www.culturenow online journal interview
You are one of the first involved in the Istanbul Biennial. What is your experience? Were there any difficulties and how did you seek funding?
1987 and 1989 Biennale have been realized when Turkey was under the rule of the Military power; even if the so-called democratic government has opened the horizon to Liberal Economy. Biennale was a cultural manifestation of the business sector towards EU and Western Democracy. Even if the art works were not considered politically influential, the will and intention behind the Biennale was political and economic. İstanbul Biennale has preserved this quality until today; it is a private sector biennale. I gained my curatorial experience through these two biennale, at a time “curating” was not known in Turkey. As we have introduced the updated contemporary art production, the artists and the public was rewarded with an updated knowledge on international art. It was not so easy to convince the prominent artists from Europe to participate, as the state had a fascist image. At that time “sponsoring” was not a popular issue; however, the founders of the biennale foundation have contributed as well as the municipality and the state. There will be always difficulties in making İstanbul Biennale. Since 28 years neither the city nor the biennale foundation have created a serviceable art and culture space. There are only commercial fair complexes. In the first and second biennale we utilized the historical buildings, through which we hoped to attract the attention of the public (at that time very distances from contemporary art) and no doubt the curiosity of the international artists. Later many curators had to repeat this strategy; gradually İstanbul itself became the concept of biennale. The last biennale is another example of this habit!
In your presentation at the symposium organised by the Thessaloniki Biennial, you mentioned that the Istanbul Biennial is currently the show case of Turkey’s business sector and VIP game. From your experience there has been pressure on curators regarding their choice of artists?
There is obviously no direct pressure on the foreign curators; however, the infrastructure and the logistics of the biennale guide the curator towards certain obligations. These obligations are formal rather than conceptual. Yet, we have to consider that at the moment Turkey has a very bad image in censorship, in particular on the press and the media. That means, dissident and uncanny works with heavy direct political content that reveal the anti-democratic status in Turkey will not be so welcome! This biennale may have this kind of pressure, as we have seen too many introvert, gentle, muted works and very esoteric implications to the ongoing political problems and unresolved ideological traumas.
Has it developed throughout the years and in what ways?
There were some censorship cases through the years; but one cannot say that there was a total censorship that stopped the production in a radical way, or only allowed decorative art works, which is the case in most Islamic dictatorships.
There is a website which registers all censorship cases: http://www.siyahbant.org
What role has the state played in the development of the Biennials in Turkey and the contemporary art?
We have to remember that the first biennale, funded by the state started in Ankara, under the title Europe-Asia Biennale, but terminated after the 4th version. Since the 90’s we, people active in İstanbul art and culture agenda, have written reports, organized forums in order to enlighten the political parties and governments about the contemporary cultural infrastructures and requirements of an international city like Istanbul. We defined the contemporary art industry in all details; I regret to say we did not achieve any positive result. The state culture policy is focused on culture tourism, on arts and crafts, on traditional and folkloric art. Even if they fund the biennale it is not sustainable.
Have the Biennials that take place in the country influenced the development of contemporary Turkish art? What has changed?
The foreign curators, with their concepts, artists lists, networks have stipulated global attention. There are memorable art works which should have been bought by the collectors, in particular by the ones who intended to establish museums. To our regret this was not the case. After all these biennale Istanbul could have a large collection of artworks, mainly created for Istanbul, in Istanbul. The current collection museums are no doubt beneficial, but not as rewarding as they should be. What the biennale have implanted is the value of free expression, the democratic challenge of visual culture and a resistance to conservatism and fundamentalism. Currently the biennale is a castle of free thinking, creativity and democracy against the current that is dragging Turkey towards a neo-fascism.
Is contemporary art popular in Turkey at the moment? Are collectors and museums from the country and abroad interested in it?
Contemporary art in Turkey became popular since the mid nineties; now it is almost a biennale for the VIP, fulfilling all the rituals of PR oriented events. It seems that some hundreds of VIP people are coming to the opening of Istanbul Biennale; yet it is never declared that these people are also buyers of artworks of the artists of Turkey!
Do you feel that there is common ground among the Biennials that take place in the Mediterranean? Do they have a strong presence in the international art scene?
This is the major problem! There is an unnecessary competition between the smaller biennale, which obviously cannot compete with Venice Biennale! Istanbul Biennale could undertake a responsibility and make a colloquium of small Med biennale, which would strengthen its position in the Med. However, we must consider that currently the Med region is in war and terror and economic depression, so that all these small biennale are only illuminations of resistance points!
Do you feel that the guest curator (outside the Mediterranean region) who is asked to organise for example the Biennial in Istanbul or elsewhere in the Mediterranean is able to grasp the socio-political situation and is it necessary for him/her to do so?
After many observations I am now convinced that whoever is invited to curate a biennale outside of EU- in particular in the Islam countries - should be very meticulous, attentive and devoted. At large, there are still prejudices, orientalist leftovers and unnecessary smartness towards “the other” and Islam and East and South Mediterranean is still “the other”. On the other hand each country has its own contemporary history, which is ignored, by the sophisticated levels of contemporary art world. The appointed curators should be well informed about the local state of affairs, histories, conflicts and political tensions. It is not expected that the appointed curator should react or challenge to the socio-political tensions and problems, but at the same time they are also not welcome to make touristic and decorative biennale.
Thessaloniki and Istanbul are two cities not very far from each other. Are there any differences between their Biennials?
Yes, there are differences. I will not compare Istanbul and Thessaloniki for their size and population; it is obvious that Istanbul is a mega city, Thessaloniki is a small city. Yet, Thessaloniki is a very organized city and has many exhibition venues with easy access. Thessaloniki Municipality is collaborating with the biennale organizers to facilitate their ventures. The content and strategy of the last tree Thessaloniki Biennale is civil-society friendly and has social responsibility; it has now a significant identity. The funding of Thessaloniki Biennale comes mostly from public resources. Istanbul Biennale is still seeking its identity; because it is a very complex dystopia city.
As an outsider and expert in the field, do you see any development in the Greek art scene?
We from Turkey admire the Greek artists, art experts, and institutions for their resistance and will to overcome the economic crisis. The Greek art scene had always a fundamental effect on the contemporary art in Europe, with its Modern and Post-modern aesthetics and with its traditional roots. I am very proud to say that in 1992 I had the opportunity to collaborate with Efi Strousa and make the first contemporary exhibition of Greek and Turkish artists in Istanbul. Later throughout the years I had had the opportunity to work in special projects with renowned Greek artists such as Dimitri Alithinos, Tsoklis, Kallipi Lemos, Danae Stratou and many others. In 2014 I have been invited by Art Athina to make a show of art works collected from collectors of Turkey and admired the will, enthusiasm and professionalism of the Greek art scene. The Greek art scene created a model for the East Mediterranean art scenes and it continues its quest for more relational and regional communication and collaboration.