Friday, September 24, 2010

Capital of Controversy 2010

I had been promising myself a visit to Istanbul’s Museum of Modern Art during the city’s tenure as European Capital of Culture for 2010, and I arrived with my heart in my hands at the epicentre of three empires.

I have climbed highest mountain, I have run through the fields
Only to be with you..
I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls, these city walls
Only to be with you ..
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for ..
I have kissed honey lips, felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire, this burning desire
I have spoken with the tongue of angels, I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night, I was cold as a stone
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for ..
I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one, bleed into one
Well, yes, I'm still running ..
You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
You know I believed it
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for ..

Straddling two continents, segmented by the Straits of Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, roughly divided into ancient and modern with evidence of every age between, uniting civilisations in a melting pot of contemporary identities, this sprawling conurbation is a unique blend of every culture, custom and ethnicity under the sun.

In a short walk around central Istanbul one can encounter Roman aqueducts that rise above busy city thoroughfares, archaic cathedrals that claim outstanding architectural features, majestic mosques built by some of the most colourful characters in the Islamic canon, beautiful urban parks complete with fountains and wildlife, and post-modern skyscrapers looking out over a complex industrial and commercial region controlling vast accumulated wealth.

Old Istanbul is built on seven hills, and a vantage point from the Bosphorus allows the visitor to observe in full 360-degree panoramic splendour the skyline of this diverse city. Though to be fair, the old town was never called Istanbul, that name came with the Ottomans, long after it was a walled city of major importance. Originally, it was Byzantium, though the Byzantines called it Constantinople.

The labyrinthine politics of the olde world is far too complex and involved to be of interest at this moment beyond the historical markers intentionally created to invoke admiration and wonder dotted around the inner urban area. There’s a long and fascinating history of conquest and administrative wrangling attached to this place, though for now, I’m only interested in experiencing the present – and looking forward to the future.

The contemporary art scene in Istanbul is flourishing and contains every aspect of talent associated with a cosmopolitan centre of commerce and production. The recently constructed (in relative terms) Museum of Modern Art is a typical gallery exhibiting the latest works from currently in vogue artists and designers, from painters associated with the top universities and sculptors of the latest abstractions to fashion and video.

Sitting proudly along the refurbished and gentrified dockside area on the north-western bank of the straits this modernist structure resembles the South Bank centre in London, or any of a hundred other similar spaces in newly renovated districts of inner-city areas. It’s a fairly undistinguished accommodation amongst the eye-catching compositions that surround it, but this is undoubtedly intentional as it seeks to capture the current trend for unremarkable façades housing exceptional fine art. Except here it is surrounded by an anticipation of two thousand years of genius.

Inside, the visitor is treated to all the usual aspects to be expected from contemporary art, however there is a strangely unsettling feeling of artists and curators trying too hard to justify the work and gain an acceptance of external validation. Although there are many descriptions of the intention the artist in respect to the oriental approach to his or her piece, there is an implicit suggestion that they’re explaining themselves to a Western audience.

Many of the works on display are superb, focused and capable of standing alone in the existing maelstrom of ideas. The fusion of different influences is visible in the skill of blending recognisable references, and I personally found this tremendously exciting. There is a definite indication that many of the artists working in Istanbul today had absorbed the history and culture of their nation whilst integrating more modern theories of invention and creativity.

Let me provide an example of the power of this unleashed freedom in art: I was looking at an installation of a old-fashioned blackboard that had a few random numbers and letters chalked on it, there was a sculpted hand in tuxedo cuff directing the viewer's gaze to the board; it meant little to me. I read the accompanying text and learned it was a mock-up detail of a famous photo from every old school textbook of Ataturk stressing the importance of education- it was an attempt at irony in its displacement of the subject and absurd context. Okay, I thought, but does anyone get it? Just then two young men who had been admiring a painting turned around, saw the blackboard, and immediately nudged each other in obvious recognition and laughed. That type of self-deprecating artistic statement and decidedly barbed comment on the first president would have been far too controversial to be allowed the first time I visited this city.

