ISTANBUL — In Istanbul, there is always a clear mismatch between well-heeled art institutions and the shows on offer in local galleries, in terms of both quality and diversity. Powerful institutions dealing with international artists and curators appeal to the global art elite, draw crowds from overseas, and clearly reflect the trends and themes of contemporary art. Galleries, on the other hand, deal almost exclusively with local artists and collectors; very few new names are being introduced, and the audience remains very limited. With the opening of the 14th Istanbul Biennial this September, the galleries are at a clear disadvantage, and from the dozen or so shows open in the city at the moment, it is relatively difficult to find works that resonate beyond their local context. Still, there are some hidden gems outside the most predictable venues, and the city overall seems to have recovered from the artistic stagnation that followed the Gezi Park protests in 2013. There’s renewed energy — not a lot of it, but it’s definitely noticeable.
A conversation with art dealer Pırıl Arıkonmaz, who has been in the business since 1993 (long before the Istanbul boom, which is now long over), revealed much about the current state of affairs in the city: too many overambitious artists, too much bad art, and not enough collectors. The current economic recession (the Turkish lira has plummeted over 20% in only a few months) and the region’s political uncertainty have brought about the necessity for a reality check in the art world, and those who still have purchasing power are making safer choices rather than jumping at extremely overpriced emerging artists, as was the tendency in previous years. New galleries are opening to replace those that recently closed down, such as the new Ariel Sanat space in the Nişantaşı district, a neighborhood otherwise known for art boutiques and secondary market dealers with little impact. Ariel’s first show included remarkable local artists such as Murat Akagündüz, Selim Birsel, and Silva Bingaz.
It was a pleasant surprise to find Egyptian artist Basim Magdy’s work at ArtSümer, in the solo exhibition The Ones Who Refuse to Forget, one of the best exhibitions hosted there in the decade it’s been open. At the center of the show is the film “The Everyday Ritual of Solitude Hatching Monkeys” (2014), a strange but ever-so-aesthetic tale about isolation, based on the short stories of Magdy El-Gohary, the artist’s father. Somewhere between absurdity and sweetness, the film is the story of a man who moves away from the sea to escape death. This becomes a perfect metaphor for the current moment of confusion in the Mediterranean region, which is plagued by wars, forced migrations, and — why not say it? — impossible bodies of water. Magdy’s language is nevertheless ubiquitous: historic ruins, phone conversations, televisual images. What happens when utopian visions fail? Does this disenchantment break the tight knots of the present tense? The film seems to suggest that the answer is yes.
But Magdy’s video piece is not really a narrative film; the aesthetic is expansive, overwhelming, and mesmerizing. One could start watching it from any point in its 13 minutes and arrive at the same place: alienation. This film reminds one of what good art is supposed to do in an environment as politically charged as Istanbul. When an artist attempts to describe a fraught reality, he often becomes a mouthpiece for one political ideology or another. Because Magdy addresses himself not to the specifics of our times but to questions of the human condition in general, he captures something essential about this moment, but from a vantage point outside of history. This kind of knowledge, from the personal and particular to the universal, is often lacking in Turkish art, being too closely mediated by the processes of social and political history.
Turkish artists are now actively responding to a hostile context with varying degrees of success, navigating the thin line between art, research, writing, and curating, in the same manner of early conceptual artists. Şener Özmen’s show at Pilot Galeri, There Is a Way Out, is an example of such an engagement. On October 8, 2014, Özmen was expected to be part of a discussion on the topic “Is the museum a battlefield?” organized by curator Övul Durmuşoğlu, along with filmmaker Hito Steyerl and curator Fulya Erdemci. Özmen was unable to attend because of a series of protests that started in Diyarbakır, one of the main fronts of the Kurdish conflict, which were quickly met with state violence. Özmen penned a letter that was read by Durmuşoğlu as he joined the discussion via Skype. This letter, turned into an A4-size light beam, is the first thing the viewer encounters in the Pilot Galeri exhibition.
