Art Notes: Istanbul

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This week’s blog heralds from the very gorgeous city of Istanbul. Think Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and, ground zero for retail, The Grand Bazaar, all of which are a must for any visitor to behold. The vision of earlier Sultans and the mastery of their architects and artisans have left an indelible legacy of secular and religious grandeur that remains unequalled.

It is against this omnipresent backdrop of long past glory days, that contemporary artists (and carpet sellers) must find their place and ply their trade – meaningfully. There is a strong contemporary feel to this city. The vibrancy and vigour of the contemporary political, social, religious and cultural interwoven scenes retain Istanbul’s forthright position in this part of the world.

Whilst we – myself and Dear Fellow Traveller (DFT) – have not been here for the Istanbul Biennale (opens in late September this year), we have been here during the major demonstrations. We’ve seen masses of people come together to clap, chant, bang pots and pans and parade, to uphold what is their collective vision for Turkey – which I understand to be, very simply, that it should respect its past, enjoy what has been its present, to ensure its safe, moderate and secular future. The people seem to be saying this en masse, the leadership is not listening. The contemporary arts are reflecting this.

local graffiti, Istanbul

local graffiti, Istanbul

Leading Turkish novelist (& Nobel prize winner) Orhan Pamuk has been peddling this theme for a while. His writings should be the homework before any visit to Istanbul. His novel Museum of Innocence is the premise for a relatively recent museum, as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster, with Pamuk in the director’s chair. Woven around a love story, it is the story of the modernisation and westernisation of Turkey, particularly Istanbul, through the    20th C. It speaks of the sense of nostalgia and loss Pamuk believes Istanbullus collectively feel as they move from a period of grandeur into a mechanised, frenetic, modern way of life. The museum, as the incarnation of the book, is a very interesting concept which gives a great insight into cultural life in Istanbul (in particular) in the 20th century. This is a beautiful house museum tucked away in the backstreets of Çukuçurma with each vignette of Pamuk’s major book played out in individual cabinets via memorabilia, sound, photographs and cigarette butts.

 

Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence. Detail of cabinets

Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. Detail of cabinets

 

The Museum of Innocence is just up the hill from Istanbul Modern, the state contemporary art museum. This institution picks up the story where modernisation, aka westernisation, of Turkey begins, in the early 20th century, under Ataturk.

There is the usual summation of the same old singular lineal perspective of 20th art history, with what seemed like an example of one from each of the usual international art schools based in either Paris or New York. There were some lovely pieces but really, I am sorry to say, I felt like I’d seen it all before. I was in Istanbul and I wanted more about what it is to be a Turkish artist. I happily found this with more recent works, particularly video works. The 6 screen animated video piece PFM-1 and others, 1997 by Ayşe Erkman: digitised green ‘blobs’ which bounce towards you Mario-style. They are endearing cartoon creatures with a friendly, happy bouncy disposition which are actually different types of land mines, hence they quickly morph into sinister green monsters.

Ayse Erkmen PFM-1 & others 1997 video still compilation, detail

Ayse Erkmen PFM-1 & others 1997 video still compilation, detail

Or Nil Yalter’s video work from 1974 The belly dance, the first video artwork to be exhibited in Turkey. (I wonder what the others were and where they are now.) This piece is still considered a landmark work for its feminist sentiments: Nil is filmed writing on her belly text from Rene Nelli’s Erotic and Civilisation, with what I imagine to be a belly dancing soundtrack. Intimate, sensual and provocative, this piece seems to speak to another time and place when feminist discourse was at its leading edge.

Nil Yalter The belly dance, 1974 video still, detail

Nil Yalter The belly dance, 1974 video still, detail

Then move onto more recent video works by Turkish women artists, also talking about the confronting and conflicting roles, positions and perceptions of women in contemporary Turkish Muslim society. Particularly, watch out for Nilbar Güreş’ Undressing (featured in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial) which deals with the racism felt by Muslim women living throughout Europe. Provocative and commanding.

