Contemporary Istanbul 2016

November 18, 2016
View of Contemporary Istanbul 2016. Courtesy-Contemporary Istanbul.
View of Contemporary Istanbul 2016. Courtesy-Contemporary Istanbul.

Istanbul is proud of its historical reputation as a meeting place of cultures. This pride is apparent on the website for the Contemporary Istanbul art fair, which boasts: “As the hope chest of civilisations, Istanbul is the capital of the world…” but insecurities arise before the end of the sentence, with the qualifying clause “…in a sense.”

This is the tragedy of Istanbul today. As one of the world’s most vibrant, cosmopolitan cities it should be a magnet for commerce and culture. Instead, with July’s failed coup and the subsequent political crackdown, the tourists and investors have been staying away, watching from the sidelines.

This was the 11th edition of this popular event, which had chosen to go ahead in defiance of an alarming contraction in the Turkish art market and the cancellation of other high-profile events. In April, even before the coup attempt, the Art International fair had announced there would be no show in 2016, as terrorist incidents had undermined the confidence of overseas galleries.

Then on 5 September the 5th Çannakale Biennial was canned less than three weeks before it was due to open. The Biennial was to focus on the theme of “migration” but preparations allegedly fell foul of “a political agenda that does not place art as a primary point of concern.”

In such an atmosphere it was judged both brave and foolhardy for Contemporary Istanbul to continue on a business-as-usual basis, but retreat was never an option for Founder and Chairman, Ali Güreli, who had to cope with 28 immediate cancellations from overseas galleries when the coup broke out, and more that followed.

Contemporary Istanbul, 2016.

Contemporary Istanbul, 2016.

“We don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks and days,” Güreli admitted, “but art unites everybody, both locally and internationally. I’ve just had a Turkish journalist tell me he didn’t enjoy the opening of the fair. He said: ‘Do people think there is nothing going on this country? How can they ignore the situation?’ My answer was that the current situation created a bigger, stronger need to get together.”

In an argument oddly reminiscent of Matisse’s idea of art as a comfortable armchair for the stressed-out bourgeois, Güreli characterised the art fair as an opportunity for people to escape a “negative and nervous” atmosphere, if only for a few hours. “It’s like medicine,” he said. “You take a pill and you feel better. It’s a need. And in the coming years it will become a bigger need. We would have carried on even if we only had 40 or 50 galleries.”

Eventually the fair would host 62 galleries, with other sections devoted to Institutions, Initiatives, Plugins, Design and CI Projects. The highlight was an exhibition called Collectors Stories, which surveyed works from 60 local private collectors, who had each been invited to submit two pieces of their own choosing.

The final display was crowded and lively. To the 90,000 people that flocked through the halls it didn’t seem to matter that only two top-tier international galleries were in attendance, namely Galerie Lelong of Paris – which showed art by international figures such as David Hockney, Antoni Tapies, Pierre Alechinsky and Jaume Plensa; and Marlborough Gallery of New York, which held an over-the-top solo exhibition by Turkish artist, Ahmet Günestekin. Featuring assemblages of coloured ceramic skulls sprouting massive horns it looked like a bikie’s bad drug trip, and proved wildly popular.

view-of-contemporary-istanbul-2016-15_4410

Ahmet Günestekin, Malborough Gallery, Contemporary Istanbul 2016.

CI was strongest in its representation of Turkish galleries, which rallied behind the event in record numbers, largely because of a desperate need to stimulate a market that gone into a coma. Güreli even extended a life-line to three galleries that were given free booths on condition they would pay something back if there were sales. He knew it was a dangerous precedent and declined to identify the recipients of his generosity.

The need to attract participants impacted on quality control. It was obvious that many of the galleries exhibiting in this year’s CI wouldn’t make it onto the reserves list for the Art Basel shows in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, yet sales were surprisingly healthy.

