Istanbul Juxtaposed


As published in Broadsheet, Contemporary art + Visual Culture, Volume 38.1, March 2009

Istanbul Juxtaposed

There are many Istanbuls; the visible and the invisible, the global and the local, the projected and the real. The combinations of these extremes make Istanbul contemporary art what it is today. 

Visible Istanbul  

With a brief internet search and a quick flip through some guide books, we find the following entries representing Istanbul contemporary art : Contemporary Istanbul1 (the major commercial art fair sponsored by Akbank), Istanbul Modern2 (a museum primarily sponsored by the Eczacıbaşı family), the Istanbul Biennial3 (organized by the IKSV with major sponsorship by Koç Holding) and Platform Garanti4 (an art residency, archive and project space, mostly supported by Garanti Bank). Other contemporary art can be found in various spaces initiated and supported by local banks; Akbank5 and Yapıkredi6. As you can see, the banks and the ‘big three’ families of Turkey hold control over the majority of contemporary art dissemination.

Outside of Istanbul, contemporary Turkish art is becoming better known in Europe, as many countries are now coming to terms with their Turkish ‘guest workers’ now resident for two and three generations. There is also more interest in Turkish NGOs, as Turkish ‘collaborators’ are quite useful when applying for funding from the EU and other European foundations. On a smaller scale, European artists have found Istanbul an interesting location for experimental and collaborative projects of many sorts, taking their experience and documentation back home to their local audiences. 

Invisible Istanbul

The more subtle happenings within the contemporary art scene are promoted within the scene itself. Information is sent out through a few list-serves and thanks to Facebook, through dozens of event invitations, keeping those people who know where to look, up on the latest events and openings. There have been several worthy attempts to ‘map’ the art scene, resulting in some online databases and one good printed guide (see Pist List below). Alas, its hard to be unbiased in a society structured around ‘friends and family’ connections. 

Contemporary art in Istanbul is relatively young, dynamic and buzzing with activity. The general population, however, is not overly conscious of this new development. The contemporary art is located almost exclusively in the Beyoğlu area of Istanbul. To most, especially outside of this center, artists make paintings, photographs and maybe sculptures. As in many cities, Istanbul also suffers from a segregation of disciplines within the contemporary arts. Added to this, is the division between those artists educated in Europe or the States and those who have stayed in Turkey. 

National and local politics also enter into the art world. Ever-present in Turkey, they are discussed at nearly every dinner and in every publication. Turkey’s position, within itself and with its neighbors, is one of endlessly complex histories. There have recently been several interesting fusions of arts groups, social organisations and local politics, specifically following the assassination of Armenian editor and journalist Hrant Dink and the continuing struggle of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender platform Lambda7. Groups such as the ‘Sulukule Platform’8, in addition to being a force against local politics towards the Roma people and their historical living-space, have engaged in festival-making. The ’40 days 40 nights Sulukule’9 event brought together artists, architects, guests, locals and urban planners in celebration of the area’s culture and in protest to its destruction. In the broader artistic sense, the danger becomes that individual artists hide behind their politics, allowing political causes to be the primary content of their work, or, to disconnect completely, avoiding the loaded chaos of reality, creating work they feel could enter the European market in a neutral fashion. In either case, artists struggle for their voice, which never seems to be Western enough for the Turks or Turkish enough for the West. 

Global Istanbul

All Istanbul-based contemporary artists are well aware of the inevitable ‘Biennial cycle’, the world-famous curators, critics, observers and partiers that descend upon the city every other year. The biennial has created a place for Istanbul in the global arts circuit and it is perceived as one biennial that is ‘still interesting’. In addition to the official biennial events, most every gallery and project space in town has a major opening, seeking their share of the global spotlight. The biennial supports some of these side projects, but mostly through visibility, lacking the budget to allow a professional level of production. The Biennial has a history; the first one taking place in 1987, with the first international curator invited in 1995. The biennial is organized by the IKSV10 (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts) as one of the many major festivals they produce. Typical of many Turkish Institutions, IKSV suffers from extreme hierarchy; the very enthusiastic mid and lower level staff are allowed little decision-making power. The biennial routinely creates a lot of false expectations and disappointment among local artists, as it is far too easy to forget that it is in fact an internationally curated, internationally supported event located IN Istanbul, not coming FROM Istanbul itself. 

