Istanbul – The Art of Optimism

October 6, 2017
Sukran Moral, 'Hit-and-Run My Heart!' (2016)
Sukran Moral, 'Hit-and-Run My Heart!' (2016)

“We are a thin-skinned country,” admitted Selim Yenel, “We are intolerant.”

There was no argument from the international journalists assembled around the table. In the face of successive questions about government censorship and repression, the Undersecretary of the Turkish Ministry for EU Affairs Ambassador provided answers no-one could dispute.

Asked about the political persecution of journalists and intellectuals he said it was an unfortunate consequence of the failed coup of 2015, and hoped those who had been unjustly arrested would be released. He admitted the crack-down had been heavy-handed and would like to think the judiciary would show understanding when investigating individual cases.

Most surprisingly, when asked about the tendency for self-censorship among artists, Mr. Yenel said that artists should do what they think is right and stand up for their beliefs. Unless they test the limits of censorship they’ll always be in its thrall.

Most artists I met during the opening days of this year’s 12th Contemporary Istanbul art fair, and the 15th Istanbul Biennial, did not share the Undersecretary’s belief that it’s best to act as if they enjoyed perfect freedom of expression. On the contrary, everyone seemed alert to the fact that President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has shown a tremendous willingness to arrest and imprison its critics. Under the ongoing state of emergency there need not be any specific charge – mere suspicion will suffice. Some judges who have shown leniency to accused journalists have found themselves removed from office.

If we leave aside the the Kurdish separatists (PKK), who have long been considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey, the great spectre that haunts local politics is that of the followers of radical cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in the United States. The government has no doubt it was the Gülenists who engineered the coup attempt of July, 2016. As a consequence, anybody suspected of being a Gülenist has been imprisoned or removed from their job.

It’s the fear of a mysterious, secret enemy that has insinuated itself into every echelon of Turkish society, awaiting its moment to strike. The government’s response has been a sweeping purge of public institutions with much collateral damage.

Donald Trump may rail against his critics and call them “fake news”, but Mr. Erdogan has more rigorous methods at his disposal. By July this year there were more than 160 journalists in prison or pretrial detention. The closure of 130 media organisations has seen a further 2,500 workers lose their jobs. The tally of military officials, public servants, judges, teachers and university lecturers who have been suspended or imprisoned is more than 100,000 – and rising.

There has been no respite following the hotly-disputed constitutional referendum of 16 April this year, won by a margin of 51 to 49, which concentrated powers in the office of the President. As if to provoke his enemies, shortly after gaining his new authority Mr. Erdogan talked about reintroducing the death penalty.

For Mr. Yenel the ongoing state of emergency is an unfortunate but temporary problem that he would personally (and apparently quite sincerely) like to see rectified. For those Turks who jealously defend Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s legacy of a modern, secular state, it’s a sign of a shift towards an administration in which Islamist extremism and Gung-ho capitalism are joined in unholy matrimony.

If one concentrates on the facts Turkey’s predicament looks dire. But does the casual visitor notice any of these things? Is the Bosphorus less beautiful? Is there less shopping, less development? Do the wine and champagne flow less freely at private functions?

The answer is ‘No’. Even foreign investment, which was threatened by last year’s coup, has returned in force. This may not be entirely surprising because an authoritarian regime provides a sense of certainty for the forces of multinational capital who are concerned with profit rather than politics.

Business is comfortable with centralised government but for contemporary artists political repression creates an atmosphere of insecurity that tests the strengths of beliefs and commitments held so complacently in more open societies.

It’s easy for an artist to criticise the government in countries such as Australia, England or France, because it’s highly unlikely that he or she will be arrested, let alone imprisoned without charge. In Turkey the risks are much greater, with reports about the terrible state of prisons, and allegations of torture, serving as deterrents to political action. In such an environment the best weapons may be an invincible sense of optimism and a willingness to stay positive at all costs.

Art and commerce carries on, emergency or not

Art and commerce carries on, emergency or not

This is the approach taken by Ali Gureli, the founder and chairman of Contemporary Istanbul, an art fair that has battled on despite the difficulties of attracting high profile galleries and wealthy international collectors. For those who feel Turkey is too “dangerous” there are plenty of other international art fairs – 280, by Gureli’s most recent count. His job is to make people feel welcome in Istanbul, showing that the appeal of this most seductive of cities will always transcend mere politics.

