Instagram has such a magical way of functioning. If you have a good eye you get to connect with great minds, which acquire all the weaponry to save the world. Speaking of the art world in this context. Meet Arie Amaya – Akkermans, an art critic who was born in Bogota, Colombia. He spent a rather big part of his life in the Middle East. He was trained in European philosophy in the early 2000’s and then spent a couple of years working in journalism, non-profits and advertising, before he landed in the art world.
Arie Amaya – Akkermans has thoroughly criticized the Turkish art market and has given a fresh input about all the missing pieces of the art puzzle. I need not say more as you will read and understand for yourself below. I would like to thank Arie for this interview. And lastly, I think our market has finally met the critic it has been missing for a very long time.
ARTSNOB: Where does art stand in your life?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: I guess that in the past, when I first began looking at art, it was supposed to be everything, the book of life, as Susan Sontag said about cinema. Today I think differently, art is part of a constellation of knowledge systems, and these systems include things like literature, mathematics, religion, science, and so on, which make up the panorama of the human condition as a whole. So art stands right in the middle, in between all these knowledge systems, but it is by no means the whole. Of course this is a rather academic definition, and the truth is that the role of art has changed a lot in the past decades, as the art market grew so did the visibility of art, so we see it all the time, from the Ai WeiWei at Sabanci Museum, to the paintings in collectors’ houses, to the scandals about Jeff Koons, to the photographs of Ara Guler hanging in many Istanbul’s restaurants.
ARTSNOB: You mentioned you are based in Istanbul. What is your link with Istanbul?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: Well, the truth is that it was a bit of an accident. I was in Bahrain in 2012, simply couldn’t stay, there was a need to move on, and I picked Istanbul randomly out of a map, something not too close, not too far, closer to Europe so I booked a flight for a couple of weeks. 6 years later I’m still living here (though admittedly I spent a year in Beirut and 2 years in Moscow, and about half the time I’m traveling). These years of course have been a period of intense transformations in the city and the country, so that almost doubles or triples the time you’ve spent here. So the link with Istanbul is there, but we didn’t necessarily ask for it, it just happened of its own accord. There were so many difficult times when we just wanted to run away from here, in fact that’s what happened, but somehow you always return. The place is always familiar although it’s changing all the time. Sometimes when you’re here, you wonder why you ever left, but also when you’re elsewhere, you think and think, like what on earth am I doing in that crazy place? And no answer is ever final.
ARTSNOB: So then, why still Istanbul?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: After these years I think I see Istanbul differently… The challenges are so many, uncountable almost, but living on the shores of the Bosporus (far from the crowds of Beyoglu) sometimes you feel as if you live perhaps the most privileged existence on earth, in such a beautiful place, surrounded by all these ancient waters and houses, in this palimpsest-city. So the question is more why would anyone not want to live here? And of course the situation is crazy, but if you look at it with a historical lens, Istanbul has always been byzantine like that, full of intrigues, chaotic, unstable, unpredictable. But it is what it is, one of the world’s greatest cities, comparable only to mega-cities like Moscow or Hong Kong. Of course when you live here, and need to put the theory asides, there’s no greatness that can make up for the terrible quality of life, the non-existing service, and the general sense of doom. However you have to make a trade off, you can’t have everything in life. So there you have it, big city on the water, two continents, islands, boats, history, architecture, now you go and deal with the republic where that city sits. It’s fair game.
ARTSNOB: Since you’re a “local” now here, what’s your general perspective over the Turkish contemporary art scene?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: This is a very difficult question for which there’s not one answer, also because there’s more than one Turkish contemporary art scene. The concept of Turkish contemporary art is itself suspect: It’s not like contemporary art in Turkey grew gradually out of modern art, because this modernism never happened; whatever Turkish historians call modernism in art, is actually classical realism. If you look at the parents of Turkish contemporary art, think about Fusun Onur, Sarkis, Gulsun Karamustafa, Hale Tenger, they all come from very different artistic backgrounds, often connected to training in Western schools, and have very different starting points. Also, it’s important to mention none of them are painters, because academic painting has a very different history in Turkey, and it’s nowhere near contemporary art. This lack of modernism becomes parasitic in contemporary art, and this ‘contemporary’ feels always out of place, with a conflicted identity, looking West, but feeling local, a bit lost in translation. This conflict however is what makes art in Turkey interesting and actually quite rich.
