Turkish artist LEYLA GEDIZ with her artwork. Courtesy Galerist, Istanbul.

Bosporus Heads to the Block


Home to an acclaimed biennial and international galleries, Istanbul is the center of Turkey’s contemporary art scene. As the Western art market continues to tap previously neglected art communities, works by Turkish artists appear at auction in increasing numbers. On March 4, Sotheby’s London will hold its inaugural Turkish contemporary art sale featuring 54 artists, including the late media-art pioneer Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, who represented Turkey at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and London-based Mustafa Hulusi, infamous for superimposing his name on East London billboards.

Sotheby’s sale is part of the auction house’s strategy to establish a foothold in frontier markets, following the first Arab and Iranian modern and contemporary sales in 2007. Dalya Islam, a senior specialist in the Islamic art department and head of the sale, selected works that reflect the diversity in contemporary art in Turkey.

With the sale looming, ArtAsiaPacific’s Western and Central Asia desk editor Sara Raza interviewed multimedia artist Hale Tenger, photographic provocateur Nazif Topçuoğlu and emerging emotive figurative painters Leyla Gediz and Taner Ceylan as they prepared for their international debuts.

How do local and global issues affect your work?

Hale Tenger: If your mind is working with a certain awareness, it’s hard to get rid of what’s circling around you. As a country situated between East and West, Turkey doesn’t belong completely to either. This is a recurring conflict in social and political issues. Living in this culture, you cannot separate yourself from this tension. Turkey didn’t have any involvement with the US-led war in Iraq—the Turkish government refused—but you cannot escape the global impact. Our world is like this now and it won’t change. In Decent Deathwatch: Bosnia-Herzegovina (1993), an installation of 800 jars with images and texts in English, Turkish and Serbian from the international media, I cite the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia. I made this work because of the historical relationship between the Ottomans and the Balkans.

Nazif Topçuoğlu: I am influenced by what is happening south of Turkey’s border. I like to think of myself as an old-fashioned 19th-century person by using allegory in my photographs, reworking global politics into my works. Sacrifice (2007), which will be featured in the sale, is based on the Biblical story about Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac to God and has been re-appropriated by Rembrandt’s classic 18th-century painting. This particularly potent story is central to the three major religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. I think the story is repeating itself today as young people are being sacrificed—especially south of the border—because of the ideals and the ambitions of the older generation.

Leyla Gediz: The fact that I come from Istanbul plays the biggest role in what I do. Istanbul is a highly cosmopolitan city filled with people from completely different backgrounds. I studied in London and I believe that made a big impact on my practice as I was exposed to various painting methodologies there.

How important is the Istanbul Biennial for local artists?

Nazif Topçuoğlu: Of course it is good for artists and curators to network and to meet people, but I think the biennial is nothing but a business scheme!

Taner Ceylan: It is important for young artists to learn firsthand about what is taking place on the international art scene. Although a lot of foreign attention comes with the biennial, this tends to be generated through specific curators. Leyla Gediz: The biennial plays a major role here and is a great opportunity for young artists to show their work internationally to overseas media and curators. My participation in the 7th Istanbul Biennial really prepared the grounds for an international career.

What is the role of the collector in Turkish contemporary art?

Nazif Topçuoğlu: Collectors are the main agency for the promotion of the arts in Turkey. Young Turkish contemporary artists want to become known abroad. If they stay within the borders of Turkey they can’t really expect much in the way of financial return.

Hale Tenger: Collectors only became seriously interested in contemporary art a few years ago, but they are helping to create a market for younger generations. Although, when art becomes too commercialized, it backfires on those producing it. Taner Ceylan: When I sell my art, I can make more art, it’s that simple! Collectors around the world want work that is neither temporary nor transient, they want to have an emotional relationship with the works. I think it’s very important to make a history for oneself.

How much truth is there in the rumor that painting is becoming obsolete in Turkish contemporary art?

Leyla Gediz: Even though artists prefer to experiment within the field of video and new media, they still continue to paint as paintings sell better. One of the reasons people don’t paint as much today is because painting is the toughest discipline there is. Art students are traumatized by their instructors who were taught a way of painting that is irrelevant today.

Taner Ceylan: The fault lies with the curators. They choose to represent Turkish art though new media, such as video or digital photography, because it’s easy to produce and can address subjects like ethnic problems, politics and conflict. For me, art is about eternity. As Picasso claimed: everything that happens in front of the canvas is an accident; the real thing is on the canvas. When I painted Spiritual (2008), I entered into a relationship with the boxer who I was painting and he became me. In a very sadistic way, I didn’t want this relationship to end, so I made him even more aggressive and bloody! For me the real thing is what happens on the canvas.

What is the future for contemporary Turkish art?

Taner Ceylan: There’s a rich history of contemporary art here in Turkey just waiting to be discovered. And now the time has come, and Sotheby’s is here to do it.

Nazif Topçuoğlu: Art seems to be a good investment, but today who can say what a good investment is? For me, the term “emerging art market” is totally speculative, straight out of Wall Street.