Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The ugly side of Istanbul

Sometimes, you just don't want to be right. Last night after work, I met up with some friends and headed down the main street in my old neighborhood to an "art walk" among a cluster of galleries hosting openings in the Tophane area of Istanbul. Civilized, right? Being as this is Turkey, I was a bit surprised to see some people strolling around outside with beer bottles and plastic cups of wine. As we approached our first destination, Galeri NON, the crowd thickened, blocking the sidewalk. "I hope this won't be a problem for them," I told my German translator friend, thinking mostly that the police might break the event up as they had a recent street party featuring alcohol.

When we finally squeezed our way into the gallery, the first thing we saw was a squat, comic sculpture of a winged Atatürk tipped over on its side. (Go to the gallery's website to see the piece, "Melek Atatürk ya da Rodin Kemalist Olsaydi," translated as "Angel Atatürk or If Only Rodin Had Been a Kemalist"; I'm not posting it here.) "Is that kind of thing allowed?" I joked to my friend. "What? The dog?" she replied, pointing at a skinny dog in a sweater sniffing around the statue. "Only if it pees on the sculpture!" she laughed. Mocking the founder of the Turkish Republic is, after all, punishable by law.

Nationalists and Islamists alike came in for their share of criticism in the politically minded exhibit by Extrastruggle. Our favorite piece may have been the sculpture of a bikini-ed girl lying out on a beach blanket, a jet fighter on her kicked-up feet, reading the 1982 Constitution.

But back to the real story. We left NON, met up with some other friends at Elipsis Gallery, looked at some unappealing photos of naked women, had a couple of drinks, and headed out to move on up the street to the next venue. It immediately become clear, though, that something was going on outside of NON. My favorite photojournalist and I hustled down the street to see what was happening (pure professional interest, of course) as the crowd started streaming back toward us, slowly at first, and then in an increasingly panicky fashion. I saw a few men brawling in the street and, not feeling I needed to see much more, signaled to my friend that we should go. I learned later he had seen a man get hit over the head by a bottle and a woman punched in the face. Bottles started smashing in the street. People were screaming. We ran.

Ducking into a side street as the mob of 20 or 30 young men (and the people running in their wake) passed, we tended to a frightened stranger who had been caught up in the fray and unable to run well due to her high heels. Shopkeepers kept coming up to say, "It's OK," but one man approached us in a very serious way. "There were people out drinking. That's not accepted in this neighborhood," he said. "They're going to come back. It will happen again. You should leave." It wasn't a threat, but, I believe, a good-hearted warning.

Regrouping with the rest of our friends, we learned that a street sign had been thrown through the glass door of one of the galleries as people tried to scurry inside. Debate raged about whether the drinking, the controversial art, or a combustible combination of both, had provoked the assailants. I'll leave that to the local press and the police to decide. (So far, they seem to be leaning toward the alcohol theory.) All I know is I don't really want to be right about something like that again.

UPDATE (Oct. 18, 2010): Turkish media devoted extensive attention to the story of the Tophane attacks, which also made the international news in many countries. Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet read this blog post and contacted me to get my take on the events, and the German culture magazine Perlentaucher linked to my post as well.

* Photos of police standing around the neighborhood, late on the scene as usual, and a man injured in the fray from Habertürk.


Anonymous said...

Back while I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, the curator of the Contemporary Arts Center was arrested (in the middle of a show, mind you. Like performance art or something.) and eventually had to stand trial for exhibiting obscene material. The problem was a result of three or four photographs from the Mapplethorpe exhibit.
All that trouble, despite the fact that all the questionable material was sectioned off from the less controversial material with very explicit warnings to all visitors that some of the material could be objectionable. Mr. Barrie, the curator, and the arts center he directed were acquitted in a much-publicized trial six months after the indictment.

“What we were looking at (with the Mapplethorpe debate) was an ideology and a system of values being played out politically.” National arts consultant George Thorn stated (quoted in a Cincinnati enquirer article on the subject. See link.)
In the end, the outcome of the trial or the reasons behind the scene at the gallery probably won't matter much. It will still produce the same chilling effect that direct censorship would. That is, of course, if it was anything more than a simple street brawl that went nuts.

The Turkish Life said...

A couple of updates. The story's all over the Turkish press. Here's the first English-language news piece on the events:

Two art galleries attacked in central Istanbul

The galleries had a (packed) press conference today and released a statement saying, in part:

"We have witnessed for a time now the actions of a certain group to disrupt the openings, exhibitions and events of art galleries in Tophane and to create an atmosphere of intimidation. Galleries, artists and guests have been harassed and threatened numerous times. We know that these actions are carried out by a group organized via certain web sites and around certain localities in the neighborhood.

"...These organized attacks cannot be attributed to the Tophane community. These assailants constitute a serious threat to the security of our neighborhood."

Anonymous said...

It's funny that the guy said "it's not accepted in this neighborhood" for drinking outside in Beyoglu, which is one of the main party-centrals of Istanbul. Not only do people drink and walk around drunk all nights of the week, but there are also transvestite prostitutes who work pretty openly there.

