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The contemporary art scene in Turkey has gone through a major transformation in the last 15–20 years. When we look at the past from today, it is not possible to avoid the teleological delusions of a historicizing perception. We can imagine that everything in the 1970s, 80s, 90s was done to reach at this result today. As if we were always seeking today's institutionalization, the support of the market and the capital were amiss; we were searching for these and now we have finally reached the institutions and the art scene that we so desired. There is nothing wrong with this, but I'd like to imagine things a bit differently.

Even those who know of Nietzsche or Foucault remotely will admit that the historicizing perspective, imagining the root by looking at the result, is quite misleading. Of course, some always wanted to arrive at today or they always imagined today as a tangible possibility, but nobody can claim that the present was planned, irrevocable or unavoidable. Despite the intentions and desires of the actors involved, the art world has arrived at its state today because of the radical contingencies of the power relations.

After such an introduction—as if reversing the convention—I need to first build my line of defense. I need to build this so that the reader understands and criticizes what I write with this defense in mind. I am not an artist who is against institutionalization or the market. Although I wonder about what the art world would be like without institutions or the market, I do not outright reject these structures. I do not think there is anything to be rejected, of course, the market and its mechanisms, giant instituions supported by capital, are determining art knowledge, what art is, what is the good, the beautiful, and the righteous in art, but these institutions are not rigid, nor exhausted; they can be intervened with and transformed.

All of us populate various institutions (manhood, womanhood, school, company, etc.). Why should the art institution be any different; if "manhood" can be transformed and subverted, if an interstice within "manhood" can be settled into, why would "artist-subject", the art institutions and the workings of the market be immune to this? Besides, I have my doubts about whether the process of institutionalization should be problematized to this extent by the institutions. Institutionalization can walk on its own, let's mind our own business.

What we especially don’t need to do today is to undertake macro-scale, strategic readings to determine whether we would like to oppose these institutions— to try to seize or reform these institutions. (These three options usually correspond to the same political understanding.) What needs to be done is to look at the recent past to learn from it, to create what was lost and to turn it into a "performance-life". Instead of missing and expecting an exact repetition of the recent past, determining what was good, beautiful and righteous in that past that should be expanded upon and applying that to today is the only way that the past can be truly honored and become meaningful today. In my opinion, this is the ultimate meaning of the archive. An archive that is not performed and that is not desired to be performed is no different than a treasure that we are happy to have yet wish to not shine.

The art world of the 1990s is an important subject matter for the contemporary art world today. A lot of people and groups who were active in the 1990s are still alive. Some of these figures now lead major institutions and some of them have become established artists, while some were scattered with the speed of institutionalization, moving to the margins from the center of the art world or chose to just disappear. Thus, it doesn't seem possible to definitively narrate the 1990s. The narration of the 90s in the 2000s needs to host multiple narratives and political stances that reject and conflict with each other.

In this sense, the 1990s is still alive, here, and tangible. To tell the story of the 90s, to approach it from the perspective of a historian and an archivist, is the last thing I'd want to do. I'd rather look at what was good in the 1990s, what was appealing and what could make us stronger today.

90s: A Way of Being

Every time I say the 1990s, I think about what I mean. What do I mean when I say the "1990s"? I think the "1990s" corresponds to a "way of being", a "form of making-doing", rather than a slice of time, a period. 1990s is not the name of a time period that is past and that will never come back, but it is rather a "way of being". It is a "style of being" that does not necessarily stem from the actors, the subjects' intentions and personalities, but something that developed over time with the impact of the environment and time. We can thus encounter a 1990s’ artist in the 2000s, or we could have encountered a 1990s’ artist before or after. Then, what constitutes this "way of being", what separates the 1990s when we compare it to today?

In general, various themes emerge. The dissolution of the bi-polarized world and the pluralist post-modernist discourse imagined, all positive, mobility, decenteralization, discussions of authorship, attitudes that are nourished by the quotidian in the absence of art institutions, that imagine settling into life, the street. The socio-political landscape is open to this scene: the unexpected cosmopolitism that was developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviets (Aksaray, Laleli, Tarlabaşı), informal markets and trading, sub-cultures, transvestite subject-objects, the re-consideration of kitsch objects and language, strategies of resistance developed from the grassroots against the economic crisis, the changing dynamics of increased circulation and on top of all this, the harsh political climate, the policies of nationalism and violence... The 1990s are confusing, bohemian, vagrant and constantly in flux. It is a moment when the floor underneath our feet, rigid institutions and forms of subjecthood were shifting. Perhaps this is why the 1990s is the target of romantic, escapist, mythologizing desires.

Instead of Institutions, Personal, Group Initiatives

Then, when we think about the art scene and compare it to today's, what do we see? The first thing that comes to mind is the absence of museums, art institutions. In the 1990s there is almost no capital, except for small, irregular support funds. The market doesn't care for contemporary art, the main object of interest is sculpture and painting. The absence of art institutions, the market and the capital produce an area of freedom in which informal, liquid energies flow, undeterred. As institutions and the capital are amiss, it is impossible to imagine an individual, professional artistic career and the art world becomes functional on organic relationships, modest initiatives. For example, many exhibitions are collectively produced by artists and curators. The exhibitions in the 1990s are always groups exhibitions: "Youth Events", "GAR", "Globalization-State, Poverty, Violence", "Number 50/Memory II"... When we look at the art world today, we could say that the production mode is based on the one-person exhibition at the gallery. While the 1990s were marked by an amateur spirit that was developed under the auspieces of organic relationships, the 2000s are dominated by individualization and a professional attitude.

