August 29, 2023

Shambles on the Bosporus

Ingo Arend

Ayşe Erkmen Haliç Haliç’te (2022). Work for the 17th Istanbul Biennial.

Just under two months ago, when the industrialist Eczacıbaşı family opened its private art museum Istanbul Modern in a widely praised building by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, morale in the Turkish capital couldn’t have been higher. A few days after the election victory of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the liberal art crowd celebrated one of its last remaining bastions in a mood of buoyant escapism. But now the city on the Bosporus is threatened by a cultural meltdown.

The worst-case scenario began when the IKSV—the private Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (which also belongs to the Eczacıbaşıs)—announced its intention to appoint the sixty-eight-year-old London art historian, curator, and critic Iwona Blazwick as curator of the 18th Istanbul Biennial in September 2024. It looked like a good decision: a woman with an impressive resumé, from the Tate Modern to Whitechapel Gallery to head of the Public Art Panel of the Royal Commission of AlUla in Saudi Arabia. But the appointment soon turned out to be an act of opaque high-handedness.

Insiders knew months before that Blazwick had been selected over the woman proposed as the new curator by the IKSV advisory board: the German-born, Berlin-based, Turkish-Dutch Defne Ayas. Born in 1976, Ayas is in no way inferior to her London colleague in curatorial or intellectual brilliance. Her path has taken her to biennials in Gwangju, the Baltics, and Shanghai. In her six years as director of the Rotterdam Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, she carried out a controversial and much discussed decolonization of this famous institution. Since 2021 it has been known as Melly, with the name of a young Asian worker from a work by Ken Lum replacing that of the colonial officer for whom the museum was previously named.

Unprecedented Maneuver

Ayas sits on the advisory boards of high-profile museums such as the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul. She has also had dealings with the IKSV. At the Venice Biennale in 2015—the year of the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide—Ayas curated an exhibition for the Turkish pavilion that included the installation Respiro by artist Sarkis. Because Rakel Dink, widow of the journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered in 2007, used the word “genocide” in a catalog essay she wrote for the exhibition, the Turkish Ministry of Culture stopped distribution of the publication. Sarkis made the remaining copies into a work of art. Although not officially confirmed by the foundation, suspicion has arisen that the IKSV declined to appoint Ayas to preclude the possibility of such a scandal.

Parts of the 2015 exhibition are currently on display in a Sarkis retrospective curated by Emre Baykal at Arter in Istanbul. Ayas herself is preparing another exhibition by the artist, titled7 Days, 7 Nights,” at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, opening in late October. Ayas’s ambitious profile is likely to have been the reason why the advisory board voted unanimously for her and her submitted proposal. The board’s members are curator Selen Ansen from the Arter museum, curator Agustín Pérez Rubio, artist Sarkis Ruben, curator Yuko Hasegawa—and Iwona Blazwick. But the IKSV refused to accept Defne Ayas.

Then came an outrageous maneuver: Blazwick, a member of the advisory board in 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2022, was appointed curator by the governing body of the IKSV after the dissolution of its insubordinate advisory board, whose members—apart from Hasegawa—had resigned in protest against the non-selection of Ayas. Blazwick’s acceptance of the appointment was thus a stab in the back for the board that had recommended Ayas and that she herself belonged to. But the IKSV, which cunningly announced its decision during the summer break and never publicly communicated the resignation of the board members, hadn’t reckoned with the alertness of the art scene.

Unprincipled, Wrong Decisions

On social media, artists such as Köken Ergun, curator and art critic Duygu Demir, and documenta participant Banu Cennetoğlu criticized the fact that for the first time in its history the IKSV hadn’t published the names of the jury members. “Could it be that she [Blazwick, ed.] appointed herself? Is this a pattern?” Similar tweets and posts followed.

Criticism of the IKSV’s unprincipled, wrong decisions also threw light on the case of Esra Sarıgedik Öktem. The Istanbul art historian, now freelance with her venture BüroSarıgedik after many years as the director of the sophisticated Rampa Gallery, was chosen to curate the Turkish pavilion for the Venice Biennale. After Füsun Onur in 2022, the idea was to present another leading figure of modern Turkish art, Gülsün Karamustafa, in the lagoon city in 2023.

It was a wrong decision in itself to have a gallerist “curate” an artist she represented, even though Öktem had been nominated by Karamustafa herself. But the fact that the IKSV failed to mention Öktem’s well-known commercial activity in the press release upon her appointment was the last straw.

As Authoritarian as the Head of State

Given the increasingly bittered controversy over the Biennale, Öktem acknowledged her mistake at the last minute and stepped down in an Instagram post (since removed) while on vacation in Bodrum—in order to avoid a conflict of interest and “in an awareness of the precedents and legacies we leave for future generations.” But only a short time later she fanned the art-political flames by issuing the confusing statement that her decision was not to be understood as criticism of the decision concerning Ayas.

A few months before opening, the two IKSV prestige projects were suddenly about to collapse. And an institution of central importance to the Turkish art scene—despite being partially financed by problematic industrial magnates—had marginalized itself at a time when the government was putting increasing pressure on critical cultural practitioners. “In Turkey, calls for institutional transparency are rooted in the fear of a pervasive silence in which the entire country could soon be taken hostage,” explains art critic Kaya Genç.

In its high-handed decision, the IKSV had acted in the same authoritarian manner as the head of state, who arbitrarily hires and fires top officials, such as the heads of museums and universities. Only recently Erdoğan appointed the author of the children’s song project Long Live Grandpa Tayip as director general of the fine arts department in his palace.

Too Radical?

