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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

“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

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