Istanbul’s art scene: a work in progress

By Victoria Khroundina | July 3, 2015


Earlier this year Kerimcan Güleryüz moved his gallery, The Empire Project, from its Sıraselviler Caddesi location in Taksim further down the road to Cihangir. The new gallery looked great when I visited, but I liked the Taksim space – in a beautiful, crumbling 19th-century building – just as much.

When I asked Güleryüz why he had moved, he told me that in late February he had received a court order to vacate the premises, even though he had been there for five years and had a lease until 2018. The building belongs to the Balıklı Rum Vakfı, a Greek foundation, and was illegally re-rented, for a minimum of 49 years, to a construction company which has plans to turn it into a hotel/shopping mall. Güleryüz challenged the notice to quit, but unfortunately, due to the company’s ‘close ties with the government’, he says, they were able to declare the building unsafe (due to earthquake damage) and began ‘emptying it out’ with such ‘dirty tricks’ as creating water damage and removing gas meters in the middle of winter. Güleryüz was storing hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of artworks, so relocating from the space he loved was no longer negotiable. The move was swift. By March 20, the gallery was in its new home and opening a new show.

The situation Güleryüz found himself in – through no fault of his own – is symptomatic of the overall insecurity faced by many of Istanbul’s galleries and artists today. In my time living in Istanbul, I have noticed rapid changes in the contemporary art scene – too many, it would seem, for a two-and-a-half-year period, for it seesaws between boom one minute and bust the next. After Galeri Manâ, a leading space situated in the gallery hub of Karaköy, and its neighbour Elipsis, a gallery dedicated to photography – both of which were thriving commercially and popular with hip young things and critics alike – closed at the end of their seasons in 2014, it occurred to me to start researching the state of the art scene in Istanbul. Elipsis’s owner, Sinem Yörük, said the following in an email about why the gallery was closing at the time: ‘It became clear that [Elipsis] could no longer sustain itself as a commercial art gallery in the present environment. [The closure] also gives us a more realistic view of the condition of the supposedly “booming” art market in Turkey, the interest shown by private and institutional collectors in pioneering and experimental artists from Turkey, and their support to galleries and similar spaces prepared to show the works of these artists. Well, never mind.’

Istanbul’s contemporary art scene can be divided into three major players: museums, corporately owned galleries and independent galleries. Almost all are funded by philanthropists or started by entrepreneurs and have little or no support from the state. Before the 2000s the contemporary art scene looked very different. Until the 1960s there was hardly any accumulation of the arts and culture that represented the New Republic. There was a heavy emphasis on Ottoman art but barely any reflection of the contemporary times at all. A small number of galleries were established in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, mostly in the commercial hubs of Nişantaşı and Beyoğlu. But the opening of Istanbul Modern in 2004 changed everything, ushering in an era of many more privately funded art institutions. Established galleries saw a renaissance and new ones began popping up in former tobacco factories and antrepos (warehouses). The Pera Museum followed a year later, then ARTER appeared in 2010 and SALT in 2012. And although the Sakıp Sabancı Museum had opened in 2002, it didn’t become ‘contemporary’ until its Picasso show in 2005. Then there are the galleries, scattered all around the city, with a few neighbourhoods acting as definitive contemporary art hubs: the aforementioned three, along with Beşiktaş (more specifically its glamorous part, Akaretler).

The number of galleries that have opened since 2004 is mind-boggling. ‘Seeing how quickly the art scene has changed over these past 10 years is astonishing,’ the painter and installation artist Gülçin Aksoy tells me. And that begs the question: can all these art institutions sustain themselves? Can they all be commercially viable? Alexandra de Cramer, manager of the established Galeri Nev – which opened in 1987, following its sister branch in Ankara and housed in the famous Mısır Apartment building on İstiklâl Caddesi – says no: ‘The scene is not big enough to sustain all these galleries. There are maybe 100 collectors. And people don’t buy art for their houses, like they do in Europe or America. The middle-class in Turkey doesn’t buy art, not because it’s unaffordable but because it has different priorities: houses, car.’

Along with the explosion of art spaces came an explosion of trends. A leaning towards Middle Eastern art (naturally), Russian art (more surprising), video and new media art, street art, stencils, mirrored selfies, hybrid animals, hyper-realistic sculptures, and neon and text-based works plaster the walls of Istanbul’s art spaces. Before the 1990s you hardly saw anything but painting and sculpture; now people are saying that painting is dead. Özlem İnay Erten, manager of the relatively new Nişantaşı space Bozlu Art Project, a subsidiary of Bozlu Holding, which displays the collection of its founder Şükrü Bozluolçay, disagrees. ‘Painting still attracts enough interest in a time in which technology has reached unbelievable dimensions. Artistic designs which require artisan competencies still attract considerable interest.’

