Istanbul Burning

Istanbul now finds itself in the midst of a renaissance of sorts


The welcome mat seems a little rough at first. I’d heard Istanbul’s Karakoy neighbourhood got rowdy at night, but mid-afternoon on a weekday, I’d expected a warmer reception. This was supposed to be an artsy neighbourhood… weren’t artists supposed to be friendly?

SILENCE! BE QUIET! CAN IT! COOL IT! GAG IT! ZIP IT! MUZZLE IT! STUFF A SOCK IN IT! JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!” reads another nearby sign; it was like graffiti artists suddenly got lazier, but also stumbled on a thesaurus.

But if these giant canvases are guidelines, they’re being ignored by two Turkish construction workers hammering a wall nearby, but with that kind of etiquette, I don’t blame them.

Just then, gallery owner Suzanne Egeran pushes through the glass door, hands full, talking excitedly over the phone.

She walks straight to the front desk and hands a young woman a pitcher of water and a glass.

“The plumbing isn’t quite working yet” laughs Egeran. “But we’re working on it.”

The Egeran art gallery has barely been open four days; the paint on the walls is so fresh you can almost taste it on the tip on your tongue. On May 10, it was one of more than four privately owned galleries in the city to open their doors for the first time.

The oil on canvas signs, it turns out, are actually pieces from renowned American conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s first Turkish solo show.

Egeran and I sit at a trendy nearby café nearby and sip Turkish coffee under the heavy sun. She looks understandably tired as she lights a cigarette.

“People are looking for new markets and new places to expand and this is definitely one of them, but it’s in the early days, which makes it interesting,” she says. “It’s not New York or London…yet.”

Just Hot Enough to Touch

There is something happening in Istanbul lately. There’s an indescribable, unspoken rhythm in the city, a heartbeat you can almost feel if you press your palm just right on the winding paved streets.

Once described by Turkish Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk as “pale, poor, second-class imitation of a Western city,” Istanbul now finds itself in the midst of a cultural and artistic revival that is gaining international notoriety…and for good reason.

In the past decade, the city has been host to an eruption of new festivals, museums, galleries and art research institutions, not to mention a slew of international artists flocking to the city every year to work and play.

Yet, if all of this seems brash, sudden or altogether unexpected… it’s because it is. But if Istanbul is on fire as they say, the city’s artistic elite seem to have mastered the art of walking comfortably on hot coals.

“What is the starting point of all of this? I don’t know! Nobody knows!” says chief curator of Istanbul Modern, Levent Çalıkoğlu, with a hearty laugh. “The cultural transformation of Istanbul and Turkey starts sometime in the 2000s.”

Opened in 2005, Istanbul Modern was the city’s first privately owned contemporary art gallery, all others beings previously owned and operated by the state. Today, the museum is one of the largest in the country.

After much prodding, Çalıkoğlu places the early days of the boom with the establishment of the Istanbul Biennial, a world-renowned contemporary art festival that showcases work from thousands of artists from across the globe.

But this doesn’t look like the right spark for this kind of fire; it’s too rigid, too structured for the kind of chaotic boom you can see oozing from the galleries onto the city streets.

Beyoğlu Born Again

In the centre of the shift sits Beyoğlu, the heart of the city’s European quarter, an area that has been the scene of an intense cultural revival since the late 1990s. The area is a rare crossroads where tourists collide with Istanbul’s economic and cultural elite.

İstiklal Avenue, the city’s main pedestrian shopping artery, winds downhill from central Taksim Square to the Bosphorus Strait, lined with what seems like endless rows of shops, cafés, bars, clubs and art galleries.

Although a bustling commercial centre during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, after the 1950s interest in Beyoğlu dwindled due to urbanization and a mass rural exodus. The old neighbourhood fell prey to decay and became an increasingly decrepit residential area. Sixty years ago, businesses wouldn’t touch the place with a ten metre pole.

Today, the area buzzes nearly 24 hours a day with thousands crowding down the hilly, winding streets. The neighbourhood is also home to two of the most important contemporary art research and exhibition spaces in Istanbul: SALT Beyoğlu and Arter.

“Twenty years ago, Istanbul was completely off the map,” says SALT executive director Vasif Kortun. “I used to be able to sit by my office window and count the people walking down [Istiklal], you cannot do that anymore.”

Referred to by some as the “Grandaddy” of contemporary art in Istanbul, Kortun was one of a host of others who founded SALT in 2011, responding to the city’s need for established contemporary art institutions.

Kortun compares Beyoğlu with its shadow self at the height of the Ottoman Empire.

“It was always immigrants, whores, artists and business,” says Kortun. “And it’s still immigrants, whores, artists and business and it’s beautiful in that way, and it still retains that quality today, but business is taking the area at an alarming speed.”

Today, SALT acts as a not-for-profit hosting exhibitions, conferences, engaging in interdisciplinary research projects and holding the keys to an expanding library archive, all open to the public.

In February 2012, SALT opened its second location in what used to be the headquarters of the now extinct Ottoman Bank.

