This summer, as Istanbul echoed with symphonic calls to prayer during Ramadan, the artist Halil Altindere invited me over for tea and Turkish delight in what he calls his “thinking studio,” a charming domed room located upstairs from the Grand Bazaar. The medieval hallways of his building are dimly lit and littered with discarded objects: his neighbors are the craftsmen and middlemen who provide the traditional tchotchkes sold in the bazaar downstairs. From its roof, the rambling, centuries-old building looks out over the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (as we climbed the stairs to take in the view,
Altindere told me to watch where I walked, lest I fall through the crumbling vaults). Altindere, who was born in 1971 and moved to Istanbul in 1996, is one of the most influential artists in the city. I had wanted to meet him ever since I’d seen his darkly antic short film—a music video, really—called Wonderland, at MoMA PS1 in New York. Shot in Istanbul, it features three impassioned young men who call themselves Tahribad-ı İsyan (Destruction Following Revolt). In the video they rhyme defiantly against gentrification while doing feckless battle with construction equipment (“My words are an avalanche that come down pouring....” read the English subtitles), encountering various gangsteresque B-movie archetypes, setting a security guard on fire, and posing atop a hulking ancient aqueduct that looks like a ruin from Game of Thrones. Altindere had sought them out after reading an interview with them in a newspaper.
Wonderland, like Istanbul itself—a place half in Europe and half in Asia—was energetic, familiar, and a bit hard to decode, yet it demanded to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than that MoMA had thought the video important enough to add to its permanent collection.
It is only recently that the city’s contemporary art scene has caught the world’s attention. “When I came to Istanbul, well, it was very conservative,” Altindere told me as we sat in his amazing cell of a room on groovy, Midcentury Modern–style furniture listening to scratchy old jazz recordings. “Art was about decoration.” But he and his friends, empowered in part by the community-building powers of the Internet, began staging guerrilla performance pieces and started an art magazine called Art-ist in 1999. They invited people from outside the art world to tell them what was going wrong with Turkish art. “Many young artists read it and changed their minds,” he said. “And we made a revolution!”
Now Istanbul is one of the landing points for the itinerant global art elite—curators, collectors, journalists, and hangers-on. They come especially for the Biennial (Wonderland was shown at the 2013 edition), a September event that is helping to legitimize many of the galleries popping up in the backstreets of Beyoğlu—places like Collectorspace, which shows only one work at a time, and Rodeo, which mounts politically charged group shows that mix Turkish and international artists. The two leading contemporary art spaces are Salt and Arter, each with a rotating and thoughtfully presented program of often surprisingly edgy work, despite their locations on İstiklal Caddesi, the thronged thoroughfare that cuts through Beyoğlu and is lined with bars, fast-food restaurants, and the bright fast-fashion shops you see in cities around the world.
On my visit to Salt, there were two works by the female Turkish artist Canan Şenol: a video of hanging breasts, one dripping milk, and what appeared to be an illustration out of an ancient, perhaps holy, text, of an erect penis and a gaping vagina. There was also, on the ground floor, a 15-foot-tall, three-dimensional, walk-through installation representing the Bosporus Strait, with every inlet visible, which evoked the same oppressive and exalting sense of containment as one of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses.
“We’re in a new stage of Turkish art,” Altindere explained. “The meeting with the money. Compared with the American market or the European market, it’s very new.”
He moved his studio to the unhip Bazaar area two years ago to try to get away from the center of the art movement around İstiklal, and he told me that nearby Karaköy, where I was staying, was now “the hipster center of the city,” but that it hasn’t been that way for long. He shook his head, amused. That place is turning into Berlin, he said. I spent an afternoon in that neighborhood with Erk Erkaya, a 28-year-old who runs a bespoke tour operation called Locally Istanbul. He used to live in New York City, and he looks very much like a creative, ambitious young Brooklyn guy. He took me to an outdoor café called Karabatak. “It’s very Paris, yes?” he said, as we were seated under a leafy canopy to protect us from the sun.
Even though it was Ramadan, everyone around us—a mix of locals and foreigners—was drinking beer or wine. “Two and a half, three years ago, all these things were not here,” he explained. “In another three years, people will be saying, ‘Remember Karaköy, that lovely place? Oh, it’s too mainstream. People don’t go there anymore.’ ” Already, he said, many apartments in the area have become Airbnbs. “If you can,” he confided, “you should buy this whole building and turn it into a hotel. That was kind of my dream last year.”
