He is one of the leading names in Turkish contemporary art. Thanks to the organizations and institutions that he has directed, there has been great improvement for art in Turkey. We looked at art in Turkey with SALT’s Research and Program Director Vasıf Kortun.

Turkey is going through difficult days. Terrorist attacks targeting cities, conflicts going on in one corner of the country, political ambiguities, challenging developments in foreign policy… How do times like these influence art? Is it normal that things lay off for a while? Is art in some sense ‘the first to be saved in a fire’?

In Turkey, people interested in culture and the institutions are under threat in every way possible. It’s difficult to find funding, the most basic rights are stomped on in the name of ‘sensitivity…’ It’s hard to do your job in an environment of violence. Anyways, we are in a collective hysteria, depression and desperation. Art is a part of life, on a day to day basis. In that sense, art is not a place to run to or a thing to save.

You have managed and are managing leading organizations and institutions in Turkey. What has changed within the years concerning the consumption of art in Turkey?

I think art and consumption should not be used in the same sentence. Exhaustion and weakness can be the subject. What happened here happened everywhere. The face of art got separated from other cultural sectors and locked in ‘fame & fake.’ ‘Turbocapitalists’ who realized they were too late became gluttonous and began to collect ‘a commodity’ from a global, academic and intellectual perspective, a decision that has left the market in a downward spiral globally. Neither the market nor the audience is aware of what happened in Turkey, they comply with the feed that is thrown at them… There was a ‘normalization’ in the art scene; institutions, museum, exhibitions etc. In that sense we can of course mention a global sector, compared to the sector before 20th century. But what’s more exciting is the incredibly smart and well-educated new generation. With writers, curators, and artists the future can be more glorious. That is, if there is a future for us…

I think art and consumption should not be used in the same sentence. Exhaustion and weakness can be the subject.

What is the position of İstanbul in the world of art? Is it really a ‘rising star’ or actually does it not get ‘that much attention’?

It was rising in the scene but right now we are in a very bad position. The international media’s interests, questions and attention have changed.

What is the most common mistake seen in Turkey regarding art?

A bird can’t fly with one wing. There is no support from the community. This is the biggest mistake. Another mistake is not devoting any budget for research and historiography. Lack of art schools is another one. Those grey characters walking around as experts… There are so many mistakes.

Many famous international publications mention you as ‘one of the strongest names in contemporary art.’ How does that make you feel?

Usually it creates jealousy and hostility locally. I’ve seen very few people congratulating me, there must be something weird about this. But this is not something I focus on. The first time I was in these lists, I showed it to my father so he would be happy, he said ‘Son, when are you going to finish your doctoral degree?’ He was right, ‘to be the figure of the year’ doesn’t mean much.

At the beginning of your education, did you ever dream about arriving to where you are now?

No, I was not after a career, if I had drawn a path like that, I would have been the head of one of the biggest museums in the States or something right now. Unfortunately, my heart is devoted to Turkey. The needs of this country, the history and it’s future are important for me. Now I am working with a perfect team, beyond personal efforts, in an institution that will no doubt make history. This has been something more beautiful than what I ever dreamt of.

Who should we follow from the new generation of artists?

Cameron Rowland.

What is in your agenda these days?

I am trying to figure out how I will struggle with my lack of experience in preparing myself for a new life.

Photography: Hikmet Güler