They’re resurfacing the roads all over Istanbul. Or so it seems. The world’s museum professionals in modern and contemporary art were gathered here recently for the annual convention known as CIMAM, this year hosted by a non-profit organization called SALT.
Founded by Garanti Bank in 2011, SALT is said to be the largest cultural institution sustained by the private sector in Turkey, with a mission is to bring contemporary culture and critical thinking into the heart of this ancient city. It will open a further new site in Ankara next year.
Housed in a formidably grand former bank building in the old Ottoman financial district, SALT has a deluxe library with more Apple Macs and designer lighting than the chicest hotel - guaranteed to make any research project just that bit more exciting. With a programme of films, talks, and performances, it is Istanbul’s destination of choice for the city’s young, cool intelligentsia.
Heading up the hill to enter SALT for the morning’s session, the road works meant we had to pick our steps over hardcore rubble. To our surprise, by the time we left, mid afternoon, it was surfaced and ready for traffic. A street vendor did brisk business in fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, his cart parked in the middle of the road, throughout. This is paradoxical Istanbul, where Europe and Asia are bridged, where contemporary critical theory can fill your head though with less resonance than the sounds of the imam‘s call to prayer or the pervasive street smell of cigarettes and roasted chestnuts drifting in the thin autumn sunshine.
Locals talk of sweeping gentrification and plans for a new underground train that will cross the Bosphorus, whilst cruise ships dock outside Istanbul Modern so that millions of tourists can gaze on the city’s Byzantine heritage. In a city where museums and public institutions are established not with public but private funds, I also heard word of a National Art Museum that is closed, unpublicized. If this is true, I want to learn more. Istanbul is rich in museums. One not to miss is the Chora Museum, an early Christian church endowed with some of the best surviving Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. Istanbul’s newest museum, Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, is a cabinet of curiosities based entirely on his eponymous novel.
In a conference that reflected too little on museum culture today there was a gem of a presentation on the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, by art critic Tirdad Zolghadr. His wryly-affectionate account told the story of how the modern art loving Empress kept several New York galleries in business in the sixties, buying art of international importance. It opened in 1972 (the same year as the Pompidou) with a Warhol exhibition, attended by the artist. Its collection and continuing role is of interest beyond Tehran, and in 2007 they lent their Francis Bacon triptych to Tate Britain to display alongside Tate’s own Bacon paintings. Yet in most regards, the Tehran institution is currently outside the circulating systems of international museums of modern and contemporary art; it doesn’t front up at annual CIMAM gatherings, at any rate.
Let me explain the context. Zolghadr was addressing a museum conference portentously billed as ‘Museums Beyond the Crisis’ - to which any self-respecting contemporary-critical-thinker would respond ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ The conference urged us to examine ‘new collaborations for a global heritage… avoiding the pitfalls of capital and ideology… ’. (Aren’t you sorry you weren’t there?) The circulated brief made the fatuous assertion that museums had ‘done away with the future’ which only gave me a momentary sense of crisis that I had surely missed something.
Zolghadr’s talk was a well-aimed grenade gently lobbed into the auditorium to disrupt the self-regarding norms of a ‘globalized’ art world. He showed photographs by Solmaz Shahbazi of the Tehran museum’s collection displays in which an Alexander Calder mobile hangs in front of two conventional portrait paintings of Ayatollahs. Not a juxtaposition you’re ever likely see at Tate Modern or MOMA, but one that still lingers in the mind.
I found it unexpectedly moving, as Zolghadr helped us see how the Tehran museum has for decades, under different directors, offered its own distinctive experience of modernism, yet with the traces and insertions of its particular time and place. Whether countering or augmenting or confirming the prevailing national ideologies, this particular museum of contemporary art, Zolghadr noted, ‘is not uninterested in a wider internationalism but is not in a hurry to do it’. This was a pointed reminder, in the era of the international art biennial and globally franchised art brands, that museums, whether actively or passively, can be resistant to prevailing national or international norms, and thereby reveal richly diverse accounts of what modernity and contemporaneity mean in different parts of the world.
At Depo, another Istanbul art space, housed in a former tobacco warehouse set back from the waterfront, Tehran again came into the frame, in an installation by a Berlin-based artist, Sandra Schafer. Depo’s programme focuses on social issues and supports regional collaborations within Turkey and beyond to countries in the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans. I admired the specificity of their mission.
Schafer’s installation, titled ‘On the set of 1978ff’, used archive film, photography and recent interviews to return to Tehran just after the overthrow of the Shah, when there was enormous optimism amongst the elated, newly liberated population. Matriarchal women are seen recalling their youthful demonstrations against Hejab and telling how older women shooed them away with their disruptive ideas. Women mourn dead family members killed in street demonstrations in Tehran, December 1979. Schafer’s forensic approach reveals the roles played by women at that time, and how class and gender issues were fought for at the time the Islamic Republic was being formed. ‘How,’ she asks, ‘did such a diverse support base metamorphose into a seemingly homogenized Islamic Revolution?’
Istanbul is a compelling place to encounter the so-called Muslim world, and reflect on my own western certainties of international cultural exchange. Now back to that street vendor for another sharp draft of pomegranate juice.