think at the most fundamental level we participated in it as citizens and only later as art practitioners.
It’s way too early to judge what the impact of Gezi is on Turkish art, and perhaps at some time this is going to consolidate into an aesthetic and develop, alongside many new phenomena of political contestation in Turkish society. There are some artists that have “reflected” (mind my emphasis) on the events by producing artworks with a penguin or with gas masks. I think these works are best mediocre and too premature. This is part of a larger discussion on the meaning of politics and public space that has been around for a while, so in that sense Gezi only confirmed what the consciousness of art had already predicted. Is there an art of Gezi Park? I hope there won’t be. That would be a disservice to the meaning of the events and to the role of art as an apparatus of enlarged consciousness.
Artsy: Istanbul is reportedly having a vibrant art boom. How has this affected the city as a whole? Is it restricted or only felt in certain neighborhoods?
AA: It wouldn’t be untrue to say that the events of Gezi Park started in a localized area in the city center; however the events spread quickly through the entire country and there was nobody in the art scene who wasn’t involved in it at some point. One could say yes that there’s a vibrant art scene in Istanbul but you should take that with a grain of salt: first, with the exception of very few, most of the galleries and art institutions are rather new; second, for such an enormous city the art community, though very active, is still so very small; third, you can detect a sense of isolation in Istanbul art. It isn’t a real community but more like an imagined topography as there’s not so much of a discussion between artists or about art. How do you translate this into the art scene in Istanbul? Initially the entire community was affected especially because (as a part of the obvious gentrification process in cities) the art institutions and places are confined in the city center, which was the living heart of the Gezi protests. Of course Gezi is a part of an extended discussion about art which involves a lot more than art, but this is also a dialogue about the contemporary: art fairs, biennials, institutions. Contemporary artists in many ways are the ambassadors of Neo-Liberalism and the global economy; how do they participate actively in a political process? This is a much bigger question which isn’t only about Istanbul and that still remains to be answered.
Artsy: What museums or galleries would you recommend to see contemporary art in Istanbul?
AA: It all depends on what you’re looking for. However, the important institutions are SALT and ARTER, both of which are relatively young and are at the very edge of contemporary art. In the context of the Middle East these institutions are certainly unique. As for the galleries, there are many different standards of quality and exposure. A selection of the best galleries [include] Galeri NON because of its engagement with contemporary practices in a global context; and the galleries GALERİ MANÂ and RAMPA because of their mission to give Turkish artists an international platform working with select curators, fairs, and institutions. Then there’s also DİRİMART, the only Turkish gallery going on the blue-chip profile and successfully so, and Cda-Projects/Galeri Zilberman (two sister galleries) because of their interest in very young Turkish artists and willingness to take big risks with artists that are in the beginning of their careers. Also worth mentioning Borusan Contemporary, a collection of new media art and the young Nesrin Esirtgen Collection that opened in 2011.
Artsy: Can you describe what it’s like to be an art writer in Istanbul?
AA: There aren’t a lot of [art writers], but more like a bunch of isolated writers and critics who more often than not, are engaged with the art world from other edges too—as curators, art dealers, artists, and so on. In the Middle East there’s an obvious lack of art writers and criticism in general, which is absolutely reflected in the art: because there’s not a real discussion about art, there’s not a real public either, hence art sees progress only very slowly. A number of writers are well known in the Turkish language scene but not too well known otherwise. To get your information and meet people is actually easy because of how small the scene is, so basically you just know everybody or at least everybody who knows somebody, in a couple of months. Art in Turkey is certainly not part of the public domain yet, but information inside the community circulates widely in terms of who’s showing where or doing what. The criteria for choices are somewhat personal, based on the relevance of the exhibition and what I understand as the formal qualities of the works. Since there’s not a tradition of criticism in the country, artists and art dealers are often very grateful about art writing in the country and a language is in development now. However, the downside is that because the community is so small you shouldn’t be overtly critical, as it’s very easy to get into silly feuds over a sentence or two.
Artsy: How does Istanbul’s art scene engage with the global art world? How would you describe its role?
AA: Istanbul is actually having a bit of a momentum, and in spite of the political crises in the country, Istanbul art is rather well positioned globally. Compared to the rest of the Middle East and the Muslim world, Istanbul is tightly connected to Europe in ways that Dubai still isn’t and perhaps will never be, since Istanbul is still part of a discussion about Europe and the boundaries of modernity. Turkish artists are often a sensation in auctions by big players and a number of Turkish artists are either represented by European galleries or by Turkish galleries that deal internationally through art fairs and their network of collectors. Artists in the city are traveling often to residencies abroad as there’s a lack of support for the arts in the country, but galleries and institutions are often playing this role and hence the connection with the global art world is strong. The relationship is mildly problematic because I’m not entirely sure Turkish art is properly understood and there’s a difficulty with the foundations, which leads to a situation in which some art is appreciated only because it’s “Turkish” and there’s of course some Orientalism in that. Nevertheless, there’s a glimmer of hope for Istanbul.
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is the liaison and assistant curator at Albareh Art Gallery in Bahrain. He is a writer specialized in contemporary art in the Arab world and Turkey, author of the chapter on Bahrain for the Gulf Art Guide.