Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

On Istanbul

by David Greenhalgh

23 Jul 2012

Much has been written about Istanbul's amazing split personality, and let's not beat about the bush: this article is going to add a good 500 words to the glut.

Istanbul has always been a pastiche of the East and West, the meeting point of the Orient and Occident. These days it is torn between the demands of the Westernised Neo-Liberal economic forces and the more traditional demands of conservative Islam.

I arrived in Istanbul during the holy month of Ramadan and its reputation as a city of contrasts could not have been more apparent. Families would break their daily fasts just around the corner one of the unholiest of clubs in the city. The call to prayer would cut through an innocuous summer top 20 hit. The philosopher Fredric Jameson argued that the most totalising of works are to be produced when thinkers are confronted with extreme contrasts of scene, and I had high expectations of seeing art that dealt with this amazing quality that Istanbul possesses. But so much of the work I saw could have easily come from the hand or mouse of a Sydney kid. An article on this very site by George Whelan laments the disappearance of distinctly local characteristics in art.

To put it simply, I was confronted with globalisation in art and I increasingly felt anxious to discover a work that addressed Turkey's unique identity and such a unique time in history. But this was to be no easy task. So why does a country so rich in aesthetic history simply cease to continue tradition? One line of thought is that today's contemporary art scene produces homogeneity through exposure to market forces. The art that makes it through to, say, the stage of a Biennale, will speak to international and market-determined concerns. Arts writer Julian Stallabras point out that contemporary art and particularly the Biennale act as much more than simply cultural displays but as tools in the globalised market place where cities compete for investment, tourism and in Turkey's case, an important facet in displaying a secular and liberal identity in order to secure European Union membership.

Just when I was feeling despondent about it all, I stumbled upon a work that captured Istanbul's unique situation. Across the Slope by Ahmet Öğüt reminisces on Turkey's program of modernisation and its first nationalist foray into automobile manufacture. For this, an artificial hill was installed in the gallery and an elongated vehicle comically stuck atop it. The scene recalled an infamous moment in Turkish history. In the 1970s, the first Turkish built car, the Devrim, was launched. Laden with symbolism and nationalistic pride, the country's scheme of modernisation and embrace of the coming globalised world came to a very embarrassing and very public halt with no petrol in its tank. This impotent and ominous moment perfectly captures the two worlds of Istanbul, at once so forward looking and ambitious but at the same time stalled by regional conflicts and uncontrollable migrant influxes from more conservative parts of the country.

The work contrasts such a dauntingly dark machine with a limp, Acme sponsored, Wile E. Coyote feel of yet another failed scene.