Istanbul’s Art Scene

Suzy Hansen writes about “The Istanbul Art-Boom Bubble” in the New York Times. (click here) It’s an interesting look inside the glittering, hot-money world of contemporary art in Istanbul. Hansen gives us a sense of the out-of-this world scope of activities, galleries, events, and art production, but also a critique of its limits, its lack of intellectual backbone, inability to engage with Turkey rather than the West, and a sense that its time in the sun is limited before the in-place-to-be moves elsewhere. Below some excerpts (some critiques I thought interesting) from a much broader article that I recommend reading in its entirety.

…Turkish intellectuals attribute Istanbul’s lack of a solid modern and contemporary culture to its broken history — especially the sharp break between the Ottoman Empire and a modern, secular state. Even after the republic’s founding in 1923, the Turks endured many more violent disturbances: World War II, pogroms against Armenians and Greeks, an ongoing civil war with the Kurds, three military coups. But there’s another reason for the absence of a coherent Turkish culture.

“Istanbul is shallow,” Kortun said. “It’s not an intellectual place. It was an old city with Greeks and Armenians and Jews. The Armenians were the intellectual backbone of the city. This place lost its lungs in the beginning of the 20th century. Maybe more than its lungs. It was a crippled place when it started as a nation. The 20th century is the lost century for this city.”…

Turkish modern art looks a lot like Western modern art, much to the dismay of international art experts looking for something exotic. What is real Turkish culture anyway? It’s not harems and fezzes — that’s Ottoman. One gallerist said she wasn’t even sure what “Turkish” art would look like.

While most Turkish contemporary art deals with universal themes, some of the political works have been specific to modern Turkey — Ataturk, the army — and don’t always translate abroad…

[Kutlug Ataman, the most famous Turkish artist in the world,] doesn’t think Turkish artists have confronted the real source of their material, the thing they have to offer the world. He referred to an infamous recent incident, when a mob of Turkish men attacked gallery-hoppers who’d spilled onto the streets drinking alcohol in their fashionable clothes. The galleries were gentrifying the neighborhood, and the community, many Turks later told reporters, felt encroached upon and left out. To many other Turks, however, the attackers were religious types angered by the liberal lifestyle they’d been forced to witness: uncovered women, gay men, art, alcohol. In the center of Istanbul, Turkey’s two worlds came face to face, in a microcosmic dance of the confrontation happening all over the world: the West and the East, the rich and the poor, the comfortable and the angry.

Ataman regards such a confrontation as a brush with the “real Turkey.” “When I look at artists’ practice in Europe, I am not inspired,” he said. “If the artists here can engage with Turkey, they will be ahead of the rest of the world. Because the world is this.”…

“This will become an international scene before it was even a Turkish one,” said one very young artist who was working at Rodeo. “It’s like the hot money pouring into this country. When it goes, what will be left?”…

5 Responses to “Istanbul’s Art Scene”

  1. […] Istanbul’s Art Scene […]

  2. The article also contains this memorable line: “Even the fatalistic Turks, skeptical of Westerners’ enthusiasm, couldn’t help admitting that this strange art institution was awesome.”

    I don’t know if the author and the editor notice this, but calling a people fatalistic is pretty racist. ‘Fatalistic’ and ‘passive’ have always been the image of Eastern peoples in the eyes of the colonialists.

  3. She paints a pretty picture: The art-types are Western imitators; the rest of Turkey is just conservative and backward.

    Ain’t no winning in Turkey.

  4. Indeed the picture is much more complex that the article would suggest: although artists here do indeed ape the West (having a limited understanding of Turkey’s place in the world), Kutluğ Ataman for one stands apart from the rest. He offers up some right hope – and his work is breathtaking!

    As for Turks being conservative and backward, they actually are very eager to embrace new ideas – but it is their over-the-top enthusiasm which can often be misconstrued as being set in their ways.

  5. Deniz: Mr. Ataman looks pretty interesting. I’ll have to look into his stuff. Thanks for mentioning him.

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