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First Impressions: Artinternational In Istanbul

Stephanie Bailey  |  Istanbul, 24 September 2013

It would have made sense to title this report of Istanbul’s newest art fair, ArtInternational, ‘A Tale of Two Art Fairs’, though in truth, such a binary reading wouldn’t quite do the current state of things in Istanbul justice. Nor would a reading of the fair that includes the protests currently taking place all over Turkey, given the sheer complexity of the situation. Yet, this is a tale of two art fairs: ArtInternational opened one week after it was forced to change all promotional materials so as to omit the ‘Istanbul' in the fair’s name, because Contemporary Istanbul, the city’s older fair (launched in 2005) filed a lawsuit against the name (the judge’s final decision on matters is pending).

At a glance, and if observations by past-participating galleries of Contemporary Istanbul now taking part in ArtInternational – the brainchild of co-founder Sandy Angus, who also co-founded ArtHK, Art13 in London (soon to be Art14) and who is Director of Art India – are anything to go by, ArtInternational is a very different fair to Contemporary Istanbul. For one thing, it is more international and more selective, with participation from leading galleries from around the world, including Lisson Gallery, Pace, Bischoff/Weiss and younger contenders, Ibid. Then, there is the design, which curator of ArtInternational’s video program, Başak Senova, notes allows more space for artworks and galleries to breathe. Then there is the program of events, which includes a series of talks with participants ranging from artist and writer Marwa Arsanios and Creative Time’s Nato Thompson, not to mention artist projects, such as David Claerbout’s Travel (1996-2013) and Nasan Tur’s Wall Spits Money (2013), in which one lira coins literally spit out of a wall. As Senova observed of the fair: “It’s commercial, but it’s very layered, which is important. For instance, in my video program, the work is not commercial and the entire program is kind of political. But [the organizers] never interfered with my program, so there is this respect.”

As Yeşmin Turanli, founder/director of the Istanbul and London based gallery PiArtworks notes: “We’ve had a lot of international guests - our local audience is here as well as the Istanbul Biennial guests. The art fair has also brought their own international guests, so overall it’s been really positive.”

This kind of layering reflects not only the complexities of producing and presenting art in the twenty-first century, with all its accompanying dilemmas and issues, but also reflects the very complexity of Istanbul itself, a city that straddles the world’s eastern and western poles. In this light, though ArtInternational presented a very different fair to Contemporary Istanbul which is seen as the more 'local' fair, it's not so much a case of either/or for everyone. Talking with Doris Benhalegua Karako, Director of Galerist, an Istanbul-based gallery, we got onto how many galleries have decided to opt for ArtInternational rather than Contemporary Istanbul. Karako explained how Galerist will be taking part in both fairs, given they deal with very different publics. “This year we are planning to participate in both of them because we think both have different clientele. ArtInternational seems more international because of the founders, while Contemporary Istanbul, while local, is also international but attracts a different clientele.”

Indeed, for AD Gallery Director Pantelis Arapinis, that ArtInternational takes place concurrent to the Istanbul Biennial is a huge draw, something pretty much everyone else commented on. It makes sense in the context of the Art Dubai/Sharjah Biennial, in which the fair and the biennial feed off and complement each other. And in a city with one of the most important biennials in the world, to hold an art fair concurrent to such an event only adds to the richness of the audience the fair attracts. As Yeşmin Turanli, founder/director of the Istanbul and London based gallery PiArtworks notes: “We’ve had a lot of international guests - our local audience are here as well as the Istanbul Biennial guests. The art fair has also brought their own international guests, so overall it’s been really positive.”

The quality of exhibiting galleries and their artists is clear, including the strong presence of Istanbul galleries, comprising of, aside from those already mentioned: Galeri Mana, Rampa, Galeri NON, artSümer (showing Basim Magdy, also presenting at the biennial), Egeran, Pilot and x-ist. Booth upon booth presented considered curatorials, including Galerist, which engaged with the international context of ArtInternational by presenting a series of works that reflected on the Istanbul scene. One particular piece by Hussein Chalayan, Imminence of Desire (2011), presented 150 monikers attributed to Istanbul in its long history on a split-flat signboard common in airports accompanied by a soundtrack of seagull song. In this sense, ArtInternational acts as a space for introduction between art practitioners from all over the world, from Jeddah (Athr Gallery) to Buenos Aires (Ignacio Liprandi Artes Contamporaneo) to Budapest (Viltin Gallery, which brought forth an excellent curatorial of works by artists over the age of forty, including Zsolt Asztalos, currently showing at the Hungarian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale). Interestingly, and perhaps in keeping with the fact that most galleries here have noted their connection with the organizers of ArtInternational to Art India, ArtHK and Art Dubai, there are only three participating galleries from the United States (Wendi Norris, Leila Heller and Hosfelt), which reflects on Sandy Angus’s well-known penchant for emerging markets and more global representation when it comes to who is included in the art fair's space.

Of course, in a city like this, it is impossible not to note just how complicated and complex the local art scene really is, especially when thinking about the context of Gezi Park and the movement that was born out of it in 2013.

For Greek galleries Kalfayan and AD Gallery, both with excellent booths, it was also a matter of bringing forth interpretation of what AD’s Arapinis describes as a particular and special relationship between Greece and Turkey: two nations bound by their shared geography and history (in Greece, Istanbul was once simply known as “the city”). Meanwhile, Wendi Norris had a subtle presentation of delicate abstract works by four artists: Lionel Bawden, Val Britton, Julio Cesar Morales and Sherin Guirguis, all united by themes of boundaries and the tensions that lie in and around them. These presented in the context of Istanbul as a message to break such divisions down. There were of course, those that took the more overtly political approach, recognizing (or capitalizing on) issues in Turkey head on, from Salzburg’s Mario Mauroner Contemporary Art, presenting works by such artists as Carlos Aires, who presented Money, Money, Money (2012), in which the lyrics to the work’s eponymous song were printed in a spiral, to the problematic Turkish Disaster 1-9 (2013), in which images of protestors were pasted onto banknotes. But in all, the experience was not unlike the work of Conrad Shawcross at Amsterdam gallery Gabriel Rolt, described as a “mini-adventure” by Rolt himself, in which Shawcross presented the results of a boat trip in Amsterdam, Pre-Retroscope VIII (Amsterdam Journey) (2012), with an Istanbul iteration of the work now planned.

Of course, in a city like this, it's impossible not to note just how complicated and complex the local art scene really is, especially when thinking about the context of Gezi Park and the movement that was born out of it in 2013. Yet, despite the tumult, Arzu Komili, Galeri Mana Director, tells me that Istanbul’s art scene has been described to her as reminiscent of New York's in the eighties, which somehow rings true. In the past twenty years or so, since Vasif Kortun's groundbreaking 1992 Istanbul Biennial, the Turkish art scene, and particularly Istanbul, has enjoyed a renaissance, matched by a growing collector base with most museums in Istanbul being privately-owned, and many gallerists observing the potential for further development. 

In the end, as art critic, writer and lecturer Ozkan Golpinar explains: to look at Turkey one has to look at the history of modern Turkey, where art has always been used to construct a notion of society. I ask Golpinar how he sees the role of ArtInternational in this context, and he responds with the observation that Turkey at this point could go in either direction; into the western art field or to lock itself into the eastern paradigm. But in thinking about Istanbul’s two art fairs, and what has been described as Contemporary Istanbul’s mostly local focus, perhaps with ArtInternational on the scene, this is a city that will look in both directions; East and West, as it always has. It is a multi-dimensional view that fits Istanbul and all of its artistic endeavours perfectly. — [O]

Images: Honeybunn Photography

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