Artsy + Contemporary Istanbul: A Thematic Guide from The Art Genome Project

The Art Genome Project
Nov 5, 2015 4:24PM

In a city that has remained for centuries a nexus of power and culture, the contemporary art scene in Istanbul has practically exploded over the past two decades. Witness: the inauguration of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art in 2014 followed the opening of the five-story contemporary art space SALT, in 2011, and this year’s ambitious Istanbul Biennial organized by star curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev met with acclaim. The promise of Istanbul as a new global cultural hub is on full view at this year’s Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary.  

With a significant and growing participation from international artists and galleries, the fair also maintains a proud national focus, with over 50 percent of its artists and galleries hailing from Turkey. If a few years ago a major worry amongst Turkish artists was that global art markets expect self-orientalization, this year we found a broad range of formal and political practices that resist reduction. We surveyed hundreds of works of art from this year’s fair and identified three stand-out themes: a use of traditional craft to confront norms, a marriage of digital culture and art of the past, and a reprisal of the age-old preoccupation with the human figure, in novel material form. Below we trace these themes through the practices of nine artists at this year’s fair.


Confrontational Crafts

Pottery Makers, 2014

Following the spread of DIY culture in the early 2000s, artist Betsy Greer coined the term “craftivism” in 2003 (think: craft-hacking artists like Olek, known for her “yarn-bombs” of New York’s monuments, and British artist Freddie Robbins, whose knitted textile sculptures capture the sinister side of everyday life). Found here in the work of Nathan Vincent, Burcak Bingol, and Jeanno Gaussi, we understand this as the practice of transforming traditional craft techniques into vehicles for political and social commentary. 

Emmanuel Fremin Gallery
What Lies Beneath
Emmanuel Fremin Gallery

Nathan Vincent’s art is a crash course in the micro-worlds of textile art—knitting, crocheting, darning, felting, applique, tatting. His creative formula involves taking conventionally “masculine objects” and covering them with textiles, a typically feminine and domestic activity. By crocheting cigars, guns, tools, action figures, and even gas masks (which together represent the spectrum of the archetypal male experience), the artist renders these objects “no longer rough and manly, but soft and inviting.” In one of his more involved projects, Vincent crocheted the entirety of a men’s locker room, urinals and all. 

Burcak Bingol


F(ol)lower III, 2011
Galeri Zilberman

Turkish artist Burçak Bingöl’s ceramic cast of a life-size street-paving truck, Cruise (2014), was a centerpiece at last year’s Contemporary Istanbul. With F(ol)lower I ( 2011), a porcelain replica of a security camera, ceramics and everyday objects converge again. The piece bears a striking resemblance to Ai Weiwei’s marble My Surveillance Camera (2010), which memorializes both the surveillance camera as a growingly defunct technology and the artist’s own surveillance by the Chinese government. Because a security camera “needs to be seen,” Bingöl transforms it into an explicitly decorative art object to be displayed and looked at, commenting on the omnipresence of symbolic, rather than functional, surveillance. 

For Dreams on Wheels (2014), Kabul-born and New Delhi-raised artist Jeanno Gaussi draws on  the dying Afghan craft of Truck Painting, a practice that involves covering the sides of trucks with colorful renderings of the dreams and aspirations of the trucks’ owners. Gaussi, now based in Berlin, found parallels between the old-school Afghani truck painters’ sense of individuality and optimism and the Western youth culture of his adopted home. For the project, Gaussi commissioned a handful of truck painters to decorate skateboards for German teenagers (the skateboard being the teenagers’ vehicle of choice).


Old Masters Interrupted

There’s a prevalent (and naive) misconception that digital art and all of its subdivisionsnew media art, post-internet, post-digitalare the domain of the Western art world. But we found innovative, often invasive, uses of the digital across Contemporary Istanbul and in the fair’s dedicated new media section, “Plug-In.” Our second theme looks at the ways exhibiting artists are inserting these technologies into very traditional mediums or artworks.

N°61 - Download Error, 2011
Galerie Paris-Beijing

In his own words, Nandan Ghiya “vandalizes” found images. In his series Download Error, Ghiya disrupts vintage photo-portraits of members of the Rajasthani upper-class with the pixelated errors of corrupted JPEG files. Ghiya plays with the intended posterity of these traditional portraits (usually hung on ‘ancestral walls’ in households and reserved for the upper class, gurus or political heroes) by glitching them, visualizing the impact of digitalization on individual and cultural identity.

