September has become the biggest time for contemporary art in the Istanbul calendar, including both Contemporary Istanbul, a major art fair, and the city’s famed biennial. This year's biennial focused on what it means to be a good neighbour.

Controversial Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s elegant bronze sculpture was one of the works on display at the Marlborough Gallery booth at Contemporary Istanbul.
Controversial Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s elegant bronze sculpture was one of the works on display at the Marlborough Gallery booth at Contemporary Istanbul. (Melis Alemdar/TRT World)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Ebru Dosekci stands in front of her work: a bright yellow visualisation of a soundwave, cast in polyurethane, sanded and coloured with auto paint. She says the piece is inspired by her 11-year-old son.

“This is a soundwave of a child’s laughter,” she says, “a slice of waveform.” 

She has taken and cast a magnified 3D model of her son’s laugh in polyurethane. The kicker is when light shines on the sculpture: Dosekci has styled it so that the shadow on the floor spells out “SHINE.”

“Shine,” she says, “because you know, a child’s laughter is so bright, so pure, so shiny.”

Ebru Dosekci beams with pride as she explains her work, a visualisation of the sound of her son’s laughter at Contemporary Istanbul, Turkey’s premier international art fair.
Ebru Dosekci beams with pride as she explains her work, a visualisation of the sound of her son’s laughter at Contemporary Istanbul, Turkey’s premier international art fair. (Melis Alemdar/TRT World)

The 12th edition of Contemporary Istanbul, a four-day art fair featuring some 73 galleries, Turkish and international, ended on September 17. Unlike previous editions, this year the fair coincided with the opening of Istanbul Culture and Arts Foundation’s (IKSV) well-respected Istanbul Biennial (which will remain on view until mid-November).

CI Executive Committee Member Hasan Bulent Kahraman is also an academic teaching politics and art history at Kadir Has University.
CI Executive Committee Member Hasan Bulent Kahraman is also an academic teaching politics and art history at Kadir Has University. (Courtesy of Contemporary Istanbul)

The overlap was no coincidence, in fact, but was planned carefully with stakeholders involved in Istanbul’s art scene, says Hasan Bulent Kahraman, a member of CI’s Executive Committee. 

“Last year’s very difficult conditions,” he says, “showed us that holding art events in Istanbul in the same week would create greater synergy.”

Co-ordinating with IKSV and the various art galleries which scheduled openings during the expo week beginning on September 11, Kahraman says, is helping Istanbul to establish “a major art and cultural activities week.”

Server Demirtas’ animatronic “The Horse”, constructed of polyester and everyday mechanical parts, was a big draw at the Bozlu Art Project booth in Contemporary Istanbul.
Server Demirtas’ animatronic “The Horse”, constructed of polyester and everyday mechanical parts, was a big draw at the Bozlu Art Project booth in Contemporary Istanbul. (Melis Alemdar/TRT World)

The third week of September was indeed an art-event packed one: in addition to CI and the 15th Istanbul Biennial opening, Ai Weiwei’s first exhibition in Turkey also kicked off at the private Sakip Sabanci Museum, with the artist in attendance. The renowned Chinese contemporary artist’s talk on September 13 was so popular that an extra room with a live video connection had to be set up to accommodate the many unlucky attendees who couldn’t find a seat in the main room.

Ai Weiwei (left) visited his fellow countryman Xiao Yu’s work at the Istanbul Modern. Some have objected to the use of a living local donkey in Xiao Yu’s work “Ground”, described by his gallery as “a ritual regarding labour and consumption.
Ai Weiwei (left) visited his fellow countryman Xiao Yu’s work at the Istanbul Modern. Some have objected to the use of a living local donkey in Xiao Yu’s work “Ground”, described by his gallery as “a ritual regarding labour and consumption. (Courtesy of Ai Weiwei's Instagram account instagram.com/aiww)

Turkey’s leading museum of modern art, the Istanbul Modern, is one of the biennial venues, as is a former Greek primary school in Karakoy. Many Istanbul galleries are hosting new exhibitions within days of each other to lure art lovers who are already visiting Istanbul for CI and the Istanbul Biennial.

