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Contemporary artists from Turkey are deeply engaged with their identity as a nation, sitting across the East and West. The current socio-political climate provides a source of inspiration to both the untamed artists that have conquered the global stage and those emerging talents – Istanbul has already been dubbed an ‘art city of the future’. We take a look at the ten best Turkish artists and where to find them.
Conceptual artist Ahmet Ögüt works with performance, video, photography, installation, drawing and printed media. He has gained international attention for a practice that subtly references complex topics including religion, rural customs and the spectre of war, often charged with humour. In a live performance event at ICA, Ögüt presented a filmic intervention dealing with representation and social engagement, in collaboration with musicians Bora Akıncıtürk, Serhan Arcağ and Deniz Belendir (Fino Blendax), creating four unique soundtracks that responded to a recent feature film by director Kaan Mujdeci. Ögüt deals directly with socio-political issues that have relevance on a global scale, such as in ‘The Silent University’ (2011-ongoing), an educational and performative resource for asylum seekers, which engages with cultural minorities and evokes the artist’s Kurdish identity. ‘The Castle of Vooruit’ (2012) is a giant helium balloon shaped as the castle-topped rock in Magritte’s ‘Le Chateau des Pyrénées’ (1959), inspired by the socialist history of Ghent, Belgium. The Vooruit, now an arts centre, was originally a cooperative for Ghent’s working-class from the end of the 19th century until the early 1970s. On top of the balloon is a replica of the Vooruit: launched just above the arts centre, floating surrealistically in the air.
Ayşe Erkmen works in a diverse range of media, including sculpture, installation, photography and animation, as well as architectural and environmental interventions. When asked by Frieze ‘what is art for?’ she replied, ‘art should be for no reason’. Her fascination with the reduced formal language of minimalism and the site-specificity and spontaneity of her projects goes some way to explaining her vision. Her oeuvre delves into issues in our contemporary world, including migrancy, renewal processes, transportation systems and the configuration of public spaces, while focusing on the relationship between the architectural and the socio-cultural. Erkmen often plays with displacement and dislocation, transformation and re-contextualisation. In her most well-known intervention ‘Shipped Ship’ (2001), Erkmen transported three ships, with their entire crews, from Japan, Italy and Turkey to Frankfurt, where they would take up passenger ferry services across the Main River for one month. At the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, Erkmen presented Plan B, a sculptural installation that referenced the complex and inextricable relationship between Venice and water, through the transformation and reconstruction of a water purification unit. ‘Intervals’ (2014) re-contextualised recreations of eleven 19th-century theatre backdrops at the Barbican Centre in London, separating the space into ever changing sections.
Working with photography, installation and printed media, Banu Cennetoğlu explores areas of socio-political uncertainty and its documentation, as well as questioning the very ability of photography to document such issues. As part of the Turkish Pavilion exhibition Lapses at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Cennetoğlu presented ‘Catalog’ (2009), a simulation of a mail order catalogue in the form of a performative book that challenged the idea of the artist’s book as well as of the catalogue. Containing 451 photographs, the book – with six copies on display – could be viewed and a form could be filled in with the code of a selected photograph that one would want to ‘purchase’. For the 10th Gwangju Biennale (2014), the artist presented ‘Library of Spirits’, a new version of a work first realised in Romania in 2013, part of her ongoing series of works around the tradition of spirit making. The 2014 installation comprises an open bar of 115 kinds of soju made in South Korea. Resulting from a lengthy research period in South Korea, visiting associations of soju production, meeting individual soju makers and collecting soju bottles, the installation displays bottles with samples of the spirits collected on her trips, accompanied by labels documenting their provenance.
Cennetoğlu’s work can be seen at Rodeo Gallery, London and Istanbul, +44 207 43 99 777 (London), +90 212 29 35 800 (Istanbul); and Bazart Office, 15 rue de la Coopération, Chênée, Belgium, +32 496 51 27 60
Multimedia artist Hale Tenger creates video works and installations, as well as objects and large-scale environments. She explores the dichotomy between nature and culture, and engages with power relations, questioning issues of femininity and rule making in society, political suppression, immigration and cultural identity. The video ‘Beirut’ (2005-2007) features time-lapse footage of the façade of the St. George Hotel in Beirut, in front of which Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in 2005. Shot over two years after the event, the video is set to a score by an experimental musician. The fluttering curtains represent a meditation on the history embedded in the hotel. The seven-channel video installation ‘Balloons on The Sea’ (2011), first presented at Green Art Gallery in Dubai (2011) and at Istanbul Modern (2014), features music composed by her long-time audio collaborator Serdar Ateşer. The work is directly inspired by a popular pastime practiced along the Bosphorus in Istanbul and along the coastlines of Turkey. A string of balloons floating on the sea move with the waves and the wind, creating a reflection on the water. The image is reversed in some of Tenger’s shots, blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction, and taking the audience into the ambiguity of dreams and collective memory. Her video installation at Galeri Nev İstanbul, ‘Swinging on Stars’ (2013), could be read as a political allegory addressing the Turkish Republic’s refusal to recognise its numerous crimes of neglect and abuse against its own citizens.
