Chara Bourgani Interview

1) How would you describe contemporary Turkish art?

I would rather avoid using “Turkish” which has limiting implications and say that contemporary art in Turkey is the outcome of a modernism, which went through three stages during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first stage was called “Westernization” which roughly started with Tanzimat around 1839 and lasted to the   foundation of the Republic in 1923. The second stage was between 1923 and 1950, wherein the “real” modernism or the real rupture from the tradition happened. At that stage Turkish art was completely integrated into the revolution and was mainly supported by the state. Art in the sense of “Western Art” in Turkey has been an element of modernism, secularization and democratization throughout the 20th century. After the 80’s, internationalization and globalization obviously related to the post-modern discourse is still going on.  At the deep background of this development  an amalgam of the nation state ideology with its homogenizing interests, a pluralism emerging from the complexity of the historical/traditional regional-local cultures, the emigration process from rural to urban areas and the striking influence of media and electronic images is to be located.

2) Are there any contemporary tendencies in Turkey? Do you agree with the views of some critics who support that modern Turkish art is imitation of the west?

I hope that your question is not implicating that the art in Turkey is somehow under oppression and cannot generate and create critical thinking and art forms. Intellectual and creative opponents and dissidents in Turkey have suffered a lot during the last half of 20th century, but the free expression and voice – concerning literature, journalism, theater, film and modern art – has never stopped and opened itself to the world since the 80’s. In the region (East Mediterranean, Middle East) Turkey has been the most modernized country and developed its post-modernism quite early in the 80’s , ambiguously under the military government. At the end of the 80’s Turkey launched Istanbul Biennale, which was the second peripheral biennale after Havana and registered itself into the map of contemporary art. Biennale in Istanbul have been platforms of communication with mainstream, with world intellectuals, with corporate sponsors which contributed to a dynamic cultural transformation.

It has been a quite opinionated and old-fashioned view of Eurocentric approach of art critics to say that modern art in non-European territories are copies of the Western art. Within post-colonial theory we are discussing on “modernities” rather than one modernism that has dictated the East how to transform the cultures. Even if we cannot ignore the influence of colonialism in non-European countries, we have to consider that each country had its own particular way of confronting and assimilating industrial, technological and epistemological revolution of 20th century. And, remember that Turkey was not colonized as such and could cut its own umbilical cord to a mediaeval and pious empire. On the other hand, concerning the art making, we know that the avant-gardes of Europe have appropriated Islamic, Japanese and African creativity – and this in form rather than as philosophy – into the canons of their suffering Renaissance painting. The western art history never designates this act of direct appropriation as “copy”, but determines the modernism of the East as “copy”! This is scientific paradox!  We should only say that modernism has contributed to the discovery of all indigenous productions as “art”, both in East and the West.

3) New art centers and transformation of old buildings in art halls is a reality in Istanbul. Do you think there is anything missing in terms of art in the city?

Istanbul is a quite complicated mega-city of the region we are living in, undergoing a continuous urban and cultural transformation according to the conditions of globalization and EU integration. In my opinion it is a center incorporating the ambiguous and schizophrenic desire of the entire region to become globalized and EU territory. In Istanbul, global capitalism, with its cultural industry component – just as brilliantly described by Adorno in the 50’s, is constructing and re-constructing its requirements and propositions in the form of cultural institutions – or cathedrals of cultural extravagances and pleasures – merging global with the local unscrupulously. Contemporary art in Istanbul- which is in concentrated exchange with EU mainstream art- within this turmoil takes the role of being a kind of resistance fields. It seems to be so, but dramatically fails to compete as a revolt. Julia Kristeva, in her inspiring speech in 1994 AICA Congress in Stockholm, signified this situation as the essential aspect of European culture and art, the culture and art of revolt, is under threat and we are submerged by entertainment culture and performance culture. I think, this aspect – revolt- is missing in the art-making, however, not only in Istanbul, but in the global art.

4) How do you explain that the centre of art life is Istanbul and not Ankara which is the capital?

There are reasons for this peculiar disposition, as you are implicating in your question: During the modernist revolution Ankara acquired its character as the center of nation state ideology with homogenous culture, whereas Istanbul maintained its 19th century historical cultural position as a cosmopolitan city and generated a kind of resistance to state supported art production. It never lost its heterogeneous nature and produced a fusion of high and low culture during the 70’s and 80’s that reverberated its manifestations in literature, music, film and post-modern art. Another answer to this question is my previous statement describing Istanbul as a center of global capitalism.

5) Has the state been supportive financially of cultural initiatives, programs, museums and galleries? What has been the sum it gave to the last biennial that took place in Istanbul?

The state is conducting its function in culture through the ministry of culture and tourism, which to my opinion is a very inconvenient unity, because of the obvious clash of the horizontality of tourism and verticality of culture! Turkey has different layers of cultural structure, in which archaeology and historical architecture occupies a large portion. Contemporary art production and management cannot easily compete with the historical heritage. Historical heritage is deeply embedded into the collective memory whereas contemporary art is still a phenomenon of post-modernism and recent past, exclusive to the collective memory of the intellectuals, dissidents and event-culture public. The state apparatus is quite distanced to the contemporary art making and does not support it progressively, except fulfilling its function in promoting the so called “Turkish culture weeks” in EU platforms or renting a pavilion in Venice Biennale! Scholarships for young generation artists and support for creative projects comes from the private sector, rather than the state. As to the budget of Istanbul Biennale, it is never announced openly, so that i cannot give a definite answer.

6) Does modern Turkish art reach the mass, the average Turk?

 Again we should name it as “contemporary art production in Turkey”, because the art making nowadays is post-modern rather than modern and consequently interdisciplinary and merged.  As the structure of “event culture” is progressing, contemporary art appreciation is growing among the urban populations all over Turkey. Even if the event culture is an assimilating medium for contemporary art making and critical thinking, it creates a platform for contemporary art to reach the mass. In Turkey, contemporary art productions and events need a new structure of networking between Istanbul and the cities in Anatolia. For this purpose, four years ago an art center has been opened in Diyarbakır (I am one of the 35 founders). This has been the first successful example of a model of contemporary networking in Turkey. We have launched extremely radical exhibitions, conferences and workshops here, which have been received with enthusiasm and positive critic.


Beral Madra, December 2005