The rise of Turkish contemporary art

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Home to an acclaimed biennial and several world-class galleries, Turkey has long nurtured a strong contemporary art scene, influenced as much by modern Turkish politics and society as by the country's Ottoman past. Its diverse range of artists reflects the sometimes contradictory positions of Turkey itself, cast as the gateway to both Europe and Asia.

In today’s economic climate, as many an artist sweats over the contracting international art market, Turkey has emerged as a surprising success story.

Since the year's end, buyers have been circumspect, some galleries have closed and contemporary art values have dropped by a third. Expectations for the upcoming spring auctions are far less ambitious than previous years, with Sotheby's expecting to bring in between $179 million and $256 million, down from $742 million last spring.

But for emerging markets such as Turkey, it seems that shrinking pocketbooks are drawing Western buyers towards previously neglected art communities.

This past March, Sotheby’s in London held its first major auction dedicated to Turkish contemporary art. The auction was part of a Sotheby's strategy to establish a foothold in frontier markets, following the first Arab and Iranian modern and contemporary sales in 2007.

Works fetched a wide range of prices: Among the least expensive items was an untitled painting by Erdogan Zumrutoglu, which sold for $5,685; “Spiritual,” by Taner Ceylan, fetched $107,415; while at the upper end, an untitled oil on canvas by Orhon fetched 193,250 pounds, or $292,870. A total of 50 pieces was sold for 1,349,500 pounds, or a little more than $2 million. Despite increased foreign interest, most of the buyers were Turkish collectors. 

GlobalPost recently sat down with Isabella Içöz, an adviser to Sotheby’s on Turkish contemporary art:

What first drew you to Turkish contemporary art?

Actually, it was originally my circumstances that made me have to become interested in Turkish contemporary art. My husband is Turkish so I moved here two years ago. Before that I’d been working in art for about seven years, primarily at Christie’s in London. When I knew I was moving to Istanbul, however, I began to inform myself about Turkish contemporary art internationally and found that there was very little information available and very little Turkish art in international collections. That interested me, especially because I think the art here is so good and I really didn’t understand why there wasn’t much dialogue externally.

Then, especially in the last two years, you really see a huge growth in Turkish contemporary art. You have numerous museums that have been built, independent art spaces, a lot of galleries have started to appear and now you have some major Turkish artists in important international collections. You have someone like Hale Tenger in the Centre Pompidou, Selma Gurbuz in the Tate Modern. You also have artists like Kutlug Ataman being short-listed for the Turner Prize.

What are the defining characteristics of the contemporary art scene in Turkey?

I think it’s always easiest to define art by drawing parallels to other art movements around the world. What’s interesting about Turkish art is that international collectors tend to initially think of it as Middle Eastern but its really not. It’s much more European, much more Western in its outlook. Turkish contemporary art definitely deals with issues of the day, be it Turkish domestic issues such as Turkey’s problems with the PKK, Turkey’s problem with the EU, problems of urbanization, Turkey’s relationship with Europe. But then there are more general issues that the artists cover, such as the war on terror, gender issues, the role of women, gay rights.

But the work itself, when you look at it, there is nothing really about it that strikes you as being Turkish. I find that really interesting because that type of art really transcends borders.
Something else that is really interesting about Turkish contemporary art is that it covers every medium. In Turkey, there are amazing photographers, amazing video artists, amazing sculptors, painters. This is something that’s not very common in other art movements, especially emerging art scenes.

As an adviser to Sotheby’s, what developments have you seen in the attitude toward Turkish contemporary art in the global art market?

I think that having a presence like Sotheby’s dedicate an entire sales category to Turkish contemporary art, in London, is a huge move for Turkish art to become recognized internationally. Christie's also has five to 10 pieces in their Dubai workshop, but they haven’t invested that kind of involvement into the Turkish art scene. So the Sotheby’s auction [in March] really put Turkish art on the international map because there was so much buzz about the auction beforehand and there was so much buzz about it after.

A lot of museums, a lot of international collectors, are very interested in emerging markets but just have very little information about Turkish contemporary art. At the auction they were able to go to Sotheby’s and view the work, receive a catalogue and interact with the art scene.

Now, obviously, the idea to launch the sales category was a decision taken at a time when art, and especially contemporary art, is seen by some to be barreling downwards with the financial market. The fact that this auction happened, and the fact that it provided very strong results, is a testament to the strength of Turkish art and think that definitely having that type of recognition really opened doors.

Who decides what art is eligible for such an auction?

That decision is made by a group consensus. Sotheby’s hired me because they really wanted to have an on-the-ground consultant. There were certain artists that we wanted to include but unfortunately we just weren’t offered the best examples of their work, or collectors who wanted to consign work really wanted to wait until the second or third auction, which is very normal.

So generally it’s about choosing the best artists who have a strong portfolio, not just one hit wonders, who are on their way up. We look for artists who have something well-done, intelligent and which will stand the test of time. And then I worked with the different departments, the Middle East department, the contemporary art department and we drew expertise from across the board.

How has the current financial crisis impacted Turkey’s entrance to the global market?

If you look at Turkey, I think it’s a country that fascinates so many people. It is very much a part of both the east and the west. It has close ties to both Europe and America, but also with many Islamic countries. It is a member of NATO, an applicant to the EU, and every year holiday-goers from around the world come either to Istanbul or to the south of Turkey. It has a very rich history. From an artist’s stance, I think that Turkey holds such appeal because this is really only the beginning of a rapidly growing scene.

Take a look at a country like India or China. They are good examples because they both have art scenes about which very little was known internationally before they exploded onto the scene, only to implode just as quickly. And I think that was because they were catering to what others wanted of them without having a strong base of their own. There wasn’t a strong art scene, there wasn’t established museums or the notion of artists working with proper galleries and having their portfolio carefully monitored.

What’s different about Turkey is that, in my opinion, its very much growing in the right direction. It started with a very strong base: there are auction houses here selling modern and contemporary works for many years and doing very well, there is a very strong gallery scene, and there are now museums to support that art.

So now it’s going to the next step of taking it internationally. I definitely think that this is the very beginning of a movement. And I do think that it has huge potential, primarily because, even though prices are not very good at the moment and the market has shrunk, if you compare the prices of Turkish art to that of more established international scenes, there is a huge disparity. Turkish art is much more affordable and its just as good.

I initially fell into Turkish art because of my circumstances but now I love it, it’s really a passion of mine. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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