SEYIN BAHRI ALPTEKIN, Capacity / Capacities, 1998, panel with LED writing mounted on 36 photographs: 39 × 39 cm each. Photo by Serkan Taycan. Courtesy the estate of the artist and Rampa, Istanbul. 

Democratic Luxury

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin

Rampa Istanbul

The bridge between postmodern and contemporary art in Turkey can be personified by a single figure: the late Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, who was born in İzmir in 1957 and died on the last day of 2007. During the 1980s, Alptekin studied aesthetics and sociology at the Sorbonne in Paris, steeping himself in the discourses of semiotics and post-structuralism while he worked as a photographer for the SIPA Press agency. When he returned to Turkey in 1990 to teach in Ankara at Bilkent University, he formed deep friendships with artist Vahap Avşar and curator Vasıf Kortun. Hanging out with those two colleagues, their weekend excursions to the markets and nightclubs of Istanbul, and Alptekin’s intense friendship with New York-based artist Michael D. Morris, all spurred his own creations. Alptekin’s works were based on and inspired by the material bric-a-brac and human migrants flooding Turkey in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the chaotic burst of Turkey’s own economic liberalization. Alptekin devoured the chaos, and lived it as well, in addition to sharing his intellectual preoccupations with a generation of artists and curators that built the art scene of Turkey today. What Alptekin returned to the world in the form of his art-making—deploying the tactics of collage, installation, multimedia (incorporating fabricated and found materials), signage and sculpture, collaboration and conspiracy—describes the manic-depressive highs and lows of a globalizing world and its beautiful effluence of junk.

SEYIN BAHRI ALPTEKIN, Contemplation, 1999, print on dibond, 114 × 84 cm. Courtesy the estate of the artist and Rampa, Istanbul. 

Rampa Gallery’s exhibition “Democratic Luxury,” curated by Esra Sarıgedik Öktem, was the second monographic show in Istanbul since Alptekin’s untimely death, the first being SALT’s inaugural exhibition in 2011, and it came in conjunction with a show of the same name at M HKA, in Antwerp, curated by Nav Haq. The title came from one of Alptekin’s own essays describing his experience going to high-end restaurants in San Sebastian, Spain, as well as a pithy encapsulation of his own proclivities, which ran from fine food and wines, to one-night cheap hotels. These places, with names of far-off locales (Hotel Florida, Hotel Milano, Hotel Dallas, Hotel Baku, etc.) are depicted in his signature photomontage Capacity/Capacities (1998), with a red LED cursive sign reading “Capacity,” and was one of the welcome if familiar works from the SALT exhibition to be reprised at both Rampa and M HKA. The LED lights reflected Alptekin’s love for the back streets of Istanbul and the “technologically ever-morphing practice within the city’s transient texture of posts, signs, billboards and design.”

There were other returning works from the SALT show at Rampa, including the black-and-white photographic print Contemplation (1999), depicting the late American jazz musician Butch Morris smoking a cigarette while eyeing a cigar—Alptekin saw it as being “as much about the fantasy of postponing pleasure as it is of fantasizing about pleasure”—and the photographic series Blood Sucking Healing (2000) that captures the healing ritual of cupping therapy, which proponents believe mobilizes the flow of blood. There were also selections from the “Heterotopia” (1991–92) collage series, made in collaboration with American artist Michael Morris, with a title referring to Michel Foucault’s now-famous concept and the result of rummaging through Istanbul’s vibrant marketplaces for printed materials.

SEYIN BAHRI ALPTEKIN, Blood Sucking Healing (detail), 2000, print on dibond, 61 × 110 cm. Courtesy the estate of the artist and Rampa, Istanbul. 

SEYIN BAHRI ALPTEKIN and MICHAEL MORRIS, Heterotopia, 1991–92, mixed media on paper, 63 × 49 cm. Courtesy the estate of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, Michael Morris and Rampa, Istanbul. 

“Democratic Luxury” was most significantly an occasion to reprise many significant pieces by Alptekin in Turkey. With its own room at Rampa was Don’t Complain (2006–07/09)—Alptekin’s installation of small huts (mimicking a style of Georgian restaurant cabins) accompanied by slide shows of his travel photographs from international cities, with LED signs above blaring the title—which had been his work for Turkey’s 2007 Venice Pavilion, curated by Kortun. Mounted on the exterior of the building complex that houses Rampa was Love Lace (2000), a sign that renders the title phrase in silver and red sequins (a specifically Turkish innovation in signage) that refers to both the name of a famous American porn star and a historic British mathematician. In the gallery’s street-level showcase space was Morris and Alptekin’s Dry Communication (1995/2015), a gigantic inflated globe, adhered to which is an old cell phone and a plastic fish. Alptekin loved the motif of the fish, which in Istanbul swim up and down the Bosphorus between the Black, Marmara and Aegean seas, and he used them as stand-ins for the migratory, or transitory, human body. In the same space was Kara-Kum (“Black Sand”) (1995), an oversized gray, soft fabric bag adorned with the Camel cigarettes logo and the phrase “disposed in Middle Asia.” The pair of artworks had been first (and last) seen together at the Ujlak Gallery in Budapest 20 years ago, and are emblems of the regional flux that had enthralled Alptekin and Morris.

Coming more than seven years after Alptekin’s death, “Democratic Luxury” remembered and celebrated an artist whose legacy is still central to the Turkish art scene today. His central role in the Grup Grip-In art collective was part of Ankara’s brief early-1990s artistic renaissance. He went on to galvanize the LOFT art space in a studio in the Galata neighborhood, and later the Sea Elephant Travel Agency (SETA)—a project that, in its most fanciful conceptions, called for artists, historians and scientists to board a boat from İstanbul and make a full circle around the Black Sea, stopping at various ports along the way to hold artistic interventions and events—with artists Halil Altındere and Vahit Tuna. The figures that passed through LOFT and SETA in those days included curators, writers and academics such as Başak Şenova, Pelin Tan, Erden Kosova,  Süreyyya Evren, Beral Madra and Charles Esche, as well as prominent artists such as Altındere, Cevdet Erek, Can Altay, Burak Delier, Gülsün Karamustafa, Ali Kazma, Neriman Polat, Erinç Seymen and Hale Tenger—not to mention his widow Camilla Rochas, who still lives and works in Istanbul today—and countless others. In the years since, there is hardly a member of the Turkish art scene who doesn’t have a connection to Alptekin, whether lived or posthumous; and as time goes by, his spirit has grown only richer.

SEYIN BAHRI ALPTEKIN and MICHAEL MORRIS, Dry Communication, 1995–2015, inflatable globe, dry fish, mobile phone, poster, rubber hand and electronic candle, dimensions variable. Installation view from “Democratic Luxury” at Rampa, Istanbul, 2015. Photo by CHROMA, Istanbul. Courtesy the estate of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, Michael Morris and Rampa. 

“Democratic Luxury” was on view on Rampa Gallery, Istanbul, from September 2 to November 21, 2015.

HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific.