Serkan Taycan, Shell #05, 2012, pigment print, 43 1⁄4 × 54 3⁄8". From the series “Shell,” 2010–13.

Serkan Taycan, Shell #05, 2012, pigment print, 43 1⁄4 × 54 3⁄8". From the series “Shell,” 2010–13.

Serkan Taycan

Lately I’ve been seeing online ads promoting luxury tourism in Istanbul, touting the city as embodying the “new cool.” The ads gloss over the fact that the capital is undergoing unsustainable rates of urban sprawl to prop up Turkey’s flailing national economy. Overdevelopment is a problem everywhere, but it proves particularly damaging for a city with such a multilayered and diverse cultural and natural heritage. Photographer Serkan Taycan’s exhibition “Towards the City” addressed these ecological concerns with four interrelated series of works dating from the past fifteen years. While three of the series—“Habitat,” 2007–2009; “Shell,” 2010–13; and “Agora,” 2013–14—consisted of Taycan’s own documentary-style photographs, the fourth, “Between Two Seas,” 2013–, was a work of social practice centering on a map produced and freely distributed by the artist, along with a growing archive of photographs taken by the many participants who have used this map to walk the outskirts of the city.

“Towards the City” was situated in a large exhibition hall in the city’s newly restored nineteenth-century gasworks. Taycan had collaborated with architectural firm Superpool to transform this space into four distinct compartments. The first of these contained a long, winding table presenting a succession of mounted photos from the series “Habitat,” which document the topography of Turkey’s countryside. Some of the photos were propped up on the table at an angle to resemble a pedagogical display. The visitor then moved into a walled space featuring photographs from the “Shell” series, which capture the expansion of Istanbul’s urban periphery. Shell #05, 2012, portrays man-made water channels and the luxury villas that have sprung up on their shores, while Shell #06, 2012, depicts trucks full of raw material navigating their way in and out of an excavation pit, revealing how this flurry of construction is transforming the very surface of the earth. Visitors then passed through a space encircled by digitally enhanced photographs shot from high vantage points depicting public squares. These images, from the “Agora” series, bring to mind architectural renderings on cad software while also borrowing from the visual language of advertising.

Taycan furnished the final room like a study space, encouraging visitors to spend time with “Between Two Seas,” its information-heavy display, and an accompanying library holding materials about Istanbul’s urban ecologies. In 2013, Taycan mapped out four walking routes that touch on the proposed path of the controversial Kanal Istanbul, a twenty-eight-mile-long artificial channel through the city’s European peninsula that would connect the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, allowing for increased freighter traffic. Scientists have voiced alarm about the ecocidal fallout of this undertaking, warning that it could unleash new disasters for an already overpopulated city that is situated on a landmass with regular seismic activity.

When Taycan launched his walking project with an installation in the 2013 Istanbul Biennial, I had the chance to walk between the two seas. Over two separate days that fall, I followed the foldout map of the routes that he distributed to the public, traversing the pastoral outskirts of the city, its farmlands and forests, knowing that this topography would soon change forever. Since then, a massive new international airport, Istanbul’s third, has been built on one of the routes and has rendered a portion of it inaccessible.

“Towards the City” gently guided gallery visitors from the position of spectators to that of active researchers by encouraging the public to explore the city firsthand. In addition to his own photographs of the land in “Between Two Seas,” Taycan curated a selection of the participants’ photographs into a looping video. The growing trove of snapshots taken by these citizen explorers bears witness to the city’s dizzying transformation.