They say Istanbul is on a roll. The roster of private and corporate-funded cultural institutions, artist-residency programs and independent artist initiatives is expanding at a previously unseen rate. Galleries with ambitions pop up regularly all along the Beşiktaş-Beyoğlu-Tophane axis of Bosporus-fronting neighborhoods. Like an overexcited teenager, the art scene feeds on the glamor and controversy of now-fashionable art openings in once-gritty back streets. Whether this is just a passing phase remains to be seen. As the local commercial sector grows more supportive of innovative artists, a balance still needs to be struck between artists’ interests and the commercial exhibitions that appeal to philanthropic corporations and collectors.
The larger question is how the art scene can sustain itself in the long run. Are there enough institutions documenting cultural production, providing research opportunities, encouraging public involvement and critical thought, while supporting Turkish contemporary art on the world stage? Especially in Istanbul, the current frenetic overdrive exists largely without recognition of the achievements of previous decades or any sense of historical continuity. In fact, there are several generations of established artists and curators who contributed to the development of contemporary art in Turkey. But these senior artists are often more visible abroad than at home, as was the case at this year’s Venice Biennale.
The 2011 Turkey Pavilion involved two seminal figures. Artist Ayşe Erkmen, who filled the Artigliere space with Plan B (2011), a multicolored network of pipes and filtration units that purifies water drawn from an adjacent canal, is among the first generation of Turkish contemporary artists. Working in both Turkey and Western Europe, she has paved the way for younger conceptualists with her artistic output since 1969. Her labyrinthine sculptural work was curated by Fulya Erdemci, director of the Istanbul Biennial from 1994 to 2000, and whose “Pedestrian Exhibitions” in 2002 and 2005 featured street-level artistic interventions—some of the first public-art projects in the city.
The activities of Turkish curators extended to the Pavilion of Azerbaijan, which was entrusted to Beral Madra, the organizer of the first and second Istanbul Biennials in 1987 and 1989, and commissioner of the Turkey Pavilions at Venice in 2003 and 2005. And the United Arab Emirates Pavilion was overseen by Vasıf Kortun, curator of the 3rd and co-curator of the 9th Istanbul Biennials, the 2007 Turkey Pavilion at Venice, and currently the director of research and programs at Salt, a recently opened nonprofit art space. Crucial to the perception of Turkish art from abroad, Erkmen, Erdemci, Madra and Kortun laid much of the intellectual groundwork for Istanbul’s current expansion.
As energetic as Istanbul’s art community is at the moment, it remains enmeshed in the country’s political debates. Turkey’s fragmented art-historical narrative mirrors the political history of a nation that has witnessed three coup d’etats between 1960 and 1980, as well as a profound break from the legacy of the Ottoman Empire earlier in the century. This ruptured sense of historicity and a general acceptance of a convenient cultural amnesia persists. Many Istanbulites were dismayed by the demolition of a half-realized peace monument by Turkish artist Mehmet Aksoy in the eastern city of Kars intended to promote improved relations between Turkey and Armenia. Disputes over the structure’s proximity to an archeological site and a shrine had already prevented its completion, but the sculpture’s dismantling came only after the conservative prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described it as a “freak” in early 2011. Another recent instance of political intervention took place in Izmir, where an exhibition of video works from the Centre Pompidou collection was censored by the director of Izmir’s French Cultural Institute, Jean-Luc Maeso, and the director of the K2 art center, Ayşegül Kurtel. They withdrew the work of three artists, Berat Işık, Erkan Özgen and Köken Ergun, for “political reasons.”
Growing in fits and spurts over the last four decades, the Turkish art scene remains young and prone to missteps. It is a microcosm of greater frictions within the country at large. Censorship issues and tensions between economic growth and intellectual integrity are challenges that should inspire more critical production. But the most important undertaking is for institutions to provide a context for the opening up of historical memories by making them available to the interested public for discussion in the form of exhibitions and archives.