A group of men invaded an exhibition in Istanbul featuring businessman Ömer Koç’s contemporary art collection on Saturday, October 21, H. G. Masters of ArtAsiaPacific reports. Angered over a sculpture of a naked man crouching on the ground while holding a garment over his head, the protesters assaulted a security guard and may have damaged the artwork before they were forcibly removed from the show.
The artwork that incensed the conservatives, Man Under Cardigan, 1998, by Australian artist Ron Mueck, is part of the exhibition “Doors Open to Those Who Knock.” Curated by Melih Fereli and Karoly Aliotti, the show is currently on view at the Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district. Organizers believe that the right-wing group may have mistaken the fireplace for a mihrab, the semicircular niche in a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca, or a minibar, the pulpit where the imam stands to deliver sermons.
Led by Mahmut Alan, a former leader of the nationalist Great Union Party, the mob shouted, “Is this secularism?” and “This country has come to this because of you!” as they attempted to disrupt the show. In response, visitors at the venue defended the exhibition, saying, “If you don’t want to see this, don’t come here!” and applauded once the men were kicked out.
Alan was detained by the authorities for a brief period and then released. After the incident, he created a Facebook Live video in which he allegedly held a cell phone up to the artwork in order to capture close-up shots of the figure’s genitals while denouncing the piece as an offense. Another assault on the show was carried out the next day, but the police quickly quelled the action.
Koç Holdings, the largest industrial conglomerate in Turkey, issued the following statement about the controversy: “Trying to create a perception that sacred values are being targeted with this exhibition has no basis . . . Koç Holding has utmost respect to freedom of beliefs and the divinity of all beliefs.” Since Islamist newspapers have been claiming that the fireplace is a mihrab, the statement also stressed that the mansion is a private home and has no religious affiliation. Because Koç Holdings is one of the main sponsors of the Istanbul Biennial, critics have begun to target the exhibition as well.
The attack on the twenty-first is the most recent incident of conservatives in the country protesting art. In December 2016 Istanbul removed a public sculpture outside a popular shopping mall following an outcry over its depiction of the Ottoman-era name for the city. Large-scale protests prompted the police to cover the work before taking it down. One month earlier, members of a conservative religious group raided the eleventh edition of the Contemporary Istanbul art fair to demand the removal of a wooden sculpture of a two-headed woman with an image of Abdulhamid II painted on her torso.