ISTANBUL - The first thing you need to know about Contemporary Istanbul is that it is unlike any other art fair in the world – a fact perhaps to be expected by its location at the midpoint between Europe and Asia.
First-timers quickly learn things are different here. The audience is younger – 90 percent of Istanbul’s population is under 65 – and frequently more curious: contemporary art is a new phenomenon for the Turks, and international contemporary art, newer still with only a small handful of Turkish collectors actively acquiring non-Turkish art.
Pablo Picasso’s Nu allongé et tête d’homme de profil. Michael Schultz Gallery.
Most notable is the passion, the sheer exultant enthusiasm with which this fair is met every year. And yet it remains, for the most part, an international unknown, only slowly – but quite steadily – gaining recognition among galleries and collectors in Europe and the US.
That point is particularly notable this year, as local Turkish galleries are joined for the second time by Marlborough Galleries – the first major international gallery to join the Contemporary Istanbul family – and for the first time by Lelong.
Aras Seddigh’s Untitled. Galeri Nev Istanbul.
The largest edition of the fair since its beginnings in 2005, this year will see 96 galleries in all, with works by over 650 artists on view, the vast majority of them Turkish. And as the Turkish art public wanders en masse through the narrow aisles of the fair, attention is sure to focus on two galleries in particular: Marlborough, which later this month will feature one of Turkey’s better-known artists – Ahmet Gunestekin – at its 57th Street space; and Pi Art Works, which recently opened a London outpost, becoming the first Turkish gallery to set up an international presence.
The latter has a carefully curated booth with an exhibition of works by gallery favorite Gulay Semercioglu and newcomers Tayeba Begum Lipi – a Bangladeshi artist who was featured at the 2011 Venice Biennale – and the Paris-based Osman Dinç. Just next door, Marlborough is offering up two riotous scenes by Red Grooms along with such Marlborough classics as Pablo Picasso, Fernando Botero, Henri Matisse, and Juan Genovés.
Juan Genovés Equidistante. Marlborough Galleries.
These are not the kinds of works one often finds here at Contemporary Istanbul – or anywhere else in this fast-paced city. Turkish collectors tend to maintain a strong nationalism in their buying preferences; a trend that is changing only slowly as the art scene gradually becomes internationalized. Arguably, this has much to do with the lack of international modern and contemporary art available in the public collections overall; but it also reflects the strong national pride that permeates much of what happens in Turkey, and among the Istanbul intellectual elite.
This, in fact, is perhaps the single attribute of the fair that most distinguishes this fair from all the others; but it is the spirit of eager enthusiasm and the excitement of discovery that – as more and more collectors are discovering every year – makes both the experience of Contemporary Istanbul, and the art one finds here, so compelling.