Three artists about culture in Türkiye: “Walking a fine line”

How free is the Turkish art scene after twenty years of Erdoğan? A conversation with Silvina Der Meguerditchian, Pinar Öğrenci and Viron Erol Vert.

A woman sings on a boat in which there are three men

When Turkish Public Art Was: Ya Da Theater 1996 at Assos Performing Arts Festival Photo: Raife Polat

taz: The new Istanbul Modern Museum is now opening. The building is by Renzo Piano, the collection includes Anselm Kiefer and Haegue Yang alongside Turkish greats such as Nil Yalter and Gülsün Karamustafa. To put it provocatively: isn’t it going quite well for contemporary art in Turkey right now, shortly before the presidential elections?

Silvina The Meguerditchian: “You can tell the state of contemporary art by how it deals with its most endangered members,” I would say, paraphrasing Gustav Heinemann. As long as artists, patrons and creative people are in prison, Istanbul Modern cannot impress me.

was born in 1975 and grew up between Germany, Turkey and Greece. As a visual artist he lives in Berlin and Istanbul.

In the two decades under President Erdoğan, authoritarianism and repression increased, but the Turkish art scene is said to be quite free and critical. Where does this reputation come from?

Pinar Ogrenci: I think that goes back to the 90’s. Politically an uncertain, chaotic time, but the Turkish art scene flourished: Hüseyin Alptekin, Esra Ersen and Halil Altındere were influential. Many artists worked in public space, using the city as a stage. The Istanbul Biennials of the 1990s did the same. You have given many political artists a platform.

When was the turning point in the art scene?

was born in Buenos Aires in 1967, has lived in Berlin since 1988 and has exhibited extensively in Turkey. The visual artist is a confidante of the patron Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned there since 2017.

PO: That came with the elections in June 2015. The pro-Kurdish party HDP won more than 10 percent of the votes and was able to enter parliament. From then on, the mood in the country changed. There were bombings and murders, provocations, and many people died in demonstrations. Then we had another election in November, which Erdoğan’s AKP won. During this period the repression began. People were arrested on the streets and often detained indefinitely without a trial.

Artists too, especially photographers and filmmakers, because they could potentially document something that shouldn’t be seen. I myself was imprisoned after a peace demonstration, followed by a two-year court case in which I was sentenced to 18 years in prison. I had to leave the country afterwards. It was clear that I could no longer express myself freely in Turkey.

SDM: I was in Turkey for the last time in 2015. As an artist who works on the Armenian culture there, I don’t dare to go to the country. And as long as Osman Kavala is in custody, I will not enter the country as a protest.

was born in Van (Eastern Turkey) in 1973, is a visual artist and filmmaker. In 2010 she founded the free exhibition space MARSistanbul. She has been living in Germany since 2018.

So art has withdrawn from public space since 2015?

Viron Erol Vert: The situation changed fundamentally with the Gezi protests in 2013. Their great support, including international support, confirmed the country leadership’s fear of foreign influence from the West, which seems to be one of the deepest fears. In 2013 I took part in a parallel exhibition to the Istanbul Biennial and wanted to show my work in the garden of a Greek Orthodox church. But I was canceled for fear of reprisals and I then installed it as one of the few artworks during the Biennale in a (semi-)public space in the schoolyard of Zografiyon Gymnasium in Galata.

I don’t think politicians, like many people outside the art scene, understood until 2013 what it means when art takes place in a public place, that they can change it. Now people are reacting harshly.

Maybe there is no place for a free art scene in a country that is also called Constructocracy because of its building frenzy?

PO: Many independent scene projects stopped their activities. When I left the country, I also had to give up my showroom. Living and working space is becoming more and more expensive. My apartment in Istanbul, for example, has been surrounded by an urban transformation project in recent years. We’ve been dealing with real estate developers for years. The house is now being demolished.

VEV: Politics has also wiped out material culture. Up until a few years ago, Istanbul and the whole of Turkey were unique to me as an artist with the abundance of handicrafts, handicrafts and materials. But that is no longer the case. This has to do with the ailing training system. And also with inflation. Prices change daily, almost hourly. This disappearance of a culture also affects the identity of a society.

