Katerina Belkina

New Horizons

With a focus on Tehran and goodies aplenty, Turkey’s flagship art fair returns

Since its inception 10 years ago in tandem with the rise of the contemporary Turkish art scene, Contemporary Istanbul has today become not only Turkey’s flagship art fair, but also one of the most important globally. Although its focus, initially, was on Turkish art, it has come to provide a greater emphasis and importance on international art as well, to the extent that it now sees itself – much like Istanbul – as a cosmopolitan crossroads of diverse cultures, aesthetics, and perspectives. To find out more about what the fair has in store for its 2015 edition – which will feature a special focus on Tehran, amongst other things, and which kicks off on November 12 – I spoke with Contemporary Istanbul’s Burcu Öztürkler.


How did Contemporary Istanbul first come about? What prompted its founding, and what was its initial mandate?

Contemporary Istanbul was founded in 2006, exactly 10 years ago, at a time when the art scene in Turkey started to flourish and there was a need for [such] a platform. The production of art in Turkey [coincided] with the global currents of contemporary art at the beginning of the 90s. The first Istanbul Biennial took place in 1989, and since then, 200 galleries have been founded in the city. Istanbul Modern opened in 2004, becoming Turkey’s first museum dedicated to contemporary art. The opening of the Pera Museum and the Sabancı Museum followed in 2005, and we held the first edition of Contemporary Istanbul in 2006. [As well], the Salt Cultural Centre opened in 2001. Istanbul [provided] a great environment for an art fair, and [we saw] that it had the solid potential to become a contemporary art hub.

Can Dağarslanı

Can Dağarslanı - Untitled (courtesy the artist and Mixer)

How would you say the fair has evolved over the years? How has its outlook changed, if at all? 

In the first edition, [the fair] hosted 49 galleries, and only nine of them were from outside Turkey. In 2014, Contemporary Istanbul [featured] 108 galleries, and 60 [of these] were from different cities around the world. Last year’s edition was ranked by Skate’s Art Market Research in New York as the fifth most visited art fair in the world (followed by others such as ARCO Madrid, the Armory Show in New York, Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, and the Foire International d’Art Contemporain in Paris), and the second most visited art fair in its list of ‘frontier art markets’. In 2014, Contemporary Istanbul attracted 80,000 visitors, including [attendees from] the Royal Academy of Arts, the Palais de Tokyo, the Albertina Museum, the Delfina Foundation, the Guggenheim Circle in Venis, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Sotheby’s Preferred. Out of the total $102 million USD worth of art on view, 74% was sold.

Our horizons have expanded by more than twice as much, and the fair has become a hub for art from the East as well as the West. Over the course of Contemporary Istanbul’s growth, Turkish collectors have begun to collect international art. Similarly, international collectors now pursue Turkish art, and Turkish artists are being exhibited in museums, galleries, and art fairs all around the world. There is a very powerful exchange that we are quite happy to be feeding and encouraging; Istanbul has also become an important hub for networking in the art world. Through Contemporary Istanbul, business and cultural leaders, as well as artists have become acquainted with each other and the particular markets flowing throughout the city.


Canan – Dream Dream Dream (courtesy the artist and Rampa)

Contemporary Istanbul describes itself as an art fair bringing together Istanbul and art. Aside from the fact that the fair takes place in the city, how else is Istanbul highlighted throughout the fair?  

From the very beginning, the way we defined ourselves was not a mere coincidence: Contemporary Istanbul is an Istanbul-based fair. Istanbul is a unique city with almost no similarities to its peers. We conceptualise Contemporary Istanbul in its uniqueness and vividity, and characterise it by its dynamism, eclecticism, and openness to a large scope of art practices to point out its vital role in the art market and the economy of the city. The fair is able to keep a balance between exhibition-oriented and event-oriented practices. In this regard, art fairs and Contemporary Istanbul play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the art world. Contemporary Istanbul has always paid undivided attention to contemporary Turkish art, which is incorporated in Istanbul’s spirit. Today, Istanbul is a city that indulges in an increasing export of its contemporary artworks; Istanbul is the strongest meeting point for art in the entire region. This is the reason our motto this year is shaped around the title Istanbul is Contemporary, [chosen] by Marc-Olivier Wahler, the fair’s Artistic Advisor.

Mohammad-Hossein Emad

Mohammad-Hossein Emad – Untitled (courtesy the artist and Assar Gallery)

This year, you’ll be having a focus on Tehran. Why is that so? Can you tell us a bit about the Contemporary Tehran section? 

We had been discussing Tehran for a few years. This year, Mahsa Azemi, our representative in Tehran, put the idea forward. We were reflecting on the idea when we had a meeting with Majid Molla-Noroozi, Director General of Iran’s Visual Arts Office of the Ministry of Culture at the inaugural ceremony of the Venice Biennale. We visited Tehran in order to meet the galleries and significant [players] in the local art scene. Thanks to our visit, we were able to host 20 – 25 leading collectors from Tehran in May to understand their preferences.

Turkish collectors have begun to collect international art … international collectors now pursue Turkish art, and Turkish artists are being exhibited in museums, galleries, and art fairs all around the world

The region we are in has very special and unique art. Both Turkey and Iran are very close in terms of culture, and we can cooperate in many terms because of our mutual history. We have always believed in the virtue of this great culture, and [consider] Iranian heritage [to be] one of the most impressing and fascinating. Bringing in different galleries, art centres, foundations, and collections from Tehran such as Assar Art Gallery, Aaran Art Gallery, Dastan’s Basement, Shirin Gallery, the Lajevardi Foundation, and the Mobarqa Collection – with the gracious help of Maryam Majd, founder of Assar – we plan to build on our relations through closer collaborations.

