A walk across the Bosphorus

Where art can cost you your life

New Statesman

Where art can cost you your life

When the 12th Istanbul Biennial closed on 13 November, Turkey was a sadder, quieter place than it had been at the opening in September. Two months on, the country contemplated the renewal of an apparently endless war with rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party and an earthquake that had taken more than 500 lives.

Back in late summer, when sunlight still glanced off the choppy Bosphorus beside Ryue Nishizawa's specially commissioned Antrepo 3 and 5 galleries on the Beyoglu quayside, everything seemed possible for Istanbul's cultural class. Western Europeans crowded a city where, as well as the biennale, Tracey Emin was exhibiting at the Art Beat Istanbul event, the 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art was under way and the Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival (Itef) was about to start. For those less highbrow, Istanbul Fashion Week was gearing up. With contemporary Turkish artists such as Taner Ceylan breaking records at Sotheby's, there was a sense of phenomenon about the city. There was even a name for it - "Istancool".

It's not natural territory for the Islamic Justice and Development (AK) Party's prime minister, but when Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art in 2004, it was an early indication of how important culture might be. Erdogan, who has been extending Turkey's diplomatic, military and political power since his re-election in June, knows a PR opportunity. In 2010, during Istanbul's stint as European Capital of Culture, he took a stroll with U2's Bono across the Bosphorus suspension bridge and rushed to meet Nicolas Cage when the actor came to Turkey to shoot a film.

Erdogan is a big-picture politician, keen to let the right opportunity relay his liberal message of Islam-lite, though you wouldn't have found him in front of Ceylan's homoerotic oils in September. "The first lady came to the opening," Ceylan tells me, intimating why his more challenging work wasn't hung at the biennale and suggesting the limits to Erdogan's liberalism - the first lady looking at male genitalia being one. Ceylan gives the government little credit for the art boom. "The art world is manipulated and managed by businessmen, by private collectors for whom art brings status. So it's not the government.

“The government does not see what art means, what art can bring to Turkey. Art for the government is only important if you make something against the government."

Asset management
To be fair, the state has gone out of its way to protect such a prize cultural asset. When Ceylan received death threats in 2011, it provided bodyguards. "The government is careful, because an Armenian-Turkish journalist was killed [Hrant Dink, shot in Istanbul in 2007]. They don't want any more cultural figures to die," he says. It is a reminder that, for all Istanbul's festivals and galleries, Turkey is a country where your art can cost you your life.

The popular film-maker and singer Zülfü Livaneli has recently been warned that he is in danger. It's a threat he takes seriously: "My wife and I sat down and counted how many friends we had lost to assassination. When we reached 50, we stopped. It's a hard country." As an ex-political prisoner, Livaneli celebrates AK's successful assault on the army's influence (Turks joke that if there were a war with Israel, they would have to borrow a few generals), but he doubts Istancool's significance. "It seems contradictory because we have an Islamic government, but these things are for a minority of Istanbul intellectuals. If you go to Anatolia they don't know anything about it."

AK is a creature both of Anatolia and of the suburbs full of Anatolian economic migrants surrounding Istanbul, so Erdogan might be excused if he gets urban culture wrong. Still, there is some resentment at the way the Capital of Culture was run among westward-looking city-dwellers who enjoy the economic boom but also fear AK's plans to promote the power of religion in Turkish society. As Nermin Molla­oglu, organiser of Itef, says: "It cost €2m to bring U2 here and we hated Bono for doing that walk on the bridge. But generally we are the winners. That's why they won the last election - we don't want to lose the strong economy. Now, people can say, 'OK, let's buy these paintings. Let's support this biennale.'"

Itef was partly held at the Çiragan Palace Kempinski hotel, a sumptuous former Ottoman harem. Ceylan notes the link to Turkey's future. "It is the same as the Ottoman times - money talks. Nothing has changed." His latest work features hyperreal portraits of Ottoman men, seeking echoes of contemporary Istanbul in the fezzed and waistcoated members of a ruling class Kemal Atatürk finally despatched in 1923. Perhaps Ottoman pashas will be easier for the PM and his wife to walk past.

Michael Hodges stayed at the Çiragan Palace Kempinski and flew with Pegasus Airlines