Starter Pack

Cathryn Drake at the opening of Arter in Istanbul


Left: Arter building night before the opening. Right: Artist Cengiz Cekil and curator René Block. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

I THOUGHT ROME was the most beautiful city in the world, but then I saw Istanbul. The occasion was the highly anticipated inauguration on May 7 of the new Arter space, a showcase for the Vehbi Koç Foundation’s contemporary art collection and a platform for artistic production launched by scion Ömer Koç.

Located on the bustling pedestrian Istiklal Street, which runs from Galata Tower to Taksim Square, the foundation’s elegant historic building reflects the influence of the Koç family, owners of the largest conglomerate in the country as well as the first private cultural institution, the Sadberk Hanim Museum. The private sector here has been the key to promoting contemporary artists: Siemens Sanat is sponsored by the eponymous conglomerate, Platform Garanti was initiated by the Garanti Bank, the Istanbul Modern was founded by pharmaceutical company Eczacibaşi, and the Istanbul Biennial is currently being funded by Koç Holding.

On Wednesday I visited the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, founded by developer Can Elgiz and his wife, Sevda, with a permanent collection that ranges from paintings by Fahrelnissa Zeid and her son, Nejad Devrim, to images stitched by Ramazan Bayrakoglu and Tracey Emin as well as Jan Fabre’s beetle-studded 1993 sculpture Wall of the Rise of Angels. Over lunch at a new designer mall nearby, surrounded by the company’s towers, Sevda informed me of Sotheby’s vice president Ali Can Ertug’s tragic death the day before. “The Turkish art world is in shock,” he said. “I don’t think Ömer will feel up to attending the Arter opening—they were very close friends.”

Left: Curator November Paynter, artist Cevdet Erek, and curator Mari Spirito. Right: Artist Ahmet Ogut and Rampa's Özkan Cangüven.

The next night was the inauguration of “Never Neutral,” curated by Mari Spirito and November Paynter at the Misir Apartments building, home of the Galerist and Nev galleries. Chris Marker’s timeless film montage Sans Soleil was projected in the darkened quasi-empty room, formerly the URA project space, across from a TV monitor playing Dara Birnbaum’s Cannon: Taking to the Streets, documenting political activism in the States. On the way to the exhibition I was detained on Istiklal by a mob with red flags protesting against the Greek bailout, which made the exhibition resonate all the more. The impetus behind the timely show, according to Spirito, was a desire to exhibit artists who are repeatedly cited as influences by other artists. “I would like to contribute something here,” she added, “but it doesn’t make sense for me to do Turkish artists.”

At a cozy wood-paneled restaurant in the maze of little alleys nearby, there was a dinner in honor of René Block, curator of Arter’s inaugural exhibition, “Starter,” and director of the organization’s Tanas project space in Berlin. In attendance was a gang of exuberant Kurdish artists along with Iraqi artist Mandana Moghaddam, artist Navid Nuur, curator Emre Baykal, and Outlet gallery’s Azra Tüzünoglu. Artist Vahap Avsar recounted why he decided to work in Istanbul again after fifteen years in New York, even though it meant serving a month in the military. “In the ’90s people were laughing at us Conceptual artists—art was more decorative. Now it is so happening—it is like Istanbul is pregnant with something bigger to come.”

The next morning I toured “Starter” with Baykal and with Melih Fereli, former director of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, whose enthusiasm for and influence on the Turkish cultural scene seems boundless. The seamlessly curated survey of 160 works from the 1960s to the present, installed on five narrow floors connected by a dizzying spiral staircase, reflects the collection’s emphasis on Turkish and regional artists complemented by references to seminal international influences and antecedents. Highlights include Ahmet Ögüt’s video Things We Count, which slowly scans a parking lot filled with obsolete fighter jets while a hypnotic voice lists a seemingly endless series of numbers. On a floor featuring installations depicting the ephemeral from Fluxus to now, Fereli spontaneously started stroking Cevdet Erek’s Shore Scene Soundtrack carpet to evoke the sea.