We walked through the neighborhood, passing places on the way with chalkboard menus offering up burgers on cutting boards and a place with a sign informing you that brunch is available there. On the way up one of the steep cobblestoned side streets leading to the medieval Galata Tower and the headwaters of İstiklal, I spotted a shop called Aponia Store that displayed T-shirts with the words MAINSTREAM: NO THANKS and, beneath a drawing of two hands forming a cat’s cradle with Istanbul monuments stuck between the threads, ISTANBUL: THEY CALL IT CHAOS. WE CALL IT HOME. A few blocks away was a new Shake Shack.
Istanbul is changing, but not all of it, and not into just one thing. There are coexisting, even competing, Istanbuls. In a teeming, modern city this old and layered, there are always rival claims as to what its future should be, based in part on which past Istanbul chooses to base that future on. Ottoman? Muslim? Secular? This tension has become especially apparent in recent months. In elections this June, the longtime government, led by an ever-more-right-wing-leaning president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, lost its majority hold on parliament, much to the relief of everyone I talked to. There had been rumors that the president, in the days leading up to the election, would say a prayer inside the Hagia Sophia—which became a secular museum in 1935—in solidarity with Islamist groups who want the building turned back into a mosque. His party’s defeat has also made many progressive people anxious about who, if not Erdoğan, would actually lead the country. Protests—over gentrification, against the government, over the right to protest—have become a regular occurrence. And, of course, there is the threat of the Islamic State, festering ominously along the country’s border with Syria. Turkey is cooperating with the United States in fighting it, and doing so puts Turkey in a very vulnerable position. In August, shootings and a bombing terrorized the city.
Yet there is conspicuously little sense of worry in the lively café and bar precincts of Beyoğlu, Cihangir, and Pera. Istanbul is a giddy, hustling, polyglot metropolis of more than 14 million— up from just one million in 1950—that has taken on a romantic, freewheeling reputation as the sort of place where there is room to make interesting things happen. As Altinder said, “The government doesn’t understand contemporary politics and art. So we are very free.”
Some parts of town feel not unlike Berlin during the first decade and a half after the wall fell (cheap rents and all). And as a matter of fact, talking to Istanbul residents, I found that a number of people who might have lived in Berlin, or even did for a while, have settled in Istanbul instead. What’s significant now is that culturally ambitious Turks no longer feel the need to leave. “Now there are no diasporas,” Altindere told me. “It’s important that you live here and work here and make something for here.” You make your own Berlin.
Or, as Özkan Cangüven, who now works for the Biennial after living in New York City for seven years, put it to me over espresso at one of the city’s recently ubiquitous European-style coffee bars, “Everything’s much more difficult than in New York. You know, like equal rights”—this year’s gay pride parade was shut down by police water cannons—“traffic, the pollution. But at the same time this is the thing that I feel I want and I like that challenge.”
Art is just one of the things that signify the swift pace of gentrification and globalization in the city. Because where there is art—or an art market, to be precise—there is money. And Istanbul’s growing wealth has done quite a lot to change not just the perception of Istanbul for many clued-in travelers but also the experience of the city itself.
The number of high-end hotels that have opened in the past few years alone is staggering. Now scruffy, tattooed Karaköy and Cihangir are sprouting places of a glossier, more international character, like those you might find in Manhattan or Miami or London.
The discerningly tasteful and efficient 10 Karaköy, from the Morgans Group, where I stayed, could be in any of those cities, right down to the dimmer switches. And when the Soho House group—those bellwethers of nextness—opened an outpost in the palazzo-like former American Consulate in Beyoğlu, it put the city squarely on the tastemaker’s map, and gave the strivers of modern Istanbul a glamorous new gathering place. On any given night, a cosmopolitan crowd packs the rooftop pool bar and the Mandolin Terrace restaurant (part of a budding mini-empire begun in Miami) while, occasionally, paparazzi wait outside to snap photos of whatever Turkish starlet darts from the hotel’s tiny, exclusive Embassy Club to her chauffeured SUV. You’ll spot the same crowd huddling around dimly lit tables of meze at Münferit, in Beyoğlu, or sipping cocktails at the hard-to-find no-name bar off İstiklal (those in the know call it Alex’s bar, after the bartender), or watching the sunset from the roof of the Vault hotel in Karaköy.
