On a sparkling Istanbul afternoon in May, the artist Cengiz Çekil was striding the length of a long, elegantly austere art gallery. Decked out in a three-piece suit with a pair of spectacles dangling on a delicate chain, Çekil periodically turned on his heel to fire off a torrent of words and gesticulations in the general direction of a particular artwork. It was just four hours before the opening of an exhibition covering four decades of the artist's impressive, obsessive and occasionally excessive output.
Tossing out observations about the meaning of everyday imagery and the transformative power of accumulation, Çekil stalked around myriad collages and assemblages of commonplace materials, including a floor-scattered installation of glass Coke bottles rigged to battery-powered lights, a large case filled with 1,200 wristwatches, a luminous painting made of candle wax on cardboard, a strangely sombre sculpture of concrete slabs and a utilitarian metal shelving unit packed to the hilt with 288 pieces of smashed gold-leaf sculpture wrapped in aging newsprint.
Çekil, 64, is widely regarded as one of the forefathers of Turkish contemporary art, but this was his first solo show in Istanbul. If that were not pressure enough, it also marked the inauguration of the gallery itself. Rampa, founded by the architectural team of Leyla and Arif Suyabatmaz, belongs to a new breed of intensely ambitious, highly professionalised spaces changing the face of Istanbul's contemporary art scene. Collectively, these spaces are proposing an alternative system of patronage, drawing support for the cultural life of a country from the private sector rather than from the state - a development that has caught the eye, and the envy, of contemporary art scenes elsewhere in the region.
The opening of Rampa coincided almost to the day with the unveiling of Arter, a gorgeous temporary venue for the collection of the Vehbi Koç Foundation, which is intended as a precursor to a permanent museum complex. Located in a narrow historic building on a wide pedestrian street, Arter opened with a luminous, museum-quality exhibition of more than 160 works by 87 artists, including masterpieces by the likes of Joseph Beuys, Sophie Calle, Dan Graham, William Kentridge, Nam June Paik and Sigmar Polke alongside equally magisterial works by Turkish art stars such as Fikret Atay, Cevdet Erek, Ahmet Ögüt, Ayse Erkmen and, serendipitously, Cengiz Çekil.
Beyond the temporal coincidence of their impressive premieres, Rampa and Arter shared a common opening gambit: exceptional exhibitions guided by a sure curatorial hand and supported by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. In a move rarely seen outside of major, moneyed contemporary art institutions, Rampa's Çekil retrospective was assembled by a prominent outside curator, Vasif Kortun - a stalwart of the Istanbul scene who has twice curated the Istanbul Biennial, has directed the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center since 2001 and was recently appointed the curator of the next UAE pavilion for the Venice Biennale.
The exhibition at Arter, cutely titled "Starter," was likewise organised by René Block, who at 68 belongs to a dwindling generation of gentlemen curators and has almost single-handedly brought international attention to Turkish contemporary art. Since 2008, he has been running an exhibition space in Berlin called Tanas, which takes its name from the mirror image of the word for art in Turkish, "sanat".
Tanas is, in effect, the foreign-policy arm of the Vehbi Koç Foundation, a measure of the breadth of its vision and the depth of its pockets. Its namesake was running a small grocers in Ankara around the time the Ottoman Empire fell apart. In the early years of the Turkish republic, Vehbi Koç became the local partner of the Ford Motor Company, Standard Oil and General Electric; by the 1960s, he was one of the wealthiest men in Turkey. He established the Vehbi Koç Foundation in 1969, and until his death in 1996 he built museums, libraries, universities, medical facilities and more.
The Koç name is splashed everywhere on the contemporary art scene, perhaps most prominently as the sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial until 2017. But Koç is just one among many rich families funding contemporary art initiatives in Istanbul. The Sabanci family (of the financial and industrial services conglomerate Sabanci Holding) owns universities, museums and galleries. The Eczacibasi family (pharmaceuticals) is the force behind the Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture and Istanbul Modern, a space that walks and talks like a public institution but is in fact a private museum, built around a family collection and run by a family member.