Özmen’s heightened status as a cultural practitioner (poet, writer, critic, and artist) makes the gesture important to our understanding of a recent moment in the now almost full-blown conflict, but it has perhaps come a little too soon. Is it possible for us, living in the here and now, to really understand these circumstances? In an interview conducted in 2013 with Fulya Erdemci against the background of Gezi Park, the Biennial curator expressed that it was too soon for art to assimilate our current wave of social and political change. At the center of the exhibition there is a tripod trapped in concrete, referencing immobility — geographical, visual, political — and it is indeed very striking, but on second thought it too appears a little premature. Moving in between art and critical thought, the exhibition is a very poetic study of personal certainties under the current conditions of authoritarianism and conflict, and it definitely speaks volumes about the present mood of Turkish art, but perhaps the context is a bit narrow.
Another reference to the urgency of the present moment is found in Can Altay’s work “Which Third Bridge?” (2015), part of his solo exhibition Split Horizon (Domestic Disobedience) at Öktem&Aykut, where he commissioned different amateur painters to execute renditions of Istanbul’s costly and controversial new bridge over the Bosporus, which is being built at incredible environmental risk in one of the most congested cities in the world. Altay’s work captures the rather romanticized status of architectural projects in a city like Istanbul, which is dominated by neo-imperial ambitions and regressive politics. Yet Altay does not remain for long at the level of events, as influenced by them as he seems to be; instead he sets off to investigate the spatial politics that characterize his earlier work. In the exhibition’s central piece, “Augmented Tunnel Visions” (2015), mirrors are cleverly placed within PVC pipes, turning a rather domestic object into a distortion device.
For those familiar with Altay’s work, which is usually installed in more generous spaces and relies on larger scales to bring about a point on the true nature of living spaces, it is strange to see it confined to a gallery apartment. Yet the strategy is very successful. More than an object maker, Altay is an architectural thinker who interacts a lot with text, conceiving his own exhibitions as essayistic. Unusually for Turkey, the publication for the exhibition, “A guide by Can Altay,” gives real insights into what’s going on, with descriptions, narratives, and personal notes; Tankut Aykut’s brilliant introduction is a very precise navigation map, replete with Turkish historical and literary references. The split horizon that the exhibition title refers to is not necessarily a literal one — though some of the work would suggest so — but seems to address the precariousness in different horizons of displacement in the urban histories of Istanbul, through elements naturally found in the environment of a city, from oral narratives to the debris of construction sites. Over-reference can often get tiring very quickly, but it is difficult to bypass the grey area of overlapping contexts that Istanbul offers.
In the absence of a healthy public domain, artists in Turkey are not only working in isolation from each other, but also confined to politics and history as an arena of constraints on personal freedoms. The situation on the ground will remain fraught with great inequalities derived from the vast gap between grassroots initiatives, the dynamic of an emerging market, and the assertive soft power of the biennial and other institutions. It seems almost impossible for artists to achieve the kind of aesthetic distance necessary to produce bodies of work larger than the immediate circumstances, without falling for the delusions of globalization that drive the contemporary art world today. Altay and Magdy both speak for the bigger picture of art, as does Özmen to a degree, and it is precisely this that makes their work better informed about the present moment than most of what one can see in Istanbul today, with artists being trapped between the urgent demands of a local historiography and the comfort zone of our new global aesthetic seamlessness.
The Ones Who Refuse to Forget by Basim Magdy is on view at ArtSümer (Kemankeş Mah. 67, Istanbul), There Is a Way Out by Şener Özmen is on view at Galeri Pilot (Siraselviler Cad. 83/2, Istanbul), and Split Horizon: Domestic Disobedience by Can Altay is on view at Öktem&Aykut (Büyük Hendek Cad., Portakal Sk. 2, Istanbul). The three exhibitions run through October 17.