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'The Room with Forty Doors' at Akbank Sanat explores contemporary art in Turkey

Hasan Bülent Kahraman talks about his curatorial project The Room With Forty Doors at Akbank Sanat, Istanbul, that surveys Turkey's art movements since 1980.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Nov 16, 2022

Akbank Sanat in Istanbul is hosting the exhibition The Room With Forty Doors: The 40th Anniversary of The Contemporary Artists Exhibitions as a parallel to recently concluded Contemporary Istanbul fair and the ongoing Istanbul Biennial. The exhibition has been conceptualised and designed by Bülent Erkmen and curated by Prof. Dr. Hasan Bülent Kahraman. It aims to present a documentation that sheds light on 40 years of Turkish contemporary art. A digital media showcase, it contains the names of 1147 people who participated and contributed to the exhibitions of over 40 years, including documents, photographs, and memoirs.

Prof. Kahraman says, “The relationship between the institutional history of contemporary art and its individual history is problematic. There is a difference between art, which is foreseen on a personal level, defined by individual abilities, and developed with a personal understanding, and art, which is the common sensitivity and act of a certain environment. The transformation of an attitude developed by pioneers into common acceptance is always a complex phenomenon.”

Digital documentation for the year 1995 | The Room with Forty Doors | STIRworld
Digital documentation for the year 1995 Image: Courtesy of Akbank Sanat

I speak to Prof. Dr. Hasan Bülent Kahraman about this transformative and uninterrupted history of Turkish art since 1980.

Rahul Kumar: How would you summarise the evolution of Turkish art over the past 40 years?

Hasan Bülent Kahraman: It is a difficult question. Forty years is a long period of time. Thinking about the social and political events encircling Turkey and the world in this period is enough to comprehend the depth of the period. But I can say that last 40 years witnessed a major event in Turkey and that is the closure of the gap between the West and the country in terms of art. We have now a full-fledge developed visual art realm in Istanbul no smaller in calibre than any one of the major metropolitan cities in the world. The birth of a new generation of artists, gallerists, curators and collectors, the Turkish contemporary art is on the scene. Art produced nowadays in Turkey is foremost political, critical and encompassing the micro-sociological and political concepts like feminism, identity, space, memory. Historicism is also another element. On the other hand, the collector-gallery and market relations are also developing.

Digital immersive presentation at Akbank | The Room with Forty Doors | STIRworld
Digital immersive presentation at Akbank Image: Courtesy of Akbank Sanat

Rahul: And how would you place modern and contemporary Turkish visual art in the global and regional context? The country is uniquely positioned at the cross-roads of Asia and Europe, and the Middle East in close proximity. How has this influenced the art of the land?

Hasan: The positioning of Turkey between East and West is a long and to some extent, a boring story though it is a fact. No one in Turkey is immune to this reality even though artists and critics these days tend to escape that reality, yet it is there and it functions its influence to a certain extent over all artists. However, in the last 30 years the course of the arts is definitely towards the West and the inkling of the past with the ambition to reproduce the classical culture is not anymore on the scene. The education contributed immensely to this new understanding as the best universities in Turkey offer arts education based on the western models and the impact of globalisation played a considerable role as well. West but more than that American art is more tangible in Turkey now.

A unique sound and video installation encompassing 40 years of Turkish art movement | The Room with Forty Doors | STIRworld
A unique sound and video installation encompassing 40 years of Turkish art movement Image: Courtesy of Akbank Sanat

Rahul: How did you conceive of this show? How were the visuals chosen to display?

Hasan: Personally, I am involved in this process not exactly since the first day of the Contemporary Artists Exhibitions series but relatively, yes, since the very first years. So, I know the whole history. Everything has come to a shape by the great vision of Madame Leyla Belli and for the last 15 years Akbank Arts Centre is in conjunction with the organisation. It was also great vison of Akbank to deliver the whole archive to Salt. When I was first offered the chance to be the curator of the show, I thought over various alternatives and finally ended up with this ‘model’. There could also be other ways to show the history but going deep into the archive and presenting it in itself is a very contemporary approach, I believe. Because by doing so immediately you are plunging into the realm of memory, document, space, history, historiography and other related concepts. Exhibition has been designed by the prominent designer Bulent Erkmen and his take on the work concretely contributed to what I was intending to do. It is finally his success; I would say together with Aysegul Coskun of Akbank Centre.

A glimpse into ‘The Room With Forty Doors: The 40th Anniversary of The Contemporary Artists Exhibitions’ Video: Kirk Kapili, Courtesy of Akbank Sanat

Rahul: The exhibition was documentary in nature. Was it not necessary to place the actual artworks, even if representational, to complete the viewing experience?

Hasan: I believe the answer is no. That was one of the alternatives, but there are approximately 1500 people participating. Picking up a few and leaving the others out would be very detrimental and would also bring shadows over the importance and value of this celebration and reminder. Instead, we preferred this method and there is also the point that some of the artists who have been awarded then are not anymore in the art world but some who were very junior at the time are now very prominent artists. All these demarcate that an exhibition based on the artists’ name would not be as functional as this show.

Digital documentation for the year 2013 | The Room with Forty Doors | STIRworld
Digital documentation for the year 2013 Image: Courtesy of Akbank Sanat

Rahul: I was particularly intrigued with the video/text projection work and sound track that was overpowering at the exhibition. Please talk about the conceptual references of this presentation.

Hasan: I would like to take this chance to elaborate one more dimension of the stylistic part of the show. One point is more important for me than the others and that is the notion of the archive itself. Since Foucault and especially Derrida, we know that archive is a very complex concept and mostly intertwined with the political power as archives are public spaces but under the control of the state. My documents are private for the time being but if they are transferred to an archive they become ‘official’ documents. Whose privacy is controlled by the government in that case, mine or the document’s itself or the government’s? Also, who will be allowed to enter the ‘pantheon’ of the archives? I think by exhibiting everything in a non-hierarchical way, and very openly without excluding one single piece of paper, we are intervening to these limitations and opening up a debate. Second, most of the exhibitions tell a story this way or another. I believe in the role of the concept of parergon since Kant. A parerga is an ornamentation or a tool that encircles the artwork, even the frame in this domain. We have no story at all presented in this exhibition. Everything is clinically distanced from the audience and left to his comprehension. I think screens have done a great job in creating this cold-blooded presentation.

Digital immersive presentation at Akbank | The Room with Forty Doors | STIRworld
Digital immersive presentation at Akbank Image: Courtesy of Akbank Sanat

The art exhibition The Room With Forty Doors: The 40th Anniversary Of The Contemporary Artists Exhibitions is on view at Akbank Sanat, Istanbul till November 19, 2022.

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