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Contemporary Istanbul: Art is more powerful than Politics
September 16, 2017
Now in its twelfth year and with a new layout and a closer dialogue with the city’s major art institutions, this year’s Contemporary Istanbul (CI) art fair is instilling optimism and confidence among local and foreign collectors.
‘Art is more powerful than politics’ states Sari Golan from The Triangle art gallery based in Tel Aviv – one of this year’s participants in the fair. Contemporary Istanbul may not have been the obvious choice for an Israeli gallery but Golan keenly explains it is the fair’s atmosphere and the quality of art on display that drew them to participate. The gallery is showing a solo booth by the Israeli artist Lili Cohen Prah-ya including a selection of delicate illustrations of sensitively drawn female nudes on gold tissue paper.
29 of the 73 participating galleries this year are newcomers, some from as far afield as Los Angeles, New York and Cape Town. First-timer to the fair this year was blue chip gallery Victoria Miro, which has permanent gallery spaces both in London and Venice. At Contemporary Istanbul the gallery is presenting a selection of sculptures by British artist Grayson Perry as well as works by Japanese superstar spot-painter Yayoi Kusama and the Korean installation artist Do Ho Suh. Victoria Miro also represents the Danish artistic duo Elmgreen and Dragset, who curated this year’s Istanbul Biennial, which this year opens at the same time as Contemporary Istanbul and remains on show until November 12.
Jonny Davies, director at Flowers Gallery, which has spaces in New York and London, explained his decision to participate in this years fair came down to his faith in its new director, the London based Iranian curator and collector, Kamiar Maleki, as well as the current buzz around Istanbul’s art scene. A highlight of Flowers Gallery’s booth was the work of Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky. His stunning landscapes will also be showing in the new year Borusan Contemporary – one of the most important contemporary art institutes in Istanbul, housed in a red tower block on the shores of the Bosphorus.
Stronger institutional ties were a significant draw for multiple international galleries including Galleria Continua from San Gimignano in Italy, who have three artists showing at multiple spaces throughout Istanbul including Ai Weiwei, who’s major new exhibition at Istanbul’s Sakip Sabanci Museum focuses on porcelain works inspired by China’s connection to the Ottoman Empire through the Silk Road. Galleria Continua’s director, Cecilia Fontanelli, also explained that it was more convenient to have the fair earlier in September due to the busy Autumn period with Frieze and Fiac in October.
Yet, the majority of the 44 galleries who returned this year were based in Istanbul, reinforcing the city as a major player within the contemporary art scene. Galerist, which is a commercial gallery located in the city’s trendy Beyo?lu neighbourhood, had a booth at the fair that only showed works by Turkish artists, with one exception. It also presented work by the first Turkish female video artist, Nil Yalter. In Exile is a Hard Job (2015) Yalter has printed a series of manipulated black and white images of Turkish immigrants onto canvas – on the top of which, a bright red neon sign spells out the work’s title. This is the first time a work from the artist’s immigrant series has been shown in a gallery – evidently Turkey’s current precarious political situation did not deter galleries from bringing provocative works to the fair.
In addition to attracting a wider range of international galleries, the fair itself was redesigned by local firm Tabanl?o?lu Architects who sought to bring the outside, inside, by replacing the flooring with artificial grass. The effect was soothing and pleasing to the eye, if not slightly precarious underfoot.
The Fifth Element, Istanbul’s first public sculpture park which was co-organised with the fair, also opened this week in a bid to create closer ties with the local community. Works by artists including the British painter and sculptor Tony Cragg and the Italian artist Jannis Kounellis, who sadly died earlier this year, are spread throughout the park, transforming the public space that only last year was the site of political unrest.
Much of the fair’s success this year was due to its commitment to championing Istanbul’s arts scene as a whole, and through its co-ordination with the cities biennial and several concurrent major gallery openings, the city currently is a big draw for collectors and tourists alike. It is evident that Contemporary Istanbul reinforces the city’s artistic power through both international engagement, but more importantly, through the way in which it continues to nurture often under-voiced Turkish artists.
Words by Wilhemina Madeley
Contemporary Instanbul, 14-17 September 2017.