Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin

I am not a studio artist

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Installation view from Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin exhibition at SALT Beyoğlu, 2011. Courtesy SALT

Istanbul
Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin: I am not a studio artist
SALT Beyoğlu
April 9–August 7, 2011

Istanbul
Tactics of Invisibility
ARTER
April 9–June 5, 2011

Istanbul
Nilbar Güres
RAMPA
April 9–May 21, 2011

The last thing I did before leaving Istanbul’s wet, cloying cold was eat curious ice cream. Tiny amounts were handed to us in bite-sized biscuit pots. The five different flavors (including cardamom and broad bean) were confected right before our eyes, each step narrated by London-based Kitty Travers, whose roving ice-cream alchemy lab transformed an unlikely art gallery into a site of production (and immediate consumption).

People had drifted in from Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s long, meandering, brand-endowed main street, which also serves as the city’s primary avenue of protest. Travers’s publicity posters had gone unprinted thanks to a power outage in the area, and for a few fraught moments it seemed as though the bags of ice required to work her magic would not turn up. But people found the DIY ethic on offer endearing — its spirit of educational, edible generosity — even if they weren’t sure exactly where they were, or why.

A week before, the same high-ceilinged, black and slate-gray space, the “Forum,” welcomed Istanbul’s thronging art scene through its doors for the very first time to inaugurate the opening of SALT Beyoğlu. Housed in an impressive skinny six-story, mid-nineteenth-century building owned by Garanti Bank (between 2001 and 2007, home of Platform Garanti Art Center), SALT is the latest addition to Istanbul’s fast-growing constellation of privately funded galleries, foundations, and museums — but with one key, self-declared difference. Showing or shoring up art is not their absolute priority. Research is.

As any long-suffering doctoral student will tell you, research is always in progress. After SALT had been open a week, its still unfinished restaurant, bookshop, and decidedly ambiguous Forum suggested that things were still very much in progress, a bit like beta software being user-tested prior to the official launch. Instability governed even those parts of the building that were ready for business. The “Walk-in Cinema” event space is intentionally programmed with almost no advance warning (I was given fourteen hours notice — by text message — to give a talk there), while the corporate “unidentity,” designed by Project Projects, requires the font used in all communications materials to periodically mutate into a new one. There is no iconic logo to go-go.

There are exhibitions, too — the central one being the first comprehensive survey of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, who died in 2007, leaving an estate of works that have been lovingly brought together here. There is a huge mosaic made of photographs Alptekin took of illuminated hotel signs, each one a place name, such as Hotel Libya, Hotel Kosovo, and Paris Hotel — though none are located eponymously. Places breed in other places, providing provisional comfort. Alptekin returned to the Black Sea again and again, becoming Jules Verne incarnate. These works, moving nimbly between mediums, reveal a mind that was tuned into unintentional comedic patterns in the world (one of his nicknames was “the Danny de Vito of the art world”), as well as a body that intrepidly traveled through that world with his camera close at hand. A complementary aspect of the retrospective are a number of works produced by younger artists who were close to Alptekin, and in some way, pay homage to his spirit. Can Altay’s kinetic sculptures — one of which features globes the size of golf balls jostling agitatedly in the crater of a rumbling loudspeaker — invoke Duchamp’s bachelor machines, and thus draw a line between that godfather of prank and Alptekin himself.

I confess: I think it is too early to assess SALT as an institution. On what basis? On what performance? Imagine comparing it to a city. Most people’s favorites tend to be the old kind where time has accreted, allowing ecologies of intelligence, history, success, and failure to develop.

But old, big, and established — as Istanbul certainly is — also has its drawback. Things like accountability, managerial strategies, and boards of directors become unavoidable for institutions, with a natural tendency toward creative calcification. This is the challenge for SALT (which in Turkish means only), and Garanti Bank’s 45 million-euro investment: how to acquire intellectual, cultural authority without losing agility. SALT’s director of research and programs, Vasif Kortun, has written and lectured extensively about the compelling merits of “mid-sized art centers,” and for the time being SALT’s soul remains at this scale, at least as measured by the young, motivated, and modestly-sized team that is shaping the mission mandate.

But what will happen when SALT Galata opens in a few months time? Twice the size of SALT Beyoğlu, this sister venue will occupy the extraordinary 1892 Ottoman Bank headquarters, once a source of funding for pioneering infrastructural projects from Baghdad to Berlin, Beirut to Damascus. In an inversion of logic, instead of SALT’s showcase building showing art in its spectacular Galata spaces, it will be devoted to research, archiving, libraries, document scanning, talks, and presentations (along with a luxury rooftop restaurant overlooking the Golden Horn — wedding planners, take note).

Back at Istiklal Caddesi, literally a minute away from SALT Beyoğlu, the Space for Art set up by the Vehbi Koç Foundation — ARTER — is a more familiar institutional format based around the foundation’s collection and commissioning. Tactics of Invisibility, curated by ARTER’s Emre Baykal and Daniela Zyman from Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, was its third exhibition since opening in May 2010. Kutluğ Ataman’s characteristic twelve-screen installation Twelve (2004) spoke directly to the audience, with vox pop accounts of six people, all of whom recalled previous incarnations along with the reincarnation they’re living through now. Cevdet Erek’s fiercely quiet room was filled with delicate, gridded images, and ominous Robert Morris-esque surface vibrations, all very nearly invisible. The curatorial blurb for the show managed to wield the words and phrases multilayered, threshold, repressed, exclusion, and regime of visibility all in one sentence — phew! — but I found very little that either lived up to this aggrandizement or rendered coherent the fourteen different artists and collectives. Once again, externally imposed thematics tend to backfire and disappoint.

Beştiktaş provides Istanbul with a very different shopping experience to Istiklal Caddesi. Reminiscent of Solidere’s rehabilitation of downtown Beirut, Beştiktaş is well-heeled historicism, the perfect setting for a commercial, contemporary art gallery. Rampa’s two spaces here were dedicated to Vienna-based Nilbar Güres. Undressing (2006) saw Güres peel off umpteen layers of fabric from a hijabi starting point, thwarting even the hardiest of male gazes, whether Islamophobic or Islamophilic. Her series of photographs entitled Çırçır (2010) extend this concern with the signifying properties of clothing. A cast of intergenerational women whose Istanbul homes had been confiscated by the state become still lives, often dressed in shared miscreant sweaters and dual-usage dysmorphic dresses. This cold distancing aesthetic may have been seen too many times in the past ten years, but the interplay between young, old, beautiful, and haggard women tenderly invokes the shared strengths and systemic weaknesses of sisterhood.

These three different institutions embody three current models of what can be done in the name of contemporary art today. What matters most? I hazard: questions, rather than safe answers. At an institutional level, this inquisitional imperative may be encoded above all in SALT’s ambitions (as embryonic as artist Fritz Haeg’s Edible Garden tucked away on the top floor). Neither the politics nor the economics of display seem to be highly at stake. Instead, cultural cultivation, similar to a school or university, without the obligations of concrete curriculum or commercial deliverables. Now that tastes as good as eccentric ice cream.