The Turkish Art Scene

"Offside, But a Goal!"

Contemporary Turkish art is little known in outside of Turkey, and inside of Turkey as well, for that matter. A new publication shows just how hard the Turkish art scene struggles about its internationalization. By Necmi Sönmez

Contemporary Turkish art is little known in outside of Turkey (and inside of Turkey as well, for that matter). Although a number of fashionable exhibitions of Turkish contemporary art have been staged in Germany in the last few years, a proper overview of the current art scene in Turkey has yet to take place.

Against this backdrop, the Cultural Committee of German Business commissioned a book published under the title "Szene Türkei: Abseits, aber Tor!" (The Turkish Art Scene: Offside, But a Goal!) by Turkish authors Vasif Kortun and Erden Kosova.

The book presents a very individual, yet in no way representative cross-section of contemporary Turkish art.

The authors, institutional curators and critics based in Istanbul, discuss the Turkish art scene of the 1990s in an interview form over six chapters.

A new situation created by the 1980 military putsch

A new situation emerged for Turkish art and culture as a result of the country's military putsch on 12 September, 1980.

Young artists took advantage of the new, yet difficult political, social, and economic climate. They reacted to the changes differently than the older generation of artists, who had also since become aware of the international art scene.

One result was the establishment in 1987 of an international biennale of contemporary art by the Istanbul Foundation for Art and Culture. The establishment and continuation of the Istanbul Biennale was accompanied by a tremendous transformation of the art scene in the city.

The impulse towards internationalization

The Biennale was directed and organized by Turks until 1995. It was Vasif Kortun who himself organized the 3rd Istanbul Biennale along the lines of a traditional country presentation. The greatest impulse towards internationalization was provided by the 4th Biennale under the direction of the German curator René Block.

Artists from the 70s and 80s, such as the painter Altan Gürman, the performance artist Ismail Saray, the painter Ipek Duben, and the video artist Nil Yalter, prepared the groundwork for greater artistic experimentation on which current Turkish art flourishes. They are not included in this book. Important installation artists such as Fusün Onur and Ayse Erkmen receive only short mention.

The authors instead tend to focus on the positions of artists such as Gülsün Karamustafa, Halil Altindere, and Hale Tenger, who have produced simplistic, narrative works with a pseudo-political posture. The painter Vahap Avsar, who hasn't been active as an artist for more than ten years, is curiously held up as an important protagonist of the art scene.

Of bad boys and fragile daughters

​​The most significant impulses for Turkish contemporary art have been provided by the extreme contradictions found in Turkish society. Hugely diverse viewpoints spanning the village and the city, tradition and modernism, and right and left politics all portray aspects of Turkish reality.

The authors, however, have given preference to those artists who for years have been savvy enough to draw attention to themselves on account of the political repression and discrimination they experienced, resulting in invitations to numerous expositions in Europe as "Turkish artists."

Nevertheless, the book introduces artists such as Vahap Avsar, Memed Erdener, Sener Özmen, Aydan Murtezaoglu, Secil Yersel who use a visual language that seems to draw heavily on the canon of modern western art, yet at the same time displays that young Turkish art has an unspent reservoir of serious themes and issues that it conveys with self-confident ease and playfulness.

Necmi Sönmez

© 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

The author is a curator for international temporary exhibitions at the Forum d'Art Franco-Allemand, Château de Vaudrémont in France and a contributor to German and Turkish art journals.

Vasif Kortun and Erden Kosova, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2005

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