It is good to be back in person in the exhibition scene!
This week, I had the privilege to attend the VIP preview of the 16th edition of the Contemporary Istanbul at the historical Tersane Istanbul, the new home of the event under the main sponsorship of Akbank Sanat along with the sponsorship of Sabah, Daily Sabah, Şamdan Plus and GQ, and one thing is for certain: In-person is the true way to experience art.
I had attended the Virtual Contemporary Istanbul, the 15th edition of the event that was held exclusively online due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, back in the December of 2020, and had fun walking through the galleries and various exhibitions alone from my couch, with no person holding up the line and the like. But going to the Tersane Istanbul, the historical shipyard that served the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, was definitely superior to anything that could be experienced from a computer screen.
For one thing, the setting is surely nicer than my living room, or kitchen. The historical locale takes one back many years as you can still see the traces of bygone eras in the walls, on the road, along the docks. The large complex on the coastline of the Golden Horn, with some of its parts dating back to 1455 when it was built by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II as the "Tersane-i Amire" (Royal Shipyard), houses several historical shipyards, including the Taşkızak (Stone Slipway) Shipyard.
Taşkızak witnessed the first steamship in 1827 and later in 1886, it was the birthplace of the first submarines, "Abdülhamid" and "Abdülmecid," named after the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II who was reigning at the time, and his father Sultan Abdulmejid I who occupied the throne between 1839 and 1861.
So, a lot of history was made in this area, and it is palpable as one surfs the galleries extending out into the shipyards.
There are 57 galleries and institutions exhibiting countless artworks at the event. It took me a good part of two hours just to superficially glance at most of them without lingering, so if you want to truly soak in the art, be prepared for a long tour – maybe even spread it out over two days.
Believe me when I say there is something for everyone at the CI. Whatever your taste, it is possible to find an artist accommodating those specific flavors in one form or another. From the Marvel Extended Universe and Captain America holding Thor's hammer, Mjölnir, to old school Disney cartoons reinvented in twisted ways, baked in a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of the shadowy corporate behemoth that has become of the famous giant round-eared mouse.
It is virtually impossible to get bored. If one space doesn't interest you, look to your left, and ah! There is another gallery with totally different unique artworks in exquisite styles. Look behind, and oh! That looks nice.
Some of the artworks are even for sale, though as the artistic tradition dictates they cost a pretty penny.
What has piqued my joy while traversing the galleries was the sheer number of idiosyncratic artists, all with their own distinct and singular form factor, methodology and variety. It is indeed a must-visit for an art enthusiast as one rarely gets a chance to witness so many international artists and artworks from all around the globe gathered in a single venue.
As I said, it is most possible to find something that appeals to you, and I must admit that I spent an awfully long time among the works exhibited by "RED art istanbul."
I recall Victor Castillo's "We Were All to Be Kings" series in the Isabel Croxatto Galeria, back in the Virtual Contemporary Istanbul. It had offered, in my view, the most unique and easily identifiable visuals in the entire event as the acrylic paintings inspired by the vintage animations of the '40s had provided an incredible blend of nostalgia, surrealism, charm and sinister undertones.
A similar sentiment is present at RED art istanbul's exhibition, and I think I have found my niche.
Curated from various artists, including Ilkem Güneri, Hande Uğur, Nesren Jake and Cihan Ünalan, the gallery offers a marked selection of works each with their own take on famous and nostalgic popular culture symbols and elements.
On one side you see the depictions of Disney's Mickey Mouse, smiling widely while giving off eerie dictatorial vibes, which are not really left to interpretation with the apt subtitle of "Chairman Maus." One can certainly see, and understand, the angle which the artist wants to take and can't help but be reminded of the behemoth that Disney has become, slowly turning the marketplace into a monopoly – or a dictatorship if you like – as it consumes more and more of the competition — seriously almost everything is owned by Disney nowadays, from numerous movie studios to YouTube channels, which when I stop to think about it sounds like the creeping in of dystopia (so, I try not to think about it).
On the other side a mashup of classic Warner Bros. cartoon characters, and of course the same old Mickey, in a bizarre series of imageries with each carrying a specific theme as Marvin the Martian's eyes glint from in between the repetitions of the word "Hate," and Bugs Bunny stands dazed and confused, almost in a state of hypnosis, over which is written "Damn."
Mickey's situation over here meanwhile, makes for a creepy scene, as his face is symmetrically duplicated bilaterally, smeared downwards, creating what I can just call an abomination. The word on the background is "Fun," ironically, but the word's repetition is not symmetrical across the board. So, at the top we see "Fun Fu," but when we come to the bottom of the canvas it is, almost too appropriately, "Un Fun." And that is certainly true, as it is not fun to stare at this image, but not meaningless either, and you can feel the artist was taking the "Mickey," in a good way, while creating this piece.
Among the many other figures, you can see different interpretations of Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, and even Tintin, and a couple of odes to Star Wars with unique depictions adorned with Star Wars imagery like a stage hosting what seems like a play but with all the characters – and also the orchestra – played by Stormtroopers, which is definitely worth a check and is filled with numerous easter eggs, and one can't help but theorize on what the play is about — maybe Anakin versus Kenobi?
Like in my tour, I have spent most of this piece fixated on art pieces focusing on themes and elements of popular culture, but as I said, the vast space of Contemporary Istanbul houses almost every form, style and genre this year.
There are still the mesmerizing works of Ahmet Yeşil, whose style I can only describe as string or rope paintings, as is showcased with his diptych series in Gallery Diani. This time Yeşil's "The End and The Edge II" definitely caught my eye as it continues the ever-so-perfect use of red and black within a unique composition.
Oğuz Kaleli's spiraling stairway, looping round and round into what feels like heaven and hell as it passes through infinity, is certainly a standout.
Meanwhile, Sefa Çakır's portraits are out of this world, focusing on rarely seen faces, with his own equally hard-to-find unique style, all constructed upon the themes of integration and disintegration of the self, inspired by the works of English pediatrician Donald Winnicott as said by Çakır.
The event is open to the general public with tickets on sale as of Thursday, and you can visit the numerous galleries until Oct. 10, so, if you are in Istanbul and have some free time: Don't miss it!