Hulya Kupcuoglu: “There are no contemporary Turkish artists abroad in the real sense of the word”

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Artist-Curator Denizhan Özer, curates the exhibition titled “I” opened at Art212 in Bodrum in the previous weeks. 50 artists from different disciplines participate in the exhibition. We talked to Özer on many subjects ranging from the exhibition he organized to the Turkish contemporary art environment, center-periphery relations and the future of Turkish art.

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Hulya Kupcuoglu: Most recently, the exhibition you organized in Bodrum is on the agenda…

Denizhan Ozer: Art212 is a culture and arts platform established by Aydın Polatcan. It is an alternative space where not only exhibitions are organized but also concerts are given and conferences are held. Polatcan had moved to Bodrum in the recent years and we previously had an acquaintance. When the idea of Art212 formed in his head, he contacted me to open an exhibition. As a result of the meetings we held, we decided the concept of the exhibition to be “I”.

 

H.K.: What is being talked about when we say “I”?

D.O.: By the term “I”, I wanted to start a discussion on not the egos of the artists but the “I”s that effect the identities of the artists as in the questions Where does the “I” stand?, What is the “I” that is within or without or the “I” that lives in relationship to the environment. When preparing the exhibition, I took special care to ensure the participation of artists not only from Istanbul but also from outside Istanbul as well. I brought together artists from different cities such as Erzurum, Eskişehir, Ankara, Edirne, Adana, Trabzon, Bodrum etc. Works from different disciplines such as painting, sculpture, installation and photography were included in the exhibition.

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H.K.: Art212 is inside a shopping mall, isn’t it?

D.O.: Yes, it is a 460 m2 space on the lower floor of a shopping mall called Avenue in Bodrum, Konacık. Whether we accept it or not, shopping malls bring together people from different parts of the society. For this reason, art needs to be brought to these places in order to reach the people. While no activities were performed in these spaces before, with the great of efforts of İnci Aksoy, the owner and manager of Ekavart, the ministry of culture decided that at least a 200 m2 space should be allocated to art in each shopping mall. I believe that such a space being allocated to art in Avenue Bodrum is an indicator of the interest in and the love of art of the management there, rather than a dictation of the law upon them. If we ask the question “Why is art necessary in the shopping malls?”, the answer would be to create closeness between art and the public, to show them that the world does not consist only of shopping and to give them a concept of art. No matter where art is performed, it should be supported and helped to become widespread.

 

H.K.: Opening exhibitions in summer holiday locations such as Bodrum has become a highly frequent phenomenon.

D.O.: As we know the center of art in Turkey is Istanbul. Istanbul is a city that determines the trends in art. When summer comes, most of the artists, art professionals and collectors living in Istanbul and other big cities in Turkey gather at Bodrum. On the other hand, Bodrum is one of the locations in Turkey that has become a brand compared to the other cities on the coast line. For this reason, in order to meet the artistic needs of the people who come here in summer and have a high economic and cultural profile, many organizations concerning art were held in Bodrum but as far as I know, Art212 has been the place that approached this matter with the highest level of logic and professionalism. Other than this, the fact that a beautiful coastline, historical touristic locations and a yacht harbor is located in Bodrum, also cause many tourists with a high economic profile to visit this place as well. I can say that Bodrum is better than many other places in Turkey and is a city that has become a brand and can easily compete with such cities in Europe. I hope, in the future, Bodrum becomes a location that leaves its mark on the world with long lasting festivals and art activities.

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H.K.: You said that artists not only from Istanbul but also from the periphery were included in the exhibition. How do you evaluate the relationship between the center and the periphery?

D.O.: Generally speaking, most of the persons and institutions interested in art are located in Istanbul. These are naturally competing with each other. Everybody wants “to do the best” in their field. As in everywhere in the world, this is very normal. Even though there are such centers in the world, the government and the people with high influence on the art scene create certain formulations and applications to enable art to become widespread outside the center as well. When our country is concerned, the opposite is true, everyone outside the center is otherized or ignored. This is wrong. For this reason, in the projects and exhibitions that I have organized up to now, I have included the artists living outside the center. There is a reason I’m saying this. Otherization and ignoring is a very bad thing and naturally influences the artists living outside the center in a very negative manner and affects their relationship with the center and the art in a very negative manner as well. Since the system isn’t really settled in Turkey, the floor that we step on is very slippery and in my opinion, nothing really works within the system. In other words, neither an artist can really work as an artist nor a gallery owner can really work as a gallery owner. A criticism mechanism or professional monitoring etc. does not exist. The system constantly fails, in other words the system collapses, gets on its feet again, collapses, gets on its feet again and does it over and over again. While all this happens, those in the periphery are ignored or are pushed outside the system. Of course, even though we bring such a criticism, we must also admit that there are galleries, art institutions and artists that work properly. When we look abroad, particularly at the developed western countries, we see that the government stands behind art and makes an effort to ensure that art becomes widespread in the periphery as well. As somebody who lived in England, I can provide an example from there. Art Council England develops special programs to carry art outside of London and helps it become more widespread outside of London. It provides great support to institutions and artists that are outside of London.

 

H.K.: The support of the government in Turkey is so very little.