Lungiswa Gqunta’s “Lawn I” at the Galata Greek Primary School, composed of broken Coca Cola bottles filled with petrol and ink, is a comment on class and race relations in South Africa, where only whites enjoyed lawns during the apartheid era.
Lungiswa Gqunta’s “Lawn I” at the Galata Greek Primary School, composed of broken Coca Cola bottles filled with petrol and ink, is a comment on class and race relations in South Africa, where only whites enjoyed lawns during the apartheid era. (Courtesy of IKSV/Ilgin Erarslan Yanmaz)

And sure enough, even relatively small events, such as the opening of the new Pi Artworks gallery in Karakoy last Thursday, have been packed, despite the busy cultural calendar. 

Other smaller exhibitions include one by the veteran Turkish-Armenian artist Sarkis’ Sari Punctum (Yellow Punctum), on display at Riverrun as part of a Bunker Exhibition series. Elgiz Museum, a private collectors’ museum, is hosting Homage to Masters of Sculpture on the terrace, open to the elements and free to the public. Canan’s Behind Mount Qaf can be viewed at Arter until December, while Franz Ackermann’s solo exhibit Come On! can be seen at Dirimart Dolapdere.

Ebru Dosekci, the artist behind Shine, says she had low expectations for the art scene after what she thought was a stagnant period in Turkey, citing economic, political and social conditions in the country, but she has been pleasantly surprised by the richness of the work on display this autumn. 

“Right now, it’s way beyond my expectations,” she says.

“There is such a positive energy flow. But I wish this period were longer! I mean, within a single week we have all these events: the Biennial opening, the Contemporary Istanbul opening, everybody’s exhibitions, parties …,” she half-complains. 

She believes it would be more beneficial to the art scene if there were more of these events spread throughout the year. 

“We get a taste of honey from each event and leave … we go to an event and stay there for half an hour at most, so that we can get to the other shows,” she explains.

Yet as Contemporary Istanbul’s Kahraman argues, the multitude of events makes it possible for foreign journalists and collectors to see CI, the Istanbul Biennial and several gallery exhibitions with just one trip. It would be unrealistic, he says, to expect the international art world to visit the country more than once a year. 

And overall, he says, “[this international visibility] is a very important gain for Turkey’s international image and position.”

Veteran gallery owner Yahsi Baraz says that for a country that only had a handful of galleries in the 1960s and 1970s, Turkey has made great strides in recent decades. “[The organisations and fairs organised since the 1990s] have brought about wider public interest and sparked the fast development [of contemporary art in Turkey],” he observes. He believes that the interest the events have generated has helped to educate many people and created a new generation of art lovers.

Alper Aydin’s “D8M” shown at Istanbul Modern as part of the 15th Istanbul Biennial comments on the idea of urban progress at the cost of nature.
Alper Aydin’s “D8M” shown at Istanbul Modern as part of the 15th Istanbul Biennial comments on the idea of urban progress at the cost of nature. (Courtesy of IKSV/Sahir Ugur Eren)

While they’re taking place around the same time, the two major art events have quite different goals in mind. CI is mainly about selling art and, sure enough, at this year’s edition $55 million worth of artworks were up for sale (and visitors were charged for entry). The Istanbul Biennial, meanwhile, is free to the public and is more of a philosophical affair, questioning what being a good neighbour means via works which explore the theme in loose and abstract ways.

In their introduction for the a good neighbour - Exhibition book, curators Elmgreen & Dragset write: “Often, we cannot take on the big fight in the grand arena of politics and mainstream media, but we can break out of our isolation by communicating our personal stories with each other.”

The duo thank Istanbul residents “for letting us occupy these spaces temporarily, like gentle intruders and friendly viruses, and for allowing us to occupy a bit of their time”.

The curators have come up with 40 questions through which they explore what being a good neighbour means. The questions are specific enough to be interpreted in the context of communal living, yet loose enough to be interpreted in a larger, global context.

“”Is a good neighbour someone who lives the same way as you?” one question poses. Another demands, “Is a good neighbour leaving you alone?” A more playful one asks “Is a good neighbour someone with no WiFi password and a strong signal?” while “Is a good neighbour reading the same newspaper as you?” makes a dig at political sensitivities. The questions provide a framework to the visitors to the biennial while they view a wide variety of work.

By allowing a platform for artists to meet with the public, be it a commercial undertaking such as Contemporary Istanbul or a philanthropic one such as the Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul has succeeded in playing host to the art world from Turkey and beyond, and extending a neighbourly hand.

Yusuf Sevincli’s striking black and white photographs drew a hushed crowd at Contemporary Istanbul.
Yusuf Sevincli’s striking black and white photographs drew a hushed crowd at Contemporary Istanbul. (Courtesy of Galerist)
Source: TRT World