Two new articles about Istanbul Modern’s censorship and our campaign

by HG Masters
ArtAsiaPacific – Jan 12 2012

On December 27, artists arrived at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (Istanbul Modern) with a banner that read “There is censorship in this museum,” and hung posters declaring “We spotted censorship” alongside their work in the exhibition, “Dream and Reality.” The action came amid a storm of criticism from the Turkish art community, directed at the privately funded museum for suppressing freedom of expression, after the institution refused to enter a commissioned artwork by Bubi Hayon into a fundraising auction or to acquire the artwork for its permanent collection. The museum provoked further ire for its unapologetic response to the artist and the subsequent outcry from other members of the art community. 

The affair first became public earlier in December when, in a written statement, Hayon accused Istanbul Modern of censorship. The sculptor was one of eight artists originally selected to create works for the museum’s seventh annual Gala Modern, held on December 10, to support the institution’s educational program. His sculpture Oturak (“Chamber Pot,” 2011), an upright wooden chair with bedpan embedded in the seat, was not displayed after curators asked him to make modifications to the piece—specifically, to cover up the toilet seat—and Hayon refused. 

Hayon insisted that the museum gave him full creative freedom in conceiving the work and that it did not specify the piece’s purpose when he was first approached about the commission. The artist claims that Oturak was intended to be critical of the quasi-sacred status of art museums in society. After seeing the final outcome, Istanbul Modern claimed that the artwork did not meet the proper requirements for the auction and would not accept it without alterations. 

The artist and others speculated that the museum deemed the piece not as saleable with the chamber pot in its seat, and that this was the motivation for asking him to cover up, or remove, the supposedly undesirable component. After Hayon had circulated his account of the episode, other members of the Turkish art community agreed that the museum was committing a form of soft or “conditional” censorship. Numerous discussions were held on social media sites, leading many people to express long-held frustrations with the museum’s lack of professionalism.  

However, even within the art community, there was broad disagreement about whether Istanbul Modern’s decision did in fact constitute censorship. The board of directors of both the Turkish National Committee of the International Plastic Arts Association (IPAA) and the International Association of Art Critics (IAAC) released separate statements saying they did not believe the musuem’s action was censorship, because the event was a private auction, closed to the public, and there was no third-party intervention that caused the work to be removed. Moreover, Istanbul Modern has maintained that its curators had the right to select which artworks would be included in the auction. Hayon, a member of the IPAA, resigned on December 26. 

On December 27, a panel discussion in the Istanbul Modern auditorium, in conjunction with the current exhibition “Dream and Reality,” turned into a public discussion of the incident—though neither Hayon nor any of museums’ curators were present. One of the evening’s panelists, artist Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz, announced that she would remove her work from “Dream and Reality” in protest and walked out of the museum because she believed that the institution was no longer taking care of artists shown under its roof. Eight other artists—Ceren Öyküt, Gözde İlkin, Güneş Terkol, İnci Furni, Ekin Saçlıoğlu, Neriman Polat, Leyla Gediz and the collective AtılKunst—subsequently announced that they too would withdraw their works from the exhibition. 

In a statement released on December 30, the museum rejected charges of censorship, noting that the Gala Modern event was not open to the public and that “the sole purpose of the evening and the art in question was to raise money for Istanbul Modern’s educational programs.” The museum disputed Hayon’s account, and maintained that the purpose of the commission had been “explained carefully” to the participating artists: 

“Bubi [Hayon], too, received a detailed briefing about the character and importance of Gala Modern. He knew that Gala Modern was not an exhibition and that the primary purpose of the work he created was to raise funds for Istanbul Modern’s educational programs. In events of this kind, the curatorial team selects the artists that will participate and determines which works will be included. This is standard international practice.”

However, the museum’s chief curator Levent Çalıkoğlu told the English-language daily newspaper Today’s Zaman that Istanbul Modern would honor the artists’ wishes to have their works removed from “Dream and Reality.” Despite media reports that the pieces had been taken down, as of January 3, none of the artworks had been physically removed or altered. The exhibition closes in two weeks, on January 21. 

Leyla Gediz, one of the eight artists who wished to have her work removed, explained in an email to ArtAsiaPacific that the artists had been advised by lawyers that they could not remove their works, since most of the pieces are on loan from private collectors (and are therefore no longer property of the artists), and furthermore that the consignment agreements between the museum and collectors cannot be easily canceled. However, Gediz remarked, “We are content with the harm we’ve done to the museum’s so-called prestige and morale, and feel that we’ve done enough to challenge them into rethinking their principles and aims.”

Istanbul Modern is privately funded by the corporate holding company Eczacıbaşı Group, which comprises 39 enterprises in diverse industries. The museum’s collection is comprised of artworks on long-term loan or donated to the museum by the Dr. Nejat F. Eczacıbaşı Foundation, Oya-Bülent Eczacıbaşı Collection and other private collections. Oya Eczacıbaşı is the chair of the museum’s board of directors.

All of Turkey’s major cultural institutions are backed by corporate holding groups, as there are no national art museums or state-funded galleries. A persistent complaint in the Turkish art community—again raised during debates over the Hayon incident—is that cultural institutions have no public accountability and their decision-making processes are nontransparent. Despite their claims of adhering to “standard international practice,” Istanbul Modern, since opening in 2004, has run into problems before in working both with artists—most notably over a large-scale film commission by Doug Aitken—and professional curators, as in the case of David Elliott, who served as the museum’s director for just eight months in 2007. 

On this occasion, the artist Hakan Akçura has also circulated an online petition, signed by prominent members of the Istanbul art community and several international figures, decrying the incident as an act of “conditional” and “commercially orientated” censorship. In a light-hearted moment, the petition announces