Salt Shaker

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at the inauguration of Salt Beyoğlu

Left: Curator Vasif Kortun with archivist and librarian Sezin Romi of Salt. Right: November Paynter of Salt with writer and curator Shumon Basar. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

ON ANY GIVEN DAY, as many as three million people promenade along Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi, ping-ponging across a two-mile pedestrian stretch that has become a generically global, thoroughly gentrified, open-air shopping mall. But in between Nike and Camper and Benetton and the obnoxiously oversize Sephora and the umpteenth Starbucks, Istiklal reveals some of the weirdest dimensions of Istanbul’s contemporary art scene.

The major players are banks: Garanti, Akbank, and Yapi Kredi, among others. Behind those banks are wealthy industrial families, which inevitably makes any discussion of the Istanbuli art elite sound like a hushed conversation about the Italian Mafia’s five families in New York. Instead of maximizing the retail potential of Istiklal, those banks and their families are opening galleries, museums, foundations, and research centers in key spots along the main drag.

Last weekend, the art scene was out in full force on Istiklal for the inauguration of Salt Beyoğlu and the opening of “Tactics of Invisibility” at Arter. A new, multidisciplinary institution housed in the radically restored building that once hosted the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Salt Beyoğlu occupies six floors and more than ten thousand square feet of exhibition space, which are currently taken up by “Laboratory,” a snooze of a show highlighting the winners of this year’s Ars Viva Prize, and “I Am Not a Studio Artist,” a gorgeously installed and emotionally fine-tuned retrospective for Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, who died, age fifty, in 2007.

Left: Writer H. G. Masters with curator Emre Baykal of Arter. Right: Mari Spirito of 303 Gallery with Dan Byers, cocurator of the next Carnegie International.

“It doesn’t look like Platform,” said a young artist, eyes imploring, very Dorothy-not-in-Kansas-anymore as she stepped into the ground-floor “forum,” populated at that particular moment by more catering staff than guests. “It looks like any other Istiklal jeans shop; it looks like another Mavi boutique,” quipped a tough-minded curator (and former Platform staffer), aghast at the exposed black ceiling and postindustrial vibe. (As befits an art institution owned by a bank, there’s a Garanti cash machine tucked into a back corner. No one said anything about that. They just laughed.)

Platform wound down its activities at the end of last year, merged with Garanti Galeri and the Ottoman Bank Archives, and subjected itself to an institutional revamp as impressive as the restoration of the building, the first of two enormous spaces constituting the new initiative. The second building, Salt Galata, is an architectural jewel, the former headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank, which is scheduled to open in September to coincide—or compete with—the next Istanbul Biennial.

Vasif Kortun, Platform’s founder and the director of research and programming at Salt, is an unabashed power broker on the Istanbul scene. But perhaps as an antidote to the city’s intense artistic factionalism, Kortun has shifted away from exhibition making and conceived of Salt as a think tank in action, a collaborative space for testing out new forms of debate and exchange.

The opening was a strangely perforated schedule of previews and cocktails and afterparties—all in the same space—which made it possible to ditch Salt for Arter’s opening, featuring a performance by Nevin Aladağ, and another afterparty, all while staying close and returning often.

Left: Sylvia Kouvali of Rodeo and writer Lara Fresko. Right: Artist and filmmaker William E. Jones.

“Tactics of Invisibility,” curated by Emre Baykal and Daniela Zyman, is Arter’s third exhibition to date. The space, which is run by the Vehbi Koç Foundation, opened a year ago on Istiklal. Coproduced by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, the show also technically opened a year ago, but in Vienna, before traveling to Berlin and now Istanbul.

“We were supposed to show Turkish artists in Europe,” said Baykal, Arter’s curator and director of exhibitions. “But there’s always this question of national representation. Since the 1990s, this idea has consumed itself and reached a dead end. We decided to follow another line. When you show Turkish artists beyond the country’s borders, you make something visible. But maybe it’s unfair to limit artworks to those strategies of visibility. Each of the pieces in this show has something around strategies of invisibility as well. It’s a different reading, but it’s not art-historical. There is a representation, but we don’t focus on national representation.”

The writer H. G. Masters had seen the show in Berlin, so I dragged him around from room to room and up and down the steep marble staircase (Arter, like Salt, lives in a heritage building) to explain what had changed. We ran into an international art-world character who regaled us with tales of New York in the ’80s, opening a gallery, and showing Basquiat “when no one bought a thing.”

Glancing past a six-screen video installation by Kutluğ Ataman, he said, “This is so Francesca. You know I sold her her first piece? By the way, have you seen her, have you seen Francesca?”

I am an oblivious fool: “Francesca who?”

“Thyssen,” he purred. “Or Hapsburg. I never know which.”

“No, not yet,” Masters said politely. The guy reached for his phone, as universal a gesture as signing the air for a check.

Left: Mirko de Lisi of Rodeo. Right: Artist Cevdet Erek with his contribution to the facade of Arter.

Back at Salt with Shumon Basar—we writers cling together like rats on a life raft—everything was the same as we’d left it, so we decided to give Istiklal a rest. After all, it isn’t the only game in town. The following night was the opening of Nilbar Güreş’s show at Rampa, a gallery on another, more upscale but less auspicious consumer causeway. On Sunday, the Istanbul Biennial hosted a panel discussion in a stately palace for the artist William E. Jones and Patrick Watkins, son of the filmmaker Peter Watkins, who worked on his father’s magisterial La Commune.

Before saying goodbye to Istanbul, I ducked out of the Salt-Arter-Rampa racket (the three spaces had coordinated their press offensive) to visit Rodeo Gallery, the Depo cultural center, and Istanbul Modern. Then I wound my way back to Bas, a project space run by the artist Banu Cennetoğlu on a side street off of Istiklal.

“With Arter and Salt there’s this idea of a comfortable constellation,” she said. “But it’s become so concentrated that it’s like a black hole. All the competing intentions risk canceling each other out. Istiklal is a shopping mall. But politically, it’s also where all the demonstrations happen—capitalist, socialist, anarchist—so what does the street really communicate?” Cennetoğlu’s space is completely independent, without a bank or family backing. But with rents rising and a landlord eager to cash in, she’s leaving the neighborhood at the end of this month for a new space down the hill in Karaköy. “I’m saturated with this street,” she said. “I feel it’s done.”

Left: Özkan Cangüven of Rampa with artist Cengiz Cekil. Right: Artist Banu Cennetoğlu at Bas.