D.O.: Actually, in our country, the state provides no support whatsoever. The system established during the times of Atatürk remains the same and nothing has been added to it. For example, the State Opera and Ballet, State Theater, Painting and Sculpture Museums are all products of that era. They did the best they could to ensure that art becomes widespread throughout the country. For example, painters were sent to 67 provinces during Atatürk’s administration. Think about it, which statesman would do such a thing today? For this reason I have always criticized the Ministry of Culture except for what they did in the years during which the Republic was founded and a little later. I will continue to criticize them as well if things continue to go this way. I believe I have the right to criticize a ministry that does not support its own country’s art and artists. I can clearly state that a state that only allocates two to five in a thousand of the general budget to art wants to accomplish nothing in this field.

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H.K.: What about the local administrations and private institutions?

D.O.: Today, since most of the local administrations in Turkey are affiliated with the political party in charge, they act in accordance with the conservative and reactionist structure of that political party. For example, exhibitions encouraging awareness in the social structure are not being held. Nude artworks cannot be exhibited because of the fear of the body. Sculptures are attacked and torn down and naturally, the local administrations that are a part of this system, organize unqualified exhibitions that do not touch upon anything in their art centers. Actually, as is known, the current government changed the local administration law and with these changing laws, the local administrations had access to large amounts of money. However, I believe that this money is spent unwisely and nothing is being done despite such great opportunities. For this reason, I do not believe that local administrations will provide an important support for the art to become more widespread in Turkey. When we look at the private sector, it is possible to claim that they are doing more correct things. They act with the awareness that art is a necessary value and bring certain models from abroad to our country. Within this framework, the private sector, in other words the businessmen, began to become more interested in art and began to give more importance to it. However the amount of interest is still insufficient. If we are to give an example, they do not enjoy artworks but see them as pieces of material value. Even though they understand that artworks are pieces of value, they begun to see the artworks they purchased as ordinary goods because they do not enjoy the artwork or know the production process of the artwork or the artist who created it. This is an incorrect approach. Art requires love, attention and knowledge. Purchasing artworks require continuity. We see that except for a few people, the businessmen who take an interest in art have no such awareness. Art cannot be valued solely by purchasing it, the important thing is to understand it and value the artist who created it. We have many wealthy people. These wealthy people need to sponsor the artists. They may support the artists they prefer, send them abroad to gain knowledge. What do our wealthy people do instead? They purchase another luxurious car or another luxurious house. In other words, they miss the essence of the age they live in. This may be their private life and they may have certain desires but they also need to act with a social awareness.

 

H.K.: This has been a rather dark portrait of our day but there are artists in Turkey that have reached significant points in their careers in our day. Also we can mention that there are more foreign correspondences now than the previous 15 years…

 D.O.: Yes, it has indeed been a dark portrait but it is the truth. If there are artists in Turkey that have reached good points in their careers, it is a fact that they have managed this with their own individual efforts and with great difficulties. If they have been successful broad as well, this is again their individual effort. I believe that this situation is an indicator that they have lost hope in the geography that they live in and therefore those artists act individually.

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H.K.: However we know that some of our artists are well known abroad…

D.O.: Actually there are no Turkish artists that are well known abroad in the real sense of the word. The ones who are well known abroad are not well known in their own country. Generally speaking, who are well known in the art scene of the world? Nobody… There is no such thing as individual development in art, if we are to reach a certain point, we must do it collectively. We can only reach a good point if the government, local administrations and businessmen work together, otherwise, we will continue to stand still and make no progress at all.

 

H.K.: How will the Turkish art overcome this difficult situation?

D.O.: In my opinion, it will take a while because the obstacles facing the Turkish art are great. However, we cannot build our lives upon hopelessness. I believe that we can get rid ourselves of this dark portrait if we accept and apply the Western norms. The situation can get better when the state manages the culture and art institutions better, the local administrations provide opportunities for the qualified rather than anyone, and support the real art, the art education becomes more widespread and is developed sufficiently, the universities  giving art education are freed, the businessmen provide support for art and the relationships with abroad are developed. For example, we always compare ourselves to ourselves. The artworks of A are better than B’s or the A institution is better than the B institution, these are the kinds of comparisons we make. The mistake here is that we always compare a domestic actor to another domestic actor. Contrary to this, we need to compare ourselves to those better than us and to resolve our insufficiencies. For this reason, we really need to open to abroad in the real sense of the word and take on the structuring and the work methods there. In short, we need to allocate a budget to art for this purpose. We need to create, publications, exhibitions, interesting projects etc. If we do not do these, we cannot make any progress. The indicators of the development of Turkish art are not just dependent on the artists. If the Turkish art is not as prominent abroad as we’d like it to be, the ones responsible for this are the state, local administrations, universities, private sector and the wealthy businessmen. The state or the art institutions need to create a new culture policy. The structure that will be newly founded must search for ways to develop the art in Turkey, the budget allocated to art must be increased and the relationships with abroad must be supported. Nobody has a magical wand that will grant our wishes. This is a process of logic and love. However, this is not impossible. If this process is not initiated, we will continue to live with the illusion in our minds that we are really something.

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