Turkish and Other Delights

Turkish and Other Delights: An Introduction

Art21 is pleased to announce our newest column on the blog — the first of several new endeavors for 2011.

Turkish and Other Delights is a column devoted to exploring contemporary art practice in Turkey. Rather than seeking to provide a comprehensive or definitive account of the contemporary Turkish art community, this column will serve as a space for both reflection and documentation as guest blogger Elizabeth Wolfson* travels throughout the country interviewing artists, curators, and gallerists and reviewing exhibitions, museums, and galleries. Taking advantage of her current location at a small university in the central Anatolia region of the country, where she is working on Fulbright grant, Turkish and Other Delights will focus both on subjects located in Istanbul and those in more remote regions of the country, seeking to capture the diversity of identities, practices, and experiences of the Turkish artistic community. Additionally, this column will aim to provide readers with a broader perspective on the country’s recent emergence as an internationally renowned art center by placing its central themes, practices, and concerns within a wider historical, cultural, and geographical context. Turkish and Other Delights appears on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.

Formerly based in St. Louis, MO, where she attended college and graduate school, Wolfson has spent the past several years writing about art and culture for a variety of local, regional, and international publications. She has also worked at a number of area art institutions including the Saint Louis Art Museum and White Flag Projects, St. Louis’s largest non-profit contemporary art gallery. She holds a master’s degree in American Studies with a concentration in visual culture studies from Saint Louis University.

*The views expressed by the author are solely her own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.   — Ed.

Photograph by Cengiz Tekin, courtesy Outlet-istanbul.

“Why Turkey?”

This was the most common response I received last year to the news that I had received a Fulbright teaching grant and thus would be relocating to the country for nine months. Everyone, it seems, wants to visit Turkey; in 2009 President Obama made it the destination of his first visit to a predominantly Muslim nation shortly after his inauguration, and no less distinguished a group than the collective readers of the New York Times’ Travel section nominated it as their top destination for travel in 2010. But the notion of moving there, for nine months, and not even to Istanbul, but to a tiny town in the middle of the country, a ten-hour bus ride away from the cultural capital—this seemed to strike people as a bit excessive, more of an investment of time and attention than was actually warranted. Strangely enough, upon my arrival in Turkey, I encountered this same half-confused, half-incredulous attitude among Turks themselves. Upon arriving at my university and meeting my students and colleagues, I was constantly faced with the same question: “Neden Türkiye?” “Why Turkey?”

Why Turkey, indeed? For me, the answer to this question is in part located in the opportunity to turn it back around to the international community—to the international art press that for years has hyped Istanbul as “the next Berlin,” the European Union, which dubbed the city one of three European Capitals of Culture for 2010, the American news press which seems obsessed with documenting Turkey’s rise as a economic powerhouse and its growing regional and global geopolitical clout. Dispatches by foreign journalists writing for the English language press flood in from the east, reporting on the proliferation of art museums and galleries in Istanbul, the increase in the prices fetched at auction for works by Turkish artists, and the growth of Contemporary Istanbul, the city’s five year old annual contemporary art fair. Even events such as the violent attack on gallery visitors attending an evening of openings in Istanbul’s Tophane district this past October, which once would have been a local story, now receive attention in the international press.

Despite the seeming consensus that Turkey’s cultural, economic, and political stars are all on the ascent, there remains a tone of speculation and uncertainty in these reports, the sense that observers are aware that something is happening here, but no one is quite sure what it is—and that it might as easily turn out to be a figment of someone’s imagination, like Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster. But whose imagination? And why? Why Turkey? Why now? These are the questions people ask me; but these are the same questions that I came to Turkey to ask of it.

In a recent blog post for the New York Review of Books, the Pulitzer-prize winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk describes the creative and intellectual love affair with Europe that absorbed Turkish citizens for most of the twentieth century. “But this rose-colored dream of Europe,” laments Pamuk, “once so powerful that even our most anti-Western thinkers and politicians secretly believed in it, has now faded.” Pamuk points to a number of factors to explain this cooling of passions: the increased prosperity enjoyed by many Turks as a result of many years of rapid economic growth, a stronger civil society that has succeeded in ending the military’s decades of domination over the country’s political life, and the all-but-certain reality that despite many years of promises and negotiations, Turkey will likely never be granted membership in the European Union.

It is within the context of this new social, political and economic reality described by Pamuk that the current state of Turkish contemporary art has developed. It is undoubtedly a coincidence of timing that Istanbul’s Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, one of two institutions observers of the Turkish art scene point to as a catalyzing force in the reinvigoration of the country’s art community, happened to open its doors in the year prior to the 2002 election that ushered into power the socially conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) that continues to dominate Turkish politics. However, the closeness of these two events begs questions about how the contemporary art community has been affected by the current socio-cultural climate. How have artists, galleries, and other institutions navigated the changing landscape of Turkey’s evolving relationships with Europe, the United States, and its neighbors in the Middle East and Western Asia? What role does the country have to play as a point of contact between regions of the world that view each other from increasingly hostile positions, and what roles do artistic production and the international art market have to play in all of this? It is my hope that by spending the coming months traveling throughout the country, engaging in conversation with artists, curators, and gallerists, attending exhibitions, and visiting the nation’s cultural institutions, I will make some progress in answering these questions, helping to document a historical moment even as it continues to unfold.

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