Istanbul has had its share of highs and lows over the centuries, and it’s currently in the midst of a major conservative crackdown, but when the going gets tough, the artists get going. Marianna Cerini discovers a vibrant art scene feeding into next month
“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 attacks and 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 venues—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
the old and new Artists and art institutions are moving into some of Istanbul’s heritage buildings. Above, left to right: An installation created for the first edition of the indie initiative Das Art Project, which was held in an abandoned building; the exterior of the nonprofit art centre Arter; another Das Art installation. Opposite page: Doris Salcedo’s installation for the 8th Istanbul Biennale, 1550 Chairs Stacked Between Two City Buildings