Jan 12 2012

Istanbul Modern Deems Artwork Unacceptable for Fundraising Auction

by HG Masters

Exterior view of Istanbul Modern, 2010. Photo by ArtAsiaPacific.

On December 27, artists arrived at Istanbul Modern with a banner that read, “There is censorship in this museum” and hung posters declaring “we spotted censorship” alongside their work in the exhibition, “Dream and Reality.” The action came amid a storm of criticism from the Turkish art community directed at the privately funded museum for suppressing freedom of expression, after the institution refused to enter a commissioned artwork by Bubi Hayon into a fundraising auction or to acquire the artwork for its permanent collection. The museum provoked further ire for its unapologetic response to the artist and to subsequent outcry from other members of the art community.

The affair first became public earlier in December when, in a written statement, Hayon accused Istanbul Modern of censorship. The sculptor was one of eight artists originally selected to create works for the museum’s seventh annual Gala Modern, held on December 10, to support the institution’s educational program. His sculpture Oturak (“Chamber Pot,” 2011), an upright wooden chair with bedpan embedded in the seat, was not displayed after curators asked him to make modifications to the piece—specifically, to cover up the toilet seat—and Hayon refused.

Hayon insisted that the museum gave him full creative freedom in conceiving the work and that it did not specify the piece’s purpose when he was first approached about the commission. The artist claims that Oturak was intended to be critical of the quasi-sacred status of art museums in society. After seeing the final outcome, Istanbul Modern claimed that the artwork did not meet the proper requirements for the auction and would not accept it without alterations.

Hayon and others speculated that the museum deemed that the piece wasn’t as saleable with the chamber pot in its seat, and that this was the motivation for asking him to cover up, or remove, the supposedly undesirable component. After the artist had circulated his account of the episode, others members of Turkish art community agreed that the museum was committing a form of soft or “conditional” censorship. Numerous discussions were held on social-media sites, leading many people to express long-held frustrations with the museum’s lack of professionalism. 

However, even within the art community, there was broad disagreement about whether Istanbul Modern’s decision did in fact constitute censorship. The board of directors of both the Turkish National Committee of the International Plastic Arts Association (IPAA) and the International Association of Art Critics (IAAC) released separate statements saying that they did not believe Istanbul Modern’s action was censorship, because the event was a private auction, closed to the public, and there was no third-party intervention that caused the work to be removed. Istanbul Modern maintains that its curators had the right to select which artworks would be included in the auction. Hayon, a member of the IPAA, resigned on December 26.

On December 27, a panel discussion in the Istanbul Modern auditorium in conjunction with the current exhibition “Dream and Reality” turned into a public discussion of the incident, though neither Hayon nor the any of museums’ curators were present. One of the evening’s panelists, Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz, announced that she would remove her work from “Dream and Reality” in protest and walked out of the museum because she believed that the museum was no longer taking care of artists shown under its roof. Eight other artists—Ceren Öyküt, Gözde İlkin, Güneş Terkol, İnci Furni, Ekin Saçlıoğlu, Neriman Polat, Leyla Gediz and the collective AtılKunst—subsequently announced that they would also withdraw their works from “Dream and Reality.”

In a statement released on December 30, the museum rejected charges of censorship, noting that the Gala Modern event was not open to the public and that “the sole purpose of the evening and the art in question was to raise money for Istanbul Modern’s educational programs.” The museum disputed the Hayon’s account, and maintained that the purpose of the commission had been “explained carefully” to the participating artists:

“Bubi [Hayon], too, received a detailed briefing about the character and importance of Gala Modern. He knew that Gala Modern was not an exhibition and that the primary purpose of the work he created was to raise funds for Istanbul Modern’s educational programs. In events of this kind, the curatorial team selects the artists that will participate and determines which works will be included. This is standard international practice.”

However, the museum’s chief curator Levent Çalıkoğlu told Today’s Zaman that Istanbul Modern would honor the artists’ wishes to have their works removed from “Dream and Reality.” Despite media reports in late December that the pieces had been taken down, as of January 3, none of the artworks had been physically removed or altered.

Leyla Gediz, one of the eight artists who wished to have her work removed from “Dream and Reality,” explained in an email to ArtAsiaPacific that the artists had been advised by lawyers that they could not remove their works, since most of the pieces are on loan from private collectors (and are therefore no longer property of the artists), and furthermore that the consignment agreements between the museum and collectors cannot be easily canceled. However, Gediz remarked, “We are content with the harm we’ve done to the museum’s so-called prestige and morale, and feel that we’ve done enough to challenge them into rethinking their principles and aims.”

By the last day of the exhibition, on January 21, six artists had been able to secure the necessary permissions to take down their works. Ceren Oykut’s large wall drawing had been painted over in white, and Neriman Polat took down her installation of photographs and a video, leaving behind a large red, empty wall, and the collective AtılKunst’s wall of small collage projects was bare. A two-channel video by Selda Asal had been turned off, Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz emptied a small room of her photographs, and Güneş Terkol removed her hanging fabric piece.

Istanbul Modern is privately funded by the corporate holding company Eczacıbaşı Group, which comprises 39 enterprises in diverse industries. The museum’s collection is comprised of artworks on long-term loan or donated to the museum by the Dr. Nejat F. Eczacıbaşı Foundation, Oya-Bülent Eczacıbaşı Collection and other private collections. Oya Eczacıbaşı is the chair of the museum’s board of directors.

All of Turkey’s major cultural institutions are backed by corporate holding groups, as there are no national art museums or state-funded galleries. A persistent complaint in the Turkish art community—again raised during debates over the Hayon incident—is that cultural institutions have no public accountability and their decision-making processes are nontransparent. Despite their claims of adhering to “standard international practice,” Istanbul Modern, since opening in 2004, has run into problems before in working with both artists—most notably over a large-scale film commission by Doug Aitken—and professional curators, as in the case of David Elliott, who served as the museum’s director for just eight months in 2007.

The artist Hakan Akçura has circulated an online petition that was signed by prominent members of the Istanbul art community and several international figures, decrying this act of “conditional” and “commercially orientated” censorship. In a light-hearted moment, the petition announces that “Our guiding free spirit is awareness of our existence and surely is R. Mutt’s Fountain”—a reference to another famously censored toilet-as-artwork: Marcel Duchamp’s readymade, upturned urinal, which was hidden from view in 1917 exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists in Philadelphia.