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‘The conflict between civil rights and space is played out with unusual violence in Istanbul’

Culture-led regeneration in Istanbul raises familiar questions about gentrification and public space, but in Turkey, where freedom of expression is under attack, privatisation also has its advantages

It is a strange time and place for the opening of a biennial. Not that a biennial would be truly incongruous anywhere, these days – it sometimes feels like every last corner of the globe has been curated, which is perhaps why the organiser of Istanbul’s 2015 biennial, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, prefers to be called a ‘drafter’ instead. There is an air of special pleading about this, as if she wanted to disclaim responsibility for an art-world junket in a country troubled by state repression and separatist violence, and on the frontline of a terrible humanitarian disaster. But to her credit, these issues are not shirked: an inspection of the works on show reveals that the theme ‘Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms’ is not as aqueous as it might appear. Rather it refers to invisible currents shaping the world, the ebb and flow of human migration, the waters of the Bosporus and lachrymal salinity.

Adrian Villar Rojas, 'The Most Beautiful of All Mothers' (2015)

Adrian Villar Rojas, ‘The Most Beautiful of All Mothers’, Trotsky’s House, Istanbul. Source: Kubra Karacizmeli.

These ideas are manifested in works by Aboriginal painter Djambawa Marawili, which obliquely raise questions of ethnicity and land rights; in Adrián Villar Rojas’s rather silly animal sculptures standing in the sea by the ruined island home of Trotsky; in Ibrahim El-Salahi’s nightmarish drawings inspired by the failure of the Arab Spring; and most pointedly, in several works referring to the Armenian Genocide. This crime is not acknowledged as such by Turkey’s government, so it may come as a surprise to find it such a prominent theme of the biennial. But Turkey is by no means totalitarian, even if its president is increasingly inclined that way. One of the great ironies of the biennial – and of many manifestations of an oppositional public in Turkey – is that its autonomy is safeguarded by private ownership. One can hardly imagine a public institution here hosting critical works such as Francis Alÿs’s film set in the desolate valley that is the site of Ani, a ruined Armenian city.

But in the safe haven of privately owned Istanbul Modern – central venue of the biennial and the nation’s only museum of contemporary art – a thousand flowers can bloom relatively unmolested. The museum occupies a former warehouse on the GalataPort, which was converted by Tabanlıoğlu Architects for the powerful Eczacıbaşı family in 2004 after the city’s negotiations with the Guggenheim fell through. The disappointing outcome of this year’s Helsinki Guggenheim competition, and the cost to the public purse its completion would entail, suggest that Istanbul was lucky to avoid joining the Guggenheim franchise. Instead it got a sensitively re-purposed structure that speaks of the historic connection of the city to the sea, with views of the Asian shore and docked cruise ships filling the gallery windows. The interplay of the static monuments of an ancient civilisation and the fluid modern tourist trade fits the theme of the biennial well.

‘The conflict between civil rights and the ownership of space is being played out with unusual violence in Istanbul’

Outside the museum, a square – equal in size to Piazza San Marco, the architects are at pains to point out – creates space for the public, although it is not publicly owned. In fact, the museum was meant to be the bridgehead for the redevelopment of the port as a whole, and this would have created a much bigger wedge of publicly accessible space on the banks of the Bosporus. It would also have conformed to the government’s policy of land privatisation in their quest to boost the real-estate boom that props up the nation’s economy, but local campaigners mired the project in legal action, and it was put on hold.

This was just a small skirmish in an ongoing battle over public space in the city. In 2013 these tensions broke out into open warfare when protests against government-backed private encroachments on Taksim Square, in the form of a cod-Ottoman mall, were violently crushed – and yet it was a private business on the square, the five-star Divan Hotel, that offered protesters a refuge from the police. (The hotel’s parent company was subsequently subjected to official investigation for tax irregularities.)

These events show that the conflict between civil rights and the ownership of space typical to neoliberal reform is being played out with unusual violence and explicitness in Istanbul, where these forces coexist in tangled contradiction: the government encourages redevelopment to keep the economy pumping, and the privatisation this entails disenfranchises citizens – while unevenly strengthening secularisation and certain civil liberties (although an increasing number of businesses are conservatively owned, they generally endeavour to maintain a Western, open image in order to attract foreign investment).

‘As other dockland redevelopments around the world have proven, where there’s saltwater, there’s brass’

Where this will lead is open to speculation: a snap election is due in November, when Erdoğan’s once-mighty party may struggle once more to form a government, no matter how hard he batters the Kurds. Contributing to his woes is the waning of the boom, as capital flight from the BRICS is affecting Turkey too. These problems are having some impact on architecture: the uncertain security situation has led to the World Architecture Festival cancelling its proposed relocation to Istanbul next year. But the city is still a giant construction site, and further culture-led plans for the development of the Golden Horn are on the table: Zaha Hadid is building a private museum there for the scion of the Sabancı banking dynasty, for instance, and Tabanlıoğlu is involved in the proposed renovation of the 300,000m2 site of the old shipyards, 30 per cent of which will be set aside for cultural institutions. As other dockland redevelopments around the world have proven, where there’s saltwater, there’s brass. Yet in a city where public space and freedom of expression is constantly under threat from a repressive government, it seems that private ownership is, for now, a potential means of securing liberty.

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