Gulay said...

So how long before the great dictator erdogan bans alcohol, as it seems like his acolytes have already decided to set up the local version of the revolutionary guard. I hat religion and the intolerance it brings....

exiledsurfer said...

I currently live in vienna, but i lived in tophane until 2009, and designed and built one of the first art galleries there. Essentially what is happening in tophane is gentrification. Many art galleries chose bogaskesen sokak ( which, incidentally means "throat cut" in turkish) because it is the main corridor that tourists use between the istanbul modern and istiklal caddesi. After a pair of important turkish gallerists opened their doors there in 2008, many others started coming, and in 2009 with the creation of the gallerists started working together to increase traffic to the area. This is not displacing the locals, it is however threatening to them. The galleries in question are less than 100 meters away from a mosque, and the area is not only conservative, but dirt poor. It is the last remaining "cheap" area of beyoglu. Tophane is also where the "çopciler" (garbage men, the inofficial scrap-gatheriers with their carts, that pick every last plastic bottle or scrap from the streets by the morning). It is the classic case of artists gentrifying a cheap area of the city.

In any case, i spent 3 months building the gallery there, and 8 months living in my studio in the neighborhood, before moving to vienna, and know most of the shop owners on a first name basis. They are good people, who are also affected by the violence. They have accepted the galleries into there neighborhood, but as is always the case, there are people who do not like it, and unfortunately, know know civilized boundaries. This is the first time, however, that something was PLANNED and ACTED on against the galleries specifically. Why do i say planned? Because the rioters were armed with frozen oranges. Yeah, FROZEN oranges. The reason they organized themselves for yesterday, is that this is the first time that all of the gallery owners agreed to have their season opening night on the same date.

The fact that gallery openings are usually accompanied by beer or wine, is something new for the locals. Of course they know that there are almost 3500 bars and restaurants in beyoglu that serve alcohol, but seeing alcohol on the street in tophane is offensive to them. This is however, in my opinion, just an excuse. The real issue is a social and economic one. When the galleries started moving in in 2008, the residents received them with open arms, they hoped for a revitalization of the neighborhood. And i am sure that the residents are just as angry as the gallery owners are, at what happened yesterday. I can only echo the sentiments of the press release, that these attacks are not likely to have come from the neighborhood residents, but from outside.

Extramucadele (which means "extra struggle" in turkish), was a colleague of mine, and he is one of the few contemporary artists who investigates and criticizes the nationalist roots of Turkey. He is one of the few ones brave enough to stand up against the silliness, there arent many others. And the reason for this is exactly because of what happened yesterday: Violence.

The owner of the gallery that i built told me that if they hadn't had an automatic door to close over their glass front with as many people as possible inside, that there definately would have been some deaths, because the rioters were carrying knives, and sticks, and were out to do violence. I hope that the people who were injured were not hurt too badly. According to the gallery owner, the police took 40 minutes to respond to the conflict, after they had closed the doors when the rioting started.

It is unlikely that this is the last time this will happen, because, as i have said, local conservative culture is being replaced by secular, western influenced culture of the arts. And there are people who just don't like it.

Lucy said...

To Gulay, Why do you blame this on religion?
In San Diego where I live, drinking alcohol in outside areas is not allowed, even in some restaurants, there is a certain point beyond which patrons cannot be served alcohlic drinks. Its not called religion, its called keeping public nuisance to a minimum, as alcohol brawls / drunk indivduals has cost the city council much in damage costs and car accidents. And this is in the most most liberal conutry in the world.

Eddie said...

In my (admittedly limited) experience, it seems like alcohol is kind of a catch-all (similar to how many Kyivians blame many of their ills on Chornobyl) target for many to blame problems on in Istanbul. But then, many people themselves seem conflicted between a more conservative religious outlook and a modern liberal outlook, often bending the line between the two as they see fit.

I still love the city, problems and all.

Unrelated aside:

Some of my Turkish friends find that hilarious, some find it disgraceful to Ataturk.

Phire said...

If you are able to understand a little german...Here is the link of my blog where I wrote about that issue too...

The Turkish Life said...

Belated thanks to exiledsurfer (in particular) for your comments -- it's interesting to hear some context on the issue through your experience in the past.

Anonymous said...

As an American living in Istanbul, I had the same reaction as poster Lucy. In the US there are relatively strict regulations about alcohol. I think it would only be responsible for the Gallery owners to follow similar rules: if you are going to serve alcohol, serve it indoors, in a delimited area. Make sure there is someone at the door keeping an eye on who is coming in.

To expect that you can host parties that overflow into the street without any reaction seems either naive, or just asking for trouble.

Anonymous said...

eastanbul, i m not aggree with you. You say that "this is SUNNİ lifestyle", but in iran, that's ALEVİ lifestyle and life is very strict and limited. İ think we can't make a stereotype about religion's part division, that's concerning a peoples illumination or not. İ can say too many thing about that, official government ideology emphasize, place of religion into the society etc. But i m living a small city in the middle of the anatolia, in central and east anatolia most of the person are nationalist, and against the abstract and critic art.