National Libation Front

Elizabeth Schambelan on Kutlug Ataman at Istanbul Modern

Left: Birin Topçudere, Istanbul Modern chief curator Levent Çalıkoğlu, and Istanbul Modern general manager Güniz Atıs Azrak. Right: Istanbul Modern director Oya Eczacıbaşı with artist Kutlug Ataman

AT A TUESDAY LUNCHEON following the preview of Kutlug Ataman’s midcareer retrospective at Istanbul Modern, a British newspaper critic asked the artist: “Are people constantly telling you that you look like Robert Downey Jr.?” Perhaps relieved to discuss something other than the exhibition—his first in his native Turkey, and the subject of a lengthy press conference earlier that day—Ataman answered, “Constantly,” and said that during a visit to Los Angeles a pair of teenage girls had approached him for an autograph, which he’d obligingly provided. Indeed, not only Ataman’s physiognomy but also his puckish demeanor suggest that he might be the actor’s long-lost twin. It’s likely, however, that if Downey ever visits Istanbul, he will find himself fielding the question, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Kutlug Ataman?” Certainly, the opening of the show on Tuesday night threatened to overshadow even exiled NBA star Allen Iverson, who had just arrived in the city with all the pomp of Cleopatra alighting from a barge. The reporters who clustered in the lobby of Istanbul Modern were as frantically importunate as the scrum at the Oscars, detaining arriving luminaries for a few minutes of more or less gracious posing.

It had been less than two weeks since a suicide bomber injured twenty-two people in Taksim Square, but if there was nervousness in the air at Istanbul Modern, this was probably not due to fears of Kurdish separatist martyrs. These days, the city’s art community is more worried about teetotalers than terrorists. To explain: In late September, a riot broke out in Istanbul’s down-at-the-heels Tophane neighborhood when a crowd of knife-and-broken-bottle-wielding men descended on art lovers who were ambling among several openings at new galleries in the area. Though no serious injuries were reported, people were frightened, and the events certainly cast a pall on fledgling efforts to establish Chelsea-style mass vernissages in Tophane. Many of Tophane’s residents are conservative Muslims, and apparently the melee broke out because the attackers had taken umbrage at the cups of wine people were holding as they went from one opening to the next. Most ominously, consensus is emerging that the attack was premeditated. “They all suddenly showed up with tear gas,” one witness said.

So there you have it: a classic gentrification story with an unusual temperance-vigilante twist. But even supporters of the premeditation theory admit that the mob may have been further inflamed by the exhibition that was debuting that night at Galeri NON, where an artist named Extrastruggle showed a table in the shape of an upside-down mosque. And a sculpture that depicted Abdullah Öcalan—jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—as a merman sprawled on a pile of cheap rhinestone jewelry. And another sculpture portraying Atatürk as a kind of bobble-headed, stubby-legged cherub lying ignominously on the gallery floor.

Unlike Extrastruggle, Ataman does not go out of his way to bring broken beer bottles raining down upon his own head—which is to say, he is not of a polemical bent. When he wants to comment, for example, on the market’s relation to artists from the Islamic world, he films himself belly-dancing in full Orientalist regalia, beguiling collectors with a come-hither stare and hips-don’t-lie gyrations. Still, many of his works, which mostly take the form of multichannel videos, have subjects that simply don’t play in Turkey. One, Testimony, 2006, features the artist’s Armenian nanny from when he was a child and alludes to the atrocities that the Turkish government still refuses to call genocide; another, Never My Soul, 2001, includes footage of its protagonist—an indomitable transsexual who models herself on movie star Türkan Soray—giving a desultory hand job to a man in a silver Lurex shirt. The artist’s grand themes—the heroic nature of self-creation and self-transformation, the fluidity and inherent performativity of gender, sexuality, and personality—are themselves politically sensitive, insofar as they are unabashedly queer.

Left: Artists Cevdet Erek and Ömer Ali Kazma. Right: Art advisor Suzanne Egeran, Sylvia Pardellas Bourne, and artist Ergin Çavuşoğlu.

So is Turkey ready for Kutlug Ataman? The gallery attacks suggested one answer, but much evidence pointed to another. As Ataman had noted on Monday night—at a party at the home of collectors and patrons Fusun and Faruk Eczacibasi, whose six-story digs overlooking the Bosphorus underscored the artist’s point—Turkey is doing well financially, having emerged nearly unscathed from the economic collapse. (True, in the most-uneven-distribution-of-wealth sweepstakes, Turkey ranks third in the world—but then, Ataman drily noted, the US is first.) The relative prosperity is, perhaps, one of the factors in what would seem to be a trend toward cultural liberalization. In September, Turks voted 58 to 42 percent in favor of constitutional reforms that affirmed the equality of women, removed restrictions on the right to strike and on foreign travel, and abolished protections for leaders of the 1980 military coup.

Art-worlders in Istanbul seem to feel liberated as well. As a postpreview gallery tour had demonstrated, the city’s contemporary-art spaces have grown more robust than ever, with established venues that opened in the early years of this decade, such as Galerist and Dirimart (hosting exhibitions by painters Mustafa Hulusi and Suzan Batu, respectively) anchoring newer venues like Rodeo (which was showing work by fashion photographer–turned–institutional critic Banu Cennetoglu). Özkan Cangüven a director of the newly opened space Rampa, said that the gallery is planning to show the work of a multigenerational group of Turkish artists, some of whom—e.g., Cengiz Çekil, a longtime practitioner of politically charged Conceptualism—would have been extremely difficult to exhibit in Istanbul until recently. As to why he has returned to Istanbul after some years in the States, Canguven cited a raft of new or soon-to-open initiatives and venues (among them the nonprofit Arter and a vast new space, SALT, that will incorporate the former activities of Platform Garanti) and said, “I feel like it’s just the beginning.” London-based art advisor Suzanne Egeran, who will open her own gallery in Istanbul in May with a roster of Turkish and international artists, echoed Canguven. Istanbul’s art world “only started to become interesting” in 2003, she observed, when Dan Cameron’s biennial “ushered in a more substantive conversation.” “It is so recent,” she said of Istanbul’s status as a viable emerging market for contemporary art, and asserted that collectors are ready to embark on a “serious investigation” of art from abroad as well as from Turkey.

Thus the general consensus on Tuesday was that Ataman’s exhibition marked a kind of ceremonial inauguration of a new epoch. Chief curator Levent Çalıkoğlu simply called it “a celebration of Kutlug’s homecoming and a very important moment,” while Ataman, who seemed euphoric as he beamed beside museum director Oya Eczacıbaşı (sister-in-law of Faruk), was even more succinct. His country is “running toward freedom,” he said.