Political tensions in Turkey may have increased over the past twelve months but this year’s Contemporary Istanbul felt much more robust than the previous iteration. It was partly because there have been fewer terrorist incidents, but it also denotes a management that has devised strategies for dealing with awkward circumstances.

The press conference was a well rehearsed affair in which Gureli and his colleagues emphasised the importance of continuity. If the fair (or the Biennial) were to be abandoned it would set back Istanbul’s hard-won image as a modern city of culture. This was also the belief of Turkish collectors, who rallied behind the fair last year, buying more work than ever before.

In 2016 there were 62 exhibitors, this year the number had risen to 74, including galleries from France, Italy, Germany, Britain, the United States, China, South Korea, Romania, Iran, Switzerland, Spain, Dubai, Hungary, Georgia, Israel, Austria, South Africa and Ghana. By far the bulk of exhibitors were Turkish, testifying to the resilience of the local art scene. Gureli declared himself happy with the results and confident of the future.

Ecaterina Vrana, 'Ayse' (2017)

Ecaterina Vrana, ‘Ayse’ (2017)

The week of Contemporary Istanbul also saw the grand opening of the Pilavneli Gallery (which celebrated with one of the fair’s largest, most eye-catching stalls). On the roof of the gallery a neon sign, shaped and coloured like a rainbow, read: Everyone Gets Lighter. Across the street a few militant lines from the Qu’ran were being flashed on a LED screen suspended between the minarets of a mosque. It was contemporary Turkey in a nutshell.

Last year twenty members of an Islamist group stormed the fair demanding the removal of a sculpture by Ali Elmaci, which depicted the face of the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II, on a bikini-clad woman’s torso. The protest was defused, and this year there were no comparable incidents. Neither, however, were there many works that sought to shock or challenge an audience. The same might be said of the Biennial, selected by Scandinavian artists, Elmgreen and Dragset, under the suggestive title, A Good Neighbour.

Last year's prime offender, Al Elmaci's 'The New Young Turk'

Last year’s prime offender, Al Elmaci’s ‘The New Young Turk’

One exception at the fair was a video of a performance called Hit-and-Run My Heart! undertaken at the previous Contemporary Istanbul by Sükran Moral. The controversial artist, who might be described as Turkey’s answer to Marina Abramovic, nailed nine large animal hearts to the wall, in a bloody ceremony pitched as a protest against “censorship, repression and apprehension.”

Moral did not perform this year but one could buy the video of last year’s piece from Istanbul’s Zilberman Gallery. The artist, who has made her reputation with performances challenging her country’s religious and sexual hypocrisy, has been a long-term resident of Italy. Describing herself as a person who always does the thing she shouldn’t do, Moral has decided to repatriate to Istanbul at a time when her work can barely be shown.

She argues that the situation in Turkey is less a matter of active repression than the avoidance of artists who make politically sensitive work. Anxious to sidestep conflict, the public and private institutions that support the arts will direct projects and commissions towards those that don’t rock the boat.

“The problem in Turkey,” she says, “is that everyone has their hands in the air before they’ve even seen the gun. People surrender before there is any actual threat.”

“Because I fight with those in power, I make them feel ashamed of themselves. I can do whatever I want but it’s not about me doing it, it’s about finding a place to exhibit that work. Last week I did another ‘hit and run’ performance in Istanbul, but they’re already mad at me. They’d destroy me if they could.”

“There is nothing that gives me hope at this moment,” she admits, getting suddenly choked up.

One of the ironies of the repression – or self-repression – of local artists, is that the privately-run Sakip Sabanci Museum is hosting a massive exhibition by Ai Weiwei, arguably the most politically provocative artist in the world today. True to form, Ai’s show is filled with works devoted to the refugee crisis and his own battle with the Chinese authorities. There is also a wall of photographs in which the artist gives the finger to famous landmarks and symbols of power from around the world, although nothing from Turkey is included.

