It is a difficult time in Turkey. In the wake of an attempted coup in July last year, over 100,000 people have been arrested, sacked or suspended, resulting in widespread tension and uncertainty. Last year’s edition of Contemporary Istanbul, an annual art fair now in its 12th edition, was blighted by cancellations in the wake of the coup attempt. After 25 galleries dropped out, the organisers had to hurry to find replacements before the fair opened in November. Local gallerists and artists expressed fears that artworks deemed offensive might provoke reprisals and a group of Islamists stormed the fair to demand that a sculpture depicting a woman in a swimming costume bearing a painting of the late Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II be removed.
This year, the fair is being held in September to coincide with the launch of the Istanbul Biennial and features over 70 galleries, almost half of them based in Turkey. Some local gallerists and artists remain on edge but the artworks on display here do not shirk from commenting, whether through allusion or more forthrightly, on subjects ranging from the refugee crisis, to political censorship, to gentrification and rampant urbanisation.
Murat Palta, “From Dusk Till Dawn” (2017)
Located between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Turkey is a meeting point for diverse influences and traditions. In his tongue-in-cheek works, Murat Palta, a 27-year-old artist, reimagines the climactic scenes from western films and novels in the style of traditional 16th-century Ottoman miniatures, reflecting on Turkey’s blend of cultural influences and the clash between tradition and modernity. This scene, in “From Dusk Till Dawn”, a cult movie from 1996 written by Quentin Tarantino, is the moment when strippers in a bar transform into scaly vampires and attack their human audience.
Şükran Moral, “Hit-and-Run My Heart” (2017)
This photograph captures a moment from a live “guerrilla” performance at last year’s fair by Şükran Moral, who nailed chunks of raw meat and animal hearts to a white wall to protest against censorship. In 2010 Moral received death threats after staging a performance featuring lesbian sex in Istanbul and was forced to flee to Italy for a year. Although the performance last year was unmarked on the fair’s programme, due to fears it would attract protesters, this year the photograph and a video of the performance are on show at the fair, having been deemed less inflammatory than a live appearance.
Kezban Arca Batıbeki, “No Promised Land” (2017)
Every budget hotel and doctor’s office seems to have a nondescript landscape on the wall somewhere, often a pastoral scene depicting a cosy cottage by a lake. In “No Promised Land”, Kezban Arca Batıbeki contrasts these idyllic visions with the grim realities faced by refugees fleeing war. Having reached Turkey, many Syrian refugees risk their lives in the Mediterranean in search of their dream country, she says, not realising that no such place exists and that, if it did, they would not be welcome. Batıbeki spent years collecting old landscapes in flea markets and at boot sales. This collage is a mash-up of a 1948 oil painting by a Turkish artist and images of refugees taken from the internet.
Arda Yalkın, “Cabaret Plastique” (2017)
Created using 3D-imaging software, Arda Yalkın’s “Cabaret Plastique” series was inspired by two articles he read on the same day. One was a study showing that the use of antidepressants has escalated in Turkey over the past decade. The other was an unconnected study showing that home sales had increased over the same period. In “Cabaret Plastique” he creates a link between the two, speculating that rampant construction and urbanisation, as well as the pressures facing homeowners in a declining economy, are making people depressed. A woman stands in her designer kitchen, surrounded by round, white prescription pills and giant cockroaches. One of her fingers idly touches the tip of a carving knife, as though she is assessing how sharp it is.
Bedri Baykam, “The Box of Democracy,” (1987)
In celebration of its 30th anniversary, Bedri Baykam, a pioneer of the contemporary art scene in Turkey, is showing his famous installation “The Box of Democracy” for the eighth time since he created the work in 1987. Visitors are invited to step into the wooden box, which contains only an old landline telephone. Inside, they can do whatever they want, including making a phonecall or writing on the walls. Baykam created the box after the 1980 military coup in Turkey, which led to hundreds of thousands of arrests, dozens of executions and widespread fear and censorship. Covered with graffiti amassed over 30 years, Baykam’s installation, a symbol of freedom, is sadly as relevant now as it was when he made it.
İhsan Oturmak, “Alphabet Revolution and Repetition” (2013)
Based on an old photograph from 1928, İhsan Oturmak’s painting is a reflection on President Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s decree that Turkish was to be written using the Latin, rather than the Arabic, alphabet. The unhappy-looking students were against Ataturk’s government, the artist says, and many of them were later beheaded. As the title suggests, the painting explores the repetitive cycles of history. Over the past decade, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promoted the culture of Turkey’s Ottoman past. Religious schools at which students study subjects including Arabic and the Koran are growing in number, effectively reversing Ataturk’s reform in 1928.
Hasan Deniz, “Untitled” from the “Tersane” series (2016)
In 2016 Hasan Deniz, a photojournalist and artist, captured a series of photographs at Istanbul’s Imperial Arsenale, the Ottoman Empire’s main naval shipyard from the 16th century onwards. Located in the middle of an area of Istanbul transformed by gentrification, the Arsenale has been left to fall into ruin. Obsolete equipment and a derelict factory frame a view across the Bosphorus to the Suleymaniye Mosque, built by the Ottomans in 1558. The photographs were shown last year at Istanbul Modern, a museum located nearby on the old harbour docks, as part of a group exhibition intended to be the last before the museum relocated. But after an old post office which was supposed to house the museum was demolished earlier this year, Istanbul Modern remains on its original site, its future uncertain.
Contemporary Istanbul Istanbul Congress Centre, Istanbul, until September 17