A historic setting for pushing artistic boundaries

With two groundbreaking curatorial focuses, a landmark outdoor exhibition and a list of galleries that includes 21 first-time participants, the 2023 edition of Contemporary Istanbul, on the Tersane, once again challenges the traditional art fair format, as its Chairperson Ali Güreli explains.

This year marks the 18th edition of Contemporary Istanbul (CI). How do you believe the art fair has evolved over the years and what would you pinpoint as key milestones in its development?

There is a Turkish saying that roughly translates to ‘This used to be a mulberry grove’. It is traditionally used in the context of rapid urbanisation, but I believe it applies to us as well. For two decades, we helped reshape the global perception of Istanbul as more than a historic, exotic city; we helped transform it into a platform for contemporary art and new cultural discoveries. We always considered it our duty to go beyond the traditional art fair format. There are plenty of what I like to call generalist art fairs. I’m more interested in leveraging the unique geographical and cultural landscape of Istanbul. I consider art to be our responsibility to our audience and our city. For many years, we have partnered with the city of Istanbul on a number of public arts projects, from billboards and floating artworks in the Golden Horn to digital installations in Taksim Square. Turkey still has a long way to go in terms of public sculpture and we are hoping to encourage public and private investment in large-scale art installations that can be experienced by everyone. One of our major milestones is the establishment of the Contemporary Istanbul Foundation that seeks to bring art to a broader public through dialogues, exhibitions and art installations in public spaces. The foundation operates out of Fişekhane, an Ottoman fireworks warehouse not too far from the shipyard. I am particularly happy to note that our fair has historically been a space for younger, emerging talent from the region to be exhibited alongside established names. We have helped foster emerging artists for two decades.

Local context lies at the heart of CI. What do you think the fair’s location in the historic district of Tersane Istanbul adds to the event?

We began our fair at the Lütfi Kırdar Convention Center. I was one of its founders and I served on the board for many years. Our transition to the Ottoman shipyards in the Golden Horn in 2020 and our contributions to the restoration of this historic space speak volumes about our commitment to the city and its rich heritage. I also believe that presenting the fair in this extraordinary space elevates the art fair experience, since there are few places on the planet, with the obvious exception of Venice, where art can be experienced in such a unique location. Architectural context is so vital. In the hyper-commercial world of conventions and fairs we often forget that we need to leave a little bit of room for magic. That’s what the Tersane has to offer.

As well as showcasing exceptional contemporary art, CI is known for advancing new ideas. What can visitors expect to find under the ‘innovation’ umbrella at this year’s event?

I am excited about our two major curatorial focuses this year: Art in Public Spaces, which we are hosting in partnership with our partner Tosyali Holding, under the curatorship of Marc Olivier Wahler, and our Photo Focus section, spearheaded by Simone Klein. The idea that we should find more ways to introduce art into our daily lives is something I talk about often. Finding ways to place art installations into the urban landscape is crucial. The fair is presenting an exhibition and hosting a panel focusing on this very subject. For many years, our fair had a dedicated section focusing on emerging digital art called Plug-In. After 2021, with the rise of NFTs, digital art was suddenly everywhere. Naturally we wanted expand our focus and explore other areas that lie in the intersection of traditional and emerging media.

Can you tell us more about the first CI Photo Focus?

Photography is exciting for several reasons: thanks to smartphones, we live in an age where we are all voyeurs, documentarians and observers. It is very interesting to explore the medium of photography as art, in an age where it is so accessible and so inescapable. From a collecting standpoint, it raises interesting questions: if photography is everywhere, which photographs have cultural or commercial value?  How do we decide what should be preserved? These are some of the questions our Photo Focus panel will discuss on September 27th. We have invited speakers from around the world for our two exciting panels, including gallerist Howard Greenberg, Fotografiska Chairman Yoram Roth, architect Koray Duman, collectors Tony Ventura and Susanne Von Meiss, former Sotheby’s Head of European Photography Simon Klein, and photography artist Sarp Kerem Yavuz. With the rise of artificial intelligence, our definition of photography is expanding. I am excited to see what new ideas come forward that shape the medium in the immediate future. We have so many young photographers entering the fair as part of Photo Focus. We partnered with DIFO Printing and Framing to offset the cost of participating for galleries, because we understand how prohibitive production can be, as well as how difficult it is to ship giant works with glass internationally. By establishing a local production mechanism, we are hoping to make the lives of our exhibitors easier. 

The Yard is now in its third edition. What added dimension do you think an outdoor exhibition brings to a fair and can you share the backstory on Marc- Oliver Wahler’s choice of themes (industrial design and their interaction with the outdoors)?

Tosyalı Holding, which is The Yard’s outdoor exhibition partner, is a construction company that deals with industrial materials - steel in particular. They were our partners in The Yard and our artist residency programme last year. We are interested in finding meaningful ways to partner with our partners so that our relationship has a fundamentally artistic core. They, like us, are quite eager to introduce the idea of using construction material for large scale, urban sculptures. During his tenure at Palais de Tokyo in the early 2000s, Marc Olivier curated large-scale installations done with industrial materials, such as the Cellar Door exhibit and Chasing Napoleon. He is one of the best possible people we could ask for to lead this exhibition project.

CI 2023 will be welcoming 21 first-time galleries in addition to its regular participants. What part will these newcomers play in helping CI to broaden its reach and representation across the global art scene?

Unlike larger fairs that rely on an application model where they select a portion of their applicants, Contemporary Istanbul relies on the global connections we’ve made. Each year, we hand-pick every single gallery. We do this because we realize that human connection is at the heart of the art fair, and we want to foster lasting relationships between artists, galleries and patrons. The philosophy of CI is really an echo of Istanbul- we are a platform for connections between people, cultures and ideas. We believe in having the fair function as a platform for exploration, for new ideas and for questions we don’t even know to ask.

This year’s fair promises many attractions and talking points. Are there any specific aspects that you’re particularly looking forward to viewing or visiting?

There are now two art fair giants in the world: Basel and Frieze. Existing outside of their umbrellas gives us the flexibility to experiment and to promote new, unexpected things that may not conform to global art trends. I am very interested in seeing the different kinds of photography we will have on display at the fair. Sixteen galleries and art initiatives will be participating in this year’s inaugural Photo Focus section and the artists they are bringing all come from different backgrounds. I am particularly excited to see some newcomers such as Ka Atöyle, Koli Artspace and Noks Art Space.

The 18th edition of Contemporary Istanbul runs from 28th September – 1st October, 2023 at Tersane Istanbul.

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