The Contemporary Art Scene in Turkey
Two channels offer insight into the development of contemporary art in Turkey. The first is the impact globalization has had on the Turkish art scene; and the second, the transition between social sciences and art in the context of postmodern discussions. In other words, the emergence of transdisciplinarity as a method in the intellectual world and in art criticism as well.
The first steps of globalization in Turkey were taken with the adoption of the liberal economic model after the Anavatan Party came to power in 1983. The process of globalization resulted in cultural, social, economic, and urban transformation, particularly in Istanbul. During the 1990s in the era of metropolises, Istanbul became a global center and artists started questioning modes of artistic production in this new environment. Much as the methods used by historians or sociologists were adopted for art in the postmodern era, the heuristic approach of artists inspired sociologists and historians, and the emergence of a new paradigm.
In the Turkish art scene, the period starting from the 1980s until today was characterized by a form of transformation from interdisciplinarity to transdisciplinarity. In the period after 1980, problems like the state distancing itself from art, the liberal economy limiting spaces for artists (art galleries), and young art/young artists having difficulty finding exhibition space encouraged the adoption of mass exhibitions as an alternative to such problems. The first of such mass exhibitions were the Open Air Exhibitions organized between 1974 and 1977 by the Istanbul Archaeology Museums Enthusiasts Association in the garden of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The Open Air Exhibitions were followed by the biannual Istanbul Art Festival: New Tendencies exhibitions which started in 1977 at the Istanbul State Academy of Fine Arts. Held six times between 1977 and 1987, the exhibitions were interrupted in 1987 and although repeated in 1994, the event had by then lost its significance. Mass exhibitions including Contemporary Artists Istanbul Exhibitions, held since 1980, and the Profile of Pioneering Turkish Art exhibitions held between 1984 and 1988 were in fact the predecessors of biennials and concept-curated exhibitions. These exhibitions aimed at surpassing the normal, and demonstrating that artistic creation beyond widely accepted works of art and inclinations was possible, and they can be considered successful.
During the 1980s the longstanding borders between works of art and the political, economic, and social domains started to recede while art and artists began to follow the path of interdisciplinarity/transdisciplinarity, which essentially presented itself in the 1990s. The 1980s were a period that experienced an explosion in locality and cultural plurality which were then shaped in concurrence with global pressures.
The 1990s were a time when the art scene in Turkey opened out. René Block, who had come to Turkey in 1991 for the Joseph Beuys symposium at Mimar Sinan University, established a strong dialogue with artists from Turkey and this played a significant role in their entrance into the international art market. During his time as the manager of IFA Galleries in Germany, Block invited a significant number of artists to Germany. One of these events was the Iskele: Türkische Kunst Heute (“peer”) exhibition, jointly curated by Beral Madra and Sabine Vogel in 1994, which can be considered one of the first exhibitions that represented Turkish artists internationally.
Beral Madra, who curated the first two International Istanbul Biennials, has directed the BM Contemporary Art Center since 1989. The venue hosted exhibition events organized by a series of artists from Turkey and abroad. During the 1990s Madra also curated several exhibitions. Collectively, these initiatives played an important role in opening up the art scene in Turkey. Beral Madra assumed a leading position in getting artists from Turkey accepted into foreign exhibitions and large-scale exhibitions like the Venice Biennial. As an art critic, Madra also worked for the acceptance of contemporary art. Vasıf Kortun, creator of the Anı/Bellek (“memory”) exhibitions in the early ’90s is also a great contributor to the introduction of curated exhibitions and the curator of the 3rd International Istanbul Biennial returned to Turkey from the U.S.A. and in 1997 established the Istanbul Contemporary Art Project (ICAP) in the Pera District of Istanbul to function as an archive, library, and platform for discussion. This can be noted as one of the important formations of the ’90s.
The Young Events Exhibitions organized between 1995 and 1998 by the International Association for Plastic Arts stand out as overruling the well-established hierarchy in the art scene of the ’90s. Besides contest-type exhibitions, young artists were granted little exposure at private galleries and art institutions. So these exhibitions acted as space for such artists to demonstrate their own ideas. Besides revealing the inadequacy of the understanding of art in institutions that offer classical art training, Young Events Exhibitions invalidated the idea that the art scene was Istanbul-centered. The process of the art scene in Turkey becoming international was accelerated after René Block and Rosa Martinez invited many artists participating in these exhibitions to the International Istanbul Biennial in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Undoubtedly it is impossible to overlook the significant role of the International Istanbul Biennial in this sense.
