This month Contemporary Istanbul celebrates its 10th edition. Founder Ali Güreli discusses the art fair’s place at that crossroads of East and West and announces a compelling programme of emerging artistry.
In its inaugural year, Contemporary Istanbul (CI) hosted nine foreign galleries. This year, for it milestone 10th anniversary, it welcomes 102 leading and up-and-coming galleries from 28 cities across 24 countries, including 23 first-time exhibitors.
CI founder and chairman Ali Güreli chronicled the genesis of the fair when he met with Trendesign on a visit to Amman in April. “After I graduated with a degree in business management I went to Paris in the early 1980 to start my Master’s, but then my whole environment became the art scene and I stayed among my new friends having fun and getting more involved with art,” he reminisces. Many Turkish artists called Paris home at that time and Güreli came to think of artists like Mubin Orhon, Abidin Dino, Gürkan “Komet” Coskun as his “big brothers”. He started collecting art as a result of their presence and influence.
In 1999, Güreli visited Art Basel. “I was really affected and I thought that this, the art market, was something we needed in Istanbul, from both a business and a cultural perspective. I remember reading business guru Peter Drucker’s writing on how the problems of your society will be your greatest opportunity; you see something missing and you make it available. I also thought that a city like Istanbul, with its production of art across history, deserved an art fair like this. We are geographically at the centrepoint or, as clichéd as it might sound, at the crossroads of the world!” he explains. Sixteen years later the number of CI visitors has eclipsed those of Art Basel; attendance has swelled from 37,000 in its first edition to 80,000 visitors in 2014 and ARTnews announced that CI was the “fifth most visited art fair in the world.”
From November 12 to 15, CI will attract top galleries, artists, and collectors from Turkey, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, the Middle East and from across the globe to the Istanbul Congress Centre and Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Centre. The fair differentiates itself by appealing, not to the “blue chip galleries” dealing in millions out of New York or London, but those looking to see something new, enthusiastic, young. “What we are actually holding is not an art fair. We are a networking business; we help people who are interested in or involved with art to meet one another. It doesn’t matter if you are a collector or not, if you love art then this is the week to come to Istanbul,” says Güreli.
A drawcard this year is CI Focus: Contemporary Tehran, a cutting-edge selection of contemporary art from Tehran with works by emerging and established artists such as Nasser Bakhsh, Babak Roshaninejad, Ali Akbar Sadeghi, and Houman Mortazavi. “This city has an incredible history and a strong emerging contemporary art scene which we want to present to the world,” announces Güreli. In 2015, CI will also travel further east for Building Bridges, a project coordinated by the Australia China Art Foundation, which will host Chinese artists and galleries in both private and public spaces.
Transcending beyond the binary distinctions of low-tech and high-tech, organic and inorganic, physical and digital, CI Plugin is the event’s not-to-be-missed section. Dedicated to new media, the third edition will feature maker spaces, game labs, digital art collectives and project spaces curated under the theme X-CHANGE, proposed by Turkish sociologist Dr Ebru Yetiskin. Güreli is proud that CI has become a vanguard of digital art. “In the beginning we hesitated, as there were only very few collectors looking at collecting new media art, and some were asking, ‘Is it really unique? Can it be copied?’ (No it cannot be!). The knowledge about collecting digital art was missing. However, with an introduction and learning phase, it has really taken off,” he explained. The collector himself recently purchased a hologram, which he installed at the entrance of The Sofa Hotel. “It has a seven-minute cycle and people are intrigued to stop and watch it in full before heading to the reception,” he says. Digital art might not take the place of a painting on 24-hour display in one’s home, but it is undoubtedly becoming more appealing. “We didn’t initially expect any business returns for galleries with this section, but that is changing; there’s a new confidence.”
Sharing the Middle Eastern art calendar with rival events from Lebanon and, more increasingly, The Gulf, Güreli the ever-proactive businessman sees any competition as healthy. “I would say Istanbul is in a different league. With the advantages coming from our history, location and the beauty of the city coupled with the participation of leading art galleries and three new Istanbul museums opening within the year, I look with excitement to the future. All of this will bring a new energy to the city.” However, he stresses that Istanbul should remain dynamic to avoid losing out to other destinations. We need support and investment from our government,” he tells, giving big-budget Qatar, lead by HRH Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani, as his example.
It is Güreli’s firm belief that now is the time of culture. “The world has lived in many different time frames: after the industrial revolution the most industrialised countries started ruling, then capitalism came and whoever had money ruled. Next knowledge somewhat took over as being most important, leading to technology. Today it is about introducing your culture, selling your culture and being more powerful around the world by having thriving cultural relations,” he says. “Because wherever and whenever there is art people start communicating; you all have a common appreciation and that leads to a more peaceful environment.”
As Turkish interest in contemporary art has increased in recent years, CI has come to be regarded as a pillar in Istanbul’s establishment as an art-world capital and a staple among our region’s top art events. “Together, CI and Istanbul have seen an incredible economic and cultural growth over the last 10 years and we feel honoured to have been a part of it,” says Güreli. “Now more than ever the art world is looking at Istanbul.”
Photography: Courtesy of CI