"If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Constantinople,” the French writer and politician Alphonse de Lamartine declared in the 19th century.
The capital of the Ottomon Empire was one of the world’s most dynamic cities at the time. But for much of the past century, since it came to be known internationally as Istanbul following the collapse of the empire at the end of the First World War, it has been, in the words of a famous son, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, “a city of ruins and end-of-empire melancholy.”
Istanbul staged a dramatic comeback earlier this century and was suddenly on everyone’s bucket list, voted Europe’s Best Destination in 2013 and ranked No. 10 on the New York Times’ annual “52 Places to Go” list.
Luxury hotels, including the Shangri-La, Raffles, Soho House and the St Regis, opened, new cafes and boutiques revived Galata, high-end galleries and fashion brands invaded upper-class Nisantasi, cinemas, live music venues and galleries popped up like mushrooms in Beyoglu, and Kadıköy and Moda bristled with hipster eateries, indie bookstores, vinyl shops and cool tattoo parlours.
Then it all came to a halt.
A series of terror attacksand a failed coup in the summer of 2016 led to a brutal crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, plunging the country into turmoil. Tourist numbers have shrunk by about a third, according to the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office, and many businesses have closed. On the day I visit Sultanahmet, the home of such wonders as Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and the Blue Mosque, there are no crowds or queues.
The Grand Bazaar, where three years ago I had to elbow my way through the throngs, is almost empty.
Despite the current repression, and social and political upheaval across the country, perhaps because of it, the city is staging another comeback, a cultural rebirth and artistic renaissance, highlighted by the 15th Istanbul Biennial, an international contemporary art exhibition to open next month. Across its six venue —from canonical spaces like Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum to unexpected locations such as a historic hammam and a two-storey Bauhaus-style home—performative interventions, film screenings and an events programme will complement works of art, including 30 new commissions, by 57 artists, 10 of them Turkish.
Some say bad times make great art. And that’s what Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the high-profile Scandinavian duo appointed to curate this year’s biennial, believe.
“The political situation in Turkey has been very turbulent this past year,” they say, “but even though some people have left the city and there are fewer tourists, it hasn’t stopped the momentum of the people making art and working in the arts. They are continuing their work and they need the support of the international community.”
Which is, partly, what the biennial wishes to accomplish—another goal, of course, being to attract visitors back to Istanbul, hence the appointment of such an internationally renowned artistic duo, who themselves have participated in three previous editions of the fair.
“We feel a strong connection to the city,” the curators say. “We want to offer a sign of solidarity, to show the people of Istanbul and of Turkey that the global art world stands with them in support of art as a space for free dialogue and exchange across different kinds of borders, actual as well as mental. In times like these, the kind of platform the biennial can provide to showcase different viewpoints is as urgent as ever before. It’s too easy to speak about all the problems in the world from places that have no problems.”
Rather appropriately, they picked “a good neighbour”—all lower-case letters “because it’s not a statement”—as the theme and title of the biennial.
“With this title, we want to open up possibilities and ask questions rather than stating an exact definition and offering answers. The concept should be considered as a symbolic inquiry into how we can coexist as humans and the problems we face as our societies change due to increased urbanisation, uneven demographics, gentrification and new living modes, as well as shifts in social structures linked to the influence of social media.”
But the concept is also charged with unequivocal political urgency. Since Elmgreen and Dragset came up with it, the world has experienced the Brexit debate and vote, Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between Mexico and the US, tensions between Turkey and Russia, and more terror attacks across Europe.
Today, exploring the idea of what makes a good neighbour feels ever so pressing. “Yes, [since starting to work on the biennial] the whole theme has taken on new meanings and layers due to political events across the world,” Elmgreen and Dragset say.
“Neighbour not only applies to someone who lives next door, or in your neighbourhood, but also refers to geopolitical conflicts and how the impact of what happens in one part of the world resonates elsewhere.”
Istanbul is perhaps the most appropriate place to address these issues: the only city to span two continents, bridging the cultures of the Occident and the Orient. Its art scene has grown on both European and Asian frameworks. It’s a city accustomed to both globalisation and conservatism, and has been made all the more resilient by these dichotomies.
This was shown some three decades ago when the political climate changed following a coup in 1980 and a cluster of creative performers started paving the way for contemporary Turkish art, giving rise in 1987 to the first biennial.
It was shown again in the late 1990s, as the economy of Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, suffered several major depressions and a string of deadly bombings hit the city. The art scene grew despite the socio-economic climate, and Turkish artists began receiving invitations to large international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale.
