As Turkish contemporary art takes its place on the worldwide stage, the market for it is getting so hot that collectors in Turkey are being priced out.
By Abigail R. Esman
Situated at the meeting point between Europe and Asia, the city of Istanbul has long been seen as a bridge between East and West. Inheriting centuries-old legacies from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, its culture is as exciting, avant-garde and cosmopolitan as that of any major European city. And one of the most exciting aspects of that culture is a burst of creativity in visual art. With good reason, art cognoscenti in Istanbul anticipate that their city—which was named the EU’s European Capital of Culture for 2010—will soon be among the leading centers of the international art world.
That notion would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, when there was a mere handful of galleries and not one museum for modern or contemporary art. Today, Istanbul has more than 300 contemporary art galleries and six museums for modern and contemporary art—with new ones in various stages of planning.
Turkey’s present-day artistic renaissance is long overdue. Ottoman art—whose traditions of miniature painting, calligraphy, carpet weaving and metalwork derive mainly from Persia—had more or less come to a standstill by the late 19th century. Only in the 1920s, with the the accession to power of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the founding of the Turkish Republic, did the first seeds of a new art begin to bear fruit. Art students traveled to Paris, and soldiers sent abroad began to sketch the scenery around them, often inspired by European artists they met. These works had little to do with Turkish traditions, but several artists gained a small audience in their homeland. For the most part, though, a true art culture still failed to take hold.
Finally, around the year 2000, a major movement exploded, powered by an almost missionary zeal. Young artists emerged from the academies creating exciting works, and private benefactors who had recently discovered the joys of modern and contemporary art opened their collections to a curious and eager public. Now contemporary Turkish artists—such as Hacuk Acakçe, Taner Ceylan and Ece Clarke—have found their way onto the international stage, and others are sure to follow.
Yahsi Baraz, a leading Turkish dealer, has been the catalyst for this massive expansion of the Turkish art scene. It is he whose advice has helped to build most of the museum collections in Istanbul, and his influence and popularity among the art world elite are palpable. At the Istanbul Contemporary Art Fair—held each fall since 2004 under the aegis of Akbank, a major Turkish bank—young dealers cling to his arm and refer to him as their “idol.” It was the patrician, intellectual Baraz who, after studying art in New York in the early ’70s, opened one of Istanbul’s first spaces for contemporary art, championing young Turkish artists at his eponymous gallery as early as 1975.
“There was no market at that time,” he recalls. “The galleries that were in place belonged to the city, and there were just a few art lovers—mostly doctors and lawyers, a couple of architects. They were interested in art, but they would never buy art.” Artists themselves, says Baraz, “were so amateur; they never tried to be international or show their works abroad—they didn’t even think about it. They went to school and taught and occasionally made paintings and sculpture.”
Things started to change after 1983 when, following a series of coups, the country opened to the West and a liberalized socioeconomic system expanded the wealthy class. Bankers and textile merchants, partly as a result of business travel to Western Europe, started taking an interest in modern and contemporary art. Auction houses, which had previously sold only antiques, carpets and traditional Turkish paintings, soon followed suit. “We helped each other,” Baraz says. “I gave them paintings and they sold them, and they would come to my gallery and find some young or middle-aged artist and put them in their auctions. They made catalogues, and the catalogues went to people’s homes.” Then, in 1987, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts launched the Istanbul Biennale, a major international contemporary art event that today ranks with the biennials of Venice and São Paolo.
But it was one young couple, Can and Sevda Elgiz, who in 2001 single-handedly changed the very structure of the Turkish art world and created a climate that would support artists within Turkey for the first time. With the help of curator Vasif Kortun, curator of the third Istanbul Biennale and already an internationally known figure at the time, they founded Proj4L/Museum Elgiz, the city’s first museum for modern and contemporary art, with holdings from their own collection. Not to be outdone, other wealthy collectors soon followed—most notably the Koç banking family and the Ecazibasi family, who in 2004 founded the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, which is currently the country’s largest museum of its kind.
The opening of these institutions, in combination with the growing prominence of the Istanbul Biennale, quickly paved the away for more galleries and collectors, creating a market for a new generation of young artists. In little more than a decade, Turkey has built a dynamic and lucrative art scene—an achievement that has taken many other countries half a century or more.
