Mark Wallinger’s movie-house installation

A provincial harbour town on the eastern coast of Turkey is not where you expect to attend a preview for one of Britain’s most illustrious contemporary artists. Yet here on the windswept esplanade of Canakkale, curators, critics and artists from across Europe have gathered to witness Mark Wallinger unveil his latest work.

Entitled “Sinema Amnesia”, it consists of a makeshift movie-house made from a rusting shipping container. Perched on the lip of the waterfront, the battered structure exudes the trademark downbeat poetry of this former Turner Prize winner. Beyond, a white-capped ribbon of ocean is traversed by tankers, trawlers, fishing craft and merchant vessels. On the far side, a headland is emblazoned with the painted image of a soldier and a verse of Turkish poetry.

“We would rather that Canakkale was remembered for peace and culture than war,” declares the town’s mayor, Gokhan Ulger. For the glittering straits behind him are the Dardanelles, the waterway that links the Aegean to the Sea of Marmara and, via the Bosphorus, the Black Sea.

If Turkey is the country that bridges Europe and Asia then the Dardanelles are a vital artery. From the Trojan wars onward, the world’s leaders have fought for their control. King Xerxes the Great crossed them on a bridge of boats; Mehmet the Conqueror secured them with a fortress; and in 1915, nearly 200,000 Allied troops were dispatched to wrest their beaches from the Ottoman empire. Instead, they died in their thousands at the hands of troops led by a visionary young commander called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Today, the painted soldier is a monument to the victims of Gallipoli, whose battlefields lie on the far side of the headland. Meanwhile Ataturk’s victory marked the first step on Turkey’s path towards the prosperity and independence it enjoys today.

Given that the Dardanelles embody Turkey’s rebuttal of European-led forces, they are a fascinating choice of location for an artwork commissioned to strengthen cultural ties with the European Union.

“Sinema Amnesia” is one element of My City, a €2m project primarily funded by the European Commission and organised by the British Council office in Istanbul (with help from two local partners, the contemporary art space Platform Garanti and Anadolu Kultur, a cultural NGO).

Part of the EU’s Cultural Bridges programme, the My City project invited five artists – from the UK (Wallinger), Poland (Joanna Rajkowska) Germany (Andreas Fogarasi), Austria (Clemens von Wedemeyer) and Finland ((Minna Henriksson) – to make installations in five Turkish cities (Canakkale, Konya, Istanbul, Mardin and Trabzon). Six Turkish artists (Caner Aslan, Can Altay, Gunes Terkol, Leyla Gediz, Gulsun Karamustafa and Isil Egrikavuk) also undertook residencies in the corresponding European capitals.

No one makes any secret of the fact that the project, which coincides with Istanbul’s appointment as a European Capital of Culture, is designed to boost Turkey’s candidacy for EU accession. Although Turkey has a way to go before it meets the criteria necessary for inclusion, its growing strategic importance demands that good relations are maintained. (If Turkey is shunned by the EU, so the argument goes, it will reinforce the country’s economic and political links with the Caucasus and the Arab world.)

And no country is keener on the project than Britain. “The British government believes that Turkey should be part of the European Union and we reflect that,” says Ruth Ur, the British Council’s head of arts and development, who devised the My City scheme. “There is so much ignorance about Turkey – about language, human rights, immigrant communities, the status of Islam.” The hope is that cultural exchanges such as My City help to redress the balance.

When inviting artists to participate, the British Council took care to include ones from countries such as Germany and Austria, which have expressed doubts about Turkish accession. France, however, failed to take up the challenge. “We were keen to invite them but we didn’t get the buy-in we wanted,” Ur says.

Wallinger, who won the Turner Prize with a replica of an anti-war protest in Parliament Square, has no qualms about making art to serve realpolitik. “The best hope for peace in the Middle East is Turkey within the European Union pressing the agenda rather than the US,” he says bluntly, as we talk in the lobby of his hotel.

At first he feared that Canakkale might overburden him with “too much history”. Yet as he got to know the place, he grew to appreciate its present as much as its past. “I really like the way people get on with their lives here,” he says. “It’s a port – there are boats going out to fish and others that are going thousands of miles.”

That “magical passage” of vessels is captured by the film on show in his waterside movie-house. Entitled “Ulysses” – evocative both of the waterway’s ancient voyager and of Wallinger’s favourite novel – it replays exactly what has happened in the previous 24 hours on the straits outside, from the eternally frozen soldier to the boats gliding by.

With this minimalist master-stroke, Wallinger distils the straits’ epic history into an eloquently simple act of memory that is also a monument to the here and now. Freighted with metaphor yet free of fixed, socio-historical allusions that could offend local sensibilities, “Sinema Amnesia” gracefully walks a tightrope between Turkey’s competing narratives. (It is a measure of the country’s divided soul that Canakkale’s mayor is a member of the Republican People’s Party, which cherishes Ataturk’s secular legacy, while the local deputy governor, Ali Partal, belongs to Turkey’s ruling, pro-Islam Justice and Development Party.)

The tension between these strands means that Turkish identity has never been more at stake than in recent years. Little wonder that the battle to win local acceptance for the art projects was tough. My City project director David Codling recalls a “fractious public meeting” in Canakkale and demonstrations by leftwing ultra-nationalists. There is no question that his team pulled off a tour de force of both organisation and diplomacy. Yet the most effective cultural ambassadors were the artists themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Trabzon on the north-eastern coast. The largest port on the Black Sea, Trabzon is crucial to Turkey’s eastern trade relations but it is also a nationalist stronghold, beset by local mafias. “We had to meet with the police to be sure a foreign artist would be safe here,” recalls Ur.

Yet the 34-year-old Finnish artist Minna Henriksson appears to have beguiled the resident population. One evening in the town square, a rock group is playing seductive riffs on Turkish pop music. The band, all of whom are local young men, was formed during workshops run by Henriksson in collaboration with the municipal youth centre.

Huddled under a tarpaulin, several of the My City delegation look as if they may be dreaming of a waterproof white cube and a flute of champagne but the local audience is thrilled. Periodically, young men link arms and perform vigorous hip-hop-style variations on Turkish dance.

When the diplomats in Brussels first envisaged a “cultural bridge”, it’s unlikely that this surreal gathering was what they had in mind. Yet out of such encounters the stuff of Europe’s future may be made.

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