Istanbul Modern

Istanbul Modern Art Museum

– Held Together by Water

East Meets West – “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet”.

“The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He.” ( From My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.

Few things in life are certain. According to recent obituaries of Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas eve last year, he saw only the laws of cricket as immutable. He might have added the reliability of taxi drivers, anywhere in the world, offering unsolicited opinions on matters both local and universal. It was the end of December, 2008, and, as our taxi crawled slowly across the bridge over the Bosphorus, from the freezing rain of European Istanbul to the snows of Asia-Minor, on its way to Sabiha Gokcen Airport, our taxi driver informed us that the New Year firework display, planned for that evening in Taksim Square, had been cancelled. As it happened, we already knew. The English language newspaper, the Istanbul Daily News, that morning had reported the cancellation of the celebrations as a government response to the credit crisis, though, in the light of the appalling weather conditions, this seemed a somewhat redundant gesture.

– No, that’s not the reason – the taxi driver told us – It’s because of the Gaza situation.

– So the government is showing Turkish sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza?

– No. The government fears a terrorist attack. We have a lot of Islamist refugees here from the arab states. They’re always looking to stir up trouble because of Turkey’s support for Israel.

I suppose our error was understandable, a typically ‘orientalist’ reaction, a type-casting of the politics of a Middle Eastern state; especially understandable, perhaps, in relation to Turkey. The country gives off so many conflicting vibes that it is clear that little is clear, on issues relating to Islam. Modern Turkey is very much the creation of Kemal Ataturk, whose portrait appears on all Turkish bank notes and whose revolutionary reforms of the 1930s still dominate a state that is nationalist, democratic, republican and secular and allows no role for religion in politics. The defence of this constitutional arrangement has caused a number of recent problems. Secularism has led to a threat to ban the ruling Justice and Development party of the prime minister, Recep Ergodan, because of its links with Islam, whilst national sensibilities impose restraints on journalists who have been imprisoned under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, for “denigrating Turkishness”. Turkey sits uneasily between east and west in ways that transcend the merely geographic and with consequences for the country’s often expressed desire to join the European Union.
This European ambition impacts clearly on the arts and would seem to give protection to artists, judging by some of the work on show at the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. Founded in December 2004, in an old warehouse overlooking the Sea of Marmora, Istanbul Modern houses a permanent collection of modern Turkish art on the ground floor, exhibited in the context of both conventional, western art history and more traditional, Islamic artistic values. The basement houses temporary exhibitions, designed to provide access for a Turkish audience to examples of contemporary art both from Turkey and from around the world. In the current show, Held Together with Water, there is a video by the Turkish artists, Ozman and Tek, entitled Bonjour Monsieur Courbet. It is an unambiguously amateurish dramatic reconstruction of Courbet’s somewhat controversial encounter with his patron, Calas. In the video, their meeting begins harmoniously but rapidly degenerates into an utterly foul-mouthed argument – in Turkish but with English subtitles – about realism and romanticism (art history), and terrorism (contemporary politics), with “Courbet” urging his adversary to “piss off you prick” whilst proclaiming “realism and terrorism are both shit”, and in which both the ‘c’ word and the ‘f’ word are used liberally to describe bourgeois and revolutionary alike. The video ends with the flight of the bourgeois accompanied by man-servant and dog.
Not only have the artists escaped the red pen of the censor with regard to their use of language, but also with regard to their choice of artist as a filter for their ideas. Much of the art on show in the museum is mediated through the prism of western art history – as if this was necessary to validate the work – but usually with reference to safer and less controversial exemplars. Courbet was at odds with his times, a revolutionary figure within the community of artists but also within the wider context of French society; a realist and a revolutionary, in the vanguard of a new artistic movement and politically active at a time of upheaval and uncertainty. It would be disingenuous to imagine that that the Turkish artists were unaware of the cultural, socio-economic and political context of the work and that it was never their intention to exploit it. Bonjour Monsieur Courbet is a manifesto for change. The museum’s permanent collection of Turkish art on the ground floor gives little intimation of the radical rumblings from underground. It is designed to show the impact of modernity on painting in Turkey and is presented, literally through information boards, as a survey of art history throughout the modern period that would be recognised by any European art student. Dominated by Islam until the Kemalist Revolution in the 1920s, Turkish painting then progressed rapidly through a litany of genres, faithfully recorded in gallery after gallery, with works on the human body, landscape, still life, women (especially important in view of Turkey’s Moslem past), abstraction (lyrical), abstraction (geometric), and so on.
The essential dichotomy that confronts Turkey’s contemporary artists is represented by the Artist Balkan Naci Islimyeli in his “dress-canvas” work Straightjacket, first exhibited in New York in 1990 and now in the permanent collection. Born in 1947, Islimyeli lived through several military coups, was arrested for his political activities and spent some years in exile. Now accepted, he still rails against the “exploitative mentality” that applauds the international success of Turkish artists, yet remains reluctant fully to embrace that success at home. The work is a photograph of a double kaftan, much like those of the Ottoman sultans on display in the Topkapi Museum, but with the arms upraised and with two portrait heads of the artist confronting one another. The symbolism is direct, the visual impact powerful and the message clear. He intends the work to “enable viewers to consider their own position in the complex cultural web represented by modern Turkey in the contemporary world”.
Held Together by Water is the result of a collaboration between the museum and a European corporate partner, Verbund, the Austrian electricity giant. All the works come from their collection and were shown first in Vienna, in 2007. Whatever the merits of the works in the exhibition – and there are, for example, many good early photographs by Cindy Sherman and Gilbert and George – it represents an element in the contemporary art scene in Turkey to which some critics and arts’ practitioners have take exception. According to the Turkish writer, Sureyyya Evren, the show represents the introduction of the “Trojan Horse of cultural imperialism” into Turkey, part of a EU/US inspired plot to undermine the Turkish state. Though sounding distinctly paranoid his view seems likely to promote a nationalist/secularist campaign against the 12th Biennial to be held later this year. Curated by a Croatian gallery in Zagreb, the Biennial is alleged to have a political agenda designed to foment ethnic nationalism and bring about the Balkanisation of Turkey.
Art is destined to be at the centre of whatever fate is in store for Turkish secularism and Istanbul Modern is clearly committed to the corporate route and to a symbiotic relationship with western art, parasitic or mutualistic, depending on your point of view. The bar at the Istanbul Modern is emblematic of this commitment, as it looks out west, across the Sea of Marmora at the gulf that divides Europe from Asia, Christianity from Islam, groaning under the weight of western wines, spirits and expectations.

Terry Fairman