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Biennial Blues in Istanbul

Istanbul.

The thirteenth Istanbul Art Biennial is on at the moment, featuring exhibitions in 4 major galleries.  This year it’s free for the first time, and is attracting a lot of visitors.  The title of the Biennial is “ANNE, BEN BARBAR MIYIM?” (“MOM, AM I A BARBARIAN?”)

At the ‘Salt Gallery in Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul’s main pedestrian street, the show is a load of rubbish.  Crafted by Argentinian artist Diego Bianchi, the work is called “Market or Die”, and features trash scattered around the edges of the gallery floor and on shelves, empty cans, cigarette packets, bottles of shampoo and alcohol, plastic arms and legs, stale bread, piles of mussel shells, and old toasted corn cobs and squeezed lemons.  The casual hodgepodge of objects in an unfinished room is apparently Bianchi’s trademark.  The empty spaces on the walls inspired me, and led me into a difficult dilemma.

This letter which I wrote to the curator of the Istanbul Biennial Art Festival on Wednesday explains my story  –

“Hi. I’m an English collage artist who has lived in Istanbul since 1986.

On Sunday I visited the “ANNE, BEN BARBAR MİYİM?” exhibition at the Salt Beyoğlu gallery. I asked an assistant if I could stick up a photocopy of one of my collages and I was given permission. I did so, and left. The picture, ‘Revenge of the Trees’, was made on May 31st in response to the brutal government crackdown that day on the peaceful occupation of Gezi Park by protestors trying to prevent the cutting down of the trees, which resulted in a summer of protest  and extreme violence by the police.

The picture shows a surviving tree hanging Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan from one of its branches. His government is also responsible for the destruction of huge sections of forest around Istanbul in their creation of yet another tollbridge across the Bosphorus, and threaten to destroy 3000 trees in road construction on the campus of the Middle East Technical University of Ankara.

When I visited the gallery again on Tuesday I found that my picture had been removed. The new assistant couldn’t explain why, but she gave me permission to replace it with another. However, when she looked at the collage she said that it was “political”, and she was sorry, but I couldn’t put it up. When I pointed out that brochure says the vision of the exhibition “aims to create a public domain which is accessible to everyone” and “focuses on the theme of public domain as a political forum,” she apologized, but said ‘political’ images were forbidden.

I went to speak to the co-ordinator at the nearby Arter Gallery to explain the situation, but was disturbed to be told the same story.

As the ‘Anne, ben barbar mıyım?’ exhibition claims to “create the possibility to rethink the concept of ‘publicness’ through art, elicit imagination and innovative thought to contribute to social and public engagement,” I am disappointed.

As a protest against this censorship I have decided to display my banned picture in the street outside the Salt Gallery today. After all, as your brochure states: “barbarians are the ones who are marginalized, illegal, and aspire to debunk or change the system… the anarchist, revolutionary, poet, or artist.”

Unless I hear from you before then, I will begin my protest at 1.30 pm today.”

A couple of hours later I received a phone call from the Biennial Office saying that they had spoken to the gallery, and I was to be given permission to put up the picture in the Salt Gallery at 3pm.  Very pleased, I decided to take another couple of pictures along to see if I could add them too.

So I turned up at the Salt gallery shortly after 3, and the co-ordinator from the Arter gallery who I’d spoken to before was there to meet me, along with two assistants, and it had been agreed that I should be able to put the picture up again. They had the old one, but I decided to put a fresh one I’d brought. Then I asked if I could add another couple, but that permission hadn’t been given. We called the Biennial Office and they gave it, so I put them all up and left, saying I’d check in a few hours later, after I’d finished fortune telling at the end of the street. The co-ordinator said she’d wait a while to see if anything happened. As I left I saw a visitor taking a close-up of one of the pics with his mobile camera. I felt very chuffed that they were actually being shown in a major art gallery in the heart of Istanbul!

I decided to set up my rune fortune telling services on the scuffed white marble doorstep of the nearby closed Greek Cultural Centre further up the street.  The shiny black wrought-metal double doors made a perfect background.

I got out my stuff, a circle of runestones on a black background with ‘FAL’ (‘FORTUNE’) in big letters in the centre and EN AZ 1TL (AT LEAST1TURKISH LIRA) in smaller letters at the bottom, which I rested on my knees and leaned against my chest so that all the passers-by could see it clearly. I got out the folder of rune-meanings and my wand (a shiny car ariel) and put on the Zorro mask which I found on the street a few months ago and have taken to wearing lately, which, along with my black skull-cap and other black garb makes me noticeable, and waited for the customers to come flocking. After three quarters of an hour I had only had two. Perhaps it was the weather – very cold and cloudy.

Suddenly I saw a gang of about six burly guys in dark clothes approaching me from the other side of the street. They stood around me menacingly. I guessed immediately that the were plain-clothes Zabita (Istanbul Street Police), but I acted innocent.

“Bir niyet tut, bir taş seç,” spieled I. (“Think of an intention, choose a stone.”)

“Zabita!” sneered one, flashing an identity card, and told me to clear off.