Nilbar Gures Undressing video still, compilation

Nilbar Gures Undressing video still, compilation

Another female Turkish artist we came across, this time at the commercial gallery CDA Projects, was ÖzlemŞimşek, who, again, turns to the female body (her own) to describe shifting attitudes towards women. She overlays images of her naked self onto earlier well-known portraits of Turkish women from the modernisation/ westernisation period of recent Turkish history, as if absorbing characters across time and space. One work she plays with is by Halil Pasha Reclining Woman which you’ll find reproduced in Pamuk’s book Istanbul, in the chapter “First Love”. As a young man Pamuk aspired to painting and it was this work which he visited many times over in the Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture. Again the past is the springboard and, yes, it feels like everything is continuous and connected.

Ozlem Simsek Reclining woman, video still

Ozlem Simsek Reclining woman, video still

CDA Projects is in a wonderful old building, somewhat tired but nonetheless grand, and in a great part of town. Close by is the great venue SALT Beyoğlu (not to be confused with the beautiful SALT Galata) which was hosting part of a survey show of the Romanian artist group subREAL.

 

subREAL Eurasia Installation view from 1992

subREAL Eurasia Installation view from 1992

 

subREALwas founded in April 1990 by Călin Dan and Dan MihălțianuIosif Király joined the group soon after while Dan Mihălțianu left in 1993. It now operates since as an artist-duo. Their work is biting criticism of the corrupt Romanian Ceauşescu regime and its inevitable downfall. They play with photographs, videos and create installations which reveal the layered social, political and artistic setting of the communist period and its subsequent transformation. In 1992, their installation for the 3rd İstanbul Biennial Eurasia aimed to highlight similarities of the rapidly transforming cities of Bucharest and Istanbul. Part of the Draculaland series (1992-1997), developed from the prevailing stereotypes of Romania in general international media,were also on show. It was a fairly comprehensive even if only part there-of, survey exhibition which was great introduction to these artists. Check out this online article for more detail.

subREAL The castle (Draculaland no 8) 3,500 packets Carpatj cigarettes, stakes & chair

subREAL The castle (Draculaland no 8) 3,500 packets Carpatj cigarettes, stakes & chair

subREAL Draculaland series, work in progress, studio in Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin

subREAL Draculaland series, work in progress, studio in Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin

The SALT group, in both Galata and Beyoğlu is so worthwhile. As an organisation, both venues and online are, together, a documentary film house, a library, a research centre and archive, a contemporary art venue, home for the Ottoman Bank collection, a lecture centre. SALT Galata is housed in the old Ottoman Bank and is a sublime marble temple to economic prosperity which has undergone a refurbishment which can only be described as a world class transformation. Beyoğlu, up the hill a bit, on Istiklal heading towards Taksim, is edgier and better suited to sharper, contemporary shows.

SALT Galata archives

SALT Galata archives

And then another adventure, further from the swelling Sunday crowds, to the Sabançi Museum in Emirgan – about 45 mins from the main centre. This is a very elegant house museum bequeathed to Turkey by leading businessman Sakip Sabançi which is now run by the neighbouring Sabançi University. With views across the Bosphorus, set in beautifully maintained gardens it exudes wealth and style. Yes it is stuffed full of antiques – extraordinary collections of ladies’ fans, calligraphy, rugs, lamps, furniture – but it is presented with a sophisticated demanding 21st century audience in mind. Borrow (I like that) the available iPad and wander around to find the virtual points which activate the iPad screen, enlivening displays and allowing informative interaction. Swiping with a sweaty finger takes you inside the illuminated books in front of you, under perspex, out of your reach.

 

Entry to Sabanci Museum, with DFT and the Bosphorus in the background

Entry to Sabanci Museum, with DFT and the Bosphorus in the background

 

A delightful surprise at the entry is a 2 screen video work by artist and filmmaker Kutluğ Ataman which ties in very nicely with the collections and the location. The work Mesopotamian Dramaturges/ Su no 5– Su in Turkish is water. The work is based on the waters of the Bosphorus, filmed over 12 months to find the many moods and movements of these waters. These image are then overlaid and interwoven to create, in Arabic script, a key Islamic phrase “there is no God but Allah”. It is all those things that make an artwork memorable and meaningful: shown of its time and place, lyrical, poetic with a quiet rhythm.

