USER’S MANUAL Contemporary Art in Turkey 1986-2006*

Book Review:
Borga Kanturk, 2008
Translation by Bülent Çınar


The 10th Istanbul Biennale had such an impact on the art scene in Turkey that it led to a virtual “explosion” of artistic activities. The enthusiasm among artists and their ensuing work resulting from the Biennale could still be felt many months after it closed. Inspired by the previous Istanbul Biennale, the 10th’s curators, Vasıf Kortun and Charles Esche, implemented a strategy to expand the show all over the city, to both the European and Asian sides, and to create a citywide circulation of art with mobile public projects. Independent artists initiatives, art centres and museums backed by the major institutions such as Istanbul Modern and Santral Istanbul[1] participated in the project to draw public attention to the international audience of art lovers and collectors and capital that poured into Istanbul for the sake of contemporary art.

This lively atmosphere reached its climax at the opening of the Biennale. This year, there was so much interest that two openings were hosted at both Santral Istanbul and Antrepo. While Antrepo enjoyed a great success with its pavilion "Entre-polis," that attracted the biggest crowds during the Biennale, Istanbul Modern invited visitors to step right into an exhibition[2] on the Biennale itself. In this setting which was characterized by the neighboring corporate structures (Antrepo No: 3 where the Biennale was held and Antrepo No: 4 of Istanbul Modern), visitors were welcomed by several stands. In addition to familiar regulars like the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) selling Biennale catalogues and souvenirs, the stand of Art-ist Publishing attracted quite a bit of attention. A meeting point for many, from participating artists to leading art writers, this stand was one of the most popular stops of the opening. Art-ist presented the audience with a reference book on the last two decades of contemporary art in Turkey.

“USER’S MANUAL Contemporary Art in Turkey 1986-2006” is a comprehensive edition published by Art-ist with the support of the publishing house Revolver based in Frankfurt, Germany. The co-editors are Halit Altındere and Süreyyya Evren. With the intention of offering an overview of the most recent twenty years of contemporary art in Turkey with contributions by 78 artists and 15 writers, Art-ist has delivered a comprehensive reference book that had been sorely missing on the market of art publications. So, now that a reference book is available, it is slowly finding its way into the libraries of many art enthusiasts and artists, and some criticism is beginning to be voiced, but no proper review on the book has been written so far.

The author of this article wants to take a critical look at the book. To clarify some questions, he conducted an interview with one of the editors, Halil Altındere whose cooperation was highly appreciated.[3]

Speed Reading

Initial Findings:
The publisher of the book, "Art-ist Production Design and Publishing", generally addresses a rather specific group of readers. Considering its target audience, the magazine positions itself close to the post-structuralist criticism and focuses both on Turkish and international contemporary art criticism. It has a vision that feeds off a provocative and opposing aspect of art. Art-ist’s profile if defined by writers such as Süreyyya Evren, Erden Kosova, and Sezgin Boynak. The publication in question, USER’S MANUAL, was prepared close to a reference book format derived from "Art Now." It appears to be a source that focuses on contemporary art from Turkey and consequently needs to deliver a general overview. Actually, this manual is an unusual publication for Art-ist in the way the book is presented. With its eclectic design, the publication stands out as something like a fetish object which may not appeal to long-time followers of Art-ist who are set on consistency. Art-ist is providing the reader with an elegant tabletop publication which is the very format it normally would deeply disapprove of.

The beginning of the book is divided into two chapters under the headings "Writers" and "Artists." An initial listing of dates and events and a preface by Süreyyya Evren and Halil Altındere and an introduction by Halil Altındere are followed by texts by 15 different writers. The second chapter includes 78 artists with four pages allocated to each. However, only visual materials were included in these pages.

