Main Image

Taping Down Istanbul

I like talking about where I’m from. Occasionally I talk about it so much that I end up inviting people to see it for themselves, and some of them actually come. My roommate Roberto was subjected to this treatment by his three Turkish friends, myself included. So instead of going to his hometown on the US-Mexico border, he ended up spending two weeks of his winter break on the other side of the world, visiting us in Istanbul. 

After his 6th day in the city, he had run the gamut of all the must-see sights: all the churches and the palaces and the monuments and the churches-turned-into-mosques and the mosques-modeled-after-churches. There is a tendency to conceive of Istanbul exclusively as a historical city, so I wanted Roberto to visit something from this century. My mother suggested Arter, the newest addition to Istanbul’s contemporary arts scene. 

From 2010 to 2018, Arter operated in a building by İstiklal Avenue. The Avenue and the surrounding district of Pera, home to all sizes of artistic establishments ranging from Turkey’s most famous museums to chic art boutiques, is seen as the heart of Istanbul’s contemporary  art scene. In September 2019, Arter moved away from İstiklal Avenue to a new and significantly larger home in the Dolapdere district.

As we were driving around Dolapdere, Roberto told me that, for the first time, he didn’t know where the sea was. The trip that we had curated for him had highlighted the shores of the Bosphorus: mosques and palaces of the Golden Horn, bougie restaurants and clubs between the two bridges, ferry rides along the sea. In Turkish, we consider the Bosphorus, the strait that passes through the city of Istanbul, along the divide between Europe and Asia, to be more than just a waterway. It is the “throat” of the city. Yet the residents of Dolapdere, like millions of other residents of Istanbul, are estranged from the Bosphorus. What is essential to my definition of Istanbul becomes contingent, or even absent, in theirs.  

Though just fifteen minutes away from Pera, Dolapdere has little in common with the arts district. With its auto shops and traditional coffee houses, Dolapdere is a working class neighborhood struck hard by the post-industrial turn in the Turkish economy. The building that now houses Arter used to be an auto service garage, heavily renovated, after a great deal of legal and financial trouble, to house the museum. 

The surrounding apartment buildings are as organic as concrete gets. As we approached, Arter’s monolithic structure stood apart from them with its smooth concrete surface and glass walls. Just behind the building, locals strolled around a street bazaar that had been set up for the day. At the coffee houses, the “uncles” of the neighborhood continued to sip their tea as they went on with their daily schedule of watching cars pass along the main road. A weird sense of calm set in as I observed the seamless navigation of Dolapdere’s residents around Arter’s alien form. 

Like its location, everything within the building feels purposeful. Arter is able to host multiple exhibits at a time (there were 6 when I visited this winter). While the exhibits are unrelated, the architecture of the building with its frequent use of glass walls and pieces hung by the stairs orchestrates a continuous viewing experience.

The defunct metal detector that we encountered mid-way through our visit was the only indication that we were entering the next exhibit. As we walked past the detector into a large hall with spacious walls painted white, I noticed a set of rocks stuck to the floor with black PVC tape. Walking around the room, I was interrupted by museum staff and told not to cross. Apparently, while chasing rocks, I had attempted to cross an opening which was reserved for a life-size pelican statue moving on an automated railway. 

After the warning I carefully walked to the other side of the room, having to lift my head up from the trail of rocks to make sure that I didn’t hit the lamps hung at irregular heights. In the end, I arrived at another metal detector, once again dysfunctional, and passed through to a room which finally announced that the pale biosphere I had encountered was in fact Ayşe Erkmen’s exhibit titled Whitish, curated by Emre Baykal. Having started her career as a sculptor, Erkmen has gained acclaim with her decontextualized mimesis of environments, and is seen today as one of Turkey’s foremost visual artists.  

The piece appeared to me a textbook example of the sort of contemporary art exhibit that confuses people, for good reason. Whitish is an elaborate statement against an understanding of art according to which one discovers meaning in elaborate symbolism or exquisite beauty. Instead of vibrancy, Whitish offers, well, a whitish color. Before you can discuss what it means, you have to discuss whether the color is there in the first place or whether it’s just plain white. 

Roberto told me he’d hardly noticed the metal detectors, since he had gotten used to passing through them in the Istanbul subway and almost all museums. With rocks, lamps, and birds, Erkmen’s biome cannot be called unnatural. Yet it refuses to imitate: the piece renders its naturality absurd, reminding the viewer of the artist’s authority. It was the artist who had taped the rocks to the ground, arranged the irregular lighting, and stationed staff to protect the pelican’s migration route. Rejecting the authority of nature, Whitish is a parody of the color white. Its mockery is disturbingly intentional.

Power-grabbing intentionality permeates Istanbul’s architectural landscape. Throughout history, political groups that came to power attempted to make Istanbul their own, in a physical sense. The city’s most prominent monument, the Hagia Sophia, a former cathedral, is a testament to this trend. Under the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia gained its minarets and became a mosque. With the advent of the Turkish republic, it became a monument to secular modernity: a museum. Today, the cityscape remains the symbolic battleground of the power struggle between the conservative and the secular elites. While a new mosque rises at Taksim square, once designed to be the heart of Istanbul’s secular life, the construction of Arter represents an attempt by the secular elite to extend past its old boundaries.   

Arter’s mission statement of “bringing together artists and audiences through celebration of today’s art” and “making its broad range of programmes accessible to everyone” is a bold one, and the gallery makes an active effort. The first view that strikes you when you walk into the building is a massive glass wall that separates the cafeteria from an outdoor area that is reminiscent of a forum. The forum, which I imagine will be used more actively come summer, is dwarfed by the working-class apartment buildings of Dolapdere. At that point, the forum in all its grandeur becomes a gallery of its own. 

“This neighbourhood reminds me of Mexico, in a weird way,” said Roberto, looking through the glass. It was a running joke between us that Turkey was a Latin American country. It’s a light-hearted joke about our shared sense of humor, food taste and messed up politics. Yet it’s also a reminder of our shared history of uneven development. It’s a shared knowledge of the thickness of the glass wall dividing the gallery and the neighborhood.

The three of us watched the glass wall longer than any piece of art. Despite having free admission, Arter hadn’t attracted the bazaar goers to explore the world of Turkish contemporary art. At the same time, my mother, having lived in the country for 50 years, had felt the same impulse as Roberto to take a picture of the buildings beyond the wall. To the Turkish museum goer, the “outside” was the most exotic. Throughout the galleries of Arter, the frequent usage of glass serves as a constant and intentional reminder to the elite museumgoer of where they are. In this regard, Arter succeeds in bringing its visitor together with Dolapdere, and allows for them to make contact with the neighborhood, even if through an alien spaceship. Yet my worry is that the museumgoer will forget the thickness of that wall and deem that contact to be sufficient.

Can contact ever be sufficient? While taking Roberto around, I realized that the artifacts I introduced as representative of my culture, my city, and my way of life were fundamentally estranged from me. To what extent can I own the cobalt ceramics of the Blue Mosque or the cobblestone pavements of the Golden Horn, or the wooden seats of the ferry, or a mechanical pelican’s migration route? My attempt at showing Roberto my version of the city was as absurd as trying to tape down a piece of stone to call it mine. I don’t know if Arter will make the Turkish contemporary art scene more accessible to the public, but it certainly helps in exposing its limits, just as it has exposed the limits of “my” Istanbul.