April 04, 2011

An Arts and Culture City of Both Old and New

With two great empires behind it, and a history reaching back to the dawn of time, Istanbul can only be a cultural tourist’s place of infinite wonder. Stumbling through the 20 galleries of classical antiquities at the Archaeology Museum alone is an education in itself, to say nothing of beholding the splendors of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern and Topkapi and Dolmabahce Palaces.


As Turkey gains ground as an emerging power this century, its premier city, while steeped in the grandeur of its Byzantine and Ottoman pasts, also moves with a bold and confidently modern gait. Increasingly hailed as one of Europe’s most dynamic cities, Istanbul is becoming known for its urban sophistications, from its contemporary art to its vibrant nightlife.

Such dynamism has made it Europe’s new “party capital,” according to the UK newspaper The Guardian, the place where young Europeans decamp after graduation and where the international art community increasingly has been setting up shop due to a market renaissance. “If emerging markets are kick-starting the global economy, creative dynamism is ebbing away from the old centers to the new,” says The Guardian. “Istanbul is fast-resembling Henry Miller’s Paris or the post-Soviet city-wide party in Prague where Western twenty-somethings can spend that critical time between university and life.”


Contemporary art is one of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan attractions. Since the opening of the Istanbul Modern (patterned after Britain’s Tate Modern) in 2004, the visual arts has become the epicenter of cultural life, with the richest of Istanbul’s families vying with one another to become the ultimate arts patrons. The benefits to the population are clear: the number of museums and galleries with progressive, provocative exhibits has multiplied in recent years.

Art is incredibly accessible, the Arter gallery on Istiklal Caddesi shopping street hosts world-class exhibits for free, for instance. Its inaugural exhibit, Starter, was an intriguing, exhilarating exercise for any pedestrian who just happened by: on the ground floor was a life-size, green inflatable T-72 tank by the artist Michael Sailstorfer, its periodic deflations and inflations—including the training of its artillery gun on viewers—a mesmerizing performance. On five floors, a walk-in could soak up 160 works by 87 artists, Turkish and international, including luminaries such as Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Rebecca Horn and Naim June Paik.

Arter is bankrolled by the industrialist Koc family, which also finances the nearby Pera Museum, another multi-level gallery hosting both traditional and avant-garde art. Among the year’s arts offerings was an exhibit by Turkish native and celebrated British fashion designer Hussein Chalayan as well as international jewelry shows and the construction of public art in plazas.

Istanbul, then, is not just East and West, but a delicious melding of sensibilities and confrontations, a "young” city with an old soul. For the tourist with a keen cultural impulse, it is a place to go back to, again and again, for the wonders of both old and new.

Read more on Manila Bulletin Publishing Corporation: An arts and culture city of both old and new

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