November 25, 2011 10:25 pm

Sex and death by the sea

A look at the dealers and collectors at the heart of Turkey’s contemporary scene

A young woman is unwinding a headscarf that masks her face. As the fabric falls, another is revealed beneath it while the heap of coloured cloth on the table blooms higher. Entitled Undressing, this elegant film by 34-year-old Istanbul-born Nilbar Güres complicates stereotypes by hinting that self-concealment might be universal, even desired.

Showcased by her gallery Rampa at Frieze, Güres’s work not only sold but also drew praise from curators such as Hans Ulrich Obrist and Frances Morris of the Tate.

Güres is also present in Dream and Reality. An exhibition of 74 Turkish female artists at the country’s premier modern art institution, Istanbul Modern, it suggests an art scene in excellent shape. Aside from Güres’s film, other pieces include a painting of a building that is both a perfect grid and irredeemably damaged, by Canan Tolon; a spine-chilling installation from Hale Tenger that suspends real sabres above a vat of blood-red liquid; a painting cycle by 37-year-old Leyla Gediz (also in Rampa’s stable) that sensitively articulates a woman’s passage to maturity; and, by Inci Eviner, a video of women singing and dancing on a map of Europe that expresses the loneliness of migrancy.

These artists are part of a generation who have benefited from Turkey’s singular identity. Ruled now by an Islamic government, the country retains a certain creative freedom bestowed by its secular predecessors yet without the latter’s military repression.

As a Middle Eastern democracy with an exuberant free market, Turkey has seen a surge of interest in contemporary art, boosted by the patronage of families such as the Eczacibasi, who sponsor Istanbul Modern, and the Koc, whose foundation sponsored this year’s biennial and runs the no-profit contemporary space Arter. Most recently, another powerful conglomerate has just opened a new museum, Borusan Contemporary, in its company’s HQ on the Bosphorus.

In Istanbul, there are now more than 200 commercial galleries and two contemporary art fairs: Art Beat Istanbul, which launched in September, and Contemporary Istanbul, which runs this weekend. Stylish new galleries are opening, most recently Galeria Mana, which was launched this September by former White Cube employee Suzanne Egeran, and which offers both Turkish and foreign artists such as Douglas Gordon.

In spring 2009, Sotheby’s opened the first department devoted to Turkish modern and contemporary art in its London office. This year, Bonhams followed suit, holding a contemporary Turkish sale in April.

Yet right now, the market is a mixed picture: reports of Art Beat, which took £3.5m ($5.4m), were downbeat; at Sotheby’s last sale, in April 2011, 35 per cent went unsold.

A gloomier horizon was forecast by Bonhams’ foray. With 66 per cent of lots unsold, little wonder it has no plans to repeat the experiment.

“There has been a lot of hype around Turkish art and the Middle East. Collectors have been buying pieces purely because they come from that region,” observes Bonhams’ Middle East specialist Katia Vraïmakis as she explains the decision to fold Turkish art back into the general contemporary sales. “This way, we can select the works on the basis of quality and provenance.”

Quality is key if Turkish art is to consolidate its reputation. At auction, the strong works held up well. At Sotheby’s, for example, “1879 (From the Lost Painting Series)” – an arresting painting of a veiled Ottoman woman standing in front of Courbet’s chilling image of female pudenda, “L’Origine du Monde” – by photorealist Taner Ceylan smashed its top estimate of £70,000 to make £229,250.

It is telling that Christie’s has chosen to wrap Turkish art into its sales of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern art in Dubai. Its October sales featured just 11 Turkish works, all of which sold, the majority within or slightly above their estimate. Middle East director Isabelle de la Bruyère puts the good result down to the “carefully selected” nature of the works.

It also attests to the strong regional nature of the market. “At first 80 per cent of Middle Eastern art was bought by Middle Eastern buyers, now it is 60 per cent,” says de la Bruyère, who admits that in choosing works they take account of cultural tastes. “Of course, you have to be careful with the imagery.”

Azade Köker’s ‘Bridal Dress’

Azade Köker’s ‘Bridal Dress’

Certainly, the painting by Azade Koker that became the top Turkish seller – a sinister, mixed-media apple whose brilliant scarlet skin was assembled from human faces, would not have offended any sensibilities. (It made $122,000, against a top estimate of $90,000.)