This first chapter, which carries contributions by a central group from various generations, but particularly younger writers, provides a regional, historical, and general view of the contemporary art environment in Turkey and has an interesting story: As noted by Halil Altındere, according to the initial plans, the first chapter of the book was supposed to be composed of the transcripts of a debate at a roundtable meeting. This format was abandoned when the cooperation between participants could not be achieved and finally a compilation of multiple writers was selected. Now, although the texts are independent of each other, they nevertheless move on a chronological timeline extending from the 1980s to 2000s. This polyphonic structure is considerably similar to the format and content we know from other Art-ist publications. The essays as well as the accompanying predominantly black and white or blue visuals imply some reference to an Art-ist special issue. Süreyyya Evren collated the scattered pieces of this chapter and gave them a smooth and readable structure. While Süreyyya Evren put his editorial weight into the "Writers" chapter, Halil Altındere came to the forefront in the "Artists" chapter: Here, each artist was given four pages. Although some artists and exhibitions inevitably stand out in the essays that constitute the first chapter, the book follows a democratic policy in terms of the space provided to the artists. The issue that stands in the centre of criticism is the selection of these particular 78 artists, questioning whether Halil Altındere should have been such a determining factor in the choice of artists.

Another criticism voiced about the second chapter is the lack of additional reading available in the artists’ pages as the layout clearly focuses the reader's attention on visual materials only. In this format, with the exception of the pages where they appear as side notes in the texts of the first chapter, there is no mention of the artists’ production process and artistic understanding. Some artists are placed at the center of the texts while others only receive marginal comments in the footnotes—a situation that creates an obvious imbalance. This is once again proof of how little is actually read about contemporary artists in Turkey. In general, texts tend to deal with sociological issues, geographical events, works shown and stands taken. In addition, while information is available on certain artists active throughout the 1990s[4], the lack of analytical texts dealing with artists from the younger generation included in this book seems problematic.

While certain information may be obtained on artists referred to in the texts in the first chapter, there is a lack of information regarding the work of the artists who are not mentioned in this chapter. This shortcoming could have been overcome by including texts by the artists or short readings on their works in the second chapter. The editorial team also confessed that they had a difficult time due to the limited amount of texts provided by artists, and therefore chose this path to keep the balance and to be democratic. Despite all good intentions, the democratic ground tilts in the end, albeit inadvertently.

The book includes two indexes in addition to the two main chapters: "20 Important Exhibitions in Turkish Contemporary Art" and "Web Sites / Blogs of Artists, Initiatives, and Venues Controlled by Artists". Halil Altındere argues that we could see the former as a chapter and a matter for discussion in its own right. The second index, on the other hand, seems to be quite a right move, made in the name of "fairness" as mentioned by the editors. Here, a list of web sites and blogs of artists and writers from the contemporary art scene in Turkey is provided. The Internet and blog spaces deserve to be a subject of special interest. As a platform for many independent formations, they allow young writers and artists who experience difficulties in raising the required budgets to bring their publications to life. They enable them to present their activities rapidly to each other as well as to their audiences. In fact, some artists who work exclusively in the blog format deserve an important place in the Turkish art environment and it is good that the book has not overlooked such a vital field.

Second Reading, Detailed Reading

USER’S MANUAL: "Is this an anthology? A history book? A selection? Or, as the title announces with a tinge of irony, basically a user's manual?” Süreyyya Evren – Halil Altındere[5].

The historical process the USER’S MANUAL focuses on covers the decade between 1990 and 2000, during which the editors also played an active role in the art arena. Likewise, most of the authors we encounter in the first chapter either witnessed these years or debuted during this period. Among the texts about the 1990s, Ali Akay's piece titled "The Art Community in the 1990s" and Erden Kosova's "Contemporary Art in Turkey"[6] stand out. Evrim Altuğ's essay, "Media and Its Messages: Notes on Contemporary Art Criticism in Turkey" is noteworthy in terms of the issue, which it treats fairly. The author comments on the last two decades of contemporary art criticism in Turkey, not as an art historian but as an art journalist who has been working in this field for nine years, as he puts it. The text, "Visual Art as a Field of Complication" by Beral Madra—one of the most senior representatives of the country's contemporary art environment in the book—provides an assessment of the 1982-2007 period in Turkey departing from the generalist perspective. Ayşegül Sönmez picks up the thread from where Beral Madra leaves it and presents an assessment of the first years of the new millennium.