ARTSNOB: And so what do you think about the quality of this “richness” you mentioned?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: There are some quite significant artists in Turkey that I think will be in the future history books, and the institutional panorama is greatly improving. There’re so many artists now in Turkey, so many art programs in many universities, and many things happening at that level; exhibitions, prizes, projects. Nevertheless, the quality of the work we see is really not great. This goes back to the academic system, being particularly unsuitable for the times we are living and for what’s happening in contemporary art. Instead of focusing on big PR projects to make Istanbul look sexy abroad (which is what institutions have tirelessly done), resources have to be channeled for grassroots initiatives in Turkey, to lift up the art community from this crazy intellectual isolation. There’s a lot of fields like academia (philosophy, sociology, history) or design in which Turkey has some really interesting names coming out of local schools, why can’t this be done with art? I don’t think the situation here is hopeless, but there’s so much work to be done.
ARTSNOB: What do you suggest?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: And despite everything, the situation is actually not dismal, but the one thing that would really change the landscape of Turkish art, is if galleries took their role more seriously, and put up a more solid program of exhibitions. Istanbul is a fantastic city to make projects in, has all the infrastructure, it’s inexpensive to produce here, and is easily reachable from anywhere, but somehow this isn’t happening. The reasons are quite obvious. But there should be a strategy to change this, a common effort between galleries, museums, organizations, private businesses, collectors, the art fair and so on. But everybody is a bit too disorganized, too territorial (and in a bad mood in general) to commit to something like this. Still, life in the city goes on, and some projects get made, there’s an article in the newspaper here and there, and openings are well attended, so the fundamentals are there. In comparison with Russia and Lebanon, Turkey is doing quite well, but of course much more is expected.
ARTSNOB: Which are your favorite galleries or art institutions?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: It would be very difficult to answer that because every answer would be partisan. But, nevertheless, objectively speaking, Istanbul is home to some great institutions, particularly SALT, the quality of whose research has put Turkey and Turkish artists on a totally different global stage, alongside some of the world’s best. The gallery scene is problematic, rather provincial, and not necessarily in the artists’ best service. But some dealers work really hard, trying to stay afloat in these circumstances and that’s admirable. I’m very excited about what Suela Cennet has brought to The Pill, and I think that’s the one gallery in the city that has everything to become an international player down the line, but I would love to see more Turkish artists in their program. People talked much about the closure of Rampa as such a loss, and I disagree, a gallery that picks only artists that are already famous isn’t a loss, it’s a standard format that can be replicated by anyone, anytime, and in fact there’s now a new gallery going in that direction. We need also galleries like Sanatorium, not one, but many of them. Young dealers making space for young artists. That’s the real game.
ARTSNOB: Turkey has a developing art scene, which way do you think it will go?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: That’s such an interesting concept for me when they say ‘developing art scene’. Because it takes me back to the idea/process of modernization in Turkey. In a way, Turks are obsessed with that idea. Already in the end of the 19th century, history books about Istanbul discussed ‘modernization’, and we are still talking about it, endlessly. The point I’m trying to convey is that Istanbul’s art scene sees itself as ‘developing’ but actually it’s no longer a teenager. When you have a couple of serious institutions, a panorama of galleries going to Art Basel Hong Kong, an organization like SAHA, collectors specialized in video or architecture, then you’re no longer ‘developing’. Of course this isn’t to say that it’s all rosey, absolutely not, but developing/emerging/modernizing, has been in this country the timeless excuse for all kinds of wrong and bad. So we need to stop playing this infantile game and rise to the challenge of being actually quite grown up.
ARTSNOB: What are the missing essentials?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: There’re so many things missing here, first of all a publication; nothing that exists in the market right now serves the needs of the community. And the resources to make this happen obviously exist. It’s hard to tell which way it will go, but, I think, a new generation is coming up of post-political artists, and by this I don’t mean that artists should be blind to politics, but when you live in a situation like this, when everything is so crazy in life, you can’t go very far trying to address the situation through art, because reality will run always much faster than you. So you have to aim at the political from the intimate and subjective. I think one of the first significant artists to do this in this generation was Hera Buyuktasciyan, but there are others like Ahmet Dogu Ipek or Yagiz Ozgen. And I think this process is important because when you see today a lot of the political art of Turkey in the 1990s, it’s actually become quite boring and irrelevant, the reality is so much stronger than any of those artworks. When I saw Fatma Bucak’s show at Fondazione Merz in Torino I was disappointed to see how the text stressed her being Kurdish from Turkey, such a disservice to the art.