The art selfie has become ubiquitous. As Enoc Perez put it: “The selfie is the natural thing to do. If horses had cameras, they would probably take selfies, too.” Iraqi-Canadian artist Qahtan Al Ameen’s multimedia series “Memory and Nostalgia” (2014) highlights this contemporary mode of viewing through staged scenes in which a person standing out-of-frame observes traditional Middle Eastern artworks through their smartphone. In Today with Past (2014), Al Ameen forces the viewer to take in the painting in the foreground through the iPhone’s screen first. If there is a battle today between those who embrace screens (pro-art selfie museums, for example) and those who champion unmediated observation, Al Ameen’s series settles in the middle, recognizing that iPhones are the new frame for art, while nostalgically acknowledging a time when they weren’t.

Untitled (No Data), 2014
Galerie Paris-Beijing
Durability - Untitled (LOCKED), 2014
Galerie Paris-Beijing

French street artist Rero has a penchant for tagging. Although known for his site-specific graffiti, Rero carries over the transgressive act of effacing surfaces to his sculpture. In the Verdana font, he applies minimalist slogans (“Buy Beauty Eat Beaty,” “No Translation Available,” “System Failure”) onto objects such as books, fine china, statue busts, and flags. before bluntly striking through these messages. In Untitled”(No Data) (2014), Rero removes the face of a bust and replaces it with the inscription “NO DATA.” This destructive gesture not only rejects the sanctity of the work of art, but also exposes the conceptual vacuity of the bust. This is what Rero means when he speaks of a “sense of image negation,” as if to say that this is what iconoclasm looks like today. 


The Body x Sculpture

For our third theme, we took stock of the abundance of sculpture at this year’s fair and couldn’t help but note the widespread preoccupation with the human figure. We expected traditional figuration (one of Turkey’s most famous artists is, after all, the hyperrealist painter Taner Ceylan), but instead we found plays on unexpected material pairings—resin and iron, synthetic and natural human hair, or plexiglass and silicon. These artists explore a spectrum of present-day anxieties about our own bodies, from biotechnologies to historic cycles of collective bodily trauma.  

Romanian artist Catalin Badarau belongs to the last generation of young Romanis who fled during totalitarian Communist rule. Despite being welcomed by the neighboring German and Hungarian governments, Romania’s restrictive exit policies often prevented full, legal assimilation into these host countries. Badarau, like many who fled, was forced into unskilled, under-the-table manual labor. Having experienced the exploitation of his own physical body, Badarau makes his sculptures symbols of bodily suffering. He mimics human flesh, offsetting the flexibility and vulnerability of the material with the iron hooks and cages that encase these forms. In The Rest (2015), a dismembered arm is discarded over an iron pedestal; in Meat Me (2015) a pair of arms is suspended by hooks, carnal remnants displayed like haunches. “We went abroad to feel more human,” says Badarau, “and we arrived there to feel ourselves more like animals.”

Sara Mathiasson may be the only artist at Contemporary Istanbul who’s a master of the cornrow. A lifelong fascination with hair braiding brought her to study hairdressing in Gambia, after which the Swedish artist took her knowledge of African braiding styles (Goddess Braids, Bantu Knots, Tree Braids, and Senegalese Twists, to name a few) to the sculptural arena. Mathiasson’s bust sculptures are festooned with intricate natural and synthetic braids, which she piles to near architectural heights or layers over the bust’s frame like a bee-keeper costume. In countries like Nigeria and Gambia, hair braiding is both symbolic and functional, often indicating social status, age, or religion. Matthiason’s work addresses Western appropriation of this traditional African way of adorning the body in fashion and popular culture (or, as she describes it, the Western “masquerade of assimilation.”).  

It’s hard to not have a visceral reaction when encountering one of Romanian sculptor Felix Deac’s hyperrealist works. Simultaneously alien and humanoid, his sculptures take on the effects of human skin in unsettlingly bizarre, mutated forms. By making these sculptures so uncannily lifelike, Deac invites viewers to ponder what genetic mutations would have had to occur for them to exist. In Postgenesis nr. 3 (2013), he considers a future evolution in which the organic and machine combine into one alien-like hybrid. 

Explore Contemporary Istanbul 2015 on Artsy and this year's Floor Plan of exhibitors.

The Art Genome Project