At a moment when the Middle East art market is suddenly vulnerable (Christie’s and Sotheby’s Islamic art sales realised $23.8m this year, compared with $60m last year), Christie’s decision to divide the sale into two parts, the first containing more expensive works, the second with estimates dropping to $3,000, allowed it to attract younger buyers.

This generation are keeping Turkey’s internal market buoyant. “Our young people are growing up feeling close to contemporary art,” says Ali Gureli, chairman of Contemporary Istanbul, which boasts 90 exhibitors compared with 73 last year.

He puts his fair’s success down to his country’s economy, which, “unlike the rest of the world”, is booming. “For the first time, per capita income topped $10,000 a year and although their goal is $20,000 in 2023, I think we’ll get there sooner,” he observes. Clearly, while other Middle Eastern markets jitter under political unrest, Turkey’s stability is a major advantage.

The problem is that contemporary masters such as Ceylan and Tolon have inspired a raft of derivative followers. “There are 54 fine arts academies in the country, yet, apart from the three or four, the education they offer is questionable,” observes Haldun Dostuglu, director of Galeri Nev in Istanbul, where artists include Inci Eviner, Canan Tolon and Hale Tenger. “After four years, students graduate with a diploma but it doesn’t necessarily make them artists.”

Much of this underwhelming art takes the form of iIl-conceived photo-realism, installations and photography that confirm the stereotypes they are hoping to challenge – a plethora of digitally retouched semi-naked females, a surfeit of headscarf commentaries, painting that confuses abstraction with decoration or makes uninspired use of calligraphy.

The younger generation would do well to follow the example of one of the country’s most established collectors, Omer Koc, who only buys the very best of his country’s offerings.

An installation by Hale Tenger

An installation by Hale Tenger

Guests at a lunch party given by Koc during the Istanbul Biennial were left in no doubt, for example, of Taner Ceylan’s talent. Koc has hung Ceylan’s painting of a boxer, “Spiritual”, so that the fighter’s blood-flecked face dominates the entire ground floor of his beautiful, Bosphorus-facing villa.

This is no mean feat given that the works with which it competes include the gory masterpiece “Prometheus Unbound”, by 17th-century titan Luca Giordano, a sculpture of a faceless, skinless copulating couple by contemporary Belgian star Berlinde de Bruyckere – which the Giordano actually inspired – a colour-fizzing view of the Bosphorus by Paul Signac, several superb self-portraits (a favoured genre of Koc) by Egon Schiele, and “Two-Faced Cunt”, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s hard-to-stomach sculpture of a naked, two-headed girl-child.

“The trouble with so much contemporary art is that it is so conceptual, so cerebral, and you say, yes, it is a wonderful idea but it leaves you cold,” murmurs Koc, as we talk over thick, sweet coffee in the company of an entourage of friends and advisers.

Ranging across centuries and borders, his own collection is both charmingly eclectic and powerfully coherent. “Sex and death,” he says, laughing, when asked to sum up the themes.

That there are only the choicest examples of Turkish contemporary art in Koc’s private home testifies to his refusal to compromise his own taste for the sake of geo-political correctness.

Through the Koc foundation, however, he is building a public collection that focuses on contemporary art from Turkey and the region. As well as Ceylan, Turkish artists that Koc rates include Tenger, Deniz Gul – whose installation of Louise Bourgeois-like cupboards is currently on show at Arter – and the painter Nuri Kuzucan. At Frieze, the foundation snapped up Güres’s work.

It intends to frame these young talents against a core of early Turkish conceptualists such as Sarkis and Fusun Onur (whose pared-down installation of stained fabric and wooden table struts was one of the surprise hits of this year’s Istanbul Biennial). “We are trying to secure the lost memory [of Turkish art] so that it will become a reference point for institutions beyond Turkey,” explains Koc’s friend and adviser Melih Fereli.

Such initiatives are essential if Turkish art is to develop a critical framework to match its commercial explosion.

Contemporary Istanbul ends on Sunday, www.contemporaryistanbul.com. ‘Dream and Reality: Modern and Contemporary Women Artists from Turkey’ is at Istanbul Modern until January 22, 2012

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