For a while, around 2015, I felt that Turkish art was a bit dead, and in fact nobody was really working, just sitting in cafes with friends discussing the situation and drinking raki. But now things have somehow stabilized, and you begin to see a lot of very strong work, the reopening of SALT Beyoglu, ARTER’s construction is quite advanced, the market is lifting its head a little bit, and galleries are traveling again. So the situation is good, but the same old problems remain. And those problems will still exist in a hundred years from now, I think, they’re so structural to the fabric of Turkish society, which paradoxically, is what feeds the art. People so often talk about what Turkey ‘could have been’, but I don’t like living with ‘what ifs’, I believe it’s important to focus on what there is, and work with what we have. Of course the Istanbul Newsweek magazine talked about in 2000, never came to be, and it won’t, and perhaps it shouldn’t. But there will be another Istanbul, just as rich and interesting, in its own particular and not always efficient ways.
ARTSNOB: Do you have any artists you believe are in an international artistic scale but still are working locally in Turkey.
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: I think most of the Turkish artists that deserve to be internationalized at the moment, have already been, so they’re no longer local, and their work operates in such a broad, bigger world. I’m talking about Hera Buyuktasciyan, Emre Huner, Fatma Bucak, Ali Kazma, Cevdet Erek, etc. Are there any other artists in Turkey that should also become global artists? There should be, but I can’t think of many right now. I love the work of Yagiz Ozgen, who is in my mind one of the best artists in Turkey, he definitely should exhibit abroad, Europeans would understand this work quite well. The work of the late Bilge Friedlaender should go beyond ARTER and be shown in big museums alongside the American artists of the period she lived and work in. And Hale Tenger, who’s been exhibited already in many places, definitely should have a retrospective survey in a major Western institution and a serious book, as her work covers the full paradigm of modern Turkish history with the highest degree of seriousness and commitment.
But I think there’s more to that. In the end of 1990s as the concept of Turkish art began to shape up, under the direction of people like Vasif Kortun and Rene Block, many artists who were not working on identity politics were dropped from the ‘canon’ and they were marginalized to a local market, in which they still live. I assure you they’re not going to be exhibited at the new ARTER. But it’s important to correct this history, and to speak about so many artists that have been obscured and erased from the books, especially because many of them are now in the education system, training the future generation of artists. And perhaps some of that art isn’t the best art you’ve seen in your life, but it shouldn’t be invisible, it’s part of the history of the visual language of this country, for better or worse. There should be also a paradigm shift of what international means, American artists for example don’t see their work in terms of local or international, while we know that most galleries in New York are hyper-local, so it’s important to stop thinking in this orientalist way.
ARTSNOB: Galleries are ending their exhibition routine but are continuing representing artists on a project base. Do you believe “the gallery system” as we know it might one day come to and end or find new functioning methods?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: The gallery system won’t end and shouldn’t end. The art world is essentially about human relations, so the relationship of a collector with an artwork is mediated by a person, by the wine this person drinks, the books she has in her shelves, her voice, her sense of humor, her knowledge of art. I know Turkish artists are endlessly complaining about galleries, and there’re very few role models in Istanbul, but good galleries can make miracles for artists happen, and these physical spaces are important. What should end isn’t the gallery system, but the current approach to it, things need to be friendlier, warmer, perhaps leave the white cube, and start installing art in spaces that are more familiar, more difficult, less neutral.
We also need to attend fairs less if we want to save the gallery system, we need to look at less art rather than more. There’re many alternative models to the standardized gallery, think about things like Ballon Rouge or Protocinema, and galleries can exist in all kinds of spaces: The apartment where Oktem&Aykut was previously located, or the apartment where OJ art space is now, the Maslak pop-up of PG Art Gallery, the tiny Debris art space or the basement gallery of Riverrun. Also Ariel Sanat is in an apartment, though the place is folding down soon. There’s a lot of diversity. But needless to explain, galleries must represent artists, and give them support, and if they don’t, then they need to bring down their commission percentage by a lot and pay an artist fee for every exhibition. It’s outrageous that we even have to discuss this. “On a project base” is an attractive deal if you’re Nicole Klagsbrun or Andrea Rosen or here in Istanbul perhaps Mari Spirito, but if you’re a Turkish gallerist, I’m afraid that’s euphemism for ripping artists off.
