„The market has arrived,“ answered curator Vasif Kortun sarcastically three years ago when asked about a structural change in the art scene in Turkey. With the success of contemporary Turkish art at major international exhibitions and biennials, economic interest in such a brand-name article awoke. New wealth and interest from Europe and the Middle East led to the establishment of many galleries and auctions. Thus, the London auction house Sotheby’s opened a branch on the Bosporus in 2009 and set up a special category, „Contemporary Turkish Art“. In 2011, the third auction of Turkish art in London netted 2.3 million pounds. Two years earlier, a work by the established artist Burhan Dogançay crossed a magic boundary with the record price of US$ 1.5 million. Last year, the Turkish art market began restructuring itself institutionally as well.
The newest art market project on the Bosporus, the Artinternational (AI), seems like the crest of this wave of capitalization of a critical biotope. Initiated in 2013 by Sandy Angus, the Chairman of the London exhibition firm Montgomery, which founded the Art Hong Kong in 2008, it now saw great market potential in Istanbul. When he wanted to implement his newest art fair, he suddenly confronted a phalanx of opponents. To avoid unwanted association with a commercial fair, the Istanbul Biennale, which opened on the date originally planned for the Artinternational, forced the AI to postpone until September.
The long-established art fair Contemporary Istanbul (CI), held each year in mid-November by tourism entrepreneur Ali Güreli, successfully sued the sudden competitor to change its name: Artinternational had to drop the word „Istanbul“ from its name. And finally, current Prime Minister and then-President Erdoğan, whose AK Party often convenes in the Congress Center, forced the removal of backdrops that bothered him, just two days before the art fair opened. Overnight, the gallery operators found themselves in empty halls.
Haliç Kongre Merkezi, a conference center in the west of Istanbul, was originally considered temporary quarters, but the AI has meanwhile made a virtue of necessity. The trade fair grounds are a half an hour taxi ride from the city center, Beyoğlu; but the expansive, light-flooded venue found resonance among exhibitors and visitors. Those who came at the end of September to the second edition of the fair in Sütlüce district, across from the historical cemetery in the religion-influenced district Eyüp, experienced a picture-book opening in a radiant late summer. And they could forget for the length of an evening that an ever more ominous conflict at southeastern Turkey’s Syrian border threatened to explode in full-blown war.
Sixty-two galleries from 20 countries were represented a t the first edition of the AI in 2013; this year, the fair grew a little to host 77 galleries from 24 countries. Fifty percent of last year’s galleries were on hand again this year. Where hardly 4,000 visitors attended the AI 2013, in 2014, according to the fair’s own figures, some 20,000 guests came. These numbers indicate the increasing acceptance of the fair; last year, observers were still skeptical about its chances.
After the second edition, these doubts have probably vanished for good. Not only because international heavyweights like the galleries Lisson (London), Forsblom (Helsinki), Krinzinger (Vienna), Lehman Maupin (New York), and Lelong (Paris, New York) are taking part in the AI again. Some of Istanbul’s most important galleries are also showing there: Nev, Non, Pilot, Rampa, Rodeo, x-ist, and Zilberman. In the section „Alternatives“, noncommercial art initiatives from Turkey were able to present themselves again. And in „Videos on Stage“, curator Başak Senova presented a top-notch screening program in this edition, too. „By the Waterside“ offered an eight-part sculpture garden by artists ranging from Benjamin Appel to Jaume Plensa. For the first time, a sponsor was won for the fair: the Turkish optics company Dünyagöz. Its CEO, Professor Ioannis Pallikaris, presented the Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu with the new Dünyagöz Art Prize, endowed with a 5,000-euro purse.
