Saturday, April 27, 2013

This is Not an Exhibition Review

Artist Collector Network by Burak Arikan

All those articles about the booming art scene in Istanbul… One after another, pouring over the Western newspapers was not the reason why I chose to live in Istanbul. I personally didn’t choose to live here; it was an accident caused by another accident that little did I know how much it would shape the course of my “career”. I did not have a career or even an aspiration to, and started writing about contemporary art from the Middle East out of entirely personal motivations.

At a point it might have even been a political project to approach difficult questions in a region in turmoil from the margins. A few days ago I went to see for the second time the show “Aeolian” at Rodeo Art Gallery and could spend a good deal of the afternoon with Emre Huner, the artist behind the show. Between one cigarette and another, the conversation drifted away from the actual artworks into some travel memories, shared frustrations and “art talk”.

“Art talk” is not a metaphor for those profound and challenging conversations that many people imagine that artists have with each other and with the rest of the acolytes in the art religion: Gallerists, dealers, critics, curators and what not. Art talk actually is the small talk that happens in the corner of exhibition openings: A little gossip, a little complaining, and always making sure to assert how one does not belong to the art world, how one actually hates the art world.

“I will not attend any openings anymore”, I said a couple of weeks before, finding myself intoxicated by this micro-cosmos of celebrities and the rituals associated with this complex network of creativity, business and frivolousness that is called nowadays the art market. A lot of kissing and hugging, a lot of drinking, a lot of flirting, and in the end of the day, a great sense of isolation that makes us cling to each other, in order to feel less the pressure of the world against this undefinable profession.

And during six weeks I stayed mostly at home, thinking about this great arts scene in Istanbul that everyone is talking about. I felt that I needed a critical distance from the noise of the “scenes” in order to assert that I do not belong there, that I am special, that I am different, that I am independent. This is not real. This is not real. I said to myself over and over as I leafed through the pages of endless exhibition catalogs and books trying to feel inspired to write about art.

A few weeks before, while visiting the studio of another Turkish artist, Hale Tenger, we talked about what it is that “inspires” you to write about art, and our conclusion was vaguely similar: We do not read art texts or art books. The raw materials to approach contemporary art precisely that, raw, things like history books and novels, films you loved, conversations with friends, the daily news in this endless show of parody and horror called the Middle East.

Art writing has a tendency to say very little, to prevent the forming an opinion, to discourage judgment and more than anything, to obscure some artworks that are actually already obscure and perhaps not really good. There’s such a thing as bad art, there’s such a thing as awful exhibitions, there’s such a thing as wrong curatorial practices. But we don’t talk about that in Istanbul. This great arts scene that everyone is talking about exists only in the mind of some writers elsewhere.

It’s not that art is bad… Or maybe some of it actually is, but it’s more something like this: We live at the center of this gigantic and formless mass called Istanbul but we are not even in or from Istanbul. We have a tiny prison called Beyoglu, that exists in an altogether different dimension and if the end of the world would come, we wouldn’t hear about it for days, being so busy attending openings or recovering from countless glasses of wine from three different openings in the same night.

And we live in this prison willingly. I’m calling it a prison because in spite of being subject to constant abuse, impossible traffic, long distances by foot, insane rent prices and asshole landlords, pollution, endless hills, impossible noise, and a rather deteriorated quality of life, we refuse to leave and it is common to hear friends saying that leaving Beyoglu is like going overseas. Some of us even go abroad more often than outside this prison with leisure facilities.

Last night on a taxi with Derya Demir, a gallerist friend, dying from a headache caused by an exhibition the night before, traveling far out to Etiler to attend another opening, we heard ourselves saying “this shit better be good, if we’re going this far already”. And never mind, it was great, but then you begin to understand that Beyoglu is also a portable concept: The same ten people move everywhere in pairs and groups. Discuss each other. Love each other. Drink each other. List goes on.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In the end of the day, beyond the petty fights and the endless gossip about who pays and who doesn’t, who is good and who isn’t, which gallery has this or that issue, people in Istanbul I find, are a lot more open and kind than in many big cities. It doesn’t take you too long to get to know the “scene”, and whether you want to be part of it or not, it is a personal choice, the doors are somehow always open.

Of course this applies to expats more than it does to other Turks. But yet Istanbul is not something you are born into, Istanbul is something that you become. It is hard to tell when this actually happens, but one day you wake up and realize you have acquired the imaginary citizenship of the imagined crossroads. But no crossroads in Istanbul really exist. Mari Spirito, a partner in many day and night adventures, has always told me this isn’t crossroads but purgatory.

A lot of people actually end up in Istanbul like I did, by accident. Then one day they wake up and realize they’ve been here for ten years. Beyoglu takes everything from you: Your money, your patience, your liver, your time, and guess what? It does not give you back anything. You need to reclaim energy from the city on your own. Usually this energy is best reclaimed in groups, sitting for tea at the London Hotel at 4 pm, which usually becomes whiskey at 4 am in the blink of an eye.

But wait, it does sound like the perfect setting for an art scene, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Art does exist in Istanbul and I kid you not, there’re many artists, in all degrees of ages, accomplishment, style, technique, concept, etc. But there’s no art scene here. Scene would immediately require two things: The first would be an audience for art outside the “experts” and also with an audience, comes the dialogue about art. None of them are present in Istanbul.

