In the Wake of Gezi, Taking Stock of Istanbul’s Art Scene
Public art in Turkey’s largest city exploded during the mass uprising of the Gezi Taksim protests, which lasted from May 2013 through September 2014. There are too many examples to do any kind of justice to the breadth of artistic reactions during Gezi, as they ranged from the expected performance pieces to graffiti to a 5,000-book park library to an internet mock-up of the Turkish version of eBay, which listed Gezi Park as an item to bid on. The protests started over the proposed privatization of the beloved little park in Istanbul and exploded into a mass expression of dissatisfaction with the right wing government of Turkey. Gezi was similar to the 15-M and Occupy movements but riskier for the participants, as the violent crackdown by the Turkish government demonstrated.
What are the ramifications of the protests for the artistic community in Istanbul and, by extension, the arts in Turkey? News cycles report on explosions, but the messy aftermath is a far more complicated, and overlooked, question. Depending on whom you ask, post-Gezi art: has continued to bloom, is the same as before, or is defeated and depressed. In this article, the words “activism” and “art” are used interchangeably, since during the Gezi protests the two were fused and people here often refer to them as one and the same.
Of course, any energy being put into confrontational art at all now in Turkey is impressive given how, on the face of things, the protesters lost. The privatization of the public sphere and the clampdown on freedom of speech, which were the core issues during Gezi, continue unchecked. Rampant censorship is growing, and plans remain for Gezi Park to be developed into a vintage military-barracks-themed mall. Istanbul’s new municipal budget is said to include a huge line item for tear gas. And many remain shocked by the thousands wounded, hundreds tortured, and 11 dead at the hands of the police during the protests, having thought the state would draw the line at open violence against Turkish people in a very public space.
For some, however, the sprit of the Gezi protests is still fueling creativity. Bengü Gün, the director of Mixer Art Gallery, a private venture focused on emerging artists, maintains a positive outlook on new art since Gezi. “I am optimistic about art in Istanbul — this is why I am doing this job,” she told Hyperallergic. She said she’s seen more people enter Mixer Gallery since the protests. “A wide group of people are more interested in art here. Young artists are more excited since Gezi. I am seeing artists make art that is genuine, not to make money but to make statements.”
Many Turkish artists feel that the demonstrations were a radicalizing moment for a large spectrum of society. It’s been estimated that 3.5 million Turks from all walks of life participated in some form of the protest. For example, among the Kurdish rights protesters, ecologists, and gay activists found at Gezi, there were also many religious groups and even football club supporters. Groups of Turkish citizens were engaging with political life, art, and each other in a way that was unimaginable just a few years ago.
“Before, I used to think differently,” a Turkish documentary filmmaker said to me (the first of many people who asked to remain anonymous for this article — a reasonable request given that incarceration, defamation, and death threats are very real considerations with the current government). “I, like many people, was critical if I heard people speaking Kurdish on the bus,” he continued. “I would yell at them ‘Why? You are Turkish, speak Turkish.’ I now understand many things about different people here. Armenian history, Kurds, many different viewpoints are [now] acceptable [to me].”
His sentiment is not uncommon. In the dawning post-Atatürk society of President Erdogan, there is an openness to seeing Turkish identity as multifaceted. “With [the] Gezi protests, most of us faced a new era, a way of questioning what we were going through and reacting with our senses to the political climate of the country,” Turkish painter Beyza Boynudelik wrote in an email. “My generation used to be apolitical until then. We all went through a very special experience, saying ‘enough’ to the attitude of the government about our beloved park and trees, speaking up together, also realizing the existence of ‘the other.’ It was a magical and poetic state of mind we all shared against the unfair and ruthless attitude of the government. We were saying art and humor by the public were the most sincere, powerful, and important expressions that could be done. I think Gezi made not only artists but most of the society become more aware of what’s going on around, [and] also taught [them] to be responsible for the environment surrounding them.”
Turkish-American artist Bahar Yurukoglu agreed. “People might be more informed, invested, and interested in their society since Gezi,” she said, referring to the more open view of Turkish people towards the arts now.
Yurukoglu’s recent installation “this place,” which criticized the consumerist culture of modern Turkey, was very popular this past winter in Istanbul. The piece was a kitsch-filled sensation of light, tinsel, fake security cameras, color-saturated photos of aspirational motifs, video projections, and an LED display with statements from an economist about the Turkish government’s economic policy (example: “they wanted to create an illusion of wealth, they went to coffee shops and gave credit cards to people”). It brought more attendees than any other show in recent memory to maumau works, a gallery in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, near Taksim. (Full disclosure: maumau works hosted my writer’s residency in Istanbul, but they did not ask me to review their show.)
Yurukoglu said she was surprised by the reactions of several people who were conservative yet appreciated the anti-consumerist message of her show. “I guess I don’t know them that well, but I was surprised that the show was as liked by that [older, more well-off] group of people,” she explained. “The younger crowd got it, for sure — but some of the people I was not expecting to approve were appreciative.”