However, there remained a bizarre and disconcerting imbalance to the approach the museum had taken – or perhaps the subtext was in the art itself. I discovered the crux of the dilemma in the next hall. Suddenly I was confronted with several galleries of work that spanned the past century, and I could have been staring at lesser paintings by famous Western artists.

Here was a portrait that could have been painted by Van Gogh, there was a work that replicated Picasso, across from it hung an impressionistic piece almost worthy of Monet, over there a splattered canvas that Kandinsky would have pumped out on an off day, behind me was a Hockneyesque vision of swimming pools and sunbeams and on the next wall a near perfect reproduction of Warhol’s print practice. Though many of the artists had studied in the west, and therefore obviously retained some of the stylistic elements, it was too patently repetitious. Therein lay the fundamental problem I had sensed was weighing on the entire exposition; it was all too self-consciously attempting to appeal to Western sensibilities.

The Eastern world, as a general mindset, and we must remember that from their perspective they were formerly the farthest east of a Hellenised Western empire, has always been striving for recognition of its inherent value as a location of equal contribution to the world of culture, and now it was subverting that aim with attempts to copy the greatest visionaries of its opposing hemisphere. This partition is illustrated clearly in ancient literature and contemporary visual objects.

As if to exemplify that paradox of thought, this banner announcing Istanbul as Capital of Culture for 2010 expresses the intrinsic nature of the subtle but pertinent misunderstandings of language that have continually insinuated their way into relations between the farthest ends of the continental division.

This discordant constituent remains an integral factor in the personality of the Eastern way of thinking. A Greek professor who mentored my interest in religion and history over twenty years ago wrote an influential and explanatory book on the subject of the filioque controversy, and it was obvious that these apparently minor linguistic nuances remain as considerable challenges to a synthesis of thought today.

Art is one area where the commotion of disparity can be negotiated in a vocabulary of commonality of purpose. However, much is made of the different dynamic of Eastern and Western attitudes to process of deliberation and preparation in method and ensuing substance. The notion in the West is that those who operate within an Eastern discipline have no vital sense of reason and logic, that their work is a mystical jumble of ethereal, inconsequential and incoherent traditions. Whilst those in this part of the world find the West mired in pragmatic considerations that have little to do with the suspension of disbelief and the universality of sincere experience of imagination revealed in the Eastern philosophies and system of knowledge.

Although, the near facsimiles dominating that section of the gallery are merely a lightweight transitory remark on the physicality of organization and whims of the market, they do highlight that underlying obsession with gaining endorsement by Western critics. This is a permanent characteristic of the inhabitants of Istanbul and a fixation of those working in this part of the world. Perhaps it is an unavoidable feature of a city spanning two continents and influenced by so many diverse periods of artistic inclination.

I was much more taken with the unique works fashioned by artists who had contemplated this region’s record of achievements and portrayed original expressions of their own individual time and circumstance. Candidly speaking though, the overall impression wasn’t nearly as notable as a day in the Tate Modern in London or Liverpool, both of which I had the pleasure to visit with a very dear friend.

Is that my Western prejudice, or is it merely an honest analysis of the catching up Istanbul Modern has yet to do with regards contemporary art? Then again, stepping outside into the brilliant sunshine once more, anyone with eyes can see that they have so much ancient art to investigate and explore they can probably rest on their laurels for a while yet.

Without letting the past outweigh the present, of course, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the marvellous vestiges of this historical milieu that enchants with the grandeur of high culture in its supreme interpretation. There are monuments that can render even the most outspoken admirers of post-modern architectural design speechless with awe. They stand captivatingly resolute, as tokens of the activity of days of old, on practically every corner – although there are plenty of innovative edifices that reveal an energetic union of old and new.

Placed strategically and scattered seemingly arbitrarily throughout the expansive metropolis the monolithic remnants of ages are still extraordinary by anyone’s standard. If one still needed confirmation of the significance Istanbul has had over the centuries, the role it played in the development of art and society, and it’s continuing legacy, the evidence is everywhere .. so, take a chance .. come with me to the ends of the earth, and discover the capital of culture ..

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