Past, present, future

A trio of contemporary art exhibitions in Istanbul examine Turkey throughout time

By Emma Harper | March 17, 2016

Delving into Turkey’s past, present and future is on the docket this month as we explore three exhibitions in Istanbul – truth be told, we like our art with a dash of history.

First stop is The Empire Project in Cihangir to see Burhan Kum’s solo show Unofficial (ending April 23). To the delight of art historians, Kum playfully riffs on art from the late Ottoman period in this exhibition, which features his oil paintings and mixed-media works. The artist tangles with the question of painting’s role in public debate and comes to the conclusion that, like banned books and films, paintings which undermine or threaten the dominant system are hidden away – a practice that was prevalent in both Ottoman and European lands, and still persists to this day.

Burhan Kum, ‘One Hundred and Fifteen Years’, 2015–2016, oil on canvas, curnice pole and curtain, 217 x 153 x 10 cm

Kum takes as his main subject Osman Hamdi Bey’s 1901 painting ‘Genesis’, whose whereabouts are currently unknown. The painting depicts a pregnant woman sitting on a Koran stand, positioned in front of a mihrab and with holy books, including the Koran, scattered at her feet – a clear challenge to Ottoman religious norms. Having recreated the lost work, which he has titled ‘One Hundred and Fifteen Years’, Kum reminds us that Ottoman taboos were indeed questioned by the artists of the time. Moreover, Kum’s version is creased, as if to show that the painting has been folded up and stowed away, and is only now seeing the light of day. By covering the underside of his painting with a curtain to hide the religious books strewn about, the artist is recreating how the painter Mehmet Güleryüz recalls first seeing ‘Genesis’ when visiting the house of a private collector (a titbit from the small yet informative exhibition book). Yet with this action the artist also suggests that, to a certain degree, the taboos of the late Ottoman period live on.

Burhan Kum, ‘The Last Copyist’, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 200 x 200 cm

In ‘The Last Copyist’ Kum employs his unique mix of oils and ink – his best works marry the two – to show Abdülmecid II, the last Ottoman caliph and one of the most important painters in the late Ottoman period, copying from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s famous Orientalist painting ‘The Slave Market’ (1866). Yet Abdülmecid’s copy is a close-up of the naked woman’s chest and face, with two fingers in her mouth, highlighting the most erotic aspect of Gérôme’s painting. The work is a nod to the ways in which Orientalist paintings were a vehicle for displaying the illicit, and the interest of the Ottoman elite in such subjects. (It is intriguing to note that Abdülmecid took painting lessons from Osman Hamdi Bey during the many years when he was confined to his kiosk below the isolated, wooded Çamlıca Hill.)

Just a short stroll down from The Empire Project is another exhibition which shines the spotlight on the Ottoman past and its meaning for today. Until March 27 Tophane-i Amire is hosting Ottomans and Europeans: Pasts and Prospectives, curated by Beral Madra. The show is a key component of Ottomans and Europeans: Reflecting on Five Centuries of Cultural Relations, a year-long project supported by various big-name institutions.

On display are six works by artists from Europe and Turkey who took part in a residency in Biella, Italy, during the summer of 2015. Collaborating with senior artists and curators, the six participants reflected on relations between Ottomans and Europeans, and the impact – if any – of historical cultural exchange on the present cultural interaction between Europe and Turkey. Such questions may come across as a bit unwieldy, but the resulting works are cohesive and demonstrate close collaboration – a positive sign for establishing lasting cultural relationships.

Leone Contini, ‘Undigested-Gallipoli’, 2016, videos, objects

The video installations steal the show. Leone Contini’s ‘Undigested-Gallipoli’ – showing Contini sweeping the shores of Gallipoli with a makeshift metal detector – immediately grabs your attention with periodic high-pitched beeps amplified by the vaulted ceilings of the old armoury. By investigating the ‘skin’ of the former battlefield in an attempt to find the metallic leftovers of war, the artist has created his own way of remembering a past that still affects the present.

Driant Zeneli, ‘Venezia’, 2016, single channel HD video, sound, music, colour

Driant Zeneli’s ‘Venezia’, hidden in one of two makeshift screening rooms, is dizzying and discombobulating. The artist uses moving images and sound to represent the architecture of Venice, although it quickly becomes clear that it’s not the Venice we know and love. Instead, Zeneli filmed a newly opened resort in Antalya, Turkey, also named ‘Venice’, a simulacrum of the City of Bridges. The resulting work questions the power of the imaginary and the way image factors into our understanding of history, as well as the meaning and importance of authenticity.

Moving beyond the weight of history and what it means for the future, Ahmet Polat’s exhibition at x-ist in Nişantaşı, titled A Bridge Too Far (ending April 2), is firmly rooted in Turkey’s present.

Ahmet Polat, ‘Presence, Karaköy’, 2015, fine art print on Hahnemühle paper, 33 x 50 cm

Polat has a knack for catching Istanbul’s residents with their guards down. In his work ‘Presence, Karaköy’, a boundary of glass and bamboo separates the viewer from the man in the centre, whose visage is slightly grainy. These layers of separation add to the impression that Polat has caught the man unawares, as if he has only just turned to face the photographer. Within this moment there is a brief glimmer of vulnerability, an opening and honesty that keeps your eyes glued to the photograph.

Ahmet Polat, ‘Mashattan, İstanbul’, 2015, fine art print on Hahnemühle paper, 160 x 240 cm

When he widens his lens and takes in the bigger picture, Polat captures the city mid-change. In ‘Mashattan, İstanbul’, the artist presents in the foreground an idyllic scene – people swimming in a pool on what looks to be a hot day. The bright, cerulean water is backgrounded by two residence towers framing the construction of future skyscrapers, ready to replicate this type of urban enclave.

The main featured image is from ‘Ottomans and Europeans: Pasts and Prospectives’, which ends Sunday, March 27. ‘A Bridge Too Far’ ends on Saturday, April 2, and ‘Unofficial’, which was scheduled to end April 9, has been extended to Saturday, April 23.

Posted in Contemporary Art, Exhibitions, History
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