Reflections on “Istanbul Modern”(7)
On 11 December 2004, Istanbul Modern, the name being a reference to Tate Modern, opened on the Karaköy shore of Bosphorus, in buildings well known as Antrepo to international art circles. In 1995, René Block, had launched his mega-show of contemporary art under the title “Orientations” in the reinforced concrete halls of the building. Later, in 2003, Dan Cameron used the building for the 8th Istanbul Biennale, dividing it into two parts, one as a dark cube for video-shows, the other as a white cube for painting and installations. The biennale context had played a role when, in this space, the city now got a modern museum of its own.
The patron, the Eczacıbaşı Family and Foundation did not hesitate to invest a couple of million dollars into this project. The current president of Istanbul Modern, Mrs. Oya Eczacıbaşı has pursued the dream of founding a modern art museum for the last fifteen years. In the early 1990s, Feshane (the Ottoman Fez Factory), which was also the space of the 3rd Istanbul Biennale, had been considered as site for the new museum.
Turkey’s early and late modernist painting, mostly in official and private collections, has been exhibited and published extensively throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century. In addition, the Painting and Sculpture Museum, an annex of Dolmabahçe Palace keeps an important collection of pre-modern and modern paintings, however they do so in a very questionable way! Paintings, such as those that are sold for millions of dollars in local auctions, suffer the conditions of a humid, nineteenth-century building on the edge of the Bosphorus. In 2004, the Eczacıbaşı Family, also responsible for the Istanbul Biennale, decided to make use of the Antrepo, which had become available at the time. The building was renovated by a group of young architects with a functional and minimalist approach. They installed glass cubes that are evocative of the glass cubes of Dan Graham, with various necessary functions (library, café, office). Monica Bonvicini’s steel and chain staircase (8th Istanbul Biennale), might have inspired the architects to utilize the same materials.
Members of AICA Turkey, of which I happen to be the president, served as local curators (Haşim Nur Gürel, Levent Çalıkoğlu, Ali Akay). Later on, in autumn 2004, Roza Martínez, the curator of the 4th Istanbul Biennale, was appointed chief curator, and invited another AICA Turkey member, Fulya Erdemci, to be local co-curator. However, soon resignations were heard and lead to a certain instability in the administration. In addition, Roza Martínez’s interest in the local art scene was not very evident. The enthusiasm of the public, however, was encouraging. After the end of the last biennale, October 2003, there was time to furnish the museum with an appropriate collection. Despite the team of curators and a group of advisors among whom were renowned artists, the museum did not respond to the needs of the Istanbul art scene.
The curators of Istanbul Modern launched a painting retrospective from the Eczacıbaşı Collection and from İs Bankası (Labor Bank) displaying a wide range of early modernism including Impressionist and Expressionist items and some late modernist figurative and abstract masterpieces. The curators preferred an eclectic hanging by mixing the early with the later paintings adding informative text with rather romantic titles. But a monotonous linearity in Turkish production, lacking Futurism, Surrealism and Pop Art, revealed conformity of the artists with the official modernist utopia. The public saw these paintings for the first time. Yet, artists’ wishes somehow were disregarded by the aims and visions of the investor. I was reminded, however, of the debates about the Flick Collection in Berlin where the grandson of the Nazi Germany industrialist Christian Flick donated his 300 million USD collection of contemporary art to the Hamburger Bahnhof to be exhibited for seven years. Artists and intellectuals in Germany protested in fierce discussions for a couple of months. Investors proved to be not free to realize their dreams, as they had to confront the public opinion.
In short, the ambiguous interaction between the museum context, art investor, curator, and the artists needs to be negotiated. Art and culture have become a trade mark for the partners of global capitalism, the private sector, the state and the NGOs. In fact, seeing culture in the light of capitalism, this new constellation raises the share of culture, by broadening its consumption, privatizing state property and creating cultural monopoly along with other monopolies. After the tax exemption law, huge amounts of money will be invested into this field. I asked such questions when I went through the empty halls of the new museum.
At the moment, it seems satisfactory to have the structure (the building), while the content must be temporarily postponed. It is a familiar experience that the container rather than the contained captivates the people. Everything else is confined to the waiting room of art history. The attempt of the board of Istanbul Modern to buy an Orientalist painting by the renowned painter, museologist, and archaeologist Osman Hamdi (1842-1910) for 3 million USD just after the opening of Istanbul Modern, confirmed my suspicions about the interests of the entrepreneurs. It is paradoxical to invest in an Orientalist painting while the so-called trans-avant-garde of the 1980s and 1990s are absent from the museum collection. Moreover, an Orientalist painting of secondary rank has no place in a modern and contemporary museum. Fortunately enough, the painting, in question was acquired by the Koç Family, at the sum of about 4 million USD, for their Orientalist collection in a new museum in the Beyoglu district, the Pera Museum.
Obviously, there is a lack of interest in modernism and postmodernism. This also points to a failure of art critics and curators since the mid-twentieth century. Local art experts did not create a climate of knowledge of this kind. Now, after the museum opened, the experts will hopefully fill this void and emphasize the need for contemporary culture and art, against a delayed aesthetic conscience.
After decades of absence, modern and contemporary art in Turkey should not remain at the mercy of investors, but become centers of discussion for the local and international public, to quote Adorno: “culture is a paradoxical commodity. So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used.” And, to continue in his words: “The culture industry has taken over the civilizing inheritance of the entrepreneurial and frontier democracy, whose appreciation of intellectual deviations was never finely attuned.”(8) We need the intellectual support of our international colleagues who visit Istanbul to explore its artistic and cultural panorama. We will appreciate if they take the Istanbul culture industry seriously in a critical spirit.
(7) The following text is a shortened version of Reflections on “Istanbul Modern,” in Third Text, no 75 (London, 2005), p.437-40
(8) The quotations are from: Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (first published in 1944), Transcribed by Andy Blunden 1998, http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/adorno.htm.