Time, quite literally, runs differently in Istanbul. Some clocks run 2 minutes ahead, some 2 days and 5 hours behind. Accordingly, things often turn out to be slightly different than expected: it’s as if the semiotics of the space have come unhinged, as if there is a local specificity that undermines the linkage between signifier and signified. High rises seem to nudge each other into the Bosphorus, fluted highways snake in around themselves; old houses perch on cliffs, ready for demolition to make way for Istanbul’s rapacious expansion.
A colleague compared Istanbul to Shanghai, and it’s easy to see why: the gleaming glass towers, the uneasy co-existence of past, present and future. And no one wants to talk about politics. “It’s great, now we have more stability,’ is the generic and muted response to my question regarding the recent election results, in which, much to everyone’s surprise, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party won outright. The impact on collecting international art remains to be seen – traditionally local collectors prefer collecting art by Turkish artists, and art fairs are dominated by local galleries selling their wares, the launch of Istanbul International notwithstanding.
About half a mile from Taksim Square and Gezi Park, surrounded by Eighties concrete hotel blocks, Contemporary Istanbul, the country’s largest art fair takes place in the convention centre. Headed by Ali Güreli, the fair is a mixed bag of the high and the low, the smart and the puerile. There is everything from European heavyweights such as Alexander Calder and Juan Miró (courtesy of Gallery Lelong) to portraits of the actor Peter Dinklage in costume as Tyrion in Game of Thrones (Bozlu Art Project). This edition includes Berliners Daniel Marzona and Johann König, who are showing there for the first time, as well as xavierlaboulbenne, a gallery with a great roster I was previously unfamiliar with. Gallerist Xavier has brought along some intriguingly abject hair sculptures by the artist Sara Mathiasson, as well as pornographic portraits by the artist Gengoroh Tagame, which are hidden behind sheets so as not to offend the more conservative members of the audience. Despite König bringing along some of his core positions such as Jorinde Voigt, Jeppe Hein and Alicja Kwade, the overall response to the new additions was somewhat muted.
The Istanbul gallery contingent dominates however, as Güreli noted. The fair has a strong local connection, with most of the buyers originating in Turkey or the surrounding countries, and hence, the taste is towards the more conservative end of the spectrum. This strategy has paid off for Güreli, even so: the fair has attracted 86 000 visitors and sold $40m worth of art, according to the organisers. A resounding success then, for a local fair. For international visitors, however, Istanbul itself remains the main draw.
Text by Jeni Fulton