A panel discussion at the Istanbul Modern museum of art earlier this week turned into a major debate on censorship and the state of contemporary art in Turkey after the museum barred an artist’s work from a recent auction.
Earlier in the month, the museum had removed a work by Bubi Hayon from its program for an invitation-only auction night titled “Gala Modern,” to which several artists had been invited to donate works of art or objects to in an effort to raise money for the museum’s educational programs. The piece was a wooden chair with a chamber pot for its seat. In response, Hayon issued a press release, arguing that the museum’s decision amounted to censorship. The museum, on the other hand, claimed that it had the right to choose which works of art to include in the event and that Hayon’s contribution had not met the proper criteria.
The incident has created heated discussions among members of the art scene in Turkey, especially on social networking sites. Artist Köken Ergun called on artists whose works were being exhibited in the museum’s ongoing temporary exhibition to withdraw their works and urged other artists to boycott the museum until it “changes its mindset.”
The International Association of Art Critics (AICA) Turkey board of directors, however, issued a press release last week stating that the decision of the museum could not be considered “censorship” since the event was not an exhibition but a fund-raising activity. Similarly, the Turkish National Committee of the International Plastic Arts Association (UNESCO AIAP) board of directors said in a press release that the incident does not constitute “censorship” since an act can only be considered censorship if a third party such as a government, a local authority, a ministry, a municipality or the police is responsible.
Voicing disappointment with the statements of the two bodies, artist Hakan Akçura released a press statement with the support of more than 90 people from the Turkish art community, declaring that they consider İstanbul Modern’s action a form of censorship and called on the museum to apologize both to Hayon and the art community as a whole.
Tuesday’s panel discussion was initially organized as part of the museum’s ongoing exhibition “Dream and Reality,” a chronicle of the works of female artists from Turkey since the 1900s, during which three contemporary artists, Selda Asal, Seda Hepsev and Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz, were going to talk about their works of art in the show.
In the context of the recent controversy, however, the artists announced on Monday through social networking sites that they had decided to devote the panel discussion to such issues as transparency and private and public institutions as well as artists’ rights. But discussion at the event, attended by more than 80 members of the art scene took on a life of its own after panelist Türkyılmaz announced that she would be withdrawing her work from the show in response to İstanbul Modern’s actions. The audience then raised questions and voiced concerns about an array of problems related to several forms of censorship dominating the current art world in Turkey, a lack of organization among artists and problems caused due to the fact that all major cultural institutions in the country are backed by various corporate entities and the lack of transparency in their activities.
While the statements from AICA Turkey and the Turkish National Committee of UNESCO AIAP were harshly criticized, the absence of Hayon and representatives of the museum to give their account of what had happened raised considerable complaint among the panelists and the audience. Many attendees also underlined several times that İstanbul Modern should apologize to the participants and the audience of this event since it ignored the concerns of the art world in general by not being present during the panel discussion.
Following the panel, seven other artists -- Ceren Öyküt, Gözde İlkin, Güneş Terkol, İnci Furni, Ekin Saçlıoğlu, Neriman Polat, Leyla Gediz -- and artist collective AtılKunst followed Türkyılmaz and announced that they would be requesting that the museum remove their works from the exhibition.
Asked whether the museum will hand the artists their works of art back, İstanbul Modern’s chief curator Levent Çalıkoğlu told Today’s Zaman on Thursday that the museum “respects the decision of the artists and will act in accordance with their requests.”