Leading curators Emre Baykal and Eda Berkmen plumbed the depths of Arter, and also Turkish art history, in preparation for the show, "What Time Is It?", an interrogative comment on Istanbul's current milieu. Arter has grown in the last decade from a collection of 400 works to nearly 1,350 while successfully transitioning from an elegant apartment on Istiklal Avenue to what has arguably become Istanbul's first mainstream, contemporary art museum in Dolapdere quarter.
The precedence of Istanbul Modern and institutions like SALT and Pera Museum are outstanding, as is the near-parallel unveiling of the Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture, but it is only at Arter where locals and travelers through Istanbul's art world may enter into a domain reminiscent of the MoMA or Tate. The question that Baykal and Berkmen are asking, backed by seasoned retrospective scholarship, is both pragmatic and philosophically abstract.
Time, even in its linear form, is cyclical. It is steeped in repetition and monotony. Months, hours, days, minutes, seconds and the mechanics of the clocks that bind them in all their mundane ordinariness speak to a myth of eternal return, a recurring deja vu that goes unrecognized under the blinding lights of daily consciousness. And yet, while generally thought of as utterly normal, the measure of solar movement is merely symbolic, a human contrivance.
The fourth dimension
In the context of Turkish cultural history, no conversation about time is complete without Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, a nonpareil literary voice from the early 20th century equally empowered by reason and absurdism. His book, "The Time Regulation Institute," is a staple for anyone's curiosity, and with a sense of humor enough to stomach a bitter, darkly comic satire on the modernization reforms that Turkey endured from empire to republic.
"An unregulated timepiece would drive this otherwise mild-mannered man to despair," Tanpınar wrote, of his character Nuri Efendi, who is struck with a peculiar case of chronophobia. But observing the rest of society, Tanpınar concludes, "Sometimes I consider just what strange creatures we are, we bemoan the brevity of our lives but do everything in our power to squander this thing we call 'the day' as quickly and mindlessly as we can."
The passage of time defines public art appreciation. An indefinite search for objects with no apparent meaning, that swing between egoist projection and selfless obsession, is not widely considered the best use of a fleeting lifespan. But the enigmas of contemporary art have the potential to vitalize with alternative wisdom greater than human longevity, particularly when specified by a nation on the fringe of Eurocentric art criticism, collection and historiography.
A temporal cast
Many artists whose works are on display for "What Time Is It?" are, in fact, central to the contemporary art landscape of European capitals, such as Berlin, a veritable Turkish city within Germany's laudable project of universalizing nation building beyond identity politics. While part of an expansive sound and sculpture installation at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Istanbul's mischief-maker Cevdet Erek returns with three works at Arter.
"Father's Timeline" (2007) represents the interplay of politics and personal histories in the life of a mid-century Turkish man. The rudimentary aesthetic evokes a child's perspective, attempting to listen to his parents' life story. The visual style recalls indigenous calendars based on seasons or the lack of strict timekeeping in non-Western societies. Wars, prophecies and migrations indicate a relationship with the past that is more personal and memorable.
The show encompasses artists who have contributed to the international prestige of Istanbul's collections despite a vacuum of European classicism or of 20th-century masters. But what Turkey lacks for medievalists and modernists, it makes up for its otherwise gross gap in permanent acquisition with postwar visionaries of the contemporary. The preeminent figure in early video art, Nam June Paik is a welcome name in Dolapdere.
"French Clock TV" (1989) places a hard accent on the archaism of the clock as a vintage phenomenon lost to the prevalence of multi-use gadgetry. Anything that only does one thing has become obsolete, but Paik unravels an individualized perspective through the plural, malleable lens of video. The camera, fixed to a tripod, unmoving in front of the clock, projects the presence of a constant viewer, one impatiently waiting, or rushing before the end of the day.
"Golden Carpet" (1995) by Serge Spitzer.
On nostalgia as art
The installation by Sarkis, "Çaylak Sokak, 1986" (2019), marks a momentous return for the artist who has made Paris his home since 1966. After 33 years, Çaylak Sokak is again shown in Istanbul, and it depicts the city's Talimhane district, where Sarkis was born and raised. The piece, which has become a treasured asset of Arter's permanent collection, includes an architectural model of the artist's family house, coated in gold.
"An Icon" (2010) completes the round of personal history that Sarkis has instilled with his signature sly for the exhibition, "What Time Is It?", also defining his life's work to a great extent by remounting "Çaylak Sokak." He has emptied his childhood home and gilded it with the inventive quality of memory as creative inspiration. Baykal's book-length essay on Çaylak Sokak compares his visual allegory to Marcel Proust and Rainier Maria Rilke.
"In 'An Icon,' Sarkis summons up the war years from his childhood memories, recalling the nights of blackouts punctuated by the sounds of planes; but rather than bury the house in the darkness of night and war, he covers it with gold leaf, makes it glitter like a holy sanctuary," writes Baykal. "Although it's staged with objects that doubtlessly belong to a remarkably personal history... there's something about Çaylak Sokak that has to do with ourselves."
Fans whir overhead, emulating the rush of an air raid, which Sarkis might have remembered, if only subconsciously, as a preschool child in the Istanbul of the early 1940s. What he does recollect, as corroborated with friends and relatives, was the ubiquitous sight of carpets hanging over windows to camouflage residential exteriors and dampen sirens. A piece by Serge Spitzer, "Golden Carpet" (1995) complements his work like a closed book.
Only slightly fallen from the windowsill but rolled up and perched at the bottom of a clear window between Arter's multi-floor galleries, "Golden Carpet" prompts an unanswerable question, as the textile remains unseen. In ways, the work and its curation is a viable response to the title of the exhibition, "What Time Is It?," in dialogue with Sarkis. The world has changed since the eldest alive were children, but history's traumas persist, however obscured.