Published  02/05/2006

The Istanbul Modern Art Museum

The Istanbul Modern Art Museum

The Istanbul Modern can be hard to find. It is still new enough that taxi drivers are not quite sure where it is and guidebooks have not been published recently enough to include it. However, it could not be in a better place. Located on the shore of the Bosphorus - a 30 km strait that divides Europe and Asia - the museum faces a coastline of slender minarets and grand domes. A former customs house for the Turkish Maritime Organization, the building dates to the end of the 19th century and has witnessed three large transformations. The former utilitarian warehouse has now been beautifully refitted as a graceful, flexible museum. With this sleek and ultra-modern design, the museum is Istanbul's bid to join the ranks of international players on the contemporary art scene beyond the biennale.

Seemingly not by chance, the museum opened in December 2004 - as Turkey increased efforts to gain entrance into the EU and, as such, was a culturally based action to demonstrate the country's commitment to social and political change. Leaders from all over the world were invited to the museum's inauguration and, although Prime Minister Tony Blair missed the event, he sent a message to Turkey:

Istanbul Modern is filling an important gap in the cultural and historical heritage of this magnificent city. As we look ahead to the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union, it is increasingly important that the world learns more of what Turkey, and Turkish people, have to offer us.1

The director, Oya Eczacibasi, stated, 'The museum will show how much we belong in the West in a way the world doesn't realise'.2 This concept runs through the two-pronged mission of this institution, which investigates Turkish art through exhibitions drawn from its permanent collection of over 4,000 works, as well as providing a forum for discourse on, and viewing of, the international art scene. While the gallery scene in Istanbul is growing, the imprimatur of a museum adds lustre to an ancient city's commitment to the arts of the modern world.

The museum has opened with a series of shows that offer different perspectives for viewing an impressive body of Turkish works, generously donated by private collectors and companies. The first and inaugural show, 'Observation/Interpretation/Multiplicity', examined the socio-historic implications and interpretations of modern Turkish art. In the second exhibition, 'Intersecting Times' (11 December 2005-11 December 2006), the collection is organised into thematic categories - much like at Tate Modern - such as 'Landscape-Nature', 'City-Social Life' and 'Interiors-Walls'. Here, however, the choice to arrange the art of a single country by such themes of style and subject clearly illustrates the concerns of Turkish artists.

Organising the permanent collection in such themes is physical proof of this commitment to the Western method; here, cultural heritage is being arranged to illustrate Turkey's place in the EU. The Turkish art reflects, on a basic level, much of the concurrent styles in the rest of Europe, from early romanticised images of harems to post-war geometric styles, to a contemporary focus on pop culture. These connections, albeit subtle, serve to illustrate that the connection to western Europe is rooted in a deep history.

One section, entitled 'Women-Identity', documents changing and confused concepts surrounding the role of the female in this Islamic country. Furthering the issue, a smaller square gallery created out of temporary walls, sits in the middle of this room devoted to female identity. Within is an array of male faces; entitled 'Self-Portrait-Face-to-Face'; these are self-portraits of the men who painted the surrounding women. The juxtaposition makes a powerful statement about just who was exploring, and interrupting, the role of the female in Turkish society. In looking at this collection, one realises that Blair omitted a critical aspect of this new museum: it will also show many Turkish people what their country has to offer.

Pursuing its mission to promote knowledge of the international art scene, Istanbul Modern is committed to exhibiting work from other countries. In the fall of 2005, Rosa Martínez, a curator of the 2005 Venice Biennale, organised an exhibition entitled, 'Centre of Gravity': 'The notion of the centre of gravity applied to the world of art refers to the continuous play between equilibrium and uncertainty to create new and meaningful conceptual and aesthetic worlds.'3 Looking at the ways in which centres of art activity change - such as with the introduction of the Istanbul Modern - Martínez invited a variety of artists to create site-specific works that addressed this concept.

Here, Christian Boltanski's 'Les Images Préférées' illustrated the individual's role in identifying certain centres of gravity. In this piece, Boltanski placed a colour photocopier at the side of a large room and invited visitors to add their own images to the surrounding walls. Participants emptied their pockets and purses to copy driver's licenses, wedding pictures, business cards, cell phones, strands of hair and palms of hands. Shifting the role of the artist and audience, Boltanski invites a new type of interaction for a new audience.
Challenging gravity, Finnish artist, Maaria Wirkkala, created an iron mesh 'bridge', eight metres long, suspended from the ceiling, filled with streams of plastic animals in an updated and very crowded Noah's Ark. At one end, the group emerges from an open Koran, at the other, from an open Bible. As they traverse the long span, the groups intersect, cluster, and interact. Entitled 'Found a Mental Connection II', it is an especially apt metaphor for a city that straddles two continents. In combination, the pieces in the exhibition question accepted knowledge, as they suggest new ways of interacting with art.
On view now at the museum are: 'Nothing Lasts Forever', a video programme, including Turkish artist, Hussein Chalayan, Swiss team, Fischli & Weiss and British star, Sam Taylor-Wood; and 'Modern Sculpture - Memory and Scale'.

Doro Globus

1. (This quotation is also on view at the museum).
2. Istanbul Modern Launched. In: Art in America, March 2005.
3. Centre of Gravity. Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts/Istanbul Modern, 2005: 11.

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