Meditations on Istanbul: Istanbul Modern

The convenience of digital cameras and the constant presence of some kind of photographic equipment on me has become an excuse to have a bad memory. That is, I have been spoilt to the point where I do not need to struggle to remember anything very well if I can rely on visual reminders that exist both physically and chronologically beyond any given event, place, or object. When that convenience is removed from me, I am suddenly pressured to spontaneously develop a good memory – a mental camera to replace the digital one (I imagine that the ubiquity of cameras must have coincided with the ubiquity of international tourism, for how else can one hold onto a place that one may never again visit?). 

As such, the prevention of my addiction to photography-as-memory in the Istanbul Modern – a common policy for special exhibitions in major museums, but usually not for the entire museum – feels almost like a gap in my trip to Istanbul. Honestly, there is no real reason for me to feel this way. I can actually quite distinctly and quite effortlessly remember the layout of the museum. You enter, with the windows across the space opening out into the sea; on your right is the entrance to the permanent collection, red walls, huge abstract painting to start and a video/wall mural to end; on your left, the new acquisitions that included a William Kentridge piece; in front, a stairway leading down to the basement with the huge retrospective of a Turkish painter based in New York, and that ceiling of suspended books. In fact, I had manically attempted to use pen and paper in place of my exiled camera, scribbling down Turkish names (noting which letter ‘I’ comes with a dot on top and which doesn’t) and titles and making some regrettably unhelpful drawings of artworks.

And yet, I can’t shake that feeling of insecurity. Every lost memory seems to be at the very least a missed opportunity for a good photograph, and at most a part of my life that I can’t get back. I appear to be experiencing some sort of separation anxiety when confronted with the possibility of losing the past. It is very dramatic to say that the lack of a camera precipitated an existentialist crisis, but I guess it did. 

I found that Turkish artists, too, have an inevitable relationship with the past, forged not by the act of photography, but simply by virtue of their birthplace. They bear the past in a different way – it is both burden and gift, more than two-and-a-half thousand years to grapple with, pursue, escape from. Being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, a position that for so long was so beneficial to the city, might have even become a trap, a problem that needed to be resolved against the backdrop of an increasingly fractious and dichotomous world. The definition of the self is a constant internal struggle, what more the definition of a national identity (an increasingly foreign concept in an increasingly globalized and individualized world). One example of a more literal approach would be Ergin Inan’s mixed media painting, which incorporated printed Islamic calligraphy and other references to Turkish aesthetic traditions with the Western technique of oil painting. A more visceral piece was Cihat Burak’s Death of a Poet, an ode to the life and writings of Nâzım Hikmet, a revered poet who was a longtime victim of political persecution.

The approaches were diverse, but all were genuine; it was a spirit that I had seen in the works of Southeast Asian artists who were maturing in a time of western supremacy and colonization, people who were trying to reconcile or react against European dominance and influence in Asia. As I walked through the galleries, I could name specific Southeast Asian artists that would have made for excellent academic comparisons. Nevertheless, is the struggle towards a national identity one that still continues? Is it even necessary in a world where nationalities and religions are in flux or even absent? Why should Turkish artists make art that is “Turkish” if, for the Jackson Pollocks and Chuck Closes of the art world, technique remains more important than the country in which they were born?

Ultimately, what is the role of the artist? Who defines that role – the artist, his teachers, his predecessors, the people who buy his work, the institutions that commission his work, the people who visit his studio, the people who see his work in galleries and museums, the people who will never see his work… Perhaps the artist can never be defined. He can only be sincere, persistent, true. 

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