From Horizontal Fluidity to Verticality: Becoming Settled

This central difference results in numerous side effects. Artists are more lonely today in their studios, in their souls and minds, they most often talk to their gallerists. In the 1990s, artists, critics and curators were talking to each other. [1] The division of labor had not been rigidly formed. But this does not mean that curators were not more powerful than the others. Curators were determinative just like they are today, but the structure between the artists and the curators were much more informal and flexible. The most dramatic change in terms of the curators' position is that curators are now matched with specific art institutions. Today, a curator is the head of a museum or an institution's director, on top of being an acquaintance, a friend, someone that you share your ideas with. In this sense, contemporary art has become settled, its fluid, "vagrant" energy has become rigid, institutionalized, formalized.

Thus, the relationships in the art world have become vertical instead of horizontal and this institutionalization has formed formal or informal hierarchies. Today, it's very easy for artists or curators to earn a rank: who is in which collection, who is represented by how many works? Which curator has a more active institutions with a larger budget and a wider set of opportunities? Which artist is on the rise and whose market is increasing with the prizes and grants that they won? Today, everybody who is involved in the art world is thinking of this list of rankings in their minds.

In such a context, the public relations departments of the market and the institutions determine what is good, beautiful art, rather than artists, curators, critics developing a discourse from the grassroots. In the 1990s, the spectators were relatively small in numbers (parallel to the absence of these institutions) and the small, semi-closed art community producing and discussing among themselves produced an environment in which there could be more courageous experiments and productions that were not hindered by a fear of failure. Today, artists are going through crisis before their one-person exhibitions. As the criteria of sucess is determined by an external source, not only is there a pressure of success on the artist, but insecurity and depression become symptomatic of the art world.


Aside from all this, we also witnessed that in the 2000s, the politicization in the art field became neutralized as the art world was transformed. Artists make politically charged works, as they did in the 1990s, but the same works do not resonate in the same way today. Maybe there are more viewers , but perhaps paradoxically the political impact is quite minimal.

Even if we take into consideration the transformation of Turkey's political scene in the 2000s and the process of the AKP rule, I think this weakening is primarily about the transformation in the art world. At a moment when the market soared and absorbed every artistic, political style and art institutions are chic, sterile, conventional, art works with highly political content have less impact—I'd even go as far as to say that the weakest works are these highly political works. Institutionalization demands "cleaner", "higher quality", "produced", "finished" works. Independent of the institution's policies and the curator's intentions, this institutional environment expands the institutional art work, empowering it. The viewer's reaction and criticism is built with this language.

In the 1990s, the viewer was open to giving political, social reactions to performance and installation works, thinking about aesthetics and politicization together, as there was not a framework provided by the institution. Today, the viewer is led to analyze the quality of the works. Of course in such a situation, the artists' faith in the politicalness of their work is undermined. There is an atmosphere of anxiety and insecurity as artists doubt their works' politicalness and consider their footing in the institutions supported by the capital to be weak. A certain cynicism starts to prowl around...

I'm saying these things today to identify the illnesses of our chic, formal art world, deemed to have a strong infrastructure. [2] The 1990s is not the only source in which we can look for the good, but it is still the closest and still alive. As someone who caught the tail end of the 90s, when I look at the documents of exhibitions and artworks from the 90s, the excitement of reading the magazine Art-ist for the first time, the energy that I felt at Hüseyin Alptekin’s loft does not echo, I cannot see it. Actually, it is precisely this feeling that propels us in a different way, providing the power to resist. Documents, art works, photographs are insufficient in this sense, they still don't function to open up but rather to cover. If we want to save today, the 1990s is a resource, but a resource that we can look at and then forget; and a resource that we can turn into a way of living.

Translation from Turkish to English by Merve Ünsal


1. It is possible to perhaps mention here Sezin Romi's exhibition "GAR", "Globalization-State, Poverty, Violence", "Number 50/Memory II", which borrows its name from Ali Akay's phrase "It was a Time of Conversation". 18-03-2013

2. Bilgi University's decision to deaccess the art works that it had collected with the promise of an art complex exposes the vulnerabilities ot htis infrastructure and the logistical investments.

Burak Delier

Born in Adapazarı, living and working in İstanbul. In Art Facts (2012) he attempted to measure the institutional performance of the art institution SALT. Appropriating research techniques developed according to a contemporary managerial logic, the project begun with an institutional survey realized through on-site interviews and continued with a live broadcast of an institutional meeting where the results of the survey are presented. In Collector’s Wish (2012), he realized an art work conceived by the collector Saruhan Doğan. At the 2010 Taipei Biennial, Delier presented the workings of the Biennial institution and the critical potential of art by surveying the Biennial staff–from the decision-makers to the interns. Delier finished his MA and PhD in Art Practice in the Art and Design Department at Yıldız Teknik University.

grafisches Element