You know where this is going, from the exhibition’s title alone. Take a map and a compass. Put the center on Istanbul and draw an arc with a 2,500-kilometer radius. See which cities the circle covers. Thirty-five artists from 17 countries—Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Russia, the Middle East (Lebanon to Iraq), Iran, Egypt and Israel (not Palestine, however)—were allocated space in “Neighbors: Contemporary Narratives from Turkey and Beyond,” which opened at Istanbul Modern, in January, under this dubious, neo-Ottoman sense of geography, rationalized with the rather euphemistic claim that they all “share historical, political, and cultural ties with Turkey.”
Yet “Neighbors” is not an exhibition about those historical relationships. Far from it, in fact, as the storied 20th-century conflicts between, say, Turkey and Armenia, or Turkey and Greece, are not addressed. Instead, curators have conceived of relationships around a different, more nebulous set of pretexts and tautologies. Works are yoked together for pertaining to “themes of storytelling and travel” and showing a familiarity with “the vernacular of today’s art practice.” The former are no more specific to this region than to any other part of the world, while the latter is something that any contemporary artist can be credited with.
In these regards, “Neighbors” is entirely perfunctory as an exhibition. Thirty-five completely different artists from those same 17 countries, and from perhaps a dozen others—Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and more—could have been displayed together, with the same effect. This is a shame, and an example of curatorial indolence. What any exhibition organizer should be doing is making a case for the relevance of the particular artworks on view, and enriching each artist’s practice by placing it in a context that somehow illuminates both the individual work and the assembled pieces at large.
That’s not to say there are not interesting artworks works in “Neighbors.” These speak for themselves. Nil Yalter’s Nomad’s Tent (1973) is a fabric-draped yurt modeled on those that the artist observed around the city of Niğde, in central Anatolia. She covered the burlap exterior in painted animal skins and texts, in Turkish and French, about the roles of women in the nomadic Yörük culture. An adjacent video monitor shows black-and-white digital footage of Yalter, shot when the piece was first installed at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris 40 years ago, playing the hybrid roles of shaman and sculptor, anthropologist and artist.
A more distanced perspective comes from Rena Effendi, whose documentary photographs of remote villages in the Khinaliq area of northern Azerbaijan are remarkable depictions of communities seemingly living in another time. Frontier Blues (2009), a film by Babak Jalali, explores four lives in Golestan, a similarly remote, poverty-stricken province in northern Iran. At times, “Neighbors” comes very close to romanticizing the still un-modernized corners of the region.
Many of the curatorial decisions seem awkward and simplistic. The inclusion of Turhan Selçuk’s original drawings for the Abdülcanbaz sci-fi comic book series, Voyage to Funjistan, first published in 1972 in the Istanbul newspaper Cumhuriyet, was interesting to those who know the comics. But why the curators chose only this particular object of popular culture for display in this exhibition of contemporary art is not explained. Other works seemed to be in conversation only with themselves, such as Maja Bajevic’s To Be Continued / Steam Machines (2011), a slideshow of political slogans “shouted during social and political upheavals around the world in the years between 1911–2011” that is gradually obscured by steam released into the room. The work seemed to have no relationship to the curatorial themes of narrative, popular theater or folk forms, and would have been better served by inclusion in a different exhibition. Similarly, as a stream-of-consciousness-style work, Yehudit Sasportas’s dreamlike animated film Vortex of Separation (2013), which melds images of exhibition spaces with nocturnal wilderness scenes, deviated far from the central premise.
Several other works that also seemed patently non-narrative were scattered around the lobby, to be looked at awkwardly before, or after, entering the show. Among them were two of Hayv Kahraman’s paintings on wood of traditional Iraqi figures in profile, rendered like those on playing cards. Slavs and Tatars created a carpet-covered, molded plywood and green leather seating platform called Nose Twister (2013), which was accompanied by a sound piece in Uygher and Turkish. (One is not really inclined to lounge in a poorly lit corner of the windowless concrete foyer near vending machines!) Michail Pirgelis’s Alma II (2012), a gold-lacquer-painted wall with a shiny piece of metal from an airplane fuselage leaning against it, seemed to belong to another show. These three pieces hung around the entrance like clubgoers who didn’t meet the dress code—again, not how curators should treat artworks.
Too many of the curators’ decisions were just bizarre. The same piece by Mounira al-Solh, The Mute Tongue (2010), depicting a Croatian performance artist Sinisa Labrović enacting 19 different Arabic idioms in literal ways (such as “Throw him in the sea, he’ll come up with a fish in his mouth”), was displayed on four different monitors scattered throughout the exhibition space, including one in the lobby. Why was this necessary? This year, Istanbul Modern is ten years old—or young, depending on your perspective—and its exhibition program remains stuck in intellectual adolescence. The institution’s monographic exhibitions tend to be too large and repetitive; its group shows are demeaningly simplistic, sweeping together a huge array of works under generic concepts, such as 2011’s survey of female artists from Turkey, “Dream and Reality,” and often sport themes derived directly from the sponsoring bodies, such as 2013’s “Modernity? Perspectives from France and Turkey,” supported by French cultural institute, the Comité Colbert.
Lacking an engaged, critical sensibility, Istanbul Modern’s exhibitions come off as belated and naive—if not retrograde. Let’s leave aside a couple of politically sensitive facts for this private institute, such as that funding for this show was received directly from the Promotion Fund of the Office of the Prime Ministry. Or that Turkey’s former Minister for EU Affairs, the corruption-tainted Egemen Bağış, remains on the board of directors. Given all the upheavals in the region in the last three years, including the humiliating downfall of Turkey’s hubristic claims to be a model democracy for Arab nations—rather contradicting its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy—there was something remarkably obtuse about the neo-Ottoman worldview implicit in “Neighbors.” The Turkish government’s credibility is in free-fall both internally and abroad. In order to avoid the same fate among the city’s cultural community, Istanbul Modern needs to grow up and start acting more like a precocious, even rebellious teenager, rather than the awkward adolescent that it has been to date.
“Neighbors: Contemporary Narratives from Turkey and Beyond” is on view at Istanbul Modern through May 8, 2014.
HG Masters is editor at large at ArtAsiaPacific magazine.