Review: Arter-Space for Art

This review will focus on ARTER “space for art”, a young organisation conceived as a contemporary art space in Istanbul, Turkey; to examine its curatorial structure through the lens of its latest international summer group show “Not All That Falls Has Wings”.

Who is ARTER?

A brief glance at ARTER’s short history will let us unpack its potential as a contemporary art powerhouse in Turkey. ARTER was launched in 2010 by the VKF-Vehbi Koc Foundation, a charitable organisation founded by a wealthy philanthropist and entrepreneur Vehbi Koc. His company, Koc Holding, is Turkey’s biggest corporation and its vast field of enterprise ranges from white goods to automotive, from energy to banking. Vehbi Koc Foundation, as a part of the company’s social responsibility project, has helped build many elementary schools, universities, museums throughout the country and it has been the primary sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial since 2007.

The exhibition space was designed in a late-Ottoman-era building restored in 2009, one year before ARTER’s opening as a contemporary art gallery. This slender building, full of character is spread over four floors and connected via a central spiralling staircase made out of marble carrying the signs of a century. On the street level, ARTER has a large window through which the ground floor activities are constantly visible to the public eye. ARTER is strategically located at the very heart of a giant megalopolis, in other words, Istanbul’s most famous street, Istiklal Avenue. Nearly 3 million people visit this mile long street on any given weekend.

A Look into “Not All That Falls Has Wings”:

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Installation view“Not All That Falls Has Wings”, Arter, Istanbul, 2016

Courtesy of Arter, Istanbul

Photo: Serkan Taycan

Internationally focused ARTER’s programming mostly oscillates between established international and emerging Turkish artists, usually finding a right balance in between. “Not All That Falls Has Wings” was a captivating group exhibition from their ambitious summer programme which ran between 9 June–18 September 2016. The exhibition, curated by Selen Ansen, one of the curators in ARTER’s current team.

Ansen formed the exhibition around the themes of “falling”, “downfall” and “gravity”. Through this exhibition, she sought to challenge the fundamental notion of gravity “All falls and keeps falling” and the downward direction of fall by focusing on the productive and transformative quality of the action falling.

Although the exhibition brought together various international artists, artist duos and collectives working across diverse mediums and created a rich visual texture, it, unfortunately, failed on the front of diversity as all artists came from white Western European backgrounds. In the dawn of Brexit, celebrating cultural diversity became an undeniable necessity. Perhaps ARTER could have tackled this issue by showcasing a few emerging Turkish or non-European artists side by side with big international names.

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Ryan Gander

“Ftt, Ft, Ftt, Ftt, Ffttt, Ftt, or somewhere between a modern representation of how a contemporary gesture came into being, an illustration of the physicality of an argument between Theo and Piet regarding the dynamic aspect of the diagonal line and attempting to produce a chroma-key set for a hundred cinematic scenes”

This review will concentrate on the two extraordinary site-specific works by Ryan Gander and Phyllida Barlow. Needless to say, both artists are personal favourites and seeing their work together and observing their response to a particular space made this trip an all the more memorable one.

Gander’s architectural intervention with hundreds of arrows thrown in the gallery space, eventually creating navigational pathways and blocks, so subtlety complemented the existing interior architecture of the first floor while mirroring its exterior environment. This installation with an amusingly long and self-explanatory title looked at the famous discussion between Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg about lines in De Stijl paintings. While former artist firmly believed the purity of straight horizontal and vertical lines, the latter discussed the necessity of diagonal lines for the potential of dynamism. This conflict itself is an utterly fascinating one and marks the downfall of an artistic collaboration in the history of modern art. Gander brilliantly crystallised this struggle in contemporary sculptural terms at ARTER.

Barlow’s eye-catching sculptural installation titled “brokenstage2016” was cleverly situated at the entrance, right next to the large glass facade of the building, inviting shoppers or tourists who might be completely unaware of Barlow’s work. The thin glass between the busy street and the gallery completely jumbled up the inside-outside dialectic which inevitably turned the gallery space into a theatre stage outside of which passers-by can watch art-goers look at the art. “brokenstage2016” proved to be an ingenious observation in this regard.