Istanbul is also home to two international art fairs, the more respected one being Contemporary Istanbul, now in its third year. A loosely curated event, the fair hosts nearly every Turkish gallery and a dozen or so from Europe and Asia. These events certainly have their work cut out for them in the future. The hope is that the fair will be a major stimulator of the Istanbul art market, which despite the rapidly growing number of millionaires and billionaires in Turkey, is in its infancy. With a few notable exceptions, most galleries in Istanbul are owned as a hobby by wealthy individuals, or are created in order to support artists. Many emerging artists pay, from their pocket, a good portion of costs of their first exhibitions. The results are often frustrating; no feedback, no sales, no communication. Recently, in addition to the successful Galerist11, X-ist12 and Galeri Nev13, the recent year have seen the birth of some exciting new endeavors, Outlet Istanbul14 and Galeri Splendid15

Local Istanbul

Purposely keeping their distance from corporate partnerships and large-scale art events, are a growing number of independent art spaces. These spaces enjoy a relatively high level of artistic freedom, as they are generally run with the time and energy of the initiators as well as in-kind donations of time and resources from friends and family. Some also succeed in receiving minimal sponsorship from printing houses and beverage companies. This, however, is also their greatest limitation, as they generally have little or no budget for their activities.

One such initiative is located in a former storage room for industrial sewing machines in the IMÇ (Istanbul Textile Traders' Market). Entitled 553316 to match its address, it is an artist-run space. As family property of artist Nancy Atakan, it was first offered to curator Hou Hanru of the 10th Istanbul Biennial17. Refused as an official location, they created their own event. Curator Adnan Yildiz created ‘Big Family Business’, a curatorial project creating a platform for art, knowledge, information exchange and production. This became the starting point for 5533, which has hosted a wide variety of alternative projects since then in their storefront window gallery. They also maintain a library and growing archive of portfolios, essays and projects. 

Galata Perform18 is another example. It is an independent, interdisciplinary performing arts space, filling the gap created by the commercial music performance spaces and municipal theaters and concert halls. It hosts the production space and main stage of a local theater company and serves as an alternative venue for a variety of theater, performance and music events as well as the Galata Visibility Project (see below) 

Hafriyat19 started as one of the first artist groups in Turkey, a group of painters who chose to work together in order to find interesting exhibition opportunities and new venues for art. This in it self, at the time, was a political act. Enjoying the power and security of group work, they expanded, inviting new members and eventually having a space of their own. The artists, acting as curators, developed several politically powerful projects and exhibitions. The Hafriyat space was host to side projects of the last two biennials, of note was the ‘Your eyes are bigger than your stomach’ project at the 10th biennial. Differences of opinion recently forced the group to split, with some members continuing on with management of the space. 

Projected Istanbul

These days, it’s hard to forget that in 2010, Istanbul will be the European Capital of Culture20. It is worth noting that this is the first time that the Turkish government has officially supported Culture and Arts (in the categories of visual arts, music and opera, performing arts, urban culture, literature, cinema, documentary and animation and cultural heritage and museums) This, of course, requires a fair amount of administration, an ‘arts council’ in the European model, the structure for which simply did not exist in Turkey. The complex job of developing and managing projects, reviewing applications and mediating between the government and the artists was assigned, for each category, to a director, advisory committee and team of assistants. This position is complex and always political; supported projects must first present Istanbul in accordance to the municipality’s interests, while at the same time utilizing the available resources. This hopefully will also coincide with the good intentions to significantly develop the infrastructure of Istanbul’s art scene. Its crucial to remember that 2010 is in fact about ‘Istanbul’ not about ‘contemporary art’, though many people are expecting miracles in this respect. 

Of note within the Visual Arts Department of 2010 is supporting two innovative festivals, the Amber Arts and Technology Platform (an annual festival, network and education/production center, now in its second year) and the Galata Visibility Project (an annual event exposing the various artworks and projects of the residents, and guests, of the Galata area of Istanbul, now planning its fourth edition). Also of interest, is a project initiated by the Visual Arts department itself entitled ‘Portable Art’. This project aims to bring the cultural events normally clustered in the Beyoğlu area to the farthest parts of the city, collaborating with the municipalities and cultural centers in each district. 

Many artists and organizations, however, avoid associating with this initiative at all, not so much for ideological reasons, but simply to avoid the chaos and bureaucracy of working with the government. 

Real Istanbul 

There is much to be done. Istanbul lacks viable communication space; Turkish artists returning from abroad have few chances to share their experiences, and foreigners visiting Istanbul have no obvious ways to connect with the local scene. There is no publication such as this (Broadsheet) encouraging criticism and review from local and international writers. During the large international events, there is little chance, aside from the parties, for the visiting artists to get to know the city, or meet any local artists or curators. There is no public art museum, no arts council and only a few (and very new) programs training arts administrators. The successful young administrators are often under-empowered within the aged bureaucratic structures. There is no list of resources available for artists in Turkish and very little information about Turkish artists in English. There is practically no funding available for artistic projects within Turkey and projects funded through European partnerships often end without fulfilling either party’s expectations.

