Feb 25 2013

What’s Up: Istanbul

by HG Masters

The “What’s Up” blog visits urban art spaces across the Asia-Pacific region. 

There are clear signs of a generational divide in some of the exhibitions that are on view in Istanbul at the moment. If you began a tour of the city’s art spaces at Arter, you would enter off of Istiklal Caddesi and immediately find yourself in a maze created by Hale Tenger (b. 1960) for “Envy, Enmity, Embarrassment” (through April 7). Like the hedgerows of a labyrinth, the walls of Tenger’s I Know People Like This III (2013) are tall and dense—here dense with images of mass street protests, shouting figures, police arresting people, scenes of chaos, devastation and anger. Printed on x-ray film and shown against light-box panels, the images of both plainly recognizable historical moments and unidentifiable instances are shown in roughly reverse chronological order, so that walking through the piece takes you back in time from the present (just a few weeks before the exhibition opened) to the 1960s. The archive, here, is an x-ray that allows us to see inside the (political) body and identify its illness and fractures. 


HALE TENGERI Know People Like This III, 2013, installation at Arter – Space for Art, of archival photographs printed on x-ray film. Photo by AAP

Further up Istiklal, at Salt Beyoğlu, is another explicitly archival project. This one called “Scared of Murals” (through April 21) looks at artistic activity around the country in the volatile period of 1976–80. Starting with the international art festival in Antalya where murals were defaced and ending with the military coup in 1980 known as 12 Eylül, the journey is narrated almost entirely through a handful of period paintings and reproductions of documents, including personal photographs, correspondences and old newspapers—in fact there’s a whole room showing the front pages following the May 1, 1977 massacre in Taksim Square. 


Installation views from “Scared of Murals” at Salt Beyoğlu. Photo by AAP

Down in the Tophane neighborhood, at Depot, the exhibition “How to Tell a Story” (through Feb 17) featured a work called Inventory (2011– ) by a group that goes by the name Archive (comprised of Chiara Figone, Paolo Caffoni, Francesca Boenzi and Ignas Petronis). The group traveled from Berlin to Istanbul, assembling a collection of documents and publications. Istanbul-based Can Altay (b. 1975) designed a series of support and display structures for the publications and documents, giving them a spatial configuration and different modes of visibility and accessibility. This is living history through public documents, re-arranged, re-organized, re-formatted, re-discovered.

The question now is whether the archival presentation, in its many variations, is already an outdated, or overly familiar, mode of artistic presentation, and whether it does all that it claims it does. Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” opened five years ago at the International Center of Photography in New York, surveying works most of which were created in the 1990s. The presentation at Salt Beyoğlu of the newspaper front-pages showing the Taksim Square massacre is a direct derivation of Hans Peter-Feldmann’s 9/12 Front Page (2002), included in “Archive Fever,” for which the artist displayed newspapers following the World Trade Center bombings in September 11, 2001. Most of the discourse in circulation about “the archive” claims that such projects have an ability to undo official narratives of history and offer populist or alternative narratives to be written—a trope has become a kind of art-world orthodoxy. Somehow a room filled with reproductions of existent mass-media imagery doesn’t feel like the creation of an alternative history. 


ARCHIVE, Inventory, 2011– , materials gathered on a field trip from Berlin to Istanbul, with wooden structures designed by CAN ALTAY, at Depot, Istanbul. Photo by AAP

Perhaps it’s no wonder that younger artists are focused on something else entirely: themselves. Merve Ertufan (b. 1985) and Johanna Adebäck (b. 1982), who have made collaborative works since 2009 for a project called “me | you” showed Compliments, in which, on two adjacent screens, the pair are seen exchanging kind words about one another. The words are generally flattering but their faces convey emotions that range from loving to insincere. It’s surprisingly entertaining to watch them as they struggle to invent and formulate so many consecutive compliments. As they grow weary, they reach further back into their memories. Some of the compliments are backhanded, like Johanna’s to Merve, when she tells her that she’s such a good dancer that at parties she makes other people feel uncomfortable. As the viewer, you don’t know anything about this relationship (whether it’s romantic or just very intense) but you do sense its emotional complexity, how admiration and competition commingle, how friendship can even seem like aggression. 


MERVE ERTUFAN and JOHANNA ADEBÄCKCompliments, 2013, two-channel video at Arter. Photo by AAP.

Vancouver-based Erdem Taşdelen (b. 1985) is also in dialogue at Arter, this time with a psychiatrist who he has employed for five sessions to talk about his artistic problems—which considering the centrality of art to his life, is pretty much like personal therapy. Cameras are trained on both Erdem and the grey-haired therapist, and we can watch their full sessions, beginning awkwardly and nervously, and gradually settling into a sustained conversation about the artist’s need for control over his work, the need for attention (strictly artistic, of course), and about being an artist from Turkey, which, in refusing to portray himself as a “victim,” he says wryly is “not like being a refugee.” The work inhabits an engaging middle ground between personal confession and meta-commentary on a young person’s fledging career as a professional artist, or, one imagines, in any creative industry. Precisely because Erdem is so expressive about his anxieties, it becomes quite easy to relate to his neuroses. 


ERDEM TAŞDELENŞWorrier, 2012, part of a five-channel video and installation at Arter. Photo by AAP.

Just off Taksim Square, at Collectors Space, the New York-based Ryan McNamara (b. 1979) is showing And Introducing Ryan McNamara (2010– ) (through March 2), which is a personal collection of photos, videos and memorabilia from his own life. Based on this material, he leads open-ended, unscripted guided tours of his own past and previous works, from atrociously edgy black-and-white photos of his teenage years to documentation of performance-based projects. It’s definitely an archive, but one whose best interpreter is the artist himself. He was on hand one weekend in January to tell quirky and self-effacing anecdotes about each of the projects. Like Johanna and Merve, and Erdem, Ryan’s candidness is compelling. In none of their cases is it self-exploitative or crass, or an example of over-sharing. These artists are working with what they know best, which rather modestly—or immodestly, depending on your mood—is their own personal history.  


Invitation card for “And Introducing Ryan McNamara,” at Collector’s Space, Istanbul. Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York.

HG Masters is editor-at-large at ArtAsiaPacific.