Letter from Istanbul

Can a single building bring a whole country closer to Europe? More precisely, can a single 8,000-square-meter building on the shores of the Bosporus become a meeting point for Turkish and international contemporary art, providing at the same time an entirely new symbol for Turkey’s most exciting metropolis? The letter I received a couple of days ago read: «Dear Mr Sypros [sic] Payiatakis,» (The Turks have, it seems, congenital trouble in pronouncing the consonants «sp» or «st» together. Thus my name is constantly pronounced – and written – Sypros, which rhymes with the Greek Kypros…) «I am pleased to announce that Turkey will soon realize its longstanding dream of establishing a dynamic museum of contemporary and modern art. «On December 11, 2004, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will inaugurate Istanbul Modern at an opening ceremony to which prominent Turkish and international curators, artists and art lovers have been invited.» It was signed: «Sincerely, Oya Eczacibasi, Chair of the Board of Istanbul Modern.» Located at the junction of Asia and Europe, Istanbul Modern aims to become a meeting point between Turkish and international contemporary art, while providing a new symbol for Istanbul, once Constantinople. While sophisticated Europe is tut-tutting Turkey’s seeming insubordination and their women’s obsession with wearing a headscarf on occasion, the world agenda feels heated as December 17 approaches. Apparently, the inauguration of a glittering museum of modern art is doubtless an excellent way to shape one’s media image. The impact goes beyond art. Turks can now be depicted as modern, alive, living in a place that turned to the arts to improve the urban environment. As our very important, and expertly organized, exposition at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, titled «Turkey-Greece Meeting Point Modern Art» ended only days ago, Istanbul Modern, with a magnificent view of historic Istanbul, was preparing to accommodate dignitaries from all over the world. Officially, Istanbul Modern is an establishment of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), the organizer of Turkey’s leading international music, theater and film festivals for over 30 years. IKSV also organizes the International Istanbul Biennial, which attracts artists from all over the world and is well known in international art circles. The principal founder of Istanbul Modern is the Eczacibasi Group, a prominent Turkish industrial group with a long history of supporting the arts, and with one of the most important collections of Turkish modern art in the country. Founded in 1942 by Dr Nejat F. Eczacibasi, the prominent Turkish industrial group active in finance, information technology and welding technology with a combined net turnover exceeding $1.7 billion, 36 companies and more than 7,300 employees in 2003, is the uncontested culture czar – preferably in capital letters – of Turkey. And the nation had better be grateful. However, culture czars will often also tell the nation what is good art and what is bad art, and they seldom seem to trust the basic axiom of a democracy: The people can and must choose for themselves. Well, grumbling prematurely is not the right thing to do after such a glorious opening. And, sure enough, us «real» Europeans have had our dark, totalitarian moments. Let’s remember here that Plato himself wanted all arts censored in his ideal republic. And after all, support for Istanbul Modern has also come from distinguished international institutions like Deutsche Bank/Guggenheim Berlin, Kunsthalle im Emden and the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which gives cause for optimism. The chief curator of Istanbul Modern is Rosa Martinez, whose curatorial projects include the 1997 International Istanbul Biennial, the Spanish pavilion of the 2003 Venice Biennale and the 2005 Moscow Biennial. What remains is the question whether in that sheer diversity of a continent evolved in an unmanageable multitude of social, political and aesthetic directions, can one talk of such a thing as European culture? Can we Greeks really compare culturally to our confreres in the West? The moral: Istanbul Modern was most impressive.