“Why?” I asked.

“Problem!” I was told. “Yasak!” (“Forbidden!”)

“Why?” I asked again.

“Problem! Are you going to beat it?”

“No,” I stupidly replied, feeling defiant.

One of them reached out and grabbed my rune-circle and started walking away with it. I jumped up, suddenly alarmed at the thought of the loss of my livelihood.

“Hirsız! (Thief!)” I shouted. “Give it back!” Curious pedestrians stopped to watch the scene. Then, remembering a slogan of the Gezi Park Protestors earlier in the summer, I started chanting at the top of my voice “HÜKÜMET İSTİFA! HÜKÜMET İSTİFA!” (“GOVERNMENT RESIGN!”)

The other zabitas persuaded the confiscator to return my circle. He did so with bad grace, thrusting his face in mine and shouting angrily. He would have hit me if he could, but instead he pushed me roughly and told me to get my stuff together and git. I called him”Zorba! (“Bully!”) and stuffed the things into my shoulder bag.

“He’s a Communist!” I heard one of them say. I was about to reply but they were all louring and threatening and told me to remove myself pronto. I marched away angrily, still in my zorro mask, bawling out one last loud “HÜKÜMET İSTİFA!” as I went. That’s what I like about İstiklal Cadessi. It’s legal to raise your voice in dissent there. ‘Istiklal’ means ‘Freedom’. I must have seemed a nut to the passing startled mall-crawlers though.  I decided to go and rune at my usual place at the bottom of the street, which is usually zabita-free.

When I returned to the Salt Gallery after my stint, I found my pictures were no longer on display. The apologetic coordinator told me that the curator of the Sanat gallery had had them taken down, fearful of being charged with ‘insult’ for showing the Turkish Prime Minister in such a way. After retrieving the pictures I was allowed to speak to the curator in his office on the top floor. He said he understood and sympathised with my motives for showing the collages, but they couldn’t risk it. And besides, the Biennial organization had not contacted him to say that they had given me permission to put them up. I left and made my way home, the earlier high hopes I had had frustrated and disappointed.

On Thursday morning I decided to take the collages to the Pyramid Gallery near Taksim, a radical gallery established by controversial artist Bedri Bakam, to see if they might show them there, in the interest-factor of them having been banned by the Salt.  The director, a charming young woman with excellent Engish, was supervising the arrival of a freight of canvases being delivered for the next showing, but she managed time for me and was interested in the story.  She said they would talk about it.

My next port of call was an Anarchist cafe in an area on the other side of Taksim Square.  As I approached the Ataturk Memorial in the centre of the square, I noticed a crowd of people standing around watching as burly plain-clothes police brutally bundled away a couple of chanting protestors, a young guy and girl, from the monument to a waiting police van.  They threw the boy in the back.  The chanting girl’s grey eyes met mine as she was dragged past.  All the onlookers were silent.

“HUKUMET ISTIFA!” I suddenly shouted angrily.

Everyone turned.  One old man clapped and smiled.  I shouted it again.

“Siz vatandaş değilsin! (You’re not a citizen!)” snarled a burly plain-clothes, suddenly right up against me.  “Kimlik? (ID card?)”

“Sana ne? (What’s it to you?)” I retorted.  And with one final roared “HUKUMET ISTİFA!”, I set off down the busy pedestrian street of Istiklal, aware that I would probably be followed.

After talking to one of the staff at the Anarchist Cafe, (she said I could display the pictures there, except for the one of the Prime Minister as a dog, which was ‘specist’), I came out to find the same protestors from Taksim, still chanting loudly, being unloaded from police van and being dragged into the police headquarters at the end of the street.  Again the girl’s grey eyes and mine met, but this time I didn’t open my mouth in support.  I continued on my way like a sensible citizen.

However, a couple of streets away I suddenly felt a hand on my arm.  I turned and found myself face to face with a burly unshaven plain-clothes in a leather jacket.  He opened his wallet and flashed a police card at me.

“Kimlik!”  he demanded.  I showed him my passport and he handed it to one of his cronies, who went off with it.  I asked why I’d been stopped.

“Şüphe! (“Suspicion!”)” he answered, and then asked if I was German.  Was I an illegal immigrant?  I told him I’d lived in Istanbul for 27 years.

“Falcı? (“Fortune-teller?”)” he asked, slyly.

“That’s right!” I answered, a bit surprised.  “Would you like to have a go?  I have my stuff here.”  I patted my shoulder bag.

“I don’t believe in that stuff!” he scoffed.

“Believe it or not, it’s hard to resist!” I joked in Turkish.  The crony came back with my passport, and it was returned to me.  I walked off, glad to be free.

At the end of the day, as I was walking home after a visit to the cinema, a police car suddenly turned the corner and stopped me in one of the dark slum streets in my district.

“Nerde oturyorsun?” demanded the officer, leaning out of the window.  Then in English: “Where do you live?”

“Me?” I asked, like an innocent tourist.  “I live in England.”

To my relief, the cops drove off.

Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com

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Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com.

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