For the elites of industry (along with banks and a few hyper-successful architectural firms) to be the powerbrokers of a contemporary art infrastructure is not especially unique. Peel back the layers of major museum trustees in the United States and you certainly find the scions of tycoons and entrepreneurs. But there does seem to be something in the arc of Turkey's history that differentiates the mechanisms of its cultural life from that of neighbouring states, particularly those to the south. Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have their share of elite families who made fortunes opening local markets to international brands, but in none of these countries has this business acumen been coupled with a commitment to culture.
According to Gökçe Dervisoglu, who penned a clear-sighted essay on the corporate sponsorship of contemporary art for the catalogue of the last Istanbul Biennial, the first class of industrialists in the new Turkish republic were tasked with tending to culture as a means of severing ties with the old Ottoman aristocracy. In those days, art was supported because of its capacity to bring nationalist ideology to the people. It was the medium for a message of aggressive modernisation. But Dervisoglu argues that the corporate sponsorship system existing in Turkey today is a confluence of more recent factors, including economic liberalisation, privatisation and the pressure to build a compelling case for Turkey's bid to join the EU. A spate of newly established private universities, says Dervisoglu, has introduced courses in cultural management and arts administration. This, in turn, has created a viable culture industry, in which art is a product to be both contemplated and consumed, and the corporate support of it an effective tool for gaining an edge over the competition.
As a result, banks, holding companies and the families that control them vie for prominence on the contemporary art scene. The motives may be vanity and prestige, but the result, of late, seems to be a tangible increase in quality. As Hossein Amirsadeghi writes in the introduction to his new book Unleashed: Contemporary Art from Turkey: "Turkey has arrived. Not just in economic and political terms, but also in its resurgent contemporary art and cultural scene. With a trillion-dollar export-led economy larger than the combined GNPs of its troubled but oil-rich neighbours, Turkey today is the regional powerhouse? The contribution of Turkish elites is a particularly important phenomenon," he adds, "a development that can become a model for the region as a whole."
Maybe. But spaces like Rampa and Arter will have to keep up the good work. A handful of similar spaces that appeared some years earlier are already on shaky ground, Istanbul Modern among them. Certainly, the support of the private sector saves Istanbul's contemporary art scene from the headache of state censorship and the heartache of depending on what amounts to international aid (as filtered through various and commendable grant-making foundations). But it also ensures that the abiding purpose of art is as a commodity rather than as an agent of action or a means of challenging and disrupting the order of the day, be it political, social, economic or otherwise.
Consider Rampa as a site within the city. The gallery spreads across two spaces in the upmarket shopping district of Akaretler, a neighbourhood of 19th-century terraced houses that slopes down to the Dolmabahçe Palace. Originally built for the palace workforce, Akaretler now belongs to yet another holding company, which, in a process of self-conscious restoration and overzealous gentrification familiar to 21st-century cities the world over, has turned the neighbourhood into a facsimile of a film set.
Rampa's primary space is a cavernous exhibition hall in a revamped underground carpark capped with a few offices. The secondary space is a street-level project room that is currently hosting a recreation of a camera obscura that Çekil originally constructed in 1980, the year of one of Turkey's most traumatic military coups. (The piece consists of a black box in front of a window that shows the view beyond, flipped top to bottom.)
If the first iteration of the work, titled Reverse Image, literally reflected a world turned upside down, then the current version, 30 years on, offers an incredibly subtle, possibly even accidental critique of an economy in thrall to privatisation and the tenets of a so-called neoliberal agenda. Instead of dangerous street violence, the camera obscura now captures the designer logos of the neighbourhood shops and the comings and goings of the bedazzled resident bourgeoisie. It is a changed world, indeed, but it might not be any less unsettling.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review in Beirut.