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In Search of Istanbul: A Tale of Two Cities


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Contemplating a City for the Ages

It didn’t matter that the Istanbul Modern Art Museum was in Istanbul.
It could have been the New York Modern, the London Modern, the Sydney Modern. Looking at contemporary art is universally an exasperating experience. A distinct lack of talent camouflaged with ludicrously pretentious explanation. You either pretend to understand it, or you stick your head above the intellectual parapet and shout: “The Emperor’s got no clothes on!”
This was more or less my mood as I approached its entrance, and my stubborn stance wasn’t jolted by the sight of it – a lifeless grey barn squatting gauchely on one of the grandest waterfronts in the world.

But despite preconceptions and first impressions, my mind wasn’t completely closed for business. The Istanbul Modern features on pretty much any Top Ten list you care to search for on the city and it’s been hoisted to a lofty four and a half stars on Trip Advisor. I was very curious to find out why.

A place where modernity seems implausible

Artistic preference aside, the very word ‘modern’ seems an antonym for Istanbul. This is a city whose roots reach to near unfathomable depths; so much so that to illuminate the dawn of its existence, historians have largely had to rely on sifting facts from myths and legends.
The story of Jason and the Argonauts, for example, is widely believed to be based on Greek colonisation, which began in the eighth century BC. Explorers sailed northeast from their homeland, through the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara, and formed settlements on the banks of the Bosporus, the river that rushes through the present day city and between the mighty continents of Europe and Asia like sand through an hourglass.
Aside from some scant clues in the Archaeology Museum, very little evidence of this particular period remains – but of course, that was only the beginning.
I had a guide to show me around the museum, and shortly into the tour, after walking up some stairs, she paused to speak.
“This is the embodiment of brutalism within us. This anger, this violence; it is in all of us. How do we show it? How do we release it? How do we express it in a – how do you say – civilised society?”
I looked around to observe the thing she was talking about, expecting to see a set of beautifully designed torture instruments – or perhaps a caged maniac – but she was looking directly at the staircase we had just wandered up. It was a grey, square spiral with metal handrails from which metal chains hung all the way to the central cavity floor. Chains also hung around the outside. The top was encased in a box of cracked glass.
“It is called the Stairway to Hell,” she said solemnly.
I almost suggested a better name might be the Stairway to the Second Floor, but then it occurred to me they could be one and the same.
Then something else occurred to me.

Bridging past to present, material to ethereal

The process of looking at modern art, whereby you’re challenged to mine your imagination to enhance the scene, is not so very different from visiting historic sites, which is something that can scarcely be avoided in Istanbul.
Take the Hippodrome, for instance, located in Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city. This long and narrow cobbled space, now a municipal park dotted with trees and lampposts and benches, was once a vast amphitheatre that could accommodate 100,000 people. It was the venue for games, gladiatorial contests and ceremonies. When it was built in 200 AD by the Roman Emperor Severus Septimius, at a time when Istanbul was known as Byzantium, it was the cultural core of the greatest city of the mightiest empire the world had ever known.

But as nothing – save a couple of haggard obelisks and the basic perimeter – remains to suggest its staggering historical significance, you have to allow yourself to tumble back a couple of thousand years to appreciate it fully. You have to imagine the ground vibrating beneath your feet as the horses and chariots thunder past in clouds of dust; you have to envisage the tiered arena and conjure the deafening roar of the mob amassed within it.
The Romans were also responsible for the Hagia Sofia, a gargantuan beast of a building which for more than a millennium was the largest enclosed space in the world. (Just take a moment to consider that; it’s the architectural equivalent to Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint record not being beaten until 3011.) Initially a church, then a mosque, now a museum, the sheer scale of the building alone is enough to silence the most jaded of sightseers, not to mention the fact that it’s still completely intact.

But when you think back to the time of its inauguration ceremony in 537 AD, to use just one occasion, and place yourself in the midst of it all, with the most powerful people on the planet and the almost inconceivable degree of pomp, the whole thing takes on a whole new dimension and somehow becomes even more humbling and inspiring.
After the Christian Romans came the Islamic Ottomans, who swept into the city in 1453 and, like their predecessors, recognised its strategic brilliance, within decades establishing it as the capital of their own empire. Inevitably, mosques began sprouting through the city skyline, with one of the most notable examples being Sultanahmet Camii (or the Blue Mosque, as it’s more commonly known). Perhaps the greatest Ottoman legacy, though, is the Topkapi Palace, which was built soon after they took power. This majestic complex housed the Ottoman sultans and is the physical epitome of the ineffable grandeur of their lifestyles.