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Phyllida Barlow

“untitled: brokenstage2016”

“Brokenstage2016” created specifically for ARTER’s ground floor, focused on the impact of falling and contained an element of balance and imbalance within itself, a theme runs through all of Barlow’s work. The curator in an introductory video on ARTER’s website characterises this work as a “seismic landscape”; A painful and raw word association which projects the collective consciousness of Turkish people who lost thousands of lives to a massive magnitude earthquake in Istanbul in 1999.

A Curatorial Analysis of the Exhibition:

ARTER commissioned most of the works on display for each floor. As a result, the exhibition had an organic flow, following the architecture of the historic building and its spine-like central staircase. The conceptual umbrella also helped to bind the artworks seamlessly which were originally conceived independently from each other and made it look as if all the artists collaborated for the whole of the exhibition. Safe to say that although the curator’s hands were mostly invisible, her presence throughout the show was largely undeniable.

No artist labels were visible on the walls throughout the gallery space, a tasteful decision which ultimately contributed to the holistic aspect of the show. There was, however, a little booklet available at the entrance, packed with useful information otherwise would have been impossible to fit into a small blurb. The press release for the show, unfortunately, conveyed a heavy sense of conceptualism and seemed exceptionally wordy, hence making the whole text somewhat inaccessible to a broader public. It appears that the curator Selen Ansen, with a background in philosophy, is naturally keen on words and concepts. This attitude, however, poses a problematic question on how philosophical one can get in writing a press release, a document is solely intended for the general audience. The sheer clarity of the guidance booklet, however, overtook the ambiguity of the press release.

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Guidance booklet at the exhibition

The publication accompanied the show, nevertheless, was laid out beautifully by a commissioned designer and written in a clear language both in Turkish and English. It expectedly included in-situ shots of artworks and the information about the artists presented in the show, but it also contained various essays from art historians, writers and critics commissioned specifically by the curator herself to further dissect the concepts explored in the exhibition. This unique addition significantly separated the publication out of a conventional exhibition catalogue and turned it into an editorial entity in its own right. We can identify this book as the outcome of a creative collaboration between the curator, designers and art theorists as it talked more about the curator’s vision than the artworks in the exhibition.

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“Not All That Falls Has Wings” publication

ARTER aims to release an in-depth publication or a book alongside every exhibition in its programme. This element gives the curators a kind of enhanced liberty to further communicate their ideas and motivations. Since what drives a curator to investigate certain notions and work with particular artists may not be visible upon first look at an exhibition, it is in some cases essential to have another outlet for expression, a conceptual framework so to speak. The introduction of an exhibition book in the official programming solidifies this outlet and takes an enormous amount of pressure off the curators to leave their signatures on exhibitions, ultimately allowing both artists and curators an incredible freedom for creativity. Whether or not the curator’s hand should be visible in an exhibition is an internal debate in contemporary curation. In other words, we might ask; what are the curator’s limits? ARTER looks to contribute to this discussion through their collaborative take on the widespread exhibition catalogue practices.

From the beginning ARTER seems to have found itself in a very desirable position both regarding physical location and funding. Due to its neighbourhood ARTER’s wide audience base can range from regular gallery visitors to mere passers-by. It requires exceptional curatorial skills to be able to connect with people from all walks of life. ARTER achieves that by putting on innovative yet blockbuster exhibitions without sacrificing the intelligent content and the curatorial vision. It is also worth adding that ARTER’s intellectually driven and high-quality programme follows the schedule every time without a worry about funding thanks to their collaboration with a corporation believing in the arts as a positively transformative force in a society. ARTER proves that sponsorships and partnerships can shift the curator’s responsibility as a “budget-maker” into a “thinker” and a “collaborator”. Private money seeping into art from multi-national corporations have always been an ethical concern for art institutions. ARTER, on the surface, seems to have established a viable financial structure around corporate money to support their curatorial vision. An in-depth analysis of Koc Holding’s involvement in the curatorial decision making process is crucial to determine the drawbacks of the gallery’s private funding, however. It is unfortunately not possible at the moment due to ARTER’s lack of response to further enquiries.