Nasser Bakhshi

Nasser Bakhshi – Devoid of All Desires (courtesy the artist and Aaran Art Gallery)

What talks and other events does the fair have planned? Are there particular highlights we should look out for?

For its 10th edition, Contemporary Istanbul will bring 102 leading and emerging galleries from 28 cities across 24 countries, including 23 galleries participating for the first time, selected by Marc-Olivier Wahler and the Selection Committee members – Freda Rozenbaum-Uziyel, Kerimcan Güleryüz, and Nathalie Mamane Cohen.

This year, Contemporary Istanbul will be hosting a new section, entitled Solo Show, for which five galleries will make solo presentations of one of their represented artists. Contemporary Tehran will present outstanding galleries from Iran, with works by emerging and established artists. In a project coordinated by the Australia China Art Foundation that will focus on Chinese artists, the fair is set to bring a diverse and at times challenging group of artworks and experiences to Istanbul. Plugin, Contemporary Istanbul’s section dedicated to new media, will gather galleries, architecture and design studies, and new media-related initiatives (e.g. maker spaces, game labs, digital art collectives, and project spaces) in a single space under the curatorial theme X-CHANGE, proposed by Dr. Ebru Yetişkin.

Sarah Bahabah

Sarah Bahabah – Sex and Takeout (courtesy the artist and Mika Gallery)

Contemporary Istanbul Dialogues, the conference programme of the fair, will host significant panels, such as Iranian Art NOW, Art Fair as Mega Event, and Art Criticism in Times of Multiple Dangers and Crisis. This year, the Plugin new media section will also host a great talks programme, linked to the X-CHANGE theme. The Plugin Talks are based on short conversations and chats amongst researchers, scientists, architects, designers, artists, and visitors about certain topics in an informal forum format. The speakers will present the best practices of their interests with regard to new media artworks and research.

How does Contemporary Istanbul view itself in relation to other art fairs in the city such as ArtInternational Istanbul and the Istanbul Biennial? 

I do not want to draw a comparison; instead, I am happy to mention what we believe to be the sources of Contemporary Istanbul’s strength: we always work to expand our limits beyond [those of an] exhibition. We open up doors to a completely different world through conferences, galleries, talks, conference programmes, globally-organised exhibitions, Contemporary Istanbul Magazine, and Contemporary Istanbul Editions, which focuses on the editioned production of commissioned works.

Annie Kurkdjian

Annie Kurkdjian – Number 253 (courtesy the artist and Galeri 77)

We give great importance to presenting significant works from the region: the Middle East, the Black Sea countries, Russia, the Balkans, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and Northeast Africa; this gives a unique identity to the fair. 50% of the fair participants consist of galleries within the region, while the remaining 50% come from different parts of the world. This is indicative of a local identity under the [umbrella] of a regional [one] with a global character, which we will preserve. Contemporary Istanbul has the ambition to exhibit emerging artists, [as well as] fresh examples of contemporary art from five to ten years ago. We want to mark our existence by providing a platform to young and emerging galleries as well as [established] artists. We are more than happy that the city is becoming a hub with new exhibitions, museum openings, art spaces, and fairs, which will all turn out to be in Istanbul’s advantage. It would be great to increase the number of people interacting with [the city].

I know it’s always hard to list favourites, but … are there any participating artists you’re particularly excited about this year?  

This year, Contemporary Istanbul will host a number of significant first-time participants and important galleries, such as König Galerie, Loevenbruck Galerie, Analix Forever, xavierlaboulbenne, Galerie Koal, Art Lexing, Dubner Moderne, Galerie Bernard Ceysson, Vogelsang Gallery, Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea, and Lazarides Gallery.

Paris’ established art gallery, Galerie Loevenbruck ,will be showcasing works by Lang/Baumann, and König Galerie will be displaying Danish artist Jeppe Hein’s work from his Geometric Mirrors series.

Ghasem Hajizadeh

Ghasem Hajizadeh – Untitled (courtesy the artist and the Mobarqa Collection)

World-renowned artists, such as Franz Ackermann, Etel Adnan, Stephan Balkenhol, Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida, Robert Devriendt, Noël Dolla, Mounir Fatmi, Rebecca Horn, Annette Kelm, Camille Henrot, Alicja Kwade, David Lachapelle, Markus Lüpertz, Carlos Motta, David Nash, Jaume Plensa, Michael Sailstorfer, Kiki Smith, Tatiana Trouvé, Claude Viallat, Jorinde Voigt, Tom Wesselmann, Tony Cragg, Nevin Aladağ, Jeppe Hein, JR, Marwan, A.R. Penck, Picasso, Tunga, and Nil Yalter will also be exhibiting at Contemporary Istanbul.

Shortcuts by Ivan Navarro, represented by Borusan Contemporary, Morehshin Allahyari’s Material Speculation: ISIS (a 3D modeling project focused on the reconstruction of statues destroyed by ISIS in 2015) to be shown by the Lajevardi Foundation), and the exclusively-produced Danger | Artist at Work by MARCK, in which the artist [places] for the first time himself in an artwork (to be exhibited by LICHT FIELD Gallery) are among the wonderful pieces that will be exhibited in the Plugin section.

Contemporary Istanbul 2015 runs through November 12 – 15 in Turkey.

Cover image: Katerina Belkina – For Frida White / For Frida Red (detail; courtesy the artist and C.A.M. Gallery).

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, Frieze, The Columbia Journal (whose Guest Editor he served as in 2016), The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, a novella (Coming Down Again), a collection of stories (With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes), and a volume of poetry (Lovers of Light).