Two of the strongest selections of local work were to be found at Galeri Nev Istanbul, which represents leading artists such as Canan Tolon and Inci Eviner; and Art On, which mixed painting, sculpture and sophisticated photographic pieces. But the gallery that captured the imagination of the media, and of the committee that awarded a prize for the best booth, was a young dealership called The Pill – a timely echo of Güreli’s idea that art is like medicine.

Pill Gallery. Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul

The Pill Gallery. Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul 2016.

I thought The Pill and its choice of mixed media artists, looked a lot like some of the emerging galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. Perhaps the Aussies are on the right track after all? If Melbourne’s Murray White Room or Sydney’s The Commercial, had chosen to participate in this year’s CI they might have fancied their chances. The only glimmer of Australia in this year’s Fair came from the Australia-China Art Foundation, which featured the new brush-and-ink works of Song Ling, a long-time resident of Melbourne.

Collectors Stories included a cross-section of works by well-known Turkish artists and a range of international pieces. The show’s most notable aspect was its variety, a quality that extended to the wall labels, which had been written by the collectors.

Collectors Space at Contemporary Istanbul, 2016.

Collectors Space at Contemporary Istanbul, 2016. Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul 2016.

Some wrote analytically, giving their interpretation of a work. Others spoke of the difficulties they had to overcome to acquire a piece. Some simply said: “I liked it”, in a roundabout fashion. Among the international artists represented there were works by everyone from Bernard Buffet to Julian Schnabel, Hermann Nitsch to Frank Stella. The collector, Selim Varol, had even commissioned a portrait of Ataturk from American street artist, Shephard Fairey.

The curator, Marcus Graf, is a German who has lived in Turkey for the past 15 years. He continues to find Istanbul a truly dynamic place to work. “It feels like you can have an impact here;” he said, “in the classroom, in an exhibition, or even on paper. It can be chaotic and very improvisational, but there’s a lot we in the west can learn from this process.”

Graf identified Turkish collectors as part of a wealthy, westernised middle class who are usually foreign-educated, and have strong business ties with overseas corporations. He noted that for much of the past century, Turkish artists were trained in the European atelier system. The very idea of using calligraphy, miniature painting, traditional ornamentation or symbolism was taboo as it would put the artist at risk of being seen as a backward-looking religious conservative. Nowadays those strictures no longer apply.

m_view-of-contemporary-istanbul-2016-12_25892

Şükran Moral, Zilberman Gallery. Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul 2016.

Like their counterparts in Indonesia, Turkish artists have become accustomed to an almost complete lack of government support. To fund a project they must go to the commercial sector or to private patrons. The biggest of these patrons have started their own museums. Like Indonesia it used to be seen as terrible thing that the government was so indifferent to art, but today it is taken as a blessing, as the state’s financial involvement would carry with it the spectre of greater state control.

Among Turkish artists there is already a large amount of self-censorship, or the kind of oblique protest that may be read in many different ways. One of the exceptions to the rule is the performance artist, Sükran Moral, who nailed nine bloody animal hearts to a wall during the fair.

"Vur-kaç Kalbim", Performance by Şükran Moral (2016). Contemporary Istanbul Instagram.

“Vur-kaç Kalbim”, Performance by Şükran Moral (2016). Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul Instagram.

Elsewhere in the city, at the Galeri Khas at Kadir Has University, artist, Eda Soylu, had installed a room-sized piece called Constructing the House Anew, which featured a series of door and window frames propped up in a field of concrete fragments. Soylu had embedded hundreds of flowers into these fragile pieces of concrete that broke beneath one’s feet.

The piece speaks to a city in which urban renewal and vandalism are very closely aligned (Hello Sydney!), but it also suggests a homeland in ruins, where beauty is casually trampled. Or is it that those flowers just keep on breaking through the concrete and looking towards the sun? To keep living and working in this dynamic, contradictory city, one has to believe that political turmoil is short but art is long.

Contemporary Istanbul 2016
Istanbul Congress Centre, 3-6 November

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 19th November, 2016
John McDonald was a guest of Contemporary Istanbul