The aesthetic spectrum of the 2nd AI was convincing, as well, almost without exception. Positions ranged from the British artist Damien Hirst, whose large-format pop tableaus Beautiful Intergalactic Fantasmagoria in a Rainbow Big Bang Explosion, Let’s Have More Intercourse Charity Painting was on offer for 400,000 euros at Andipa (London), to the capitalism-critical project Your Country Doesn’t Exist by the Berlin-Rotterdam artist couple Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, which the small gallery waterside contemporary (London) offered for 3,900 British pounds. International top sellers like Marina Abramović (50,000 euros, Krinzinger, Vienna) were as swiftly sold as classical works: the long-established New York gallery Robert Miller sold one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos – erotically innocuous — (US$ 75,000) and also offered small-format works by his former partner Patti Smith (3,000 euros).
In talks, one heard that the galleries had been asked not to exhibit works that were all too risqué or expensive. The fair’s undisputed eye-catcher was nonetheless a very daring one-man show by the homosexual Turkish artist Taner Ceylan at the stand of the New York gallery Kasmin; tellingly, the successful participant in numerous biennials has yet to find a Turkish gallery to represent him. All his works, including the depiction of a fellatio in the style of Old Master landscape painting (Moontale, 2014) and the bronze sculpture of two men kissing and a stag (Moonskin, 2014), were sold (55,000 to 150,000 euros). No question: the accumulation of high-value and original works – and the charming location – at the AI offer international collectors a more attractive backdrop.
Even if it would be hard to prove the art fair’s claim that the galleries taking part for the second time increased sales by 25 percent, „widespread acclaim“ – the positive summary of its three-day sales showing – was not merely a stylish euphemism. In its second year, the Artinternational has unmistakably established itself as the more substantive of the city’s two art fairs. Even if one regards the ambience in the conference center with its whiff of neo-Ottomanism and its reflecting marble floors as ahistorical, sterile, and nouveau riche, the internationality and aesthetic quality of the galleries presented here still clearly outdo the traditional CI, even if in recent years the latter has added a design that aims to recall the Art Basel.
But the AI is still far removed from its aim of becoming an art market hub for the Middle East. Fifty percent of the participating galleries came from Europe. And so it is only logical that the fair aims to attract more exhibitors from Russia and India next year, as AI Fair Director Dyala Nusseibeh made known in conversation.
Meanwhile, friction is increasing at the CI. Discontent with fair director Güreli’s autocratic style of leadership is growing. Sandy Angus already poached Stephane Ackermann, a former gallerist from Luxembourg and the first Artistic Director of the CI, to perform the same function at his Artinternational; now Ali Akay has thrown in the towel, too. With the curator of the Turkish Akbank’s art program and professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan University, the Advisory Board of the competing fair CI has lost a renowned Turkish intellectual.
But it does not look like the CI fair is imploding. With its thematic focus „China“ in the section „New Horizons“ and the second edition of the „Plugin“ forum for digital art and design, it wants to demonstrate greater contemporaneity and join the league of the world’s major art fairs. In the past twelve months, Güreli has also presented new faces for the Advisory Board, for example Susanne von Hagen from the Friends of the Palais de Tokyo and art consultant Marcia Levine from New York. In addition, the CI has presented itself at numerous international art fairs. The list of galleries that will take part in the next CI (13-16 Nov. 2014), however, indicates that the market is splitting: the AI as leading international fair and the CI as a regional supplement.
The competition between the art fairs on the Bosporus reflects Turkey’s political (Great Power) ambitions under President Erdoğan and his AKP. The increasing attractiveness of Istanbul as an art fair location, of course, stands in inverse relationship to the intellectual mood in Turkey’s art market. Many artists and staff members of cultural institutions are considering emigrating. The mixture of forced Islamization and the state organs’ ever more repressive actions frightens many creative people, cultural managers, and intellectuals. The coming months could well show whether they will follow the sarcastic suggestion of the title of Bulgarian artist Stefan Nikolaev’s installation made of neon letters at the stand of the Plovdiv gallery Sariev: If Things Are Not As You Wish, Wish Them As They Are (5,000 euros) – or if they will indeed turn their backs on the art world of the Bosporus.
by Ingo Arend