Why Istanbul is one of the “Art Cities of the Future”

Artsy Editorial
Nov 2, 2013 7:35PM

Phaidon recently released Art Cities of the Future: 21st-Century Avant-Gardes, a compendium of up-and-coming art destinations around the world. In the book, readers are taken through Istanbul, Beirut, Cluj, Lagos, Johannesburg, Bogotá, São Paulo, Delhi, Vancouver, Singapore, and Seoul by guides who are steeped in each city’s art scene. We spoke with curator Duygu Demir about why Istanbul is one of the Art Cities of The Future.

Artsy: How would you define Istanbul’s avant-garde?

Duygu Demir: As I try to explain in my essay in the Istanbul chapter of Phaidon’s Art Cities of the Future - 21st century Avant-Gardes, the avant-garde in Turkey, and more specifically in Istanbul, is very much intertwined with the country’s political history. It would perhaps be not wrong to say that while from the late 19th century until perhaps the 1980s (with of course certain exceptional figures such as Fahrelnissa Zeid, Nejad Devrim, Altan Gürman, Sarkis, Füsun Onur, or artist collectives such as STT), what was considered avant-garde in Istanbul was a simulation of the Western avant-garde which borrowed its form rather than its oppositional spirit and experimental nature. I think the avant-garde in Istanbul took shape in a more tortuous way, through individual artists appropriating the tactics of the Western avant-garde and contextualizing these strategies through local issues and individual expression.

Artsy: Which artists are at the forefront of the avant-garde?

DD: Well, this is of course my subjective take, but my list would include, in addition to all the artists that I included in the book, Ahmet Öğüt, Nilbar Güreş, Cevdet Erek, Esra Ersen, Gülsün Karamustafa, Halil Altındere, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, and Köken Ergun, seminal figures with still strong practices today, such as, Sarkis, Hale Tenger, Füsun Onur, İnci Eviner... I am sure there are more artists to include but these are the names that I immediately associate with the idea of shaping their own voices in new and genuine ways.

Artsy: What galleries and institutions have been vital in shaping contemporary art in Istanbul?

DD: This depends on how far you would like to go back in time, but perhaps the most seminal institution that exposed artists in Istanbul to international practices and vice versa is the Istanbul Biennial. I would say Platform Garanti during its heyday was very instrumental in providing archives for researchers as well as a platform for exchange. Of course, nowadays, the availability of funding through an organization like SAHA is quite vital, and of course the network of galleries and artist-run spaces are what keeps this community dynamic.

Artsy: Outside the art world, what are some of your favorite cultural organizations in Istanbul?

DD: I think Istanbul has very strong film festivals such as !f, Filmekimi, and the Istanbul Film Festival, which I enjoy attending.

Artsy: In the book you overview how the country’s political history influenced art. How would you describe the Istanbul art community’s reaction to the protests at Gezi Park and Taksim Square?

DD: It is too early to say. While for some, this experience strengthened the sense of community and opened up new vessels of communication and discussion between artists, educators, cultural workers, curators, etc., some of whom started organizing regular town hall style meetings, for others perhaps the new sensibilities and awareness that came through this experience will surface in more invisible ways.

Artsy: This year’s Istanbul Biennial saw a record-setting attendance of over 350,000 people and became the most visited art event in Turkey’s history. What do you think this means for future events, like art fairs, in the city?

DD: I don’t necessarily think that the biennial-going crowd in Istanbul has too much overlap with the art fair audience. The record number for the biennial had much to do with the decision to have the biennial for free. It is undeniable that the general interest for contemporary art is increasing locally, and the international interest for Istanbul as a crucial biennial is growing, but the influence of any other factors on the attendance numbers of the biennial other than its being free are difficult to analyze at the moment.

Artsy: Given the success of the Biennial and the city’s established art scene many would argue that Istanbul is an art city of today. What do you think is the biggest difference between art cities like New York, London, and Paris, and Istanbul now?

DD: I wouldn’t call the art scene in Istanbul established. There is still almost no state funding available for contemporary arts, the state museum for modern and contemporary art is currently closed (renovations of a former customs building are underway), the number of art programs in the city are very limited, let alone any graduate programs of high caliber, and an art scene dependent on just private money can hardly be called healthy. Art criticism almost doesn’t exist, art journalism consists of copy/pasting press bulletins, and the outlets of any text are usually gallery-financed magazines or art newspapers. There is no job security for cultural workers, and very poor monetary compensation for work. There is still a long way to go.

Artsy: What makes you most excited about the future of art in Istanbul?

DD: I am hopeful that through time, more support and education all of these problems will eventually get fixed, and we will reach international standards. It is exciting to be part of a growing community where the foundational principles are still open for discussion, you can be part of institutions as they form, and there is room for great development.

Images, courtesy Phaidon Press Inc.:

Nilbar Güreş, The Living Room, from the series çırçır, 2010, C-print, 120 × 180 cm. Istanbul, Turkey ©Nilbar Güreş; Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Murder in Three Acts, 2012, film and performance. Istanbul, Turkey ©Aslı Çavuşoğlu

Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes, $79.95, Phaidon 2013,

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Artsy Editorial