On the Ground: Istanbul

Oliver Ressler, There Are No Syrian Refugees in Turkey, 2016, film, color, sound, 30 minutes.

NOT LONG AFTER FIGHTER JETS BEGAN DROPPING SONIC BOMBS, I decided to go to bed. It wasn’t my apartment.

On July 15, 2016 the night of Turkey’s attempted coup d’état, I was at a friend’s house party in Galata. From the building’s terrace, which commands otherwise delightful views of the historic peninsula, everyone was trying to glean a hint of what was happening. When that did not work out, Twitter feeds and live TV had face-offs on multiple cell phones, only to be interrupted by worried relatives’ calls and streams of tears. On one screen, I saw President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on FaceTime with a TV news anchor, calling people out onto the streets that shook with explosions and gunshots. The level of absurdity, of unexplained violence and aggression, was beyond my tolerance threshold; my system shut down.

“The coup did not succeed, and we are going out for breakfast,” whispered my graceful host in the morning. Relieved to hear of the triumph of democracy, I ventured out to the much-beckoned “New Turkey.” In the next few days, I saw Turkish LED traffic signs catching up with the legacy of Jenny Holzer by flashing phrases such as “NO ONE CAN OVERTHROW PEOPLE’S WILL” and “DEMOCRACY WON.” The cherry on top was the gigantic red banner that covered the entire rectangular frontal façade of the late-International style Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) with the words: “Sovereignty belongs to the People.” It was an apt metaphor for the involvement of Turkish government in the arts: the mid-century icon of Turkey’s architectural modernity laid in disrepair, unused and slowly disintegrating behind the red flag.

That October, the arts entered a state of emergency as well—a forbidding OHAL (Olağanüstü Hâl or state of exception)—when we found out that Turkey had unilaterally withdrawn from the Creative Europe scheme: 1.46 billion Euros reserved for culture and arts in Turkey disappeared overnight. The alarming scarcity of governmental support for the arts aside, Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, suggested “[the withdrawal] was yet another sign of continental drift away from Europe,” in an article published in the November issue of Istanbul Art News.

Işıl Eğrikavuk, Time to Sing a New Song, 2016.

Omens of a cultural OHAL had cropped up as early as late April, when Işıl Eğrikavuk’s work Time to Sing a New Song, 2016, on the YAMA screen—a public art project atop the strategically located seventeen-story-high Marmara Pera Hotel—was shut down by the municipality for constituting “visual pollution.” (A curious position, given the ubiquitous yet hardly charming carnival flair of the city!) In September, MPs from the president’s party, AKP, publicly accused Beral Madra, the artistic director of the Çanakkale Biennial, of being pro-coup (among other things) for drawing a comparison between the post-coup “democracy rallies” and Adolf Hitler’s 1937 Nüremberg Rally. Following Madra’s resignation, the fifth edition of the Çanakkale Biennial, “Homeland,” was canceled by its organizers.

In her report titled “Artist, Curator, and Institution Relations in the Context of Artistic Freedom of Expression in Turkey” for Siyah Bant, an organization that surveys censorship in the arts, curator Özge Ersoy argues that “sensitivity” (hassasiyet in Turkish) is one of the two words that shift meaning with surprising ease, confounding discussions on institutional censorship. While her point of departure for the report is an instance of internal censoring—Akbank Sanat’s cancellation of Katia Krupennikova’s “Post-Peace” exhibition, the winning proposal of its Annual International Curator Competition, five days before the opening—this nebulous term can be extended to state-enforced or audience-enforced censorship.

