Letter from Istanbul

Turkey in general, though perhaps not Istanbul in particular, was not a place that was terribly familiar with modern art until recently. A week ago, shortly before EU members were to meet in Brussels to debate on the most significant issue facing the bloc – Turkey’s accession to Europe – a modern art museum named Istanbul Modern, located in a former warehouse used in the past by the Istanbul Port Authority, was inaugurated by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. «Among all the peoples of the region, we’ve had the strongest cultural exposure to the West over the centuries,» says Oya Eczacibasi, the museum’s director. «That’s why we have a much stronger tradition of modern art.» As a predominantly Islamic country, Turkey had to face the religious ban on representing living beings in art. Painting «a la West» didn’t start in the Ottoman Empire until the mid-19th century, and it only flourished after the republic was founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. «We have to show the people that this is a public space where they can be comfortable,» said Eczacibasi, who is a gorgeous-looking «Turkish Peggy Guggenheim» in her early 40s. There is inherited money in her case as well. She married into the legendary, wealthy Eczacibasi family. Just as in the case of the Macedonian Museum of Modern Art in Thessaloniki, Istanbul Modern owes its existence to private initiative. Turkiye Is Bankasi AS, Turkey’s largest non-government-owned bank, donated most of the collection. The Eczacibasi family, which has funded the museum project, is the second-largest donor. «It’ll take time, but our museum will become a popular Istanbul spot,» Oya Eczacibasi said. More popular than Turkey itself in the West, one hopes. A September poll by the German Marshall Fund found that only 30 percent of the people in EU countries support Turkey’s EU membership. The main fear is the risk of an influx of Turkish workers into the rest of the EU. With a predominantly Muslim population of 70 million, Turkey is larger than the combined population of the last 10 countries that joined the EU. Yet Europeans pharisaically insist that they are mainly concerned with Turkey’s breach of human rights and European values. Only days after the opening of Istanbul Modern and as European leaders were gathering in Brussels for their ultimate decision, in Copenhagen startled tourists discovered Denmark’s national symbol, the Little Mermaid sculpture, which sits on a rock off a Copenhagen pier, draped in a burka and wearing a sign with the question: «Turkey in the EU?» But let me give you my impressions of the art I saw this time in Istanbul. Sure enough, there are dozens of smaller galleries showcasing remarkable paintings and sculpture in the city. Yet besides those examples, and with the exception of foreign cultural institutes, there have been hardly any venues for the public to see Turkish paintings. Now Eczacibasi aims to put Istanbul Modern on tourists’ agenda and into Turks’ heads. She is targeting 1 million visitors in 2005. She’s also planning an aggressive publicity campaign, and has arranged for the city to bus 20,000 school children to the museum during the year for educational programs. The first permanent exhibition, titled «Observation-Interpretation-Multiplicity: 20th Century Turkish Paintings,» also includes works by contemporary Turkish artists. The work that impressed me mostly was a sarcastic, contemplative video work titled «Road to Tate Modern» (2003) by Sener Oezmen and Erkan Oezgen, from Diyarbakir. The two artists also «star» in this 7’45” video. This domineering state-of-the-gimmick installation has been placed in a three-walled room. Razzle-dazzle free associations transport the observer around the mountains of Anatolia in this «postmodern story of heroism,» as the artists describe their work in jest. The plot: Two men in dark suits and tie, set out on horse and donkey and wander through the inhospitable mountains of Diyarbakir «for 40 days and 40 nights, looking for the way to Tate Modern.»   The work is broad enough to accommodate various meanings. The utopian search is full of hope and despair, and not at all unlike the road Turkey has traveled for the last 30 years toward the EU. There is a bitter-sweet taste in their irony. They pause for a while and wash their feet in a stream. In the wilderness, they meet some Anatolian farmer, whom they ask for the way to one of the most famous modern museums in Europe: «Can you show the way to Tate Modern?» There are some written guidelines to the work: «The two artists allude ironically to Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote in their search of an unreachable objective,» the two creators instruct us. Are they Kurds? They were born and still live in the Kurdish region of Turkey. Some of the modern paintings I saw in the new museum were hardly images at all – just smeary blurs that coalesce, with a little nudge from the viewers’ imagination, into mosques, flying carpets and Arab letters. Aiming to put Istanbul Modern on the map, Oya Eczacibasi repeats with emphasis, «This museum will show how much we belong in the West in a way the world doesn’t even realize.»