ARTSNOB: As you mentioned that we need to attend less art fairs, what do you think about contemporary Istanbul?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: Contemporary Istanbul isn’t necessarily the ideal fair, but it does represent the landscape of the Turkish market very well. If you think about it, around the same time CI was founded, also Art Dubai and ArtBO (Bogota) had their first edition, and where are those fairs right now? A million years light ahead of CI. The fair of course hasn’t managed to lure any significant galleries from abroad to attend it, with the exception of Lelong, which has a following among the wealthy of Istanbul. And this has to do with many factors, but particularly the market. Foreign galleries coming to CI are never told that in fact most collectors you would like to meet in Turkey, do not attend this fair, and many of the clients are not necessarily collectors you would like to invite to your dinner in Basel, but wealthy Turks who buy that one time a year because their friends are doing the same. The political challenges of course have had much to do with the limited success of the fair, but I think the organization has also been quite sloppy, and the market itself remains provincial.
Sales are great for some local galleries, mostly because they’re well connected with the seen-and-be-seen of Istanbul, but for a foreign gallery (and I have heard different experiences of this), nothing much comes out of it, so they don’t come back. Art International tried to introduce something different, and though it was a quite nice fair, the timing wasn’t right and the sales were quite bad as well. In the last edition of CI you couldn’t see how different it was from the previous edition, except for that horrible artificial green grass. I hope that Kamiar Maleki can bring some changes into that ecosystem, but I’m very skeptical. In order to improve such a fair, you need to start from scratch, rather than trying to teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s no space in Istanbul for another fair. I think the only practical solution at this point is, local galleries have to demand so much more from the fair given the very high fees, in particular the selection committee. I understand you can’t be very picky when it comes to Istanbul, but at least as a fair you should work together with your galleries on a bit of curating and exhibition design. Also, you need a real curator in the team. There was a significant improvement in the VIP program, especially for the press tours, but how about the art?
ARTSNOB: Technology has reached into the art world now days. Social media and Art Apps are quite powerful in promoting and selling art. Do you think technology will take over the system one day?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: The tech world has been trying to take over the art world in the same way they did with say food delivery or airline tickets, but the art world is qualitatively unique, art dealing is a very old-fashioned trade, replete with secrets and maneuvers, and the rate of success for online sales is very low. Also, if you represent a major artist, do you want to tell people you sold her work on the Internet? I’d be skeptical about your brand.
ARTSNOB: Are you planning any exhibition or project anytime soon?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: I have a number of projects in the pipeline. A book about the 25 years of PG Art Gallery which I’m editing and co-writing with Matt Hanson, who’s also an arts writer based in Istanbul. Then I have my own book, a collection of essays about art in Istanbul (though not necessarily all about Turkish artists), which I hope to finish by the end of summer so that it can get published in the winter, and lastly, an institutional exhibition in the north of Europe for the end of 2019 that so far includes two Turkish artists among others, but can’t give you more information right now.
ARTSNOB: Do you think Istanbul can become an art city on the international art map one day?
ARIE AMAYA – AKKERMANS: Well, Istanbul is a city on the international map already. Istanbul biennial first of all, but also ARTER, SAHA and SALT, have put it there. People do come to Istanbul, and some names are quite familiar to international curators. But of course Istanbul will never be London or New York, and it shouldn’t be. Istanbul sits together with the metropolis of the global south, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Moscow, Dubai, as a unique and interesting place. It’s a reputation well earned. But I think it would be silly to dream of more than that. The Istanbul biennial brings a lot of the curatorial jet set to the city, and probably the new ARTER will bring them as well. Often people are dropping by for a collectors’ dinner, or to work on a project, but of course you can’t imagine that Gagosian is going to open here next. It’s a big city but a small market. Probably a very good art fair could contribute lots to this, but I don’t see that happening with the current exchange rate. The fact that city is now cheaper than ever if you have foreign currency, should be an asset in this regard and not a liability, but how to use this asset, remains unclear.