Demolish and rebuild, isn’t that also a form of cultural control?

PO: One of my assistants once wanted to make a video about the construction of a new apartment complex. The construction company came straight to her and threatened that she would put herself in danger. These are powerful companies in Turkey and they would act very aggressively against you. If there is no free speech in a country, then we cannot talk about urban rights, environmental rights or the right to housing. All of these things are connected.

SDM: In 2014 I did the theater project “Where to? (Nereye?)” with Cağla Ilk. It was about the Istanbul districts of Fener and Balat and how systematic attempts had been made to take away people’s homes there for decades. At that time, the residents could still go to the European Court of Justice and stop the processes. Since 2016 you have been held hostage by the construction industry, you are not a citizen.

VEV: The struggle for neighborhoods like Balat, Fener or Tarlabaşı has a long, tragic history. This is where the great cultural diversity of Turkey and this constant political effort – actually since the founding of the republic – come together to make it no longer visible. And that with all capitalist means: Whole districts, once also built by Armenians, Greeks, Jews or Albanians because they were fellow citizens of the country for centuries, are being demolished, only to be rebuilt in hyper kitsch build and sell. I sometimes ask myself how and whether capitalism can be used in such a way that one can also do something good with cultural wealth.

One thinks that Turkey’s galleries and art museums, which are mostly privately funded and not financed by the state, like the Istanbul Modern now being sponsored by the Eczacıbaşı Group, give art room for open criticism.

VEV: From the outside it might seem like the art scene is open-minded, beautifully reflective and critical. In the end, the “free” art scene is only funded privately, which creates obligations and also harbors risks. And certain topics are reluctant to be addressed: the Turkish-Greek past, questions about the Aramaic, Kurdish, Alevi culture in the country. The curator Beral Madra, who still lives and works in Istanbul, is perhaps an exception.

PO: I don’t think there is any room for criticism. I saw the exhibition “The 90s Onstage” about interdisciplinary, performative art of the 90s at SALT Beyoğlu. The 1990s were dominated by violence in Kurdish areas. At that time I was growing up in the Kurdish city of Van. Fathers, sisters and brothers of my friends were murdered. Cumartesi Anneleri, the Saturday mothers, sat in front of the Galatasaray school every Saturday and demanded information about the whereabouts of their children who had disappeared in police custody. Wasn’t that a performance? But the exhibition doesn’t mention that. I wonder if I really come from the same country as the exhibition organizers.

SDM: The only house that has really dared to address risky issues in the past is Osman Kavala’s Depo. Kavala also made it possible for me to do the exhibition “Remembrance without Place” in Diyarbakır in 2014 and one year later “Grandchildren, New Geographies of Belonging” at Depo Istanbul. It was about Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire and its disappearance in Turkey. But Depo was always alone with such topics, the other art houses have raised something here and there, but since Osman Kavala has been in prison, hardly anyone has done that anymore.

Osman Kavala’s art space Depo still exists?

SDM: Yes, but you make it difficult for them. Sometimes you threaten to close the house, sometimes not, then all the bureaucracy and the bans – that’s also a perfidious way of keeping the house on a short leash.

Apparently, addressing Turkey’s multiculturalism is the biggest risk for many artists?

VEV: Actually, no dangerous topics appear in my work. But it’s a problem that my name doesn’t just sound Turkish to some. When I was asked whether I was Turkish, a gallery owner once explained to me that I was “exclusively” a Turkish artist and therefore also my artistic work. In the current political atmosphere, it seems that only a Turkish Sunni man can succeed.

Or do you have to come to terms with the situation?

VEV: There are those who make arrangements and stay in the country, and those who leave. Not everyone in the country is playing the game. But if you take a closer look, there’s this split. And she creates a strange atmosphere that’s only gotten stronger in recent years.

PO: We are now a generation of artists living abroad for political reasons, many of them in Germany. Nobody in Turkey is interested in what we are doing or what challenges we have now.

SDM: There are many on the ground walking a fine line and criticizing between the lines. Individual artists or projects, such as the feminist film festival. They are mostly financed by foreign cultural institutes such as the Institut français or the Goethe-Institut. Although they pursue their own policies, the foreign funding programs are fundamental for such initiatives.

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