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Contemporary Istanbul – The Ingredients of a Great Fair

November 5, 2016

ArtsGroup Exhibition | by Harry Seymour

In the year 1970, there were a grand total of 3 art fairs happening across the globe. Fast forward to 2016 however, and we have 270. And that’s just the major ones. Contemporary Istanbul, which is now in its 11th year, is the latest in a slew of fairs to try and set itself apart from the pack, by re-examining the art fair model. We take a look at the ingredients necessary to make CI stand out in 2016…

First, the location. Set amidst the slopes of Istanbul’s Sisli district, in a monolith of the 150,000 metre squared ‘ICC’ convention centre, the fair’s district feels rather business-y, lacking perhaps the foliage of Frieze, or the industrial grandeur of Art Brussels. A charming location is often an important and overlooked part of the wow factor of a fair, trying to compete with other ‘tier 2’ fairs (tier 1 being TEFAF and the like, who need no help in drawing crowds). If this were in London, it would be Earl’s Court Exhibition centre, and that’s hard to get excited about.

Moving on from venue to contents – the fair claims to be ‘international contemporary art’, yet the majority of galleries are from Turkey, with the addition of a handful of southeast Asian, Spanish and German galleries (who it feels took some persuading to be there). Their contents ranges from relatively safe bet to unimaginative, with few galleries feeling daring, and overall their feels a lack of theme, direction, and most importantly, excitement. Curation feels non-existent and the so-called ‘selection committee’ could do with visiting a fair more fairs to get an example of what makes for good appearances. There is a lack of interaction as you walk around the site between viewer and work, and nothing seems to challenge – the work, while certainly falling under the moniker ‘contemporary’ feels out of date. A small row of booths dedicated to non-profits and initiatives feels like a cop out for face, and the solo show booths can easily be passed by un-noticed. A new addition for this year entitled ‘collectors stories’ asked 60 Turkish collectors to each bring their two favourite pieces to display at the fair had us excited, but it failed to deliver. No sense of curation could be felt, works were poorly displayed, and most frustratingly the majority lacked the context in which they had been selected. Instead it felt like a chance for the friends and associates of the fairs organisers to pat themselves on the back, and being told that no-one had anything to benefit from it was an insult to our intelligence.

Some booths, such as Pi gallery’s, did hit the mark, with clever works, engaging curation and interesting dialects – this sort of forward thinking needs to be the drive off the fair.

View of the booth of Pi Artworks at Contemporary Istanbul, 2016. Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul.
View of the booth of Pi Artworks at Contemporary Istanbul, 2016. Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul.

But having said all this, CI still felt a success. It created a great buzz in a city that is facing a very tough time. Only two months ago it was on the brink of a civil war, has been one of the most burdened by the migrant crisis and has seen tourism all but wiped out. So for the organisers to push ahead and do the fair, has been no walk in the park. Their steadfast belief and pride in the city, and country’s art scene, is admirable. The crowds turned out, the wallets were revealed, and everyone, for a couple of days, is being brought together to have a good time in the name of art; surely that’s nothing to be sniffed at. Sales were strong at the preview, with works up to £250,000 selling in the first few hours, proving the collectors were out in force, ready to buy, and that key pieces were sought after amongst the offerings.

Collector's Stories. Photo Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul.
Collector’s Stories. Photo Courtesy Contemporary Istanbul.

The programme’s structure is perfect – and with its move to September next year to coincide with several other art events, it will be the focus of ‘Istanbul Art Week’. The talks, tours, visits to studios, galleries and collector’s houses and VIP programme is worthy of any top global art fair, and ‘Collector’s Stories’ is wonderfully inventive albeit flat. With a slight push in the right direction to bring it inline with other European fairs (see; Arco, MiArt, Artissima etc. for ideas on how to create great atmosphere), and better-curated art with well thought out projects, Contemporary Istanbul could be one of the best. It has all the ingredients of a great fair, and more importantly, the hungry guests – it just needs a clever head chef to bring it all together and make it a masterpiece. They have pulled of quite an achievement in the face of recent adversity, so due respect must be given, and we have little doubt that next year, they will fill the cracks of this year’s fair, cementing Contemporary Istanbul firmly on the art fair circuit.

Contemporary Istanbul, 3-5 November 2016, Istanbul Congress Centre: Darulbedai Cad. No: 3 Sisli Istanbul, ICEC, Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Centre: Gümü, Cad. No: 4 34367, Harbiye, Istanbul