“We are probably, in the eyes of people who come from farther east, and even for some of the people who live in Istanbul, a real anomaly,” Melih Fereli, who runs the Arter gallery, told me, referring to the city’s creative class. “But that’s the beauty of Istanbul—the mix. You’d be hardpressed to really convince yourself that this is where Islamic culture prevails.”
Arter is planning to open its own museum in 2017, financed by the Koç family, which owns Turkey’s largest conglomerate and is also a main supporter of the Biennial. (Altindere had said that “four or five rich families” make everything happen in the arts.) Fereli wants it to be not just a place to look at precious things hung on the walls in frames but also a place where creators of all sorts can come together for the sake of something new, something, he said, that “enables us to experience things that we haven’t been able to experience before.” If the city’s embrace of Arter is any indication— Fereli said he had to exercise crowd control for exhibits by Marc Quinn and Patricia Piccinini—the iconoclastic approach will be an interesting development for Istanbul, where there is so much possibility in the not-yet-defined. This is the upside of years of official neglect. For so long, he explained, Istanbul was a “cultural desert” and “the government just turned a blind eye to contemporary art.” People weren’t interested in what was considered, as Fereli put it, “crap—a bit of sound, a bit of light.”
An early harbinger of change was the Istanbul Modern museum, where a sign by the front security gate designates an area, in English: A SPACE FOR THE YOUNG PUBLIC. It’s savvy marketing, considering how young the city is demographically: 47 percent are under age 30. And the goal for the museum, which is near Karaköy in a former customs warehouse along the harbor, is to make a claim on the city’s future, despite the churn of the present.
Over coffee on the terrace of the restaurant, one of the museum’s curators, Çelenk Bafra, explained that she was planning to have an event series in collaboration with MoMA PS1 featuring yoga, film screenings, art stations, concerts, and performances, to better engage the community. Last year, the Modern hosted around 650,000 visitors—a tiny figure in a city this size. But, she said, the audience is up to 60 percent locals in the winter, and it’s very young—“maybe sixtyfive percent is under twenty-five.”
We sat looking across the water to the old city and its enchanting domes, walls, and minarets. Sometimes, Bafra said, the view is blocked by the line of mammoth cruise ships that dock along the concrete wharf outside. The formerly industrial area is slated for wholesale redevelopment so it can cater to the thousands of tourists who arrive by cruise ship. And across the Bosporus, on the Asian side of the city, you could practically watch Kadıköy, which is now reachable by subway and is packed with cool bars, busily preparing itself to become the next hot neighborhood.
Near the end of my trip, Altindere invited me to meet Tahribad-ı İsyan, the rap group in his video, at Co-Pilot, one of the galleries run by his wife, Azra Tüzünoğlu. The young men arrived in jeans and sneakers, a bit lightheaded because they were fasting for Ramadan. One had on a baseball cap that read, in English, BROOKLYN STILL GOES HARD. Altindere had a present for them: ropy fake-gold chains, which they immediately put on and posed for pictures in.
Speaking over one another while one of the gallery employees translated, they told me that originally they were attracted to the sound of American hip-hop and the luxuries it often depicted: “Money, money, money,” they said. But they became radicalized when the government started developing their neighborhood, Sulukule, home to a large community of Roma people for centuries. The young rappers are Roma, and their family homes were destroyed. A local activist told them that “rap music was also protest music,” so they switched from “singing about this dream of nonexistent riches” to singing about real issues. Which is when people began paying attention to them—now the group has a record deal with a major Turkish label. The three friends, all between the ages of 20 and 22, are preparing to be famous, which is exciting, though they pointed out that they’re not that famous, since they can still take the subway.
Just then one of them lifted his shirt to show me his tattoos, which tell the story of the destruction of their neighborhood, complete with backhoes and burned-out buildings. Altindere called my attention to three rosebuds, interlinked with barbed wire. To the young men, the roses represent themselves—but also more than that: the blossoming potential of the city itself.