‘Turkish art is Westernised enough for it to be palatable, but Oriental enough to be exotic,’ adds Güleryüz. ‘It’s this bizarre hybrid melange – I refuse to use the bridge analogy – but it’s a good entrance into this cross-cultural transient mentality. Turks are representing something that is essential. Turkey is quarter that, quarter this, and it’s trying to come together and understand what it really is. Who am I emotionally tied to? Who are my cultural icons? It’s getting there, but it takes time.’

Complementing the scene are two fairs and a biennial – necessary parts of the ‘event’ culture we live in and an opportunity for artists to share, discuss, see and be seen. The city has been running the Istanbul Biennial since 1987, and since 2005 the Contemporary Istanbul fair (the fifth biggest in Europe, it celebrates its 10th anniversary this November). In 2013 another fair – ArtInternational – challenged Contemporary Istanbul’s supremacy, and it’s been doing well. The Istanbul Biennial has not only allowed the contemporary art scene to grow, it is also a marketing strategy for the city itself. This year’s 14th edition will be the biggest yet, taking place across 30 venues and tackling the conceptual topic of ‘the theory of thought forms’. But the biennial has also been criticised for creating a ‘members only’ club that is attended by certain types of artists and represents certain artistic practices. Fairs are primarily designed for trade, and this can push many galleries and artists to create flamboyant and overtly ‘commercial’ works.

The art boom that took place around 2008 was almost expected. For the first time in ages there was economic stability under a single party. Most of the rest of the world was facing a financial crisis, but Turkey generated enough steam for it to barrel through. ‘In 2008 I’m at Miami Scope and I’m walking through the streets and everything is shut. It’s really depressing,’ remembers Güleryüz. ‘I come back to Istanbul and everything is boom, boom, boom. Sold-out shows became the norm. And like everything, the Turks went at it full throttle. People are buying two or three paintings from the same show. It’s a feeding frenzy. But then there’s a burn-out. There’s a maximum capacity of work that a person can have in their collection. So everybody’s selling, everybody’s dealing, no one has any knowledge, there’s hyper-investors and suddenly this market starts bringing in clients that were not a part of the art environment before – not art lovers or enthusiasts, but straight-up wheelers and dealers, the classic, prototypical aggressive investor.’

A country’s art scene almost always correlates with its politic and economic climate, and the art market reached its climax in 2010, then picked up more speed with sales in both domestic and foreign auctions. But now it has halted, says Erten. And this is the general feeling. Almost all the gallery owners, museum directors and artists I spoke to categorically believe that Istanbul’s contemporary art scene is quite unstable. ‘It’s pretty infantile in many senses, yet I inescapably feel part of it,’ says Tankut Aykut, one half of Öktem & Aykut, a Galata space opened last year by two young guns barely out of their 20s. ‘It’s unstable because of the established ways of (dis-)approaching art in Turkey.’ But many people emphasise that it’s also new, still developing its identity and, in general, quite exciting. ‘Although we have a long way to go, [the scene] is lively and interesting things are happening daily,’ says Bengü Gün, manager of Mixer, a space dedicated to sustainable art production – something rather lacking in Istanbul’s art scene.

‘I’d rather focus on the enthusiasm of making art than the market,’ says the artist Burçak Bingöl, who makes interesting sculptures and charming ornamental works that comment on cultural heritage. ‘Istanbul has never been a peaceful place; it’s an in-between city in every sense, and this naturally evokes a sense of restlessness. Arts and crafts are in the codes of the city, physically and historically. I think the point should be establishing the contemporary structure to make these function better.’

‘It’s unfair to compare Istanbul with places that had been dominions for art environment such as Paris and New York,’ adds the painter Kirkor Sahakoğlu. ‘When I had a conversation about Michelangelo with an elderly gentleman who was restoring an old building in Perugia in 1983 I realised the difference. Here there was a smaller and more stable art environment, but it changed in the past 10–15 years because of the oppressive political structure.’

The urban photographer Murat Germen puts the instability down to the fact that many of the artistic styles, patterns and theories are not invented locally but imported. ‘This, and that state support has never been adequate,’ he laments.

Indeed, the lack of state funding is seen as one of the major problems of the art scene in Istanbul. The disadvantages are hideous and the advantages (efficiency, flexibility, less bureaucracy, higher remuneration, more prestige) seem to pale in comparison. ‘Public funding is a sine qua non of the development and growth of arts and creative industries,’ says Pera Museum’s director M Özalp Birol. ‘The state not funding contemporary art is just shooting themselves in the leg. It’s stupid. It only hurts brand Turkey,’ adds de Cramer.

But the artist Cemre Yeşil – who makes hybrid photographic and text-based works – believes that while governmental support would more fiercely promote Turkish artists abroad and create a global art hub in Istanbul, it might also result in less freedom and less self-expression under a conservative government. ‘Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?’ adds Sahakoğlu. ‘Why would the state support someone who criticises and opposes it? I don’t want the state to fund me so that I can be myself.’

