An art critic based in Istanbul and contributes to the e-journal project red-thread.org as an editor
Disputed Criticality: Tensions within the Field of Contemporary Art in Istanbul
The period in which the contemporary art scene in Turkey established itself as a separate artistic field in the early nineties coincided with the crucial convergence of historical forces that conditioned the crisis of the then existing status quo of the Republic, namely: the end of the Cold War paradigm and consequently the isolationism of the official politics; the urge for integrating into the accelerating dynamics of globalism; escalation of the conflict evolving around the Kurdish problem towards a nearly civil-war state, and the gradual rise of the Islamic tendencies in politics. Within the very context in which the classic political dichotomy between the left and the right still made some sense, the newly emerging platform for contemporary art appealed decisively to an anti-nationalist, anti-statist and anti-militarist lexicon –a position which was exemplified with solidarity campaign with the Turkish Armenian artist Sarkis, one of the prominent mentors of the scene, who was harassed by the implicitly racist remarks of a local art critic in 1992.
The cosmopolitanism of the scene, which was shared by and perhaps inspired from the non-orthodox strands of the leftist intelligentsia, remained unchallenged up until two tragic ruptures: the ultra-nationalist vandalism targeting the opening of a photography exhibition (2005), which documented the pogrom against the non-muslim minorities of Istanbul fifty years ago
- an event which disrupted the illusion that the cultural field was spared from the escalation of tension in the daily politics – and the assassination of Hrant Dink, the ‘eye pupil’ of the cosmopolitan leftism in 2007. The response to the atrocities of the intensifying nationalism (which also lured and incorporated masses of people who previously identified themselves with the left wing of the political range, either social democrat or socialist) from a number of contemporary artists was to lean towards political and/or visual activism.
Yet, the aforementioned and bitter split with the leftfield, between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, started to have repercussions within artistic circles (accusation of being limited to identity politics; raised suspicions about links with European art institutions and funds, etc.); and the rapid commercialization and glamorization of the contemporary art scene in the last couple of years in Istanbul has harmed the credibility of the political engagement of the scene, leaving the artists in a state of paralysis that impedes the elaboration of a critical consistency.
My contribution would expand on this general outline along with the screening of some visual examples.