“This is SALT, we’re a different game. We keep the memories, we keep the archives,” says Kortun. “We provide the intellectual bread here.”

Directly across the street from SALT Beyoğlu sits Arter, a 4 storey complex on İstiklal that showcases a revolving door of contemporary art from across the globe.

“In terms of artistic potential, [Istanbul] has always been rich. But the city and the country itself were not part of the scene,” says Emre Baykal, director of exhibitions at Arter.

While ten years ago, a gentle poke could make Istanbul’s niched art bubble pop, today it seems made of thick glass; beautiful and transparent, but strong and grounded, invisible to some but clear as day to those able to look at it from the right angle.

Central Istiklal Avenue bustles with pedestrians and vendors nearly 24-hours a day

Second-Hand Smoke

Another area experiencing rapid demographic and cultural shifts is Tophane, Beyoğlu’s quieter, lesser-known neighbour. The area, historically a working class neighbourhood, has birthed over 20 small, privately owned art spaces in a little over 10 years.

The geography of it all is no coincidence. If you lay the area out on a map, the galleries roll like rainwater down tiny Boğazkesen Street, which links İstiklal Avenue to the Istanbul Modern.

On May 10, Riff Art Projects opened its doors along Boğazkesen, almost shouting distance from Suzanne and the Egeran gallery.

Owner Steven Riff spent two years relocating his gallery from Paris to Istanbul. He says the move was no accident, but a reaction to what he sees as a tangible, Eastward shift in the art world.

“I get the impression that artists recognize the energy in the city. They’re drawn to the city to show their work,” says Riff. “What’s happening here isn’t just a fad, people are moving here long-term.”

But no revolution is without its civilian casualties, in this case the pocketbooks of everyday Istanbulites.

A survey released in 2005 by real estate firm Emlak Pazarı paints Beyoğlu as the priciest place in town; lodging costs for the area have skyrocketed in the past two decades alone.

“It’s a gentrification story. People are moving out of the area, sometimes getting thrown out of houses they’ve lived in for hundreds of years,” Kortun says. “There are winners and losers.”

In some areas, residential prices can be higher than commercial ones, according to an international real estate review published in 2005.

A look into the Riff gallery, still fresh off its move from Paris

Burning Bridges

With rising prices and a visible shift in the cultural landscape, it comes as no surprise that Tophane’s new facelift wasn’t met with open arms by everyone.

In 2011, several galleries in the area decided to have a joint opening night, to celebrate the new changes in the art scene. Once patrons of the galleries had spilt onto the sidewalks over drinks and cigarettes, they were met with a group of ready young Turkish men, says Egeran, who was present.

“It was bloody, people got hurt,” says Egeran. “Which is kind of ironic because art is all about the exchange of ideas; inclusivity not exclusivity.”

A fight broke out between the two factions before police finally intervened.

“Tophane, which is a poor neighbourhood, has a lot of residents who are now being priced out. Gentrifications means that there’s a shift,” Egeran says. “The galleries, of course, represent the change.”

“You can’t blame the people, but you can blame the act itself,” adds Arter’s Baykal.

But despite a few initial conflicts, the area seems to have settled on some peaceful middle ground, at least for now.

“The most important thing was that these works could find a place to be exhibited. Private museums opened, the number of galleries increased, and new collectors arose,” says Öznur Güzel Karasu, gallery manager at Pg Art, in Tophane. “The desire for the new created a space for young artists.”

One of those young artists is Turkish-American contemporary painter Ayse Wilson, currently exhibiting at Pg Art.

“I believe that all the new activity has always lived right under the surface of the global eye, just waiting for the right moment to display its wares,” says Wilson.

She adds that her experience in Istanbul has been different than previous exhibitions she’s had in New York. She notes that galleries like Pg seem more interested in connecting people to their work, rather than just selling art.

Another artist currently soaking in Istanbul’s limelight is Beirut-born, Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. Her solo exhibit at Arter covers three entire floors and provides a retrospective of the artist’s work over the past 20 years. According to Baykal, “You Are Still Here” drew over 16,000 visitors to Arter in 70 days.

“Istanbul right now is really thriving. It’s amazing, it’s an explosion of galleries and art spaces,” says Hatoum. “It’s a very vibrant city. I hope it lasts for a very long time.”

Fanning Future Flames

But opinions on Istanbul’s future as a European art centre seem mixed. While some are still breathing in the fire, others seem to be looking overhead, waiting to catch a glimpse of the giant bucket of water that will extinguish it all.

“People in Istanbul shouldn’t be too snobbish about all of this. All this art is the result of money, and if it goes, the whole thing crashes. And when it crashes, it will crash hard,” says Damla Açikada, who works at Ellipsis, a photography gallery in Tophane.

But Kortun says that if people remember the meaning and purpose of these changes, the scene can still thrive for decades to come.

“If you substantiate it and take care of it, there should be no dip. We have culture, great schools and if it fails, it will be our fault. It’s not our job to make people like it. Our job is to substantiate what is going on and give it meaning,” says Kortun. “No one can stand in the way of progress.”

Art in the city seems to spill from galleries onto the streets

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