By the 2000s international circulation had evolved. Curatorship, one of the most debated issues throughout the ’90s, had become institutionalized and concordantly, the collectivist mood of the ’90s was replaced by an individual approach. Assuming that the ’80s were the formation, and the ’90s a time to make a claim for this formation—the collective mood of the time could be explained by this—it is possible to consider the 2000s as the stage of institutionalization. This era witnessed the opening of venues supported by private capital. However, the reorientation of institutions over the 15 years to follow this trend clearly indicates that the institutionalization process is one of the most painful moves. The same argument can be made for museums. Although the 2000s were marked by the establishment of museums—like the Sakıp Sabancı Museum (2002), İstanbul Modern (2004), Pera Museum (2005), and SantralIstanbul, founded as more of a center than a museum—it is observed that with the exception of Istanbul Modern, all the other museums became venues for temporary and blockbuster exhibitions, rather than a comprehensive contemporary collection. Ambiguous institutional policies had an impact on museums giving birth to an environment in which museums assumed the role of galleries and vice versa.
The transformation pioneered by the Young Events Exhibitions in the mid-1990s led to many artists living outside of Istanbul and abroad joining the Istanbul art scene. Exhibitions such as Vasif Kortun’s Plajın Altında Kaldırım Taşları/Pavement Under The Beach exhibition at Proje4L (2002), Halil Altındere’s Seni öldüreceğim İçin Cok üzgünüm!/Sorry to Kill You! exhibition at Proje4L (2003), Levent Calıkoğlu’s Melek Yüzlü Yabancı/Strangers with Angelic Faces exhibition at Aksanat (2005), Halil Altındere’s Serbest Vuruş/Free Kick exhibition at Depot Nr. 5 in tandem with the 9th International Istanbul Biennial (2005) are exhibitions in which many artists living abroad interrelated with the art scene in Turkey.
During the 1990s an arabesque which corresponds to the yearning for ascent, the good life, and the consumption of the ’80s started to synthesize with Islamic and liberal values, and global policies that were promoted particularly in less developed countries resulted in the rise of a representative aesthetic in a Rancierian sense. The validity of this argument can be better understood by considering the content of the last five biennials and comparing them with large-scale exhibitions such as Documenta and Manifesta.
The number of privately owned galleries that supported the young generation increased during the 2000s. Although the number of galleries supporting contemporary art was limited until 2005, it is a known fact that their number has proliferated in Istanbul alone. The common objective of these galleries is not limited to profiting from the sale of artworks. They also aim at representing young artists in the international arena.
Attempts at rapid institutionalization during the 2000s resulted in the establishment of independent artist initiatives formed by artists who were excluded or preferred to remain excluded from such practices. Although these initiatives, which have roughly a 10-year history, aspired to demonstrate the possibility of sustaining contemporary art without grand financial support and aimed to provide a platform for non-institutional artists, these initiatives weakened and began to fall apart after 2010, eventually losing the power they had at the beginning of the 2000s.
One must accept that contemporary art in Turkey has created a path of self-return. While experiencing a rapid transformation of institutions and therefore the pain of institutionalization, it is obvious that anti-institutional movements lost vigor in this environment of change. (Over the past 15 years, the emergence of initiatives, the transfer of artists in these initiatives to galleries, and then a disconnection from these galleries could be considered as self-returns.) Similar to the dissolution of anti-institutional movements amidst the pains of institutionalization, the tension between the center and periphery which was broken first by the Young Events Exhibitions during the mid-’90s and then by institutions like Anadolu Kültür in the early 2000s has been replaced by a new form of tension. An explosion in galleries witnessed in the late ’80s is repeating itself today within a different conjuncture. Art being perceived solely as an investment, devoid of its own real meaning and purpose is undoubtedly directly related to neo-liberal policies. This can be considered the consequence of neo-liberal economic policies changing “tune” just like in current politics. Today, it is obvious that neo-liberal economic policies are collapsing. The re-emergence of an antagonistic form of contemporary art will be correlated to its transformation of this “tune.”
BURCU PELVANOĞLU was born in 1980 in Istanbul. She graduated from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University Department of Art History and got her master’s and Ph.D. She has been an AICA member since 2003. She was the vice president of AICA Turkey from 2005 - 2008 and president from 2009 - 2011. She was also vice president of AICA International from 2010 - 2013. She has organized various exhibitions of contemporary Turkish artists, and writes criticism. She works at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in the Department of Western Art and Contemporary Art as an associate professor.