Language can be a barrier to many more substantial collaborative projects or events. The artistic issues being explored by some Turkish artists are simply not the same as those in more developed contemporary art scenes. Also, on a practical level, the level of English in Istanbul is not particularly high, preventing many artists, curators and visitors from having substantive communication and understanding. The curatorial team for the 9th biennial is example of one possible solution to this, Turkish curator Vasıf Kortun working together with the English Charles Esche. 

Many artists are taking the initiative into their own hands, forming collaboratives, artist groups, renting spaces and organising events, exhibitions, informal exchanges and collaborative projects with other artists spaces, locally and abroad. New independent spaces and galleries are opening more and more often. Thanks to the strong family structure, many artists do not feel the western pressure to live independently. This gives them the freedom of time and resources to concentrate on their work, developing new and experimental projects without the need to generate revenue immediately. Strong networks of friends and family also provide a pool of available resources and possibilities. There always seems to be a friend of an uncle’s old schoolmate that just happens to own a hanger factory when 1,000 pieces for an installation. Also the absence of the ‘law suit culture’ of the west allows artists to freely organise projects without investing in extensive insurance policies. 

There have been some exciting new developments in the visibility within the scene as well. The independent project space PIST21 has initiated a project called LIST22, a free bi-monthly art guide with map, calendar of events and exhibitions. This covers the broad spectrum of art spaces, from the institutional to the independent and everything in-between. Their 2007 project ‘Artist Information’ aimed to collect and answer questions about the Istanbul art scene. These projects were a first for the scene, an attempt to make the happenings in Istanbul visible inside and out. 

Catalysts have sometimes come from outside as well. In recent years, major players and independent artists have been digging a little deeper into the layers of Istanbul; biennial curators are making their rounds, visiting at least some of the independent spaces and more remote areas of the city, visiting professors and artists in residence are staying for months at a time, developing collaborative projects with local participants. Two recent projects are particularly impressive in this respect: 

Nightcomers23 was a special project of the 10th biennial. A team of young local curators selected over 150 short video works from a public open call. The videos were shown over the course of biennial with a portable projector in 25 open-air viewing spots throughout greater Istanbul. The locations researched and chosen by the Dutch artist team Bik Van der Pol, attracting curious viewers of every kind in each location. 

Catalan artist, activist and designer Anna Sala initiated the Istanbul Map Project24, bringing together artists, dancers, architects, urban planners, academics and other community members to create an alternative map of the city. This map showed the type and locations of urban transformation in the central and most distant parts of Istanbul. In addition to the map, a series of interventions occurred in many of these locations. 

Istanbul is a city of extremes, centuries compounding upon one another, the built and the crumbling, memories and forgotten times, tradition and innovation, habit and spontaneity. Contemporary art is one of the few disciplines capable of dealing with these topics, processing context, creating new possibilities. Istanbul will undoubtedly continue to attract and challenge contemporary artists far into the future, gathering them from within and from afar. 

Thanks to the many people who have taken the time to talk with me, including:

- Deniz Aygun (artist and program director at Galata Perform)

- Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan (artists, initiators and coordinators of 5533)

- Esra Aysun (co-initiator of CUMA

1. Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair -

2. Istanbul Museum of Modern Art -

3. The International Istanbul Biennial -

4. Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center -

5. Akbank Art Center –

6. Yapı Kredi Culture Center and publishing house -

7. Lambda Istanbul -  HYPERLINK ""

8. Sulukule Platform -

9. 40 Days 40 Nights Sulukule –

10. Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts -

11. Galerist –

12. x-ist -

13. Galeri Nev -

14. Outlet Istanbul -

15. Galeri Splendid -

16. 5533 -

17. 10th International Istanbul Biennial -

18. Galata Perform -

19. Hafriyat Art Group :  Hafriyat Karaköy Project space -

20. Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Organisation -

21. PiST Interdiciplinary Project Space :

22. The PiST LIST :

23. Nightcomers as part of the 10th Internatioanl Istanbul Biennial -

24. Istanbul map, alternative directory Project -  link to the map itself -


Julie Upmeyer is an artist and initiator based in Istanbul since 2006, working with everyday materials and space: paper, plastic, food, the internet, her home, the street. Born in 1980 in Detroit, USA, curiosity lead her to work with Res Artis, the international network of artist residencies, and to undertake a three-year nomadic life - working in India, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands and Greece. In 2007, she initiated Caravansarai, an independent project space and meeting point in Istanbul, an open exploration of the interactive possibilities of food, space and the internet.

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© Julie Upmeyer 2016