Just Passing Through Istanbul | Verve Magazine
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December 30, 2019

Just Passing Through Istanbul

Text by Neeta Lal

Neeta Lal comes away with a fresh perspective on Istanbul as she trawls through its galleries, biennials and art fairs

There’s visual stimulation everywhere I go in Istanbul. In the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, the beating heart of the city, I’m overwhelmed by sumptuous art all around. Up ahead looms the breathtaking Hagia Sophia with its sinuous 55-metre-high dome, arguably the world’s most poignant ode to artistic and architectural excellence.

To my south lies the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, its tapering minarets piercing a cloudless, azure skyline. The ornate pavilions of the Topkapi Palace sprawl just behind me while the adjacent Hippodrome displays stellar craftsmanship with an Egyptian obelisk as its centrepiece.

Few cities can rival Istanbul — formerly Constantinople — as an open-air museum. Founded by the Thracians in the 7th century BC, the world’s fourth-largest city stands boldly astride the blue ribbon of the Bosphorus strait that separates Europe and Asia. A dynamic centrepoint between the East and West, it seamlessly amalgamates culture, history and art to make for an immersive and thrilling travel destination.

Newly-elected mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has inspired renewed hope among local creatives and businessmen by planning to put arts and culture at the forefront of Istanbul’s development. This concept is in sync with Turkey’s larger goal of augmenting its soft power through culture. There is much to anticipate. Nine museums and an opera house are scheduled to open over the next three years; the Ataturk Cultural Center and the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum will be completed by 2020. Private funders have pumped 5 billion dollars into art and culture institutions such as the Evliyagil Museum, a non-profit gallery that promotes and sells the work of young artists, founded by collector Sarp Evliyagil.

Awoken from its long, post-Ottoman slumber, the megapolis is fast emerging as a global art capital, seducing visitors with its intoxicating blend of freshness and aged urbanity. Brimming with artists, galleries, biennials and art fairs, the city of 15 million people is experiencing a cultural renaissance of sorts.

Setting the Global Stage
The Istanbul Biennial, recognised as one of the world’s most prestigious biennials, was launched in 1987. Over the years, the event has brought together artists from different cultures and backgrounds, allowing for dialogues to emerge between the creative community and a global audience. This year’s biennial (September 14 to November 10) featured works by more than 50 artists. Overseen by Nicolas Bourriaud, a French curator, it was titled The Seventh Continent after the vast mass of plastic waste floating in the oceans. In a period of increasingly rapid communication, the exhibition has become a hot spot for the introduction, debate and assessment of current paradigms in local, international and transnational contemporary art.

A Modern Direction
One of the Middle East’s most anticipated art fairs, Contemporary Istanbul (CI) has been commanding international attention since its launch. The 14th edition of the fair this year (September 12-15) showcased Istanbul’s dynamic contemporary art scene as well as that of the region and the world. Featuring 74 galleries from 23 countries, 510 artists and over 1,400 artworks, the fair holds a unique position both geographically and culturally. Galleries, artists and collectors from Turkey, the Caucasus countries, Russia and the Middle East, as well as from other parts of Europe, America and Asia, find a platform at the event.

Walking around the fair’s two venues — the Istanbul Congress Center and the Rumeli Fair and Exhibition Hall at the Istanbul Lutfi Kirdar International Convention and Exhibition Center — I’m struck by the event’s rich and diverse offerings. A dramatic and monumental outdoor sculpture garden called Garden of Eden; a talks programme; the 7th edition of Plugin, a sector focused on digital and new media art; an extensive exhibition dedicated to recent acquisitions by some of Turkey’s most prominent collectors as well as a congregation of great artists.

Under the fair’s dynamic chairman Ali Gureli, CI has expanded its geographic inclusivity, welcoming special projects from Azerbaijan, France, Georgia, Malta, and elsewhere. Gureli hopes the event “will continue to grow a local and international collector base for Turkish and international artists, coinciding with the city’s push to become a key hub for contemporary and modern art in the Mediterranean region”.

Local Inspiration
Istanbul is also gaining traction for its vibrant art galleries. From Garaj, tucked away in the backstreets of Beyoğlu, to Rodeo, considered one of the most exciting art spaces, there’s much on offer. However, it is the impressive Arter that has created a significant buzz lately. The mint-fresh monumental contemporary gallery space in the Dolapdere district is grabbing eyeballs for its spectacular design and concept.

Set amidst a sprawling warren of cacophonous noise and movement, the building’s facade is covered with a mosaic of rectangular planes of glass fibre which glow like fireflies as the sun sets over the city. The stacked timber design takes its inspiration from the region of Odunpazari’s traditional Ottoman wooden cantilevered houses and pays homage to the town’s history as a thriving wood market.

The three-storeyed gallery offers a variety of exhibition spaces and a sky-lit atrium for natural light. It is Istanbul’s — and indeed Turkey’s — first home to a permanent collection of contemporary art. Visitors can view more than 1,300 works by over 300 artists, half of which are of Turkish origin, without an entrance fee. Its collection includes world-renowned luminaries like Joseph Beuys, Geta Brătescu, Mona Hatoum and Sophie Calle.

Planning for the Future
The city, with a millennia of history behind it, is today home to a dizzying array of museums housing everything from ancient artefacts to contemporary sculpture and high-concept literature. Old favourites include Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sofia. However, the ‘big daddy’ among them all is Istanbul Modern or the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, an integral part of the city’s artistic landscape since 2004. Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the museum is located in a converted warehouse in the Tophane district on the shores of the Bosphorus River.

There are exhibitions on two floors. A permanent one on the top floor takes me through the history of modern Turkish art. On the lower floors, I view temporary exhibitions while getting a sneak peek into a cinema and a library as well. A plethora of important international shows offers visitors a glimpse into international art. Notable exhibitions include British sculptor Anthony Cragg’s Human Nature and Fantastic Machinery which showcased the work of artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Robert Rauschenberg. The permanent collection as well as temporary exhibits showcase the work of leading Turkish painters.

Taking it to the Streets
Istanbul doesn’t believe in mummifying art and serving it up in glass cases. There’s art everywhere, accessible to all, and the city’s rustic street art is especially appealing. Taking its name from the windmills that peppered the city in the 18th century, the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood in the Kadiköy district is an area with a personality. Revamped and revived by the local municipality some five years ago, it hosts collective culture spaces, creative workshops and trendy cafes.

This colourful neighbourhood resembles an open-air gallery, thanks to Turkey’s first street art festival, Mural Istanbul, during which artists painted on its buildings. At Arthere Istanbul, you can view works of local and foreign artists while quaffing your coffee. Is music your passion? Pop into Yeldeğirmeni Sanat, situated in a former French church, for a concert. Care for shopping? Tasarim Bakkali makes art affordable by selling local designs at knockdown prices.

Tough to believe, but Yeldeğirmeni was earlier a grassy knoll with a few windmills where shepherds would hang out with their flock! Later, it morphed into a red-light district and retirement home. About five years ago, an annual street art festival transformed the area completely, prompting an influx of artists and entrepreneurs, who moved in to open cafes and art studios here.

I trawl around the district, soaking up its atmosphere, chin-wagging with the friendly local artists and snapping building facades awash with dramatic and kaleidoscopic murals. For me, these not only make for highly Instagrammable artworks but also treasurable mementos from one of the world’s greatest cities.

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