Among the Turkish artists I spoke with during Contemporary Istanbul there was absolute agreement that no local artist would be permitted to hold such a show. Asked why Ai Weiwei can get away with it the answer was simply that the government pays little attention to foreign art and probably never considered the nature of the work. There was also a repeated wish that Ai would put up a photo of himself giving the finger to some Istanbul landmark such as the Hagia Sophia or Taksim Square.

Back at the fair one Turkish artist who seemed completely unflustered by the state of emergency was Bedri Baykam. A local legend, Baykam has been described by a French newspaper as “L’Andy Warhol Turc”, more for his genius at self-promotion than for his work – an indefinable blend of Pop, Expressionism and Conceptual Art. Once a professional tennis player, he has studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and Cal Arts in the United States. In 2003 he ran for the Presidency of Turkey’s Republican Peoples Party (CHP), and came within a whisker of success.

At Baykam’s gallery, Piramid Sanat, there is an exhibition by Tülin Onat called Game Over! Witnessing Gezi Park, which looks at the violent protests that took place in 2013. At the fair the gallery was exhibiting Baykam’s Box of Democracy (1987), a square metre of democracy surrounded by heavily collaged and graffitied walls. It’s the 30th anniversary of this box, made as a protest during an earlier Turkish political crisis. “In 1987 we thought those guys were fascists,” he says, “but now we’re thinking, ‘Hey, they were pretty good people!’ Thirty years later, one square metre of freedom has got a lot more expensive.”

Bedri Baykam, 'Box of Democracy' (1987)

Bedri Baykam, ‘Box of Democracy’ (1987)

Baykam is an activist who has kept up a relentless outpouring of artworks and publications since he returned to live in Istanbul in 1987. He has done this in the face of considerable opposition. In 2011 he was stabbed in the stomach by a would-be assassin.

The artist views Taksim Square and Gezi Park as the symbolic heart of Turkey’s political and cultural crisis. Since the late 1960s the most prominent building in Taksim Square has been the Atatürk Cultural Centre. It’s an iconic example of modern Turkish architecture and a beacon of artistic freedom. The building was closed in 2008 for a major refurbishment, leading up to Istanbul’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2010. It has never reopened.

In 2013 the Erdogan government announced plans to demolish the Centre and replace it with another opera house and a mosque. “It’s ridiculous,” says Baykam. “There are already so many mosques no-one ever attends. There are mosques everywhere! But this government does not support one modern or contemporary museum.”

Last year the President announced an equally provocative plan for Gezi Park, namely the rebuilding of an Ottoman-era Barracks that had been demolished in 1940 to give the city some much-needed green space. Critics of the proposal point out that the barracks was the scene of a failed rebellion by Islamist soldiers in 1909, making the reconstruction a symbolic riposte to the anti-government riots of 2013.

These acts of public symbolism are disturbing to defenders of democracy, but the most alarming development for many Turks seems to be the changes forced on the public education system, where Atatürk, who has always been idolised as the founder of modern Turkey, now plays second fiddle to the Prophet Muhammad.

Baykam explains: “Atatürk is the enemy of the religious fanatics because he represents the equality of man and woman. He stands for universal brotherhood, peace, belief in science, art, new worlds – everything modern life requires. In education they are taking away all the information about Atatürk. In recent years they’ve been doing it more and more, because Erdogan is now in full control.”

The result, according to Baykam, is that the sons and daughters of the wealthy look for a more rigorous, secular education at high-priced private schools, reinforcing the divide between a wealthy elite and the masses, even the middle classes, who must make do with the consolations of religion.

“What gives me hope,” he says “is that we are still in solidarity with artists, poets, writers and theatre people. If the real intellectuals surrender, that’s bad, but we still believe we can spark off the energy and belief even within the Republican Peoples Party – the Party of Atatürk. I wrote a book about my presidential campaign in 2003, and the title is still being used in the struggle against the current ruling party. It’s called No to the Empire of Fear.”

Contemporary Istanbul 2017, 14-17 September, 2017

Istanbul Biennial: A Good Neighbour, 16 September – 12 November, 2017

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 30 September, 2017