Turkey Pulse

Istanbul's Arter ‘pushing boundaries' of Turkey's art scene

Article Summary
Turkey’s newest contemporary art museum promises an ambitious program for 2020 and pledges to remain a haven for artistic expression.

ISTANBUL — The historic neighborhood of Dolapdere serves as an unlikely setting for Istanbul's first purpose-built contemporary art museum, towering above the area's rundown terracotta rooftops. Arter, which opened its doors last fall, has high hopes of pushing boundaries by working across disciplines and with international peers to fuel artistic dialogue at a time when expression in Turkey has been muted.

Among the projects Arter slated for 2020 is a retrospective of the German artist and filmmaker K.P. Brehmer co-produced with institutions in Germany and the Netherlands. The museum will also probe the relationship between art and sound with an exhibition by the Turkish artist and musician Cevdet Erek, a group show in Arter’s Sound Art series, and a new music festival. 

The new landmark “enables Arter to assume its role as a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts institution with a strong conceptual art collection at its core while pursuing its mission of encouraging contemporary artistic production across all disciplines, from music to dance, theater to sonic arts, film to literature,” said Melih Fereli, Arter’s founding director.

The museum, whose construction and collection cost $130 million, put its mark on Turkey's biggest city even before it opened. Built on the site of a former auto repair shop, it emerged as the centerpiece of the transformation of Dolapdere, a working-class district where commercial galleries, hotels and residential towers have sprouted in anticipation of Arter’s arrival. 

The pearlescent coating of Arter's sheath of tessellated Turkish ceramic tiles reflects different colors while also serving as a screen for sunlight that seeps into the galleries. “[A central atrium] provides permeability and connectivity throughout the entire building,” said James Pearson of Grimshaw Architects, the London-based firm that designed the museum.

The 43,000 square feet of staggered galleries vary in size, some of them three stories in height. The basement includes the versatile performance space Karbon and an auditorium for films, conferences and concerts. 

The Vehbi Koc Foundation announced its intention to build Arter in 2013. The foundation is funded by the Koc family, which owns Turkey’s largest holding company and sponsors the prestigious Istanbul Biennial. Arter’s original opening date of 2016 was delayed to address changes in building regulations. 

The museum stands in sharp contrast to its surroundings. The area was once part of the historic Tatavla neighborhood, home to ethnic Greeks before economic and political pressure forced their exodus decades ago. An Orthodox church represents one of the last remnants of this past. Today, the area has attracted migrants from Africa and Syria who crowd into its dense, dilapidated housing to be close to the city center.

The museum's glass cube structure puts the neighborhood on display, with windows at the rear opening onto a patchwork of old houses climbing up a slope.

“A driving factor in how we thought about the space was its location in a neighborhood that had not been exposed to art. We looked for potential connections and a way to give back to the space, including a small park at the back,” Pearson told Al-Monitor.

Before opening, Arter undertook research to get to know its neighbors and their expectations for the museum. It has continued to build on these relationships by offering local residents free membership, holding a weekly children’s workshop and creating a Teen Council that encourages older kids to engage more deeply with art. 

The works of Altan Gurman on display inside the Arter in Istanbul, photo uploaded Nov. 23, 2019. Credit: Facebook/arteristanbul

Since its inauguration in 2010, Arter has been located in a grand 19th-century apartment building on Istiklal Avenue. The building now houses Mesher, an exhibition space highlighting different historical periods, places and disciplines. Its first show of 2020, opening next month, is “Alexis Gritchenko: The Constantinople Years,” examining the Ukrainian avant-garde painter’s brief sojourn in Istanbul after fleeing the Russian Revolution.

Despite a sweeping government crackdown on civil society in the wake of a 2016 failed military coup, Turkey has witnessed a spate of museum openings, including a permanent contemporary art space in the city of Eskisehir and a museum of painting and sculpture in Istanbul.

 Fereli acknowledged the “prevailing circumstances” in Turkey, but said Arter remains committed to providing a platform for artists’ voices. “I believe that the worst would be for an institution or an artist to exercise self-censorship,” he said. “I am not advocating provocative blatancy but would suggest that it might have to be a last resort for any artist or institution if it means securing a world without censorship.”

Arter’s collection of some 1,400 works includes works by international artists such as Mona Hatoum and Sophie Calle and has a strong Fluxus representation. About a third of the works are by Turkish artists. The non-profit has opted to present these works in temporary exhibitions, rather than devote permanent space to the collection.

Six exhibitions from the inaugural program remain on view this month and include shows on the multimedia artist Ayse Erkmen and the painter Inci Furni. The big draw, however, is Altan Gurman, a pioneering figure in Turkish art whose rejection of the orthodoxy of his time forced him into obscurity. Gurman finally gets his due in Arter’s retrospective

At a time when Gurman's Turkish counterparts were still painting with oil on canvas, he used a pump to spray blocks of wood with car paint and then dressed them in barbed wire. “He was largely ignored because people could not make sense of his work,” said Basak Doga Temur, curator of the Gurman exhibition. “This exhibition is an insertion of a missing piece in our art history.” 

Gurman died in 1976 at the age of 41, having had only one solo show. His wife kept all his work, which Arter acquired in 2014. Gurman's retrospective coincides with the digitalization of his notes along with documents and material he used in his work and lectures by archivists at Arter and the research center SALT.

Memory is the core of Arter's main exhibition, “What Time Is It?,” in which half of the 44 works are by Turkish artists. It offers visitors a chance to reconnect with works from previous Istanbul Biennials and other past shows in the city, like “Caylak Sokak,” the sprawling piece by the conceptual artist Sarkis that reimagines the 81-year-old Turkish Armenian’s childhood, spent on a street near Arter. The exhibit marks the first time since 1986 that the installation is shown in Istanbul.

“These questions about memory, time and space are raised by the new building,” said Eda Berkmen, who co-curated “What Time Is It?” with Emre Baykal, the museum’s chief curator. “The pieces look at notions of interior and exterior and how we define boundaries when they are always blurred.”

In “We didn’t go outside; we were always on the outside/We didn’t go inside; we were always on the inside,” a work by Hale Tenger, a bleak guardhouse hemmed in by barbed wire invites visitors inside, where Turkish pop songs play from a transistor radio and vivid photographs of natural attractions are taped to the walls and windows. 

Tenger produced the installation in 1995, but the disconnect between the militaristic exterior and idealized interior seems apt in Turkey’s current political climate, where critical discourse is mostly confined to the private sphere and artists have been caught up in the government's clampdown.

At Arter’s opening, supporters of the philanthropist Osman Kavala, a major benefactor of culture in Turkey before being jailed two years ago on thinly evidenced coup plot charges, hoisted placards to remind the art crowd of his absence. It was a quiet, yet powerful protest, a demonstration of art’s capacity to spark debate even when expression is not free.

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Ayla Jean Yackley is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. On Twitter: @aylajean

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