 

Tony Cragg, gardens of the Sabanci museum

Tony Cragg, gardens of the Sabanci museum

This place is well worth some time and allow a little extra for lunch, or a drink on the terrace overlooking the beautiful gardens and the Golden Horn below.

Finally, it was very quick visit to the Pera Museum. It was unfortunately brief as we got side tracked en route. We were tourists after all, really enjoying just wandering around a fascinating city.

Spanish artist Manolo Valdés was featured with a survey exhibition. The work is a knockout. The works are huge, the palette mostly bright, the medium is diverse – from thick swathes of paint on roughly sewn burlap, to carved figures in alabaster, to a huge wall to ceiling book shelves, complete with books, constructed from glued, carved rough wooden pieces. Valdés turns to portraits of women from Matisse, Goya and Picasso with an energetic and earthy gusto that present again, images from the past, re-visited with a macho energy of the present. Another great venue and another great show.

Manolo Valdes Bookcase, 2011 carved, glued wood

Manolo Valdes Bookcase, 2011 carved, glued wood

But, we couldn’t have done any of it without sustenance. The local fare is delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed every mouthful. The only downside is that you can’t eat it all.

Simple, grilled fish with lemon and rocket – that is the only dish on offer – from Bagçillar Sabahttin in Sultanahmet. Meze and reki (to be handled with care) at Karaköy Lokantasi and then next door, every shape and size of baklava you can imagine. There is even baklava for diabetics. For coeliacs? Not sure.

Reki, taken in moderation, with water and ice

Reki, taken in moderation, with water and ice

The cafe in Sabançi Museum is sensational. We ate on the terrace, with views across the Bosphorus, haloumi wrapped in vine leaves, local sausage (sucuk) and baklava (again) with quince purée twist. The simple diner in the Grand Bazaar, where all the shop keepers and spruikers were dining, offered only char grilled pide, kebabs and hot green chilli – truly sensational. A little more upmarket and elegant, was EceAksoy in Pera. And then there were the endless temptations of Turkish delight, noughts, nuts and dried fruits.

Crispy baklava with clotted cream and quince puree, café Sabanci Museum

Crispy baklava with clotted cream and quince puree, café Sabanci Museum

We drank Turkish wine (my pick, a local white called Narinçe) and cocktails at sunset on the many rooftop bars, taking in the expansive vista of sea, mosque, minaret and endless houses.

And finally, a thank you and recommendation for our charming boutique hotel, Hotel Ibrahim Pasha in Sultanahmet and our walking tour guide, the delightful Duygu, who shared her local knowledge of Beyoğluand current Turkish politics over a morning.

It’s been a fabulous week of non-stop adventure. Next stop, Venice.

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8 Comments

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    Thanks Fi, a great overview and an interesting read. So many people have spoken warmly about their visits to Istanbul, makes one want to go also.

    - by Richard Banks in June, 2013
  2. How wonderful Fi! Gorgeous article…wish i was there..

    - by kelly brockhoff in July, 2013
  3. Lovely Fi, can’t wait to hear about Venice…

    - by Jenny Walker in July, 2013
  4. Makes me just want to jump on the first available plane to Istanbul. Beautifully written and very engaging read as always

    - by Louise Naughton in July, 2013
  5. It is great that you were not put off by the happenings in Istanbul. It is fascinating to read someone else’s views and opinions on the places that I visit in Istanbul.

    - by Laura Newbould in July, 2013
  6. Fi, this article is amazing – you’ve captured the essence of Istanbul, one of my favourite cities with such insight into its political, cultural and artistic features. It is such a fantastic place, now you’re off to my next favourite city. Continue to have an amazing time.

    - by Jennie Jones in July, 2013
  7. Our reliable art guide goes international – what a treat for the senses, just like the crispy baklava.

    - by Jennifer Keeler-Milne in July, 2013
  8. Wonderful writing Fiona. I’ve just read this your Istanbul blog again to remind of some must visit art spots as we will be heading there in June. I’m definitely going to read ‘Museum of Innocence’ as well. Thanks

    - by Zoe Taylor in May, 2014