September 29, 2012

City of the Senses - A Cultural Revival in Istanbul

ONE EVENING LAST MAY, around the time when evenings heat up and Turks spend all night outdoors, I went to an art opening at the new Egeran Galeri in Istanbul. Across the water from the gallery, Hagia Sophia, lit up like an aging movie star, gazed warily at this louche, noisy party in Karaköy, the brash ingenue of Istanbul’s neighborhoods. A hundred foreigners and Turks drinking wine in tall glasses had flooded around two DJs in the middle of the street. American conceptual artist Mel Bochner, whose work was on exhibit, sat on a couch bestowing kisses. Inside, his paintings—consisting of clusters of words, such as Blah Blah Blah—hung on white walls that led through huge glass doors and back outside. 

These days, Istanbul is no longer just the spot where Europe meets Asia; it is a creative mishmash of civilizations, eras, classes, and ways of life—as if someone had dribbled bits of Berlin and New York and Barcelona onto a seaside Islamic wonderland. Karaköy is one of a handful of neighborhoods that typify the new feeling. En route to the opening, walking through an architectural jumble that included a sixteenth-century mosque as well as Armenian and Greek churches hiding behind paint-patchy walls, I passed narghile hangouts where young people who smoke but don’t drink lounged on beanbag seating; bars where blond socialites, sprung from their Bosphorus mansions, sip cocktails next to tables of hipsters; heavily designed Austrian coffee shops that attract graphic artists on break; and the traditional drab concrete teahouses for male workers. When I later consulted the architectural critic Gökhan Karakuş about this dizzying, inclusive mix of design and society, he deadpanned, “Turks are good at aggregating.” 

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