Critic and curator Duygu Demir works out of Istanbul, where she is a programmer at SALT. She is also one of twelve curators chosen to represent their home city in Art Cities of the Future, published in September by Phaidon. Below, she talks about the contemporary art scenes that flourish in Istanbul as well as some of the considerations that come along with Western attention and influence.
What was your process for selecting the artists included in Art Cities of the Future? Did you set out to show the broad range of concerns, modes, and styles that they represent, or did that range come naturally as you curated the text?
My process of choosing the artists was guided by a few different concerns. First and foremost, I wanted to reflect the equality between female and male artists here, because I think unlike many other fields in Turkey, in the arts the practicing artists are more or less equally distributed. I wanted my selection to reflect this. Also, I identified while working on my text that there are about three generations of contemporary artists in the city that are still practicing, Gülsün Karamustafa, in her late 60s, represents the oldest generation, Halil Altındere and Esra Ersen, both in their early 40s represent the mid-generation, and the youngest generation, which features the most artists, is comprised of Cevdet Erek, Köken Ergun, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Ahmet Öğüt and Nilbar Güreş, who are all in their 30s. Another balance I had in mind was to include artists who work in a diverse range of media, the selection reflects artists working in painting, installation, video, sound and performance.
As a curator and programmer, what about Istanbul most holds your attention and keeps you working there, rather than locating your practice somewhere else on the international circuit?
First and foremost, I am from Istanbul, and it is important that I understand its dynamics as best as I can. As I am quite young, I think it is important that my own formative years are spent here, where the city’s art institutions are also in formation. My practice is very much intertwined with what I experience here, and I have been involved with SALT—an interdisciplinary cultural institution which only opened in 2011—from the beginning, which allowed me to think about how to program in a city that has two distinct audiences for its institutions; an advanced but much smaller group of people who are part of the international art circuit, and another larger group, who are curious, but with much less exposure to art. It is an inspiring challenge, and I feel most fulfilled when I am giving tours of exhibitions to the public or high school groups and it does not always click but you sometimes get to see a slight change in sensibility after the encounter. Also, there is a lot of archival research to be done here, many more artists and collectives and exhibition histories to uncover, areas in which even the most preliminary art historical work has not been done, let alone over-studied, of course this is due to a lack of state structures. Here the private sector is trying to fill in those gaps (of course not without their own agendas) but it is a completely different system compared to more established Western European or North American examples and their support structures, and it remains to be seen how it will work. But in short, there is a sense of excitement and curiosity here that fuels dynamism, which is crucial.
What is the working artistic community in Istanbul like? Do these artist socialize together and collaborate, or do you see them more as representing distinct aspects of the city’s artistic life?
One of the key aspects that the editors of the book wanted us to keep in mind while selecting the artists was that the artists played an active role in the city’s artistic community. The artists I selected all know each other and do socialize together. Perhaps due to residencies and travel that is required for their work they are not always present; however, they are all very invested in Istanbul. Since the city’s art circuit is still in its formative stage these artists take on more responsibility than just their own artistic practice; they participate in discussion groups, give tours, teach either at universities or through workshops. They are very involved with the community and outspoken. And since the Gezi protests, I think the artistic community here even got closer and other channels of communication opened up, there is a new sense of urgency for unity.
You end your introduction with a question, wondering whether artists in Istanbul will “continue to look critically at identity formation, unexcavated histories and local complexities, or succumb to the comforts of commercial patronage.” How much did the sometimes problematic implications of commercial patronage and Western influence weigh on your mind while framing Istanbul for the audience of Art Cities of the Future?
Very much so. I keep saying that the art scene here is rather new and still in formation, and it will sound like a contradiction when I say this, but of course things never happen overnight, except perhaps the commercial interest. As I try to explain in my introductory essay, avant-garde practice in Istanbul has a long history, which nowadays gets easily overlooked because of the hype around what is happening now. It was quite a closed-circuit perhaps until the 1990s, but there are figures still working today such as Sarkis, Nil Yalter or Fisun Onur who were all educated in the West. It is not the Western influence but the commercial interest that is worrisome in my opinion.
And finally, are there any upcoming exhibitions to which you’d like to draw our attention?
The very contested Istanbul Biennial this year has just ended, but perhaps selfishly I would like to draw attention to the Gülsün Karamustafa survey at SALT which will be on view until January 5, 2014. It spans 40 years of artistic practice, and the exhibition also reflects the recent political history of Turkey, as events such as the formation of the Turkish Republic, two military coups (1971 and 1980), population in Istanbul jumping from 1 to 15 million over the course of a few decades through migrations from the countryside to the city, are all reflected in the works of the artist, whether through personal memories, family stories or first-hand experiences, such as her Prison Paintings (1972-78), made right after the artist was imprisoned for her political activism.