Istanbul, H.G Masters, Nazli Gurlek
Though shown at Galeri Nev before the Gezi Park protests in May, Hale Tenger’s video of the three wise monkeys swaying to a Frank Sinatra hit, Swinging on the Stars (2013), embodied what had been the city’s defining, stagnant mood, this pervasive, cynical humour. As a political allegory, it addresses the Turkish Republic’s refusal to recognize its numerous crimes of neglect and abuse against its own citizens. Applied to the art community, the dancing creatures of Swinging on the Stars could be read as a gloss on how organizations here present themselves in one way to the outside world (‘Smile!’) – eager for recognition and respect – while ignoring (‘I can’t hear you!’) the deficiencies and hostilities at home. Out of necessity, young people with vision and motivation – whether as artists, curators or dealers – will have to establish their own structures, free of the old order’s shackles and prejudices, to circulate and survive in this self-engorging megacity. No matter how informal or transient these organizations end up being, they already have more potential to break the city’s gridlock than anything that exists in Istanbul now.
It’s hard not to think about the past when discussing contemporary artistic practice in Istanbul. A number of notable artists from Turkey have dealt with enduring social patterns and the effects of political ideology. For example, first shown in 1990 as part of an exhibition at Atatürk Cultural Center – a monument of the 1960s Turkish modernism now awaiting demolition as part of the reconstruction of Taksim – Hale Tenger’s The School of Sikimden Aşşa Kasımpaşa (1990) took its title from a Turkish idiom (meaning ‘I don’t give a fuck anymore’). Comprising a huge Ottoman cauldron of red liquid and dozens of suspended swords, the installation was made soon after the assassination of the prominent feminist writer and activist Bahriye Üçok. The piece was shown extensively in Europe during the 1990s, and was more recently included in ‘Dream and Reality’ (2011), a major survey of Turkish women artists at Istanbul Modern. Among the other artists from Turkey who came to exhibit internationally in the 1990s, Gülsün Karamustafa has also touched upon locally pertinent issues in works that deal with migration, displacement and the sentiment of arabesk – an Arabic style of music combining Byzantine, Balkan and Middle Eastern rhythms – as an urban condition. Her first comprehensive Turkish retrospective opened in autumn 2013 at salt Beyoğlu. A younger generation of artists share with Tenger and Karamustafa a tendency to consider how recent political events inform the present. For example, Deniz Gül’s Vitrine (2013) – included in the young artist’s first exhibition at Galeri Manâ late last year – comprises a wooden replica of the Republic Monument in Taksim, with its figures removed. Resembling a large item of furniture, the work suggests that ideology is deeply rooted in the privacy of the home.