Contemporary Art unites East and West in Istanbul

Once a city of Byzantium, then the capital of Ottoman Empire and now the centre of a unique civilisation where the East meets the West, Istanbul for the fourth time, meets contemporary art lovers to display a culturally blended cocktail of art works.

More than 70 domestic and foreign galleries participate in Contemporary Istanbul Art fair and exhibition 2009 with hundreds of works between 3rd and 6th of December at Lutfu Kirdar Congress and Exhibition Centre. As the most extensive “modern and contemporary art” event in Turkey, the organisation aims to promote and present the cultural and artistic life of Turkey. 

The term “contemporary” in art is relatively new in Turkey since, this year of 2009 marks only the fourth time despite its promising potential of modern artists. Especially after being chosen as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2010, Istanbul is increasingly becoming the hub of art lovers, performers and art traders with high hopes of overcoming the economic crisis.

For the ones, with no sufficient funds to carry the works home with them, the event sets a sort of theatre scene to enjoy as a spectator. The guests first are welcomed by a shiny green coffin with a goose squeezed in it, followed by a huge pig head hanged on the wall. The scene initially forms a type of jungle for the Turkish audience not used to see art in animal forms, but their puzzled face turn into admiration after a while.

“I’ve always thought that art meant a set of images in glittered frames, but I now see in modern life, that art is everywhere,” says a young Turkish student for whom the Contemporary Istanbul sets his first meeting with contemporary art.

"Jungle" by Artplas

 “Contemporary” might also bare a meaning of “controversy” for some societies like Turkey where taboos can only be shaken by the power of art. Such terms as homosexuality, sex and nudity happen to sound hard in articulation for Turkish society but one of the participant galleries from Turkey, Artplas displays mesmerizing paintings of nude human bodies with explicit symbols referred to sexuality and homosexual relations, but labelling their work as “No Name.” The works of Turkish gallery Artplas are displayed in a black room with a warning: “Not Recommendable for below 18s.”

By Donato Piccolo from Riff Art Gallery

“The images have indeed a message to give,” says the owner of the art gallery, while posing to journalists in front of a large painting of nude male bodies, “Art is not something to be scared of!”

Modern and contemporary art have long been matched with Western values and norms since they require an ultimate form of freedom in performance which was practically not seen in Muslim dominated Middle Eastern countries. However, this year of 2009, Contemporary Istanbul for the first time hosts two Middle Eastern countries Syria and Dubai as a part of its “New Horizon” project that aims to bring together the Eastern and Western artworks into one common ground.

Ayyam Gallery from Syria participates in the event with paintings, photos and sculptures of Ammar Al-Beik, Safwan Dahoul, Nadim Karam and Nassouh Zaghlouleh.

When asked about what they brought from Syria to Turkey, “I carried the light of Damascus with my photos,” Nassouh Zaghlouleh responds. Syrian photographer’s photos are depicting a naive picture of narrow streets in Damascus which reflects the game between the shadow and the light.

“Those pictures are the dark and white sides we have, it’s up to us to choose where we position ourselves,” Zaghlouleh continues. One of his pictures has a veiled woman’s figure on the back, which he says was not the intention while taking the picture, but “women always add the charm in art.”

Another interesting work that captures most of the visitors’ eyes is from Strasbourg’s Riff Art Gallery. The human shaped sculptures of Donato Piccolo are displayed in action by a secret electronic system. One of them is hitting his head on the wall, another one stuck in legs on the ground trying to save himself and one with no head but instead a bubbled vaporised glass box.

By Ayyam Gallery from Syria

“This is the renaissance of thought,” says Steven Riff, while describing the artist Donato Piccolo’s work of humans in different forms. “One is trying to get out of the prison that he finds himself in, another one is trying to break his taboos. This is the violence, fragility of human nature that is displayed in body forms,” Riff continues. He adds that “the message of this art is rather social than political.”

Another significant contributor country is Germany. As part of the commemoration of 20th anniversary of Berlin and Istanbul becoming sister cities, numerous German participants display their interesting art works and also hold a number of events, special activities and events in varied forms of installations.

In addition, France, United States, United Kingdom, Ukraine and Canada are among the foreign participants alongside their Anatolian counterparts. Amid the discussions on where Turkey is positioning itself between East and West, contemporary art, particularly the international way it is represented proves that Turkey is rather a great mixture of cultures.

Istanbul, famed with its traditional Ottoman style art works mostly displayed in glorious palaces all around the town, now appears to be the centre of contemporary art through its young and promising capacity of creative artists.

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