But again, it is not enough to simply wander through, admiring the décor; you find yourself deleting the tourists and repopulating the courtyards with hushed servants, and the Harem with that most mysterious group of women who occupied it, the sultan’s concubines.
Is all this really any more pretentious to seeing the Stairway to Hell in the Istanbul Modern as the metaphor that the sculptor intended? To look beyond the visible actuality and interpret the glass box as the inside of someone’s head, the sanity cracked from demons trying to break out? The contexts may be different, but the imaginative indulgences are fundamentally the same.
I had begun to understand the attractiveness of this museum for tourists. In a city like Istanbul they are already prepped, consciously or not, to invent what is not there, using prompts as pillars to bridge the present back to the past; the material to the ethereal.

A contemporary stamp on an ancient metropolis

What was less clear was why the museum is so treasured by Istanbulites. Modern Art, you see, is by no means a niche interest among the locals; it is very much part of the cultural mainstream. The Istanbul Modern only opened in 2004 and was the first museum of its kind in the city, but since it threw open its doors numerous others have sprung up in its wake. Then there’s the Istanbul Biennale, which is held every other year and considered one of the most prestigious contemporary art events in the world. The genre is booming.
The guide was talking again. “This artist cares only for the paint, for the colour itself. Any other material object is not important to him.”
We had stopped to observe a canvas covered in red paint. There were a couple of strokes of black, turquoise and yellow, too, if I’m not mistaken. Other than that, there’s not much that can be said about it.
“This is one of the most expensive artists,” she added. It was true, I checked later that day. One work recently sold for £190,000.
My patience took a knock, but it didn’t matter – the tour was almost over.
Just before we went our separate ways, I spotted a piano suspended above the floor by cables. There were balloons concealing the points where the cables were attached to the ceiling.
“What does this piece signify?” I asked, genuinely intrigued, stooping down for a better look.
“This signifies a piano being suspended by balloons.”

A short time later I was sitting on the varnished terrace of the museum’s restaurant, looking out over the Bosporus, its teal waters glittering under a cold sun. Istanbul winters can be dismal affairs, but this was a clear day; I could see the ships cruising down the straits, their horns booming, and beyond, the shimmering contours of Asia.
Across the Golden Horn, on the European side, slender, rocket-shaped minarets and mighty domes that looked like giant tortoises crawling across the horizon were silhouetted in a foamy yellow light, and screeching seagulls beat their snowy wings overhead. The Muslim call to prayer began ringing out over the rooftops and, for a moment, it was as if it was competing with the funky jazz tumbling haphazardly from the restaurant’s speakers.
I began thinking again about the massive popularity of this museum – and others like it – among the locals, and wondered if perhaps the surge of interest was a reflection of the changing psyche of the city in general. Art, after all, is a product of its time, and frankly it didn’t matter how much sense the pieces in question did or didn’t make: what mattered was that they were something new; a contemporary stamp on an ancient metropolis.

And this doesn’t begin and end with the galleries. In the last two or three decades, Istanbul has emerged as one of the most desirable, affluent and vibrant cities in Europe. Step out of the Istanbul Modern and explore its surrounding district of Beyoglu, for example, and you’ll find some of the sleekest clubs, best restaurants and chicest shops on the continent. If you’re not in the area, you’ll have the pleasure of using the impeccable, efficient and very reasonably priced public transport to get there.
To foreigners, Istanbul is too easily seen as something that has already happened, like a wayward ghost, or a relic so entrenched in its own glorious past it is unable to adapt to the present. It is a place so dominated by its own history – both literally and figuratively – that the very notion of modernity can seem somehow implausible.
But this is a misconception; one which is partly corrected with both the presence and popularity of the Istanbul Modern, a shiny new symbol of the times. Istanbulites are, quite rightly, immensely proud of their heritage, but they take equal pride in what they, rather than their predecessors, have achieved.
I had come to realise it did matter that the Istanbul Modern Art Museum was in Istanbul. It mattered more than I could have ever imagined.

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