Turkey’s contemporary art scene

Few doubt that Turkey’s contemporary art scene is one of the liveliest in the world. Galvanised by the Istanbul Biennial, which kicked off in 1987, the city has witnessed an explosion of commercial galleries – there are now more than 200 – allied to a proliferation of privately sponsored initiatives whose flagship is Istanbul Modern, the Bosporus-facing contemporary art museum sponsored by the Eczacibasi family.

This weekend, attention will be focused on “Contemporary Istanbul”, the annual art fair. Now in its fifth edition, the fair is going from strength to strength with 80 galleries, seven more than last year, from 14 countries. “This year we expect a strong surge in sales, bringing the total to around €25m,” says director Dr Emin Mahir Balcıoglu. “As Turkish society becomes more and more prosperous, the legion of collectors is widening.”

He notes that where private banks were once the cornerstone of the market, today there are increasing numbers of private collectors such as Ezir Ozdemir, a glamorous blonde businesswoman and board member of the powerful Limak Holding conglomerate.

Turkish art is benefiting from its country’s position as a gateway between Europe and Asia. At Contemporary Istanbul, Dr Balcıoglu expects to see “a strong participation from collectors from the Gulf countries”. Two satellite exhibitions, “New Horizons” and “Edge of Arabia”, dedicated to Iranian and Saudi contemporary art respectively, underline the eastern focus.

A similar vision underpinned Sotheby’s decision to schedule their Turkish contemporary auction in London during the week dedicated to Islamic art sales. “There’s a great overlap between Islamic and Turkish collectors,” observes Elif Bayoglu, head of contemporary Turkish sales. “The week was very successful. We will certainly do it next year.”

Certainly, Turkish sales flourished. The auction fetched £2.4m, almost doubling the previous year’s takings and setting 16 artist records. Although Turkey’s modernist painters command the highest sums – a 1954 canvas by the avant-garde abstractionist Fahrelnissa Zeid became the first Turkish modern work to surpass $1m at auction – several contemporary talents shone. Most notable was “1881”, by Istanbul-based painter Taner Ceylan. This photorealist painting of a young man in a fez wreathed in his cigarette fumes smashed its estimate of £45,000 to fetch £121,250. Also prominent was the £39,650 price tag (high estimate £18,000) fetched by “Glitch VI”, 2008, an oil painting of an architectural image transformed into an abstract grid by San Francisco-based Canan Tolon.

The most exciting new development in Istanbul is Arter, a not-for-profit contemporary space on Istiklal Avenue, the heart of Istanbul gallery-land. The brainchild of Omer Koc, who heads the cultural foundation started by his grandfather Vehbi, its aim is to showcase the foundation’s growing contemporary art collection and furnish practical support to Turkish artists.

It is a measure of Koc’s international vision that the first show, “Starter”, was curated by René Block, the German curator highly respected for his collaborations with Fluxus artists such as Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik. Now one of Koc’s advisers, Block put together a fascinating – if at times improbable – encounter between works by Fluxus talents and contemporary artists from Turkey and elsewhere.

The second show, which opens this weekend, focuses on new works – their production funded by the Koc Foundation – by 30 Turkish artists including Sotheby’s star Canan Tolon and Ayse Erkmen. The artists were called upon, in the words of curator Emre Baykal, “to take a fresh look at the idea of the institution”. (Erkmen’s typically sensitive response involves an installation of haute-couture hats, produced by a local designer, after she discovered that Arter’s building used to house a hatters.)

The theme raises the question of Turkish contemporary art’s weak rapport with public institutions. For all the buoyancy, there are fears that the lack of state support for contemporary art initiatives is putting artists at risk of losing their integrity under the pressure of the market.

Writing in the September issue of the Art Newspaper, Istanbul-born, Düsseldorf-based curator Necmi Sönmez lambasted mainstream Turkish contemporary art as “harmless, decorative, hyper-realist” controlled by a “monopoly of sales-oriented dealers and private, mainly bank-sponsored art spaces and institutions”.

A recent journey around Istanbul galleries confirmed that many artists are failing to manifest either intellectual depth or aesthetic power. Glib, provocative political statements abound – a sculpture depicting Ataturk as fallen angel, manifold banal commentaries on the veil – as do second-rate conceptual and hyper-realist paintings.

Such uneven quality is inevitable when a market expands extremely rapidly. The private monopoly however can also lead to damaging conflicts of interest. “The gallery owners and dealers are also operating as curator, editor and adviser,” says Sönmez. “The collectors are dealing and they are opening their own galleries to promote their favourite artists.”

Recently, the Turkish ministry of culture has been more active. A new modern art museum, Cer Modern, opened earlier this year in Ankara while the nomination of Istanbul as a European Capital of Culture in 2010 sparked various government-sponsored initiatives.

Most impressive was the exhibition Lives and Works in Istanbul. Showcased in a warehouse-style building, it featured works by Turkish artists who emerged during workshops conducted by European artists including Victor Burgin and Sophie Calle. Funded by the visual arts directorate of the European Capital of Cuture agency, the works – whose highlights include poetic pencil drawings of clasped hands by Ezer Epozdemir and Ayse Dogan’s creamy slabs of torn, moulded raw cotton – will be part of Istanbul’s first public contemporary art collection.

Yet Turkey’s history of repressing popular dissent has left its citizens wary of too much state intervention. “The moment you involve the state it tries to control, to censor,” declares Melih Fereli, cultural adviser to the Koc Foundation which hopes, via Arter, to provide the resources that are offered by the state in other economies. “Many contemporary artists lack funding, publicity, publications and a space in which to exhibit. We can provide all four,” says Fereli.

Nevertheless, recent events suggest the government cannot afford to pursue its policy of benign neglect. In September, galleries in the Tophane quarter came under attack by local residents who sprayed pepper gas and threw frozen oranges at guests as they mingled in the street during an evening of exhibition openings.

Most likely, the violence had manifold causes: the open consumption of alcohol, the risqué nature of certain artworks – which included naked figures and religious and political parodies – and rising local property prices. Although he condemns the attacks, Fereli points out: “The municipalities have failed to provide educational resources that would help the community develop an understanding of their artistic heritage. If they had their own cultural centre there, they would have seen their children paint and perform and the appearance of the galleries would not have seemed so strange to them.”

The Koc Foundation’s next plan is to open an arts complex in a former shipyard on the Golden Horn. “We have the amber light from the government,” says Fereli. “As soon as it goes green, we go.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.