Artists and galleries work mostly in isolation, in isolation from each other especially because everyone is so afraid to criticize. There’s no criticism, because hey, we’re hot-headed Middle Easterners and take everything personal. The only thing being discussed is actually personal traits of this and that artist, of this and that gallery owner, but it is never about the works, it is never about the shows. It is never about anything.

Many artworks are constructed in self-referential ways and are more about a personal narrative. Sometimes people tell you “you don’t get it, do you?” but who the hell really gets art? If there comes a day that an art writer comes to “get art”, that day he should drop out and go to work in finance. And some people do write about art, no question about that, both in Turkish and English. But the reviews are not positive or negative. The reviews are about art reviews, actually.

In our conversation, Emre Huner was telling me about how in an interview he was asked his opinion about the booming art scene of Istanbul, and he thought that maybe it would be better to talk about the articles about the booming art scene than about the actual thing. Turkey is a country with identity issues, and this is surprise to nobody, that still belongs to a larger region where the making of art is at best problematic.

Without a strong tradition in arts – and I’m not making this up, Orhan Pamuk held the same view – there seems to be the question of the foundations of art. Ottoman painting is hardly the inspiration for contemporary art and whatever Turks and Lebanese call modernism has next to nothing to do with modernism, it is a late classical realism profoundly embedded in colonial and imperial narratives. To say “go back to basics” in Turkish art is nothing short of an oxymoron.

It seems to me at times as if some young artists are running too quickly too conceptual art without the mastery of at least one technique and while this is the actual standard practice in the Western world, openly promoted by art schools, it does not make it any less lame. The relationship of Turkish art to the surrounding is very fragile; no discussion whatsoever with Arab art and somehow at the margins of European art. But hey, it’s 2013, who cares where art is from? All art is art, right?

This would be fine weren’t it the case that certain artists are being bought, exhibited, collected and discussed not because all art is art but because they’re Turkish. The well-meaning Western collector wants to see the cute little things that we produce you here in spite of being abused, tortured, jailed, molested, brainwashed. In the meantime, parties go on unmolested in Beyoglu seven days a week without giving a single thought to any of that horrible present we market ourselves through.

And you know well that nobody goes to openings except us the same ten people who get smashed together three times a week. And this is great in a way, we’re all becoming sort of friends, sort of professional acquaintances, sort of buddies, because most of us are actually quite young. In the end of the day one of the risks associated with an “art career”, is that our private life is also our professional life. Our most intimate belongings are on show for display and sale.

So everybody talks about this important artist, that important curator, that important gallery, that important critic. Important, important, important. Whatever. No one gives a damn. Not Turkey, not Istanbul, not Beyoglu. Most people don’t even know we actually exist. We’re not important to anybody, except ourselves and each other. This isn’t to say we don’t do good stuff, but art in Istanbul – and the Middle East – is not part of the public sphere. It is not shaping it in anyway.

And this is not because artists aren’t interested in this – some of them clearly aren’t, but that’s a different story, but because we happen to live in a very oppressive country in a city in which outside our bubble an ocean of covered heads thrives without any need whatsoever for your fancy ideas. And hell, there’s no freedom here, and that’s why we are drinking three times a week and hiding in your exhibition salons. There’s no alternative. But we never talk about this.

At every exhibition the same happens… The same dude comes, gives you the same kiss, tells you how nice the show is, drinks your wine, networks a bit and then leaves to catch the next shame train into the same five bars. Rinse and repeat. That is not to say this city isn’t great, and actually it is full of miracles, it gives you more space to breathe than any Arab country ever will, and it can be quite comfortable if you do it right.

And the isolation is such that we aren’t bothered by the art world even. This weekend at the super fancy opening at Borusan, all the Beyoglu kids stick to each other even though there were quite a crowd, some important curators, some very interesting artists, and why not say it, a super high-profile crowd including some society ladies. But that didn’t bother us at all. We weren’t there to talk to anybody, but ourselves.

“Turkish art is problematic”, tells me Cynthia Madansky, an American artist recently shown at SALT. And what does that even mean? I think that’s a way to say Turkey is problematic. At times this country reminds me of Latin America. So proud of a certain history which more than anything is imagined, and at the same time wiping out the traces of the real history. A Lebanese friend is all excited about coming to Istanbul to see Istanbul Modern. I’m a lot less.

The building is great, the view is fantastic and the coffee shop is super hype. The artworks… Well, let’s not talk about it. Things look a lot fancier than they actually are, and if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you find yourself across botoxed bimbos in leopard heels carrying five kilos of silicon in the most upscale dinners as the prospective clients for your artworks. And this isn’t bad; this is just life, and what galleries, dealers and what not have to do to keep sponsoring free wines.

We shouldn’t be troubled by it; we just have to keep going business as usual. There’s nothing wrong with living in the bubble, but if we’re already at it, maybe it’s time to have an actual discussion about art, since there’s just us after all… It doesn’t have to be intimidating, really. It’s just that well… The art is getting a bit boring, and sure as hell there’re clients for boring art too, but what a pity it would be to be part of this batshit crazy city and do art in isolation.

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