By the mid-2000s, as Erdogan, a conservative champion of political Islam, worked to reverse eight decades of state-enforced secularism, galleries were opening on every corner, along with venues supported by private capital: Istanbul Modern in 2004, the Pera Museum in 2005. The first edition of Contemporary Istanbul, a major international art fair featuring 49 galleries and 150 artists, took place in 2006 and attracted 37,000 visitors.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?” jokes Üstüngel Inanç, media coordinator at Arter, a non-profit art space established in 2010 by a private Turkish trust, the Vehbi Koç Foundation, as a laboratory for the production of contemporary art.
“We respond well to adversity—the local art scene has proved it during the past decade. It got stronger and is getting stronger still.”
“The quality of art in Turkey is very high right now,” echoes Taner Ceylan, an internationally acclaimed photo-realist painter known for graphic, erotically charged works that touch upon national identity and orientalism.
“It has its unique character, and it’s increasingly speaking up and trying to come out, even if it’s difficult in the current environment. Turkish artists run their own spaces and studios. They keep creating and finding ways to show their work in international galleries, museums or independent establishments. The whole scene is rising.”
Arter, for instance, is expanding. It’s slated to move from its stunning and precariously narrow 1910s building on Beyoglu’s Istiklal Avenue to a larger, fully fledged contemporary art museum by the end of 2018.
“The concept of engaging with art is relatively young in Turkey,” Inanç continues. “But there’s a growing demand for it, particularly among young people. Most of our visitors are under the age of 25. Art is very much on their mind. They see it as a means to challenge and question the status quo.”
He has a point; earlier, as I climbed Arter’s spiral staircases to visit its exhibition, I was struck by the youth of the crowd.
The same goes for SALT, another non-profit art institution, this one funded by Garanti Bank, and one of the most amazing art spaces I have ever visited.
Opened in 2011, it occupies a 160-year-old former Ottoman bank—five floors of carved white marble, soaring ceilings and Constantinople-era charm—and is packed with teenagers and twenty- and thirty-somethings visiting its free art archive, library, auditorium and exhibition spaces.
“Art deals with essential issues, but it also offers ways of coming together and starting important, even existential dialogues,” says Zeynep Akan, who has been working at the organisation since its inception, as she shows me around. “That’s why places like SALT and Arter are thriving despite everything that’s happening. Istanbulites need them.”
This “need” also explains a series of new creative endeavours sprouting across the city, often spurred by the coming together of art collectors, designers and artists, but also hoteliers, business people and real estate developers.
In October last year, the bohemian area of Tomtom Mahallesi saw the launch of Tomtom Design Days, a four-day festival that filled its streets, abandoned buildings and rusting garages with some 50 designers, pop-up shops and workshops, drawing almost 14,000 visitors.
A second edition in May saw the number of designers double and attracted almost 20,000 visitors. The organisers are now gearing up for the third instalment, with international artists to be added to the mix this time.
“The idea is to create Istanbul’s very own design district,” says Serra Arıkök, one of the festival’s four founders and a hotelier (the others are a fashion designer, an investor and a realtor). “Like the Marais in Paris, or Zona Tortona in Milan.”
Last summer, three young arts graduates, Çisem Asya Albas, Ogulcan Haslaman and Alper Turan, founded Das Art Project, a curatorial initiative to transform historic and iconic places into art spaces displaying Turkish artists’ work.
The trio first took over a dilapidated building designed by one of Turkey’s most prominent architects, the late Mimar Kemaleddin, near Istanbul Sirkeci Terminal, the central train station. They occupied it for a day with performance pieces and installations, gaining so much traction that for the following edition, in March this year, they were able to take over the city’s most iconic inn, the historic Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah, for three days.
“We approached Pera Palace thinking we’d never get permission to do a show there, but they proved us wrong,” says Turan. “It was quite surreal to do a three-day experimental exhibition in such a landmark, but great, too. When establishments like this are displaying such support for the local art scene, you can’t but feel optimistic for the future.”
It’s through such unexpected pairings and alliances—hotels and promising artists, private entrepreneurs and indie designers, youngsters and century-old banks—that the city’s art scene is finding its feet.
“Istanbul has all the elements it needs to be an international player in the art sector,” Elmgreen and Dragset say. “Well-respected institutions, combined with innovative galleries, foundations, a rising number of serious collectors and passionate people working in the field. And the biennial, of course. The event is a unique chance to rally the international community to support the Turkish art scene—this year more than ever. People should attend to help strengthen networks and show intellectuals, artists and liberalminded people that they are not alone.”
Call it being a good neighbour. The 15th Istanbul Biennial runs from September 16 until November 12.
Text by: Marianna Cerini
Also read: Highlights From Art Stage Jakarta 2017