As Istanbul Modern prepares to turn four, a new show finds it coming into its own. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports.
A city of 15 million people splayed over the joint between Europe and Asia, Istanbul boasts a thriving art scene replete with commercial galleries, public institutions, private museums, studios, residency programs, project spaces and a handful of serious art stars such as Kutlug Ataman and Haluk Akakçe. The international art world has deigned to recognise the city since 1987, when the Istanbul Biennial was born. Nonetheless and however absurd, Istanbul is still regarded as peripheral to the art world's centres in Europe and North America. Among artists and curators, anxieties over occidental versus oriental influence persist. The exhibition Held Together with Water, on view at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art until January 11, features two videos that confront these anxieties head on.
The first piece is Nil Yalter's 1974 video La Femme sans tete ou la danse du Ventre (The Headless Woman or the Belly Dance). A groundbreaking work by a Turkish artist who was born in Cairo and has been based in Paris since the 1960s (a columnist for Turkey's Today's Zaman newspaper recently likened her art to a national treasure fit for the official archives), the piece frames the artist's bare midriff as she uses a felt-tip pen to write passages from a text on eroticism in winding circles around her navel. When her skin is all but covered in ink, she begins to dance, oriental style, cleverly collapsing a set of competing clichés about the drive for women's sexual liberation (in the West) and the desire for old-school exotic seduction (in the East).
The second piece is Sener Özmen and Cengiz Tekin's uproarious 2004 video The Meeting or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet. Deliciously irreverent, the work presents three men who meet in a wasted rural landscape, insult one another and, in a final crescendo, exchange blows over ludicrous claims about realism, revolutionaries and the bourgeoisie. While Yalter's piece skewers the feminine mystique, Özmen and Tekin's playfully ridicules masculinity. Yet both works strike an important chord that situates the exhibition in a specific place and time.
Istanbul Modern, as the museum is widely known, turns four in December. It opened its doors to much fanfare in late 2004, when its inauguration was politically fast-tracked to coincide with the announcement that summit talks would soon take place on Turkey's European Union membership bid. (Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the country's prime minister, addressed the press amid the white walls of the newly minted museum.) Istanbul Modern is in many ways regarded today as a showcase for Turkey's European ambitions, though it is notably not a state institution.
Many of Istanbul's museums and art spaces are private initiatives backed by major banks - such as the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center and the Yapi Kredi Kazim Taskent Sanat Galerisi. Others are financed by corporations, holding companies or the estates of business tycoons - such as the Pera Museum (funded by the Koç family) and the Sakip Sabanci Museum (which organised Picasso in Istanbul, a 2005 exhibition billed as the first of its kind for a western artist in Turkey, and is currently hosting a blockbuster show on Salvador Dalí).
Istanbul Modern is inextricably linked to the Eczacibasi family, industrialists and cultural philanthropists who in 1973 established the Istanbul Foundational for Culture and Arts. In addition to Istanbul Modern, the foundation oversees the Istanbul Biennial, several jazz, film and theatre festivals and a series of smaller, more intimate cultural events. The Eczacibasi family prised Istanbul Modern's venue from the state - a boxy, 8,000 square metre space in a former customs warehouse that edges the bustling Bosporus. But it financed thebuilding's $5 million (Dh18.3m) renovation alone.
Though Istanbul's relationship to other cities in the Middle East is far from straightforward, the museum is an interesting case study for arts initiatives emerging elsewhere in the region. The current exhibition - which is bolstered by an enjoyable if fairly lightweight photography show (Human Conditions, featuring the Turkish artists Sitki Kösemen, Süreyya Yilmaz Dernek and Ergün Turan), a weightier video program (The City Rises, pairing the Turkish video artists Ali Kazma and Fikret Atay with vintage works by the Polish artist Zbig Rybczynski) and a film series dedicated to Tilda Swinton - is an opportunity to assess its achievements.
Held Together with Water features 116 works by 39 artists and retrieves much of its material from the vault that was 1970s feminism. There are examples of body art, performance art, video art and a slew of gender-bending experiments in which women photograph themselves as men and vice versa. There are rarely-shown works by well-known artists such as Cindy Sherman, Valie Export, Suzy Lake and Eleanor Antin alongside masterpieces by less-known artists such as Birgit Jürgenssen and Francesca Woodman.
Held Together with Water offers a glimpse of Cindy Sherman's early efforts, such as the 16-milometer silent film Doll Clothes and several photographic series made before the artist's landmark Untitled Film Stills. It sets feminist art in context rather than considering it in isolation. Named for a floor sculpture by Lawrence Weiner that is skillfully installed at the entrance to the show, Held Together with Water balances a certain intellectual austerity (Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gordon Matta-Clark, Fred Sandback) with a lightness of touch (a nine-channel video of Francis Alÿs tumbling over a stray dog in Mexico City) and subversive street cred (Nan Goldin's gritty imagery, David Wojnarowicz's Arthur Rimbaud in New York series).
The exhibition ponders the ways in which feminists, conceptualists and urban interventionists all broke with traditional methods of art-making such as painting and sculpting. It considers how these cracks and fractures extend from the 1970s to the present day. And it explores the critical turns that photography in particular has taken over nearly four decades. Still, it is worth noting that Held Together with Water is as much a corporate merger as an artistic enterprise. All of the works in the show come from a collection that was established by Austria's leading electricity company, Verbund, in 2004 (Philipp Kaiser of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Marc-Olivier Wahler from Paris' Palais de Tokyo sit on the Verbund collection's board of advisors). Last year, Verbund entered into a joint venture with Turkey's Sabanci Holding, and each company now holds a 50 per cent stake in EnerjiSA, which aims to acquire a ten per cent share in the Turkish electricity sector and hopes to be a player in a privatization process. So Held Together with Water, which represents the first public presentation of the Verbund collection outside of Austria, may be most cynically viewed as a signing bonus. This could be seen as cause for lamentation over the insidious intermingling of commerce and culture, but the collection is too strong for that. More generously, the exhibition might be a model for private sector involvement in the arts.
Levent Çalikoglu, Istanbul Modern's chief curator, writes rather passionately in the exhibition catalogue about how Held Together with Water epitomises the museum's mission, which is to promote Turkish modern art, introduce Turkey to contemporary international art and forge meaningful links between the two. Istanbul Modern's previous exhibitions, eclectic to say the least, haven't always been so effective. But it seems that the museum is somehow, somewhat, on the right track.
Recent changes in the creative and administrative staff, however, raise a few red flags. When Istanbul Modern first opened, Rosa Martinez was the museum's chief curator. She organised 16 exhibitions in three years. A Spanish curator with considerable art world clout - she has organised countless high-profile biennials from Sao Paulo to Venice - Martinez has been heavily involved in Istanbul's contemporary art scene since the late 1990s. In 2007, David Elliott, a British curator who held previous posts at Modern Art Oxford and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo - joined her as Istanbul Modern's new director. In interviews, he outlined a vision for the museum over a three-year tenure. But by the end of last year, both Martinez and Elliott were gone. Elliott reportedly resigned over a dispute with Oya Eczacibasi regarding the permanent collection (Oya Eczacibasi chairs Istanbul Modern's board of directors, and a substantial portion of the museum's permanent collection was donated, of course, by the Eczacibasi family). Now Elliott is on deck to curate the next Sydney Biennale. Istanbul Modern, meanwhile, has no director.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beriut for The National.