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Public Art and Visual Arts in Istanbul


Turkey has long wanted to join the European Union (EU) having been an associate member since 1963.  Although the country made its application to become a full member in 1987, and has been a member of the Council of Europe for more than sixty years, official talks about its accession to the Union were only opened in October 2005.  The EU uses a mixture of political, economic and human rights criteria to judge if a country is sufficiently "European" to join.  Sitting as it does between Europe, South East Asia and the Balkans, Turkey is geographically overwhelmingly Asian, and its religion and culture are more closely linked to the Arab world to its south and east than those of other countries in the EU.

This report gives an overview of recent activity in the visual arts and the public art field in Istanbul.  Much of this new developmental work is supported by initiatives of the European Commission and Turkey’s Civil Society Dialogue programme (CSD) which are designed to bring closer cultural collaboration and understanding between Turkey and countries within the EU, in preparation for Turkey’s future acceptance as a full member.

Istanbul – City of Culture 2010

For the years 2005 -2019, the EU has extended the City of Culture title to countries which are not members of the EU.  Istanbul has been designated European Capital of Culture for 2010 and opening celebrations took place across the city on 16 January 2010.  The award is given to cities that can benefit from the positive social and economic development benefits which come with the designation (Palmer Report, European Commission, 2004).  Turkey is likely to use this opportunity to transform its cultural base and, in doing so, the way in which it is viewed internationally, as part of its preparations for accession.  The designation comes with a project fund of 1.6m Euros to support non government cultural and arts organisations to demonstrate Istanbul’s cultural legacy and capacity.

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International Istanbul Biennial

The International Istanbul Biennial, organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, first took place in 1987.  The 11th Biennial ran for two months from  September to November 2009 and was curated by the Croatia-based collective, WHW / What, How & for Whom, comprising four female curators.  Under the title ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ the exhibition of 141 projects by 70 artists and artist collectives from 40 countries was hosted at three large venues: Antrepo No.3, Tobacco Warehouse, and The Feriköy Greek School.  With an attendance of more than 100,000 over the two months, it is the largest contemporary art event in Turkey.

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Seeking Public Space: Questions for Secularism

During the last weekend of the Biennial, a debate was held at Istanbul Technical University.  It grew out of conversations between the Biennials in Liverpool and Istanbul about how the two events were tackling issues of art and space.  The main focus was the complex questions that religion poses in public life, especially in a public realm which we usually assume to be secular.  The debate aimed to explore further the idea of public space as a complex and charged engagement between tradition and modernity, private and public, religious and secular concepts, and how artists might work in this context.  It included presentations and case studies from Turkey, the Netherlands and the UK.  

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My City

To mark Istanbul’s year as European Capital of Culture 2010, the initiative, My City, was launched in 2009 as part of the European Commission’s Cultural Bridges Programme.  Cultural Bridges aims to establish partnerships between cultural players in Turkey and Europe in order raise cultural awareness and deepen understanding on both sides, and to assist Turkey’s efforts to prepare for EU membership. My City was conceived and is being managed by the British Council working in partnership with Anadolu Kultur, an agency which fosters cultural development and understanding within and beyond Turkey, and Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Centre, a dynamic catalyst for the dissemination, research and practice of contemporary art in Istanbul and a meeting point for artists.  The project is funded by the European Commission and the British Council.

Five prominent artists from European countries were invited to different cities in Turkey to experience for themselves the cultural richness and diversity of the country and develop a public art work for that particular location.  The character of the different cities and the quality and range of artists participating will ensure that each work created will be both unique and spectacular.  The project began in early 2009 and each artist lived in their chosen city for a period of time between April and July 2009 to absorb and understand both the city and Turkey more profoundly. They each developed proposals for a site specific artwork for consideration by a selection panel in October 2009, following which the artworks were commissioned.  The five works will be unveiled in September 2010.  The selected artists are:

Mark Wallinger (UK) in Çanakkale

Clemens von Wedemeyer (Germany) in Mardin

Joanna Rajkowska(Poland) in Konya

Minna Henriksson (Finland) in Trabzon

Andreas Fogorasi(Austria) in Istanbul

There will be an extensive educational programme in the five cities, aimed largely at young people (50% of Turkey’s population is under 30 years) which will provide the impetus and focus for them to debate the design of their cities.  The wider programme will also involve the public and particular communities in public consultation, discussions on heritage, memory and history, the built environment, parks and public space, and social communication.