The public controversy has brought years of pent-up dissatisfaction with Bige Örer to a head. Many people hold the director of the Istanbul Biennial responsible for the opaque power politics of her institution. The fact that Örer curated the Füsun Onur exhibition “Once Upon a Time …” in Venice, despite having rarely been active in this way, already raised eyebrows in 2022. Blazwick is known to be friends with Öger, who although heading the Istanbul Biennial spends most of her time in her London residence. Why not forget the bureaucracy, it was sarcastically asked, and just arrange the next Turkish biennial in the UK?

Intrigues, scams, and cliques are part of everyday life in the international art world. But what makes the Istanbul controversy so exemplary beyond the city itself is the scandalous lack of transparency and accountability—virtues that museums and biennials are increasingly demanding from themselves in the ongoing discussion about power and control in the art world.

The response of the IKSV—that it’s a private foundation and doesn’t have to justify itself—is ambiguous. It’s true that nothing in its statutes requires it to accept the recommendation of the advisory board. But given the lack of public cultural or art policy in Turkey, its extensive program fulfils a quasi-public function and receives partial public funding. Requiring it to apply ethical standards and transparency to program decisions and in its dealings with artists and curators is therefore anything but unreasonable, particularly as these qualities are often lacking in the government.

An Admission of Failure by the Institution

The scandal is also an example of an art institution losing its courage. Founded in 1987, and one of many cultural events funded by the IKSV along with prestigious jazz, film, and theater festivals, the Istanbul Biennial has gained a reputation for particularly experimental, critical, and unconventional presentations, at least since René Block’s “Orient/ations” show in 1995 and Vasıf Kortun and Charles Esche’s 2005 edition. If the rumor is true that Defne Ayas was rejected by the IKSV for being “too radical,” this can confidently be taken as an admission of failure by the institution. Biennials weren’t invented to play it safe.

The foundation has also long been subject to criticism for its reticence on current affairs. Its press releases haven’t seen fit to mention the censorship and repression of artists in their own country. “What has the IKSV actually done for Osman Kavala or Çiğdem Mater?” asks Defne Ayas in a conversation. She is alluding to the art patron and father of the Anadolu Kültür foundation, Osman Kavala, imprisoned six years ago, and the film producer Cigdem Mater, arrested in 2018 along with twelve other social activists.

The accusation against Kavala of attempting to overthrow the government was never substantiated. Not a word of solidarity with their millionaire colleague Kavala has been heard from either the IKSV or the many besuited business leaders who gladly style themselves as “main sponsors” at press conferences.

Dubious Political Signal to Saudi Arabia

Instead, the appointment of Iwona Blazwick sends a dubious political signal to Saudi Arabia, where the curator has been helping—since 2022 in her function in AlUla—to realize “Vision 2030,” with which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, intends to reform his country. Rock concerts, Formula One racing, soccer, and above all the visual arts play a decisive role.

The prince’s international political anathematization—because he allegedly ordered the murder of Saudi blogger Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018—has been diminishing, both in politics and art. The most recent example is the museum of modern art that the Parisian Centre Pompidou is helping to set up in AlUla. And who is the central consultant in this process? Iwona Blazwick.

Whether intended by the IKSV or not, its decision has the appearance of opportunism with regard to a potent new player in the international art world. Not by chance did President Erdoğan himself set aside the dispute with bin Salman over the Khashoggi murder to negotiate Saudi financial support for his ailing national budget. The IKSV doesn’t stand for all art in Turkey, which is currently enjoying a small boom in independent art spaces. The scandal has given the art scene the frustrating knowledge that one of its most important centers is dominated by a kind of organized irresponsibility or faint-heartedness. The protagonists now stand before the wreckage. Who will be able to sweep it up?

Demand for a Code of Ethics

Doesn’t Beral Madra, the furious grande dame of the art scene, who curated the first two Istanbul Biennials in the late 1980s, have the authority to sweep it up? Over the years this patrician art historian has become one of the oligarchy-sponsored art system’s staunchest critics. Could it be Vasıf Kortun, legendary figure of the 1990s, who laid the foundations for the internationally lauded art miracle of the Bosporus together with his intellectual partner Erden Kosova in the 2000s?

From Ayvalık, the eco-retreat for the intelligentsia on Turkey’s Aegean coast to which he gloomily withdrew after his not entirely voluntary departure from the Salt art institution in 2017, Kortun declared himself “shocked” that until now only whites and no one from the Balkans or the Southern Mediterranean has curated the Istanbul Biennial. A verdict that would of course also apply to Defne Ayas.

What about the transparency initiative formed around video artist Köken Ergun and (former) Salt curator Merve Elveren in response to the scandal? Will it have any effect? These activists are demanding that the IKSV adopt a code of ethics stipulating that former board members are ineligible to apply to be curators.

Who Will Take Part in the Dialogue?

The hopes of these activists for a continuing “dialogue about this in the coming years” are unlikely to meet with much success. Who will take part? The younger generation of curators has long since shaken the Anatolian dust from its clothes and now prefers to work in Frankfurt, London, or San Francisco. Or will it ultimately be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the grim curator of authoritarianism?

A few years ago the president was already complaining that his government hadn’t succeeded to the same extent in the field of culture as it had in politics and the economy. Now he might have the opportunity to make up the deficit.

Will “RTE,” as the president is dubbed on the street, make use of the current weakness of the IKSV and seize the moment to wrest away responsibility for the Turkish pavilion at the Venice Biennale—an external cultural representation of the country that shouldn’t be underestimated—from the foundation and place it within the remit of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which has not been involved up to now? He would only need to sign one of his famous decrees.

This essay was first published in German in Monopol, August 17, 2023. Translated by Michael Turnbull.

Contemporary Art

Ingo Arend is a cultural journalist and essayist on fine arts, literature, and cultural politics.


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