Meanwhile, some artists have absorbed the precariousness behind the word sensitivity in order to articulate an aesthetic of suspension between sensitivity and sensibility. Among the artists producing work with built-in sensibility, for not only censorship but also for tenuousness of Turkish democracy, is İnci Furni with her Lath, 2016, which was first shown in September at Öktem & Aykut as part of her solo exhibition “Where is Eros? Vol. 3.” From afar, Lath looks like the brittle skeleton of a folding screen—something extracted from a Russian Constructivist’s daydreaming. However, as in the watercolor Taksim Scroll, 2016, shown alongside Lath, Furni seeks a delicate balance between the dispersion of linear directions and composition of an intelligible unity here. (In addition to being the name of the city’s main square, “taksim,” meaning “division” also refers to a method of Islamic patternmaking.) During my visit to the show, Furni explained how she explicitly shied away from making Lath into a “space-divider,” and, with a wide grin, added that the frail sculpture survived all of the accidental bumps during the crowded opening: “This little piece holds everything together . . . it’s a simple law of physics!”

View of “İnci Furni: Where is Eros? Vol. 3,” 2016. Center: Lath, 2016

Furni’s noninvasive geometric abstractions, sensitively treading a thin line between reclaiming territory and accepting its prospective loss, are emblematic of a post-“hüzün” Istanbul—the much belabored-over word that Turkey’s first Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk used to describe the dark, melancholy mood of this magnificent city long fallen from grace as he was growing up. With resolution and matter-of-factness, another artist, Yasemin Özcan, seems to invite everyone to simply walk over—not ignore or unlearn—recent personal or collective histories in a similarly “sensible” work, To Remember Everything Is a Form of Madness (2/40), 2016, which was shown at artSümer this fall. Around thirty different bathroom or kitchen tiles lay on the floor without any adhesives; three of them spell the title of the work. For denizens of the Istanbul art scene, the work’s message may translate to dwelling less on the meteoric rise and fall of our habitat as a hip art capital, as well as insisting on calling it our home in the future.

This resolve seems to have taken unexpected forms to bring a divided art community together: from the more informal (yet prevalent) measure of religiously attending openings to the establishment of Istanbul Gallery Weekend in the absence of Art International this year, provisions abound. Even the Turkish market-oriented other fair of the city, Contemporary Istanbul, enjoyed a newfound popularity with over 90,000 visitors, despite being largely downsized and missing a few important local players in its 2016 edition. A promising newcomer to the city’s gallery scene, The Pill’s Suela J. Cennet confided over email that, even though her gallery “didn’t quite fit (Contemporary Istanbul’s) ‘artistic direction’ . . . this was an opportunity to assess . . . the impact of the coup attempt and authoritarian shift in Turkey.” About her gallery’s participation in the fair, she added that she “needed to take the pulse of the situation to be able to adjust [her] strategy for the upcoming months.”

While Cennet calls “acting in an unpredictable future . . . the tragedy of our generation,” Mark Wigley, one of the two curators of the Third Istanbul Design Biennial, reminds us in an Exhibist magazine interview “Turkey doesn’t have a monopoly on disaster.” If not in the streets, this useful reminder also materializes in SALT’s new commission by Oliver Ressler, a film titled There Are No Syrian Refugees in Turkey, 2016, which is currently on view at Ressler’s solo show at SALT Galata. A number of recorded conversations with Syrians living in Istanbul not only reveal the atrocities they fled from in their homeland, but also (and more so) the hardships of surviving here. Having explicitly decided not to leave for Europe, the voices mention their increased frailty as the “weakest links of the society” in the aftermath of July 15. In the wake of ultra-nationalist and religious authoritarian regimes, the urgency of keeping our hearts and ears open—of responding sensitively yet sensibly to changing conditions on the ground with what we do best—looms larger than ever. As one artist friend, Ali Emir Tapan, half-jokingly asked me to name this piece: “We just work harder.”

Gökcan Demirkazık is an Istanbul-based curator and writer.

Read the December issue of Artforum: David Adjaye, John Waters, Christine Macel, Hal Foster, Grace Wales Bonner, Cindy Sherman, Helen Molesworth, Christine Tohme, Tariq Ali, Johanna Fateman, Claire Bishop, Katharina Fritsch, Wendy Brown, Carol Bove, Thomas Schütte, Slavs and Tatars, and many more on the year that was.