Left: Istanbul Biennial director Bige Orer and curator Raffaella Guidobono. Right: Çiğdem Koç.

The place was mobbed for the opening that evening, so I was happy to have seen the pristinely poetic show in solitude. At the entrance I bumped into Rodeo’s Lara Fresko, who gushed that it was “the first show I have seen in a long time about which I have absolutely no criticism.” Koç did make an appearance and was graciously fielding visitors. “I am not just saying this because of the situation,” Spirito said, “but for me the show is about disappearance and loss—and Stuart Sherman’s Suitcase holds it all together.”

Across the street, local British expat November Paynter was holding court over drinks on the roof terrace of the Borusan Foundation, which was feting its exhibition “Cosmic Latte,” curated by Suzanne Egeran. As we looked down on the Arter palace, and across the Bosphorus to the opposite shore, Vogue Turkey art director Iain Foxall commented, “Istanbul has never had anything as internationally important as this before.” Critic H. G. Masters added to the praise for Block: “Tanas consistently has the best shows in Berlin aside from the museums.” After the quiet official dinner party on the terrace of the Anatolian Cultural Centre, we all decamped to Urban, a trellised bar in an alley near the Galatasaray Hamami, after which the brave repaired to the Kiki club for all-night dancing.

Saturday was the premiere of the new Rampa gallery, inaugurated with a survey of work by Cengiz Çekil, curated by Vasif Kortun. The immense open space was bursting with people and a mix of sculptural installations and collages, along with new and old video interviews with the artist at either end. A battalion of twelve ’70s Coke bottles outfitted with explosives in the installation Towards Childhood, Since Childhood had yet another meaning: Rampa assistant director Özkan Cangüven said he had delivered them to the gallery while on a short vacation from New York—and got offered the job.

Left: Artist Uygur Yilmaz. Right: Curator Vasif Kortun.

Later, Spirito and I dashed to the ferry for Koç’s summer house (a compound, really, reportedly run by a staff of fifty-five), where a dinner party was in progress. We were greeted by Jenny Holzer’s red neon PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT above the elevator, which opened to reveal seemingly everything Koç has: The place was packed with a mix of elegant Orientalist paintings and intimate portraits, grotesque sculptures by Patricia Piccinini, a profusion of Iznik ceramics—and, curiously, countless rhinoceroses. As we surveyed a wall covered with Egon Schiele paintings, dealer Nieck de Bruijn exclaimed, “This is hard-core!” But apparently that wasn’t all: There was also a model of the collector’s impressive winter residence.

At dinner I asked Koç whether he knows how many rhinos he owns: “I have no idea—I love them. The artist who created Michael Caine for Madame Tussauds made the two hunting trophies on the wall.” When we then confessed that we had mistaken his uncanny Evan Penny busts for Ron Muecks, he explained, “I would love to own a Mueck, but I can’t afford him.” Above the couch hangs Taner Ceylan’s bloodied self-portrait Spiritual, which took $107,415 at Sotheby’s in 2009. Koç inherited the house and his passion for Islamic antiques from his aunt Sevgi Gönül, but on this occasion it was Ertug, whose friendship had inspired Koç’s contemporary art collection, who was present both in spirit and in thought.

Left: Emre Baykal and Melih Fereli of Arter. Right: Omer Koç’s living room.

Left: Marquise Dance Hall's Mark Yetter and Ayca Odabasi with collector Ari Mesulam. Right: NON gallery's Derya Demir, Nieck de Bruijn, and Martijn Dijkstra of Upstream.

Left: Dealer Daryo Beskinazi. Right: Artists Ahmet Ögüt and Nevin Aladag, critic H.G. Masters, and artist Olaf Metzel.

Left: Artists Inci Furni and Erdem Ergaz. Right: Dealer Azra Tuzunoglu with artists Halil Altindere and Vahap Avsar.