The enthusiasm is contagious: Indeed, it is the vibrant energy of the Turkish art scene as much has the art itself that makes it so exciting to dealers and collectors outside the country. New York dealer Leila Heller presented a group show of contemporary Turkish art earlier this year at her LTMH Gallery, and now plans more for 2011, starting with a January exhibition of works by Kezban Arca Batabiki, who incorporates crystals and beads into highly sexual, almost pornographic paintings.
Yesim Turanli, who opened the popular Pi gallery in 1998, was among those who have watched the boom with surprise. Still, she laughs, “We have an expression, ‘the courage of the fool.’ I’d probably not have gone into it if I had known it would be this hard.” The willowy, elegant dealer now represents some of the country’s most acclaimed artists both nationally and internationally. Gulay Semercioglu creates mesmerizing, geometric works, “painting,” as it were, monochromatic patterns by stretching enameled wires in saturated, jewel-like hues of red, silver, green or black, across massive wooden frames. Irfan Onurmen produces intimate, sensual, and often witty sculptures using newspaper, papier-mâché and tulle. Yet when Turanli first introduced these works, she recalls, “we were both mocked. We didn’t sell a single tulle piece for three seasons. Now everybody wants one.” Indeed, both Onurmen and Semercioglu are receiving raves from abroad; Onurmen has taken part in regional museum exhibitions in Berlin and Italy in the past year, while Semercioglu, who also shows with Kashia Hildebrand in Zurich, will have a solo show with Leila Heller LTMH Gallery in New York next spring.
Pi’s success can be attributed, in part, to the growth of satellite art fairs such as Scope, which make it possible for younger, less-established galleries to show alongside the big names at international events such as Art Basel Miami. Beach As artists gain recognition from foreign collectors, they become more coveted at home; it is probably no coincidence that Galerist, the first Turkish venue to participate in these international fairs, is the one that launched the careers of Akakçe and Ceylan, both internationally and in Turkey.
But it was ultimately through such projects as The Sky Is the Limit (2006), in which 12.5 million LED lights performed an animated dance of color across the skies of downtown Las Vegas, that Akakçe, who now lives in New York, became best known. Schooled at the Royal College of Art in London, his sculptures, videos, and paintings explore the relationships between technology and art, making him a favorite of museum curators: P.S. 1 and the Whitney Museum in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis have given him solo exhibitions. (His work, which has also been exhibited at Deitch Projects, can be found as well at Bob Orsaw Gallery in Zurich and at Max Hetzler in Berlin.)
Akakçe is Turkey’s international art star, but Ceylan—who was born in Germany—is most beloved by Turks. Ask just about anyone among the Turkish art crowd which artists they most admire and they will inevitably cite Ceylan. The hyper-realist painter has achieved auction prices above the $100,000 mark, bridging what had been a formidable gap between the values of Turkish and non-Turkish art on the market. It is worth noting that just after his auction success, Ceylan was invited to take part in his first American exhibitions, participating in group shows at Paul Kasmin and LTMH galleries in New York this past year.
But the sad irony of both Akakçe’s and Ceylan’s success is that their works have become virtually unaffordable to Turkish collectors, the top few of whom rarely, if ever, spend over $100,000 for a work. This fact likely explains Turanli’s claim that nearly half of her gallery’s sales are international—though it could also have to do with Pi’s active participation in international art fairs and the low value of the Turkish lira. Another reason that Turkish contemporary art finds a bigger public abroad than in its home country is that some works go beyond what Turkish collectors are prepared to handle. For example, Nazif Topcuoglu’s mise-en-scène photographs of young girls posed in richly embellished interiors explore the convergence of innocence and guile. His haunting, sensuous works, whose stunning manipulations of light lend them an Old Master quality, have earned him exhibitions not only at Nev gallery in Istanbul but at Green Art Gallery in Dubai, and at LTMH. However, Turkish collectors are often uncomfortable with photographs, because of their status as multiples; even sculpture is a difficult sell.