At the same time, six visual artists from Turkey have each been invited to undertake residencies in a European city, giving them the opportunity to develop and reflect upon their work in a new environment and culture, whilst extending their network of contacts.  The new work produced during their residency will be shown by their host organisation at the end of the residency.  The participating Turkish artists are:

Caner Aslan at Berliner Künstlerprogramm, Berlin, Germany

Isil Egrikavuk at Hartware MedienDunstVerein & Künstlerhaus Dortmund, Dortmund, Germany

Leyla Gediz at Näyttelyvaihtokeskus FRAME, Helsinki, Finland

Gunes Terkol at Gasworks: Exhibitions, International Residencies & Studios, London, UK

Can Altay at Centrum Sztuki Wspólczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw, Poland

Gulsun Karamustafa, Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, Vienna, Austria

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Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Centre is leading Accented, a residency programme running in 2009/2010 for visual artists, writers and curators.  It involves five partners offering residency opportunities in the UK, Romania, Lebanon and Egypt and is funded by the British Council’s Creative Collaboration programme.  20 residencies, each lasting six to eight weeks, are being offered to applicants from the four partner countries and from 20 countries in South East Europe extending as far as the Gulf region. The principle aims of Creative Collaboration are to forge strong partnerships across boundaries and regions and with UK partners, to enhance the creative economy of SE Europe and the UK, and to engage in arts and intercultural dialogue.  The rationale for Accented comments that post 9/11, ‘numerous exhibitions have been organised by West European institutions’ which have a focus on the south eastern Mediterranean region and the ‘Muslim’ world.  However because of problems with travel, the lack of public support, and weak organisational structures, few of these have actually take n place in the region.  Accented aims to support activity, develop regional bonds and strengthen infrastructure in South East Europe.  At this point, about half way through the project, 9 residencies have taken place.

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Istanbul Residency Programme

Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Centre also houses the Istanbul Residency Programme which has been running since 2003.  Platform has negotiated international funding collaborations with government departments and other strategic funding bodies in Europe to support residencies by contemporary visual artists, curators and critics to visit and work in Istanbul for between 3 and 6 months.  Platform offers four working studios, library, artist archive, storage, computers, local landline, internet access and kitchen, and assistance in finding suitable living accommodation in Istanbul.  Platform’s staff also helps arrange discussions, workshops and activities with local artists and universities, and open studio events.  Some visiting artists may also have the chance to exhibit in Platform’s gallery.

The artist selection criteria are very open.  Applying artists are asked to ‘consider how their practice would benefit from and be inspired by a period spent in Istanbul… [and be] willing to become involved in activities organised by Platform above and beyond their normal practice.’  Artist applications and selection are managed by the funding body for each bursary.  Residency opportunities changed and develop as funding agreements come to an end and different partnerships are established.  Current funding collaborations are with Belgium, The Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Italy.

Platform is also active in securing and advertising residency opportunities for artists from Turkey to visit and work in other European countries.  Current residency exchange opportunities are with Spain, Germany, UK and Switzerland.

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City and Art

The aim of City and Art was to develop communication between art universities in the EU and Turkey to establish networking and sustainable co-operation, exchange of information, and sharing of knowledge and good practice.  The focus of the project was the relationship of the arts with the city. Four academic institutions were key partners: Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Istanbul, Turkey, which leads the project; Vienna Fine Arts Academy, Austria; Malmo University School of Arts and Communication, Sweden; and London University of the Arts, Central St Martins College of Art and Design, UK.  There were nine associate partners including University Fine Art faculties, cultural associations and arts institutions.  The project was EU funded under Turkey’s Civil Society Dialogue Programme.  There are current efforts to realise another City and Art programme in 2010.

The project was developed throughout 2008, and the programme of activities took place in 2009.  It had five main elements:

  • City and Art Forum and publication of its outcomes
  • Exchange of tutors, student workshops and exhibitions in all partner universities
  • Production of artworks by students and final exhibition in Istanbul
  • Production of a social network and a virtual magazine
  • Production of a film documenting the process of the entire project

The City and Art Forum took place at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University over three days in March 2009 and included presentations, discussions, workshops, cultural and artistic events, excursions and receptions.  The aim was to bring together European arts and design academics with cultural players in cities to question the present and future role of arts universities in their cities and in relation to their citizens.  The Forum had four main sections:

  • A review of European cultural, educational and media policies, their influence on city culture and the place of the arts in metropolitan society;
  • Consideration of art in public space and public engagement in art;
  • A range of public art case studies;
  • Methods of learning and teaching which use the city as site or material.

Exchanges of tutors and student workshops took place in the partner universities in London, Vienna, Malmo, Istanbul and Mersin throughout 2009.  A selection of the work produced by students during those workshops was shown in Istanbul for six weeks in late Autumn 2009.

A new European arts universities networking project, www.artacademia.net, was launched at the Forum and partner universities were invited to contribute to the development of this new communication tool.  The website is one of the tangible legacies of the City and Art project.



© Joanna Morland 2010