Tenger’s work can be seen at Green Art Gallery, Al Quoz 1, Street 8, Alserkal Avenue, Unit 28, Dubai, UAE, +971 4 346 9305
Filmmaker and video artist Kutluğ Ataman predominantly captures and documents the lives of underprivileged individuals. Blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. His first feature length film Serpent’s Tale (Karanlık Sular) (1994) is a dark murder story set against the backdrop of Istanbul in decay and was critically acclaimed for having ‘successfully encapsulate[d] the crisis of contemporary Turkish culture’. Among the many awards for the film, he won Best Film, Director and Screenplay from the Turkish Film Critics Association at the Istanbul International Film Festival. His later productions also went on to be officially selected for important film festivals – such as the International Berlin Film Festival. Ataman has extended his filmmaking vision to contemporary art, through poignant video installations that narrate people’s stories through his subtle interventions. His first artwork ‘kutluğ ataman’s semiha b. unplugged’, presented at the 1997 5th International Istanbul Biennial, was a documentary portrait of the 90-year-old opera diva Semiha Berksoy. He was invited to the 48th Venice Biennale, where he presented ‘Women Who Wear Wigs’, featuring four women: a revolutionary whose face remained obscured, well-known journalist and breast cancer survivor Nevval Sevindi, an anonymous devout Muslim student, and an activist and transsexual prostitute. His latest work ‘Sakıp Sabancı’ (2014) is a multi-image work of thousands of people, from all walks of life, whose paths crossed Sakıp Sabancı’s, made in commemoration of the death of the Turkish business.
Mehmet Ali Uysal creates large-scale installations that integrate the architectural materials of the exhibition space. Through the transformation of the venue, Uysal also alters the audience’s perception of the space and its movement. The artist aims to subvert the trend of the ‘white cube’ gallery – which erases traces of history to achieve perfection – and revive the gallery as a living entity, through its deconstruction. Challenging how art is valued and experienced in space, Uysal’s oeuvre also examines the homogenisation of art production and the dominant western view of art history, which has led to an imbalance in the historicisation and reception of non-Western art. In The Past (2014), his first solo show in China at Pearl Lam Galleries, he installed a series of distorted, gilded frames hanging on the white walls of the gallery. Devoid of subject matter, the frames have lost their formal function and, being now redundant, ‘are elevated by the artist to a work of art, thus reversing their objectification’. Uysal extends his criticism to the art market, expressed in his Painting series: outlines of frames subtly protrude from the walls of the gallery, as if trying to pierce through skin, blurring the boundaries between art and space. The artist questions the changing value of painting, as well as the inextricable relationship between the work of art, the gallery, the museum and the market. In the Peel series (2012), sections of the gallery wall peel off the architectural structure, exposing the raw, red bricks beneath. ‘Skin’ (2010) is an outdoor installation of a large clothes peg pinching the grass surface of a park as if it was skin, which the artist also made on a smaller scale, pinching the wall of the gallery. Other works include figures and other objects trying to break free from within the white walls of the exhibition space, as if trapped beneath their surface.
Uysal’s work can be seen at PI Artworks, 163/4 Istikal Caddesi, Misir Apartment, Istanbul, Turkey and Pearl Lam Galleries, G/F, 181 Middle Jiangxi Road Shanghai, China, +86 21 6323 1989
Nilbar Güreş works with collage, video, performance, photography and objects. Her practice engages with issues surrounding the female identity and the role of women in society, the relationship between women and their home and public space, and the view of Muslim women in Europe. In addition to her gender-based approach, Güreş also explores marginalised communities and patriarchal systems. ‘Unknown Sports, Indoor Exercise’ (2009) is a series of video installations, photographs and collages consisting of three performances staged by the artist while working with housewives and volunteers from feminist organizations at the gymnasium of Marmara University. Everyday body care and housework are viewed as exercises and the domestic space as an invisible territory of female identity. Female practices become tools – or weapons – against male power and dominance. The series Open Phone Booth (2007-2011), comprising a video installation and photographs, is ‘a pastoral poetry about how survival is part of the human condition as well as a lyrical abstraction of the grim truth that some are less equal than others.’ The work captures the peculiar, tragi-comic conditions of the population in her father’s hometown, a Kurdish and Alevi village in Eastern Anatolia that lacks in infrastructure, including telephone lines. Over the years, the villagers have gained access to mobile phones, but reception is still difficult to get and no matter in what weather and what time of day, people – alone, in pairs or groups – reach the hill top or look for optimal locations around the village to communicate with the outside world.
Güreş’s work can be seen at Rampa Istanbul, Şair Nedim Caddesi No: 21a Akaretler, Beşiktaş, İstanbul, +90 212 3270800
Photorealist artist Taner Ceylan creates controversial, often erotically charged paintings and sculptures. Ceylan engages with concepts of Orientalism and national identity, subverting official colonialist and imperialist codes of representation and mocking the historical conservatism of the Ottoman empire. Quoted by FT, Ceylan comments: ‘the government wants the Ottoman Empire to be seen in a very pure way, it wants to bring back to life aspects of empire’, maintaining that ‘the blind acceptance of Orientalist portrayals’ is part of the government’s vision for contemporary Turkey. ‘1879’ (2011), from the Lost Painting series, featured in a Turkish national newspaper, garnered attention that result in Ceylan receiving death threats. The painting – depicting a veiled Ottoman noblewoman posing in front of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting of female genitalia ‘L’Origine du Monde’ – set a record price for the artist at auction, fetching £229,250. ‘1881’ (2010), from the same series, is a portrait of a defying, greedy, metrosexual-looking pasha wearing a fez and smoking a cigar, sold to artist Marc Quinn at Sotheby’s London for £121,250. In the sculpture ‘Moon Tale’ (2014), Ceylan depicts a centaur and a man kissing passionately and revisits the classical male nude, questioning the paradigm of pure form and adding the element of eroticism.