The impact that the Istanbul Biennale had both culturally and pedagogically on contemporary art in Turkey is described by Marcus Graf in a text on the history of the Biennale 1987-2007. Fulya Erdemci's essay "Thinking Otherwise"[7] notes that Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, has experienced an increased socio-cultural interest due to EU integration, however, with an emphasis on an Orientalist and touristic point of view. Erdemci analyzes the situation in regard to the changes during this era, constructs her essay on this problem and suggests alternatives.

In her essay "Digital-Minded Attempt: Detecting Digital Culture in Turkey", Başak Şenova establishes a family tree of collectives and individual artists who use new media as a form of artistic expression. Pelin Tan provides a short but a fairly informative text for outsiders where she evaluates artist initiatives and independent artist venues in Turkey which emerged mostly in the 2000s. Three essays that focus on the starting points of contemporary art in geographical regions outside Istanbul are ordered in a system which allows the reader to associate them with each other. These essays, written by Şener Özmen, Elmas Deniz, and Ferhat Özgür take a look at Diyarbakır, Izmir, and Ankara. The authors chronologically assess the independent structures and artistic movements at these places by moving from a local to a general perspective and by including various production strategies.

As noted by the book's editors, to understand the 2000s, first the 1990s need to be investigated; and to understand the 1990s, the 1980s and late 1970s are to be examined. The most striking document on 1980s is "Object Art, Conceptual Art, Post-Conceptual Art Trends in Turkey." The essay, written by Nilgün Özayten, is an extract from the author’s 1992 Ph.D. thesis. Yasıf Kortun's essay "Weak Fictions, Accelerated Destinies," written for the catalogue of the exhibition "Scorpaena: Contemporary Art from Istanbul" (Berlin 1998), is another authentic text that the editors “revived” for the book.

Looking at the 78 artists in the second chapter, we observe a general preference for artists who produced work during the 2000s. Halil Altindere personally takes responsibility for choosing the artists in this chapter (including the selection and arrangement of visual material which constitutes these pages). In this respect, the book differs from similar international works formed in accordance with the opinions of invited curators[8]. Generally, the selection of artists in such works is made by experts representing diverse philosophies and visions. In this book, however, artists and their works were selected only by one of the editors, which shifts the focus to artists he personally knows or has worked with, reflecting Halil Altındere's own curatorial chronology. To be fair, had the selection be made by an entirely different curatorial board, a great majority of the artists would have been chosen for this book.

USER’S MANUAL stands as the last step in Art-ist's and Halil Altındere's curatorial adventure[9] chronology. The comprehensive approach, which increasingly expands from the specific to the general, adopted by Altındere also in his exhibitions, aims to reach a wider audience.

The book clearly reflects the ebb and flow between Art-ist's provocative identity and its efforts to create a "guide" for a broader public. This tension becomes obvious with the two chapters seeming rather detached from each other. The effects of the struggle between "representation" and "identity" predominant in today’s art scene (with corporate museums, comprehensive reference publications, large private collections) also seem manifested in the book. This atmosphere also heralds a transformation in how contemporary art in Turkey is managed and presented. There is a need for change and new attitudes are under way. So it should not come as a surprise that USER’S MANUAL gives the impression of being the product of a transition period.

To conclude, a few remarks about recent developments:

It can be stated that the "National Exhibitions" in the 1990s were an important step[10], maybe even the beginning of change. These exhibitions could be called the away games for groups of artists from Turkey. And while the surprising interest in these events led to major breaks in the Turkish art world, they also communicated to international audiences that "there is contemporary art in this country." The introduction of USER’S MANUAL also mentions the so-called "Istanbul Miracle," a term referring to the surprising interest from the West. As a result, European curators reintroduced the Balkans to the agenda with a series of comprehensive national exhibitions that mainly focused on post-war trauma. The process continued as contemporary artists from Turkey found a special place for themselves in these exhibitions. Meanwhile, artists from Turkey also started to feature more prominently in art events outside Europe, such as the Sao Paolo Biennale.