Others in the Istanbul art scene have a dimmer view of the effect of Gezi. Greek artist Olga Alexopoulou, who’s lived in Istanbul for eight years, told me, “Most artists here want to leave and exhibit abroad now.” In support of this, she mentioned a number of recent gallery closings, including the well-known MaNa and EL’PS’S galleries as well as other smaller venues.
“Gallery openings are sometime attacked by neighbors who object to the wine drinking,” Alexopoulou continued. “So now the problem is really self-censorship, which you can understand — especially given that the government is making it hard for Turkish artists to get a visa to visit other countries. I censor myself here in a way that I would not do in Athens. Gezi and art here was like a beautiful affair that lasted longer than most affairs. But now the Turkish people are back with their wives.”
A Turkish writer who wished to remain anonymous concurred: “Everyone is tired. Everyone is depressed. The best place to show art is abroad.”
For many, however, the legacy of Gezi is simply mixed. “I will not say that I am an optimist, but I am not a pessimist right now,” said Özge Çelikaslan, a researcher, artist, and recently the co-editor of Surplus of Istanbul, a book by Artıkİşler Collective about video art activism engaged with waste collectors in Istanbul. “Many Turkish people are now engaged with Kurdish issues and politics of public space in a way they were not before. It could come to a good result. Also, there are many new forms of protests coming out since Gezi. There are ‘city defense’ groups now, for example, who protect public space from wild urban transformation policies by the government.”
Other recent activist efforts, both large and small, that grew out of the Gezi protests and often employ art include North Forest Defense, which focuses on environmental protection; Taksim Solidarity, a large umbrella activist group; and Caferaga Dayanismasi, a small activist squat collective. “Unfortunately” Çelikaslan continued, “the [current] contemporary art scene here is limited, privatized, and quite commercial.”
Çelikaslan did mention one exception to her feeling that galleries in Istanbul are too timid and mostly concerned with money: Depo. The space plans to show art exhibits through 2015 relating to the history of Armenians in Turkey, which has largely been expunged from official Turkish historical records. 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an event that’s still illegal to mention in Turkey; even talking about Armenian relations in a positive light has led to arrests or worse in the past. A year of Armenian-themed shows would be edgy, to say the least.
Aslý Çetinkaya, project coordinator of Depo, wrote to me with her observations about art since Gezi: “One important change is more about the artists, actually. A more collective spirit seemed to emerge — or reemerge, as some years ago artist collectives, nonprofit artist initiatives were quite many and popular, but this time with causes other than art itself. Artists seem to be more concerned with social and political issues and in solidarity with other social groups. Two examples are: Kazova textile factory and solidarity with the workers [and] Yedikule orchards and gardens, which are under threat of construction. Artists were very active in the events [and] meetings. I hope this raised sensitivity will survive and gather around many other urgent issues. I am not sure what [Gezi] did to the art world — in terms of market, new works, etc. — but a change in the mentality of artists may also change the ways of producing and presenting art.”
Marianna Hovhannisyan, curator and researcher at SALT Galata, Istanbul’s premier contemporary art and research center, believes that Gezi was part of a trend and cannot be seen in isolation. “It was three events that publicly started to change how Turkish citizens think about the so-called ‘the Armenian question’ and to connect this issue with a larger picture,” she said. “The first was the widely reported case of the Turkish lawyer Fethiye Çetin discovering her hidden genetic heritage as an Armenian. The second was the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. The third was the Gezi Park events. All of these openings have contributed to a complex understanding of how the Turkish society questions itself, the state, and history through human rights and civic discourses.”
Hovhannisyan also thinks, though, that “after Gezi, artists are depressed, some want to leave.”
Human affairs rarely provide neat narratives. This is especially true with unresolved events involving millions of people. The one thing everyone I talked to believes is that the monolith of collective Turkish identity — which was the theme of the Atatürk years — is crumbling and cannot return. Turkish people are finding it more acceptable to be a Turk who does not conform to the fictive ideal of Turkishness. In January I saw a mainstream Turkish comedy movie, Bana Masal Anlatma, which devotes a large section of its plot to a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Istanbul, where long-term Christian residents and African immigrants band together with their Turkish neighbors to stand up to a wicked Turkish developer and his foreign capitalist associates. It’s increasingly normal to be a Turkish Alevi, a Turkish environmentalist, a gay Turk, an anti-capitalist Muslim Turk — and of course, on the other side of plurality, a neo-fascist Turk or right-wing Islamist Turk.
The wide open nature of the new Turkish identity is good for art, as post-structuralism always is, but it also has some terrifying possibilities. In the next six months or year or half decade, everything could change. Some see the broadening of the Turkish self-defined character as a precursor to civil war and a total loss of the gains the art world has made; others view it as grounds for a new world of multiculturalism and art, not seen in the country since the Ottoman times. This could be a moment similar to Mao’s Hundred Flowers Movement, when the arts briefly flourished in China, only to then be crushed and not reemerge for 40 years. Or this period could be like Glasnost, when a new openness in the arts and society brought down the Soviet dinosaur.
The truth is that no one knows what will happen next — and that Gezi is not really over.
For a video archive of activism in Turkey, go to www.bak.ma.