Information Line >> Istanbul, The New York Times, Aug 2005

..:: Istanbul Articles, New York Times - Aug 25, 2005::..

In Istanbul, Contemporary Art Blooms Amid a Thousand Minarets

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Nuran Terzioglu in her Apel Gallery.

Published: August 28, 2005

NURAN TERZIOGLU, a Turkish curator and gallery owner, is holding court in Cezayir, a restaurant in Beyoglu, Istanbul's pre-eminent arts neighborhood. A large group of writers and journalists is meeting in an adjoining room, while a few artists are lounging around in the cafe, a bright beige room with high ceiling fans and decorated only with prints of the great 15th-century miniaturist Siyah Kalem, or Black Pencil, one of the fathers of Ottoman, hence Turkish, art.


Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Nuran Terzioglu in her Apel Gallery.

As the late summer afternoon turns to dusk, Ms. Terzioglu, 61, owner of the Apel Gallery, is talking about what it means to be a contemporary Turkish artist, caught between the modern city and the Istanbul of a thousand minarets. "It's a tradition going back over 10,000 years," she said, sipping from a glass of green mint liqueur. "But definitely the signal moment was when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror conquered the Byzantine city and ordered that the culture not be destroyed. Instead, the Ottomans added to it, in part by inviting the greatest artists from all over the empire to the palace."

Now, centuries later, the city that was once Constantinople is once again calling on artists from around the world to partake in the ninth International Istanbul Biennial, Sept. 16 to Oct. 30. With the biennial, simply called "Istanbul" this year, the city will add further luster to an international reputation that has grown over the last few years. Strange as it may sound for a 1,500-year-old pillar of global civilization, Istanbul is enjoying a renaissance, and ground zero seems to be here in Beyoglu, perhaps the only genuine bohemian neighborhood in all the Muslim Middle East.

Right off of the wide pedestrian thoroughfare of Istiklal Cadessi, Beyoglu feels a little like SoHo in early 80's New York. As though something's happening, and something's changing.

"Istanbul is both a very old city, and a new Asian giant," said Vasif Kortun, 46, one of the biennial's two senior curators, in his office as director at Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center in Beyoglu. He returned to his native Istanbul after a stint in the mid-90's as director of the Center for Curatorial Studies Museum at Bard College.

"Istanbul's history was as a port city," Mr. Kortun continued. "That changed during the 40's when it became an industrial center." In the 80's, he said, urban planners decided to turn it into a hub city once again, and this metropolis of 15 million people entered the race to become a great global city with five-star hotels, concert halls, fine restaurants, spectacular nightclubs and, of course, a serious arts scene.

Ms. Terzioglu's Apel Gallery, next door to Cezayir, was one of the pioneers in a neighborhood that is now home to several art spaces, including the new Pera Museum, five floors of gallery space juggling several different shows. When I visited recently, there was one featuring contemporary Turkish artists and another showing classical Ottoman portraits. It seemed that most of the viewers, largely students and older couples, rushed through the contemporary show only to linger in front of the Ottoman portraits, especially Osman Hamdi Bey's famous "The Tortoise Trainer."

Perhaps what's most interesting about Beyoglu is that unlike gentrifying European or American neighborhoods where rising rents quickly change the entire texture of an area, the real estate laws here allow what was once a largely working-class neighborhood to remain so, alongside the artists and galleries. At the other extreme, there is 360, high atop the Misir Apartments along Istiklal Street, by far the hottest nightclub in a city of trendy spots.

Hot, yes, but, on a recent visit, no one seemed to be dancing. In fact, most of 360's beautiful people were standing outside on the terrace, looking at one another and at Istanbul's skyline, dominated by the copper domes and minarets of the Hagia Sofia and the works of the Ottoman empire's 16th-century master-builder, Mimar Sinan: the Blue Mosque, the Suleymaniye and the smaller Rustem Pasa.

Oddly, these defining architectural masterpieces have played just a small part in the biennial. The subject of the show is Istanbul - not the classical center of Ottoman power, but the modern global city.

"In the past the biennial played catch-up," said Charles Esche, the show's co-curator, a 42-year-old English critic and director of the Vanabbe Museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. "That is, explaining to Istanbul what was going on in the rest of the world. But we wanted to create the coordinates where Istanbul can be shown to the world. So we looked at work that would reflect the city from the greater Istanbul region."

And how large is that region? I asked.

"From the Balkans to North Africa," Mr. Esche said, laughing, describing essentially the one-time Ottoman empire. If many of the artists are Turkish, the scope of the show, he said, extends even farther than the former Ottoman boundaries, with artists from San Francisco to Jakarta, many of them showing video work in the show's seven locations. "We weren't necessarily aiming for so much video," said Mr. Esche. "But people wanted to articulate something, and video tends to facilitate that."

Later, I asked Mr. Kortun what kind of connection can a contemporary artist have to the Ottoman past and art history. "The visual culture of the calligraphy, the miniatures, was dead by 1850," he said. "The artists here took Europe as a model, but when European painters came to Istanbul they lamented the loss of that tradition and urged them to go back to what they did best, and this is part of the tension. The artists wound up translating to the public here what was happening in Europe, but they were not accepted in Europe as equals."

And what about now? "I think there's now a growing self-confidence," Mr. Kortun said," a greater self-belief in the work some of the Turkish artists are doing."

Visitor Information

Flights from Kennedy Airport to Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul are approximately $810 on Delta with a 21-day advance purchase. Turkish Air and American Airlines also offer nonstop flights.

The Arts

Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the ninth International Istanbul Biennial, "Istanbul," runs from Sept. 16 to Oct. 30. It features more than 50 artists from around the world showing in seven venues throughout the city. Information: (90-212) 334-0763,

Concurrent with the biennial, a number of other galleries and museums are featuring special shows, like "Neighbors" at Galery Apel, Hayriye Cadessi 7, Galatasary, Beyoglu, (90-212) 292-7236,

Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Istiklal Caddesi 276, Beyoglu, (90-212) 293-2361,, founded in 2001, shows contemporary art from Turkey and abroad.

At Pera Museum, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 141, Tepebasi, Beyoglu, (90-212) 334-9900, once the Bristol Hotel, the first two floors house the permanent collection, including the Ottoman portraits; the other three floors serve as multipurpose exhibition spaces.

Istanbul Modern, Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Liman Sahas{inodot}, Antrepo 4, Karakoy (90-212) 334-7300,, is about a 15-minute walk down the hill from Beyoglu. It is a one-time warehouse that now houses a fine permanent collection of contemporary Turkish painting.


Refik, Sofyali Sokak 7, Asmalimescit, Beyoglu, (90-212) 245-7879. In this old neighborhood standard, artists' donations hang on the wall as a testimony to Refik Arslan's Turkish home cooking. Dinner for two including the home-made wine or reki is $60, at 1.4 lira to the dollar.

Flamm, Sofyali Sokak, 16/1, Asmalimescit, Beyoglu (90-212) 245-7604. Next door to Refik, this is one of Beyoglu's newer restaurants, which offers updated versions of Ottoman and Turkish cuisine. Dinner for two, including a bottle of top Turkish wine, is $85.

360, Istiklal Caddesi, Misir Apartment, Beyoglu, (90-212) 251-1042. Dinner for two at this popular nightclub, including alcohol, is $80; be sure to book well in advance. The D.J., Tekin, starts at about 11 p.m.

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