Today, not the presence of contemporary art in Turkey is a matter of debate, but how to include new forms into the commercial art market. The number of institutions that show contemporary art is rising continuously, and some Turkish art institutions even participate in international contemporary art fairs. And while there is still some discussion in certain circles about contemporary art itself, many institutions and private collectors help contemporary artists gain stronger international recognition. Moreover, it is now possible for contemporary artists to find a place within corporate structures and other initiatives where long-term projects are implemented in order to ensure a sustainable impact. Given such vivid interest, efforts to record the near past of contemporary art in Turkey are inevitable, with private institutions, individuals, and museums launching initiatives reflecting their respective visions and strategies.

In this context, USER’S MANUAL Contemporary Art in Turkey is urgently needed. We shall thus extend our thanks first to the team that created the book, to authors and artists who shared their work without expecting anything in return, and finally to all those who are committed to the promotion of contemporary art in this country. Let us hope that the book will lead to further debate and subsequently to an abundance of publications on the topic.

* USER’S MANUAL Contemporary Art in Turkey 1986-2006, edited by Halil Altındere-Süreyyya Evren, Art-ist Prodüksiyon Tasarım Yayıncılık/İstanbul - Revolver Archiv für aktuelle Künst/Frankfurt am Main, 2007

[1] Santral Istanbul opened on 8 September 2007 with the exhibition "Modern and Beyond." The exhibition covered the period between 1950 and 2000 in Turkish art. Curators of the exhibition were Fulya Erdemci, Semra Germaner, Orhan Koçak, and Zeynep Rona.

[2] “Time Present Time Past – Highlights from 20 Years of the International İstanbul Biennale,“ September 2006 – 2 December 2007, Istanbul Modern,

[3] For the full text of this interview please see
[4] This text, by Erden Kosova, is an excerpt from the exhibition catologue "In den Schluchten des Balkans"; curated by René Block at the Kassel Fridericianum Museum in 2003.

[5] Excerpt from the preface of USER’S MANUAL.

[6] Examples include interviews conducted by Erden Kosova and Vasıf Kortun with various artists such as Gülsün Karamustafa, Bülent Şangar, Esra Ersen, Aydan Murtezaoğlu, and Serkan Özkaya as well as various texts on their artistic production. (Please refer to the blogs for Vasıf Kortun's articles and for Erden Kosova’s in Turkish.)

[7] The mentioned text was written for the catalogue of the exhibition "Focus Istanbul" but was withdrawn by the author as a response to the Orientalist approach of the exhibition and has not been published anywhere else.

[8] See: Ice Cream: Contemporary Art in Culture, 10 Curators, 100 Contemporary Artists, 10 Source Artists (2007), Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives in Photography (2006) are some examples published by Phaidon. Alternatively, series by Taschen such as Art Now (2001), Art Now Vol.2 (2005) and “Art Tomorrow” (2002) published by Terrail may also be added to these examples. Like the "User's Manual," these publications were also prepared not with the intention to accompany any exhibition.

[9] The exhibitions organized under Halil Altındere's curatorship include: “I am Bad and I am Proud” (2002), “Paving Stones Beneath the Beach”(2002) (Halil Altındere was co-curator of the exhibition curated by Vasıf Kortun and had assumed an important role in his artistic ascent with originating from Diyarbakır. Some artists coming from this region after the exhibition made an entry to the international art environment with their fierce and provocative rebukes.), “I will Kill You, I am Sorry” (2003), “Free-kick” (2005) (One of the co-exhibitions of the 9th Istanbul Biennale) and most recently “Be Realistic Ask for the Impossible” had the highest participation among exhibitions realized by Altındere. Mostly young artists were invited to show pieces at these exhibitions. They have been noted in Altındere's chronology as polyphonic curatorial works with increasingly crowded staff that aim to strike and shock the audience at first glance.

[10] Mahmut Koyuncu's essay in the User's Manual focuses on the national exhibitions, its genesis and the representation problem. See: User’s Manual, p. 88-101

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