Sunday, May 18, 2008

On the Istanbul Modern...

(Here's the other article I wrote for Les Arts's about the Istanbul Modern art museum!)

When I say Turkish art, what comes to mind? Calligraphy…pottery…rugs? Yeah, me too. That is why when I heard about a contemporary art museum in Istanbul I simply had to pay a visit. Although the traditional arts of Turkey are beautiful and rich, I wanted to add new images to my mental slideshow. I wanted to see what Turkish art is now.

Istanbul has had a happy gallery scene and even held a contemporary art biennial for a couple decades, but there has been no real institution before now. The Istanbul Modern is the first and only contemporary art museum in Istanbul, and it’s less than 4 years old. The Istanbul Modern is in a large beautifully renovated warehouse on the Bosphorus. I found it poignant how it’s such an industrial-chic art space positioned next to the large Tophane Mosque. The architectural juxtaposition captures how Istanbul is a mixture of old and new…traditional and progressive…eastern and western. It’s a lovely and stimulating balance.

I read a lot of the artworks as a visual conversation between the Turkish culture I was getting to know and Western art that I already understand. I spotted familiar styles I knew but with new Turkish settings and subjects. There was everything from impressionistic landscapes to minimalistic modern paintings… video installations to assemblage sculptures. To see this mutual exploration of materials and universal themes felt reaffirming to me. So even though I admitted I didn’t know anything about contemporary Turkish art before, I actually did.

There were a lot of great artists whose names I jotted down, but I’ll just introduce you to my favorite two: Erol Akyavas and Balkan Naci Ä°slimyeli.

I love when kids draw complicated structures when they don’t know how to, because it ends up this amazingly irrational creation. Like unintentional cubism. Erol Akyavas’ unhindered paintings made me think of this very phenomenon, which I was thankful to be reminded of again. His architectural structures are surreal and natural, actually succeeding at recreating that childlike naiveté. But formally they are so well composed that this prevents it from becoming too chaotic.

Working in a completely different style, Balkan Naci Islimyeli’s artwork is rooted more in reality rather than fantasy. He explores the role of the individual in a changing society, often incorporating his own writing or his portrait in his work. I appreciated the diversity of mediums he utilizes…everything from drawings to sculptures to installations. You can really see his interest in film by how he composes his pieces, his black and white color palette (he’s definitely into exploring the metaphorical shades of grey), and his articulate use of contrast.

After days of exploring traditional bazaars and mosques in Istanbul, a visit to the Istanbul Modern is a refreshing and enlightening introduction to the other side of Turkish culture. And, oh yeah… it’s free on Thursdays.

For easy-to-digest info on specific movements in Turkish art history, click here.

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