Contemporary Istanbul 2018

September 27, 2018
Almagul Menlibayeva, 'Before the Solar Eclipse'

Having left Sydney while one art fair was winding up, I arrived in Istanbul on the eve of another. Shortly afterwards came the news that Sydney Contemporary had secured $21 million in sales, an increase of $5 million on last year’s total. This comes at a time when dealers complain about declining visitation and how hard it is to find new clients.

For five days in September these woes were forgotten as almost 30,000 people visited Carriageworks. Even for those who didn’t turn a profit the buzz was intoxicating. The dealers that didn’t participate, arguing it wasn’t worthwhile, probably felt they’d missed the boat. With each new iteration of the fair there is increasing pressure to come on board, with artists preferring to be represented by galleries that embrace these events.

It’s undeniable that the art fair model is radically altering the way contemporary art is bought and sold. This year there are almost 300 fairs being held around the world, and the numbers keep expanding. Some cities hope that a fair will re-energise a sluggish market; others – such as Melbourne – feel it’s a point of civic pride because everyone else has one.

The conditions for success are not hard to fathom. If a city doesn’t already have a critical mass of wealthy collectors, it must be a place that captures the imagination of art tourists and offers an attractive lifestyle experience. It also helps if the local currency is in the doldrums.

Mattea Perrotta, ‘The Paradise of Forms’, at Lamb Arts

Sydney fulfils those requirements and so does Istanbul. The chief difference is that Sydney is not under martial law and rigid censorship that sees journalists silenced and critics of the government thrown into prison. I’m sure there are ministers in the Berejiklian government that fantasise about such measures, but it’s not so simple under our quaint, old-fashioned system.

After centuries of instability the Turks have the ability to adapt to any set of circumstances. In recent years they have been through the upheavals of an attempted coup and savage crackdown, terrorism, the refugee crisis, and the encroachments of religious fundamentalism upon the Ataturk’s great secular state. They have learned how to roll with the blows, avoid contentious topics, and keep pushing forward with initiatives that consolidate Turkey’s position in the global economy.

Szilard Gaspar, beating up on art at Zorzini F.

Politically Turkey is still under the gun, but there was a perceptible lightening of the atmosphere in comparison to last year’s fair. Organisers could report that the number of VIP collectors had tripled, from 100 to 300. Even the fact that the Turkish lira had just lost 30 percent of its value was seen as an opportunity, not a threat. It meant international collectors might pick up bargains if they bought from galleries that used the local currency.

As for Turkish collectors, (including, one assumes, the fair organisers), they all seem to have their money in foreign currency accounts.

The difficulty for both Istanbul and Sydney, is to attract international exhibitors, especially top-tier galleries. Sydney’s major coup was to host Pace Gallery, one of the world’s top ten. Istanbul boasted 83 galleries from 22 countries, with the biggest names probably being Marlborough Gallery (London New York, Spain), Michael Schultz (Berlin/Seoul/Beijing), and first-timers, Almine Rech (New York/London/Paris/Brussels).

Most of the international galleries showed work from their own countries, but Marlborough, not for the first time, presented a vast, in-your-face display by Kurdish artist, Ahmet Günestekin. With its lurid colours, psychedelic patterns, and rows of fibreglass horned skulls, the appeal of Günestekin’s art wasn’t immediately obvious, but if you’re a bikie with a Pop Art fetish it might have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.

The most engaging exhibitors were not necessarily the biggest or most celebrated. Three galleries from Romania – Plan B, Zorzini F, and Sector 1 – were as interesting and quirky as anything at the fair. The piece that stays in one’s mind was by Szilard Gaspar at Zorzini F. A former boxer, Gaspar now does performances in which he dons the gloves to beat up lumps of clay, which are cast as abstract fibreglass reliefs. These are Action sculptures in the same way Jackson Pollock’s works were Action paintings.

Lizette Chirrime, ‘Untitled’ at Galeria Perve

Along with their conceptual eccentricities the Romanian galleries showed a good deal of painting with a rough, hand-made quality. The same traits could be found in the work of Johann Louw, at SMAC of South Africa, whose drawings are reminiscent of those of William Kentridge; the awkward biomorphic abstractions of Mattea Perrotta, at London’s Lamb Arts; the printed fabric works of Mozambique artist, Lizette Chirrime, at Lisbon’s unfortunately named Perve Galeria; and the wilfully clumsy figure studies of Maka Batishvili at Project Artbeat from Georgia.

The Andakulova Gallery of Dubai, also stood out, with work by Kazakhstan’s Almagul Menlibayeva, whose photos and performances take a surreal look at the ruins of the communist era in Central Asia. The only Australian artist on display was John Aslandis, with a tall, thin geometrical abstraction, shown by Ethan Cohen of New York, whose eclectic tastes have brightened up many an art fair.

Maka Batiashvili, ‘Smile’, at Project Artbeat of Tbilisi

The mainstays of CI were the Turkish galleries, which came out in force to support the local showcase. The best-known include Galleri Nev, Zilberman, Galerist, and Pi Artworks – the latter being the stand-out mainly due to the elegant abstractions of Kemal Seyhan, whose restraint felt like an oasis of calm in the midst of a Turkish scene that favours art that is over-elaborate and dangerously close to kitsch.

This is an aspect of local taste that separates the Turkish galleries from many of their international peers, but it also reflects a certain defiance of those fashions in western art that masquerade as beacons of cultural progress.

There’ll be no shortage of progress in Istanbul over the next few years with the opening of two new museums and a dedicated arts district that aims to attract both local and international business. It’s the latest attempt to capitalise on the city’s unique position as the bridge between Asia and Europe, east and west. Some complain that it’s only the perennial volatility of Turkey that holds the city back, but for both visitors and residents Istanbul’s edginess is a large part of its seductiveness.

13th Edition of Contemporary Istanbul
Istanbul Congress Center and Convention and Exhibition Centre
20– 23 September, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September, 2018