Artists and gallery owners understandably have different views of this. The private system results in ‘poor taste, a star system and financial manipulations that rule the market’, says Aykut – reasons undoubtedly tied up with commercial concerns. But the artists? ‘Funding is funding,’ says the video and installation artist Lara Ögel. ‘Yes, we do wish that there was more state funding, but I cannot be pessimistic and think it will never happen. Filmmakers receive generous funds from the Municipality of Culture. I certainly hope that some day soon we will have something similar for our practice.’

There are other problems: appropriation/plagiarism, excessive dependence on supposedly current trends, overexposure (too many fairs and biennales), a lack of female artists, a dispassionate audience (and a younger generation that’s not interested in art), lack of professionalism, lack of honesty, nepotism and problems inherent in the artworks themselves. ‘A remarkable amount of works are too personal and cryptic – to the point of requiring a prior study of two to three hours before attending the exhibition,’ says Germen. ‘This can alienate the audience.’ Aykut puts it more bluntly, complaining that there is a lot of ‘bad art’. But isn’t this a global problem?

The curator–artist relationship is not an evident concern, but one that was raised by the photographer Mert Çağıl Türkay. He says it becomes a problem when curators interfere too much in the production of artists’ work and push them to create works that are too concerned with commerciality. Artists begin questioning whether they are making artworks for themselves or for the curators.

Sustainability is another biggie. There are many more artists these days, a direct reflection of the number of institutions offering art courses. In the 1980s there were 17 art universities; now there are 117. ‘The quality has dropped significantly,’ says de Cramer. ‘There are not that many art teachers, especially good ones.’

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are ways to succeed and prosper in Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, even if its stability is questionable. Hard work is one way. Persistence is another. Honesty is yet another. ‘If you’re an artist and are not honest and true to what you create, it will show,’ says Nil Nuhoğlu, owner of one of the city’s youngest galleries, Gaia, which opened not far from Mısır Apartment last October. ‘As a gallery owner, if you don’t believe in the artists you represent, it will never work.’ People-skills and consistency are also important, especially for gallery owners. Aykut adds that it’s also essential to be open-minded, fair and thrifty.

Haldun Dostoğlu, who founded Galeri Nev, is successful because he’s a risk-taker, believes de Cramer. ‘At the beginning he was representing Mehmet Güleryüz and Erol Akyavaş (who he still represents). But then he quit all these established guys and took the risk to go with a new generation. He started representing Hale Tenger – who does really political works – when installation pretty much didn’t exist in Turkey. And he started representing Canan Tolon and İnci Eviner. At the end of the day, it goes beyond having good relationships with people – it’s also knowing what the artist needs.’

Some artists put it down to creating original works, being pioneers of sorts, some to not compromising their artistic integrity, while others have a much more pessimistic view: meeting the right people, marketing, PR. ‘Let’s not underestimate the role of being in right place at the right time in a place where the opportunities are limited,’ says Bingöl. ‘If you’re a blind, handicapped, Kurdish lesbian painter, that’s a good card to play,’ says Güleryüz. ‘I’m saying this with irony but these are the kinds of things that will work in this environment.’

‘It’s really hard to be an artist in the 21st century,’ adds de Cramer. ‘Everything has been done before. It moves really fast and there are too many messages. I see art as a sieve of society – the people that define an era are those that understand how people live in a particular time and condense it to a painting or book or piece of music. And it’s really hard to do a condensed version of the 21st century. What is it? Is it neon lights? Is it a chopstick installation? Is it a video of squirrels running around in circles? I feel it confuses a lot of people, hence why we have so much über -contemporary art.’

Although Istanbul might not be a contemporary art stronghold yet, there’s a good chance it will become one. The market might be unstable compared to, for example, those of England, France, Germany or Korea, where there is state and private funding, a large number of collectors, and an interested art community. Europe is much more connected – London, Paris, Venice and Berlin are all art hubs. People from these cities invite each other to their exhibitions, openings, meetings, drinks. Istanbul is, unfortunately, out of that loop. So far.

‘Modern Turkey is still young and establishing its contemporary structure, not only in the arts but also in socio-politics’ says Bingöl. ‘To make prolific contemporary art production, we need a structure in which the state, academia, institutions and the private sector work interconnectedly. When one ignores the other, which we usually experience, we cannot talk about a healthy industry.’

‘Right now there are more Turkish artists being represented by international galleries than there have ever been,’ adds Güleryüz. ‘The market boomed and plateaued and then went into a little bit of a dip, but right now the market’s a healthy one because it is allowing us to get rid of the “speculative gallerists”, the guys who are just there to reap the rewards of a hyper-inflated market. So it might not be a comfortable time but it’s legitimate time.’

Main image shows the x-ist booth at Contemporary Istanbul 2014 (image: Contemporary Istanbul). 

Posted in Contemporary Art, Modern Art, Museums, Photography
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