Istanbul's Art Scene Makes A Long-Awaited Comeback

BY Osman Can Yerebakan / Oct 16 2019 / 16:22 PM

New iterations of Contemporary Istanbul and Istanbul Biennial coincide with the opening of new Arter building, bringing attention to the city’s art scene after a long hiatus

Istanbul's Art Scene Makes A Long-Awaited Comeback
Photo by M Sercan Karatas, Ibrahim Esmer 31
An installation view of contemporary Istanbul 2019

During the first half of September, Istanbul art scene was revived by coinciding openings of the 14th Contemporary Istanbul, 16th edition of Istanbul Biennial, entitled The Seventh Continent, and unveiling of Arter, a foremost contemporary art museum that reappeared in its Grimshaw Architects-designed six-story building in historic Romani district, Dolapdere .

Each tapping into a mainstay for today’s art world, openings of a fair, biennial and museum gave the city an unparalleled opportunity to prove its geographic and historic importance in the cultural arena.     

A leading contemporary art fair both for European and Asian markets, Contemporary Istanbul promised hope this year with 70 galleries from 21 countries at its longterm venue, Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Center. The fair’s chairman Ali Güreli underlined the importance of the fair for Istanbul: “CI brand belongs to this city located at a geographically strategical area.

An exhibition view of Sarp Kerem Yavuz's I think the Sultan knows about us

Whenever we make a decision, we have to think twice for the sake of Istanbul.” The fair’s highlights included notable booths from local fixtures, such as Sanatorium, where legendary Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa’s intricate paper cut-out collages and elegant ceramic figures built an unexpected comparison to digitally-rendered lustful images of new generation artist Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, whose solo exhibition occupies the gallery’s Karaköy space. Another longstanding Istanbul gallery Galerist also juxtaposed luscious works by various media and styles from its roster, treating fairgoers with Semiha Berksoy’s 1959 oil on harboard self portrait, entitled Daima Koray, adjacent to Rasim Aksan’s hyperrealistic painting of a woman’s unclipped bra, Untitled (2019).

In Ortaköy neighborhood, New York-based Turkish artist Sarp Kerem Yavuz presented his solo exhibition, I think the Sultan knows about us, organized by Valentino’s former creative director Angelo Bucarelli, at the historic hamam Hüsrev Kethüda, designed by foremost Ottoman era architect Mimar Sinan, as part of the fair’s opening party.

An installation view of contemporary Istanbul 2019

Organized by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, The Seventh Continent aims to serve a wakeup call for natural decline through artworks that assume environmental consciousness through direct or allegorical styles. With direct reference to a continent-like 3.4 million square kilometer waste floating across the Pacific Ocean, the exhibition occupies all four floors of the Painting and Sculpture Museum of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University as its core venue as well as Pera Museum, located on the border of the famed Istiklal Street, and Büyükada, the largest of the nine Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea.

The intergenerational artist list includes Korakrit Arunanondchai, Agnieszka Kurant, Tala Madani, Paul Sietsema and Glenn Ligon, as well as Turkish artists Deniz Aktaş, Özlem Altın and Elmas Deniz calling out the pressing numbness towards climate change and compiling waste using troubled social and economic landscapes around the globe as backdrops.

An installation view of contemporary Istanbul 2019

American artist Radcliffe Bailey’s mournful mixed media sound installation, Mommo (2019), focuses on the water’s role in writing histories and occupies the main site’s third floor in the form of a semi-abstract wooden slave ship with seven white-hued plaster busts; British artist Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece (Mask for Istanbul) pays a subtle tribute to 2013’s brutal Gezi Park protests with a sculpture of a gas mask shrouded by zebra mussels.

Arter claims its spot as the country’s leading contemporary art museum, erecting with its cage-like glass fiber façade amidst the rapidly-mushrooming high rises and colorful houses resided by the quarter’s historic community.

Home to the robust modern and contemporary collection of the fifty-year-old Vehbi Koç Foundation, the museum boasts an international “who’s who” of recent art history, manifested in the museum’s total of seven-exhibitions, which include solos dedicated to Turkish doyens Ayse Erkmen and Altan Gürman in addition to group exhibitions that approach the 1300-artwork collection through various critical angles to observe Turkey’s cultural and political transformation since the early 20th century.

The exterior of Contemporary Istanbul 2019

Photo by M Sercan Karatas, Ibrahim Esme

Founding director Melih Fereli aims to utilize the building’s multifaceted architecture for an equally multidisciplinary educational platform, and says, “There will be more and better opportunities for new artistic production across a variety of disciplines in the form of co-productions with local and international institutions. A dynamic and extensive learning programme that seeks to provoke curiosity will facilitate debate around art on all levels, professional or otherwise.”

The general consensus among art-goers for the most part remained on a positive side for the city’s future, proven by the crowds populating the fair’s booths and the biennial’s galleries, with concerns on the sustainability of such a revival during uncertainty of the national economy.