Then there was Sotheby’s. The introduction of Turkish art sales at the auction house’s London salesrooms in 2008 was almost entirely responsible—some would say “to blame”—for the skyrocketing prices for artists such as Ceylan, whose painting Spirituality, depicting a bloodied boxer with a realism that makes it almost indistinguishable from a photograph, graced the catalogue cover of the first Sotheby’s sale. The piece achieved a price of £99,650 [CK] ($TK) against an estimate of £30,000–50,000, selling to the international trade. The auction, says Turanli, “created great excitement locally. Artists wanted to be in. Collectors wanted to give full support. And Sotheby’s second contemporary Turkish art sale in April 2010 broke 16 records, and the international collector rate was much higher. So I take it that it’s one more element that helped us establish Turkish artists internationally.” While Turkey’s taxes on art imports are high, making it difficult for Turkish clients to buy in London, Turanli notes that “overall, the sales created a general awareness for the international audience that there is an emerging market here.”
But others in the Turkish art scene are less enthusiastic, accusing the auction house of manipulating the market, creating artificial prices that are unsustainable in Turkey and, breeding that great Satan of the art world, speculation. The high prices, in a country whose entire infrastructure of support for contemporary art comes from the private sector, could create problems. If works become too expensive, collectors in Turkey will either no longer be able to purchase them, or after purchasing them have little cash left on hand for building museums.
Fortunately, so far this has not happened. Most of the patrons have moved on from these more established artists. While the Elgizes, for instance, still spend a great deal on non-Turkish art—Gilbert and George, Tracey Emin and David Salle, for instance, all figure prominently in their collection—they continue to champion younger, undiscovered talent such as Ibrahim Koç, Deniz Usler and Elif Susler. In the meantime, the Elgizes’ daughter Ayda, who has a master’s degree in museum studies from New York University, is also active in the family collection; she currently favors the artist Pinar Yolacan, who is best known for her photographs of women clad in garments the artist sews herself from the raw skins of chickens.
In addition to the complaints about speculation, some artists, curators and collectors have objected that the auction category “Turkish contemporary art” marginalizes work that really belongs in the mainstream of European and American contemporary art and should be sold as such. This charge raises the larger question of what, if anything, is specifically Turkish about Turkish contemporary art. Maryam Eisler, an Iranian-born collector based in London and an expert on contemporary art from the Middle East, notes that Turkey takes a basically Western approach to art. “It is very open, not dictated by censorship, even though it is a Muslim country,” she says.
Eisler, who edited Unleashed (Thames & Hudson, £48), a comprehensive coffee-table book about Turkish art, observes, “Turkey is trying very hard to establish itself as an Islamic democracy—at least for now, though with Syria and Iran next door there is some fear among the Turks that these countries will start influencing them. It was less open in the ’80s, less freedom in terms of homosexuality and so on, but artists now are able to express themselves more openly in the content of the work, which is often very political and highly sexual, something you would not see in the rest of the Arab world and Iran.” Eisler considers these more “political” works particularly Turkish. They “use the flag in their works. Some involve an underlying criticism of Islam. Often, it’s about the East-West clash, tradition and modernity, and the role of Islam in the country.” Leila Heller also notes a strong sense of irony among Turkish artists. Many, she observes, produce “such sexual work in a country where so many people are wearing headscarves.”
Yet interestingly, Turks—including the artists themselves—are less inclined than foreigners to see their country’s new art as particularly “Turkish.” “My work is drawn from the harmonies and rhythms that I see in the world or perceive in science and mathematics,” says Clarke, who works and reworks paper using paint, metals and various chemicals before forming them into scrolls and raw paper slabs that bear a close—she says “subconscious”—affinity to the marbles of Istanbul’s magnificent mosques. “The pieces are not representative of anything specific—purely non-representational—and are intended to stand on their own as objects that I and observers have to deal with on their own merits. The materials merge through the process of my work and are transformed into something else with its own unique qualities.”
And while Sevda Elgiz recognizes the distinction between Iranian art—which she calls “more political and ethnic”—and that of her own homeland, she argues that “no particularity defines Turkish art; the approach of young artists does not show references to our cultural heritage. They are artists of the world.” Ultimately, Eisler agrees. For the most part, she says, Turkish contemporary art is “pure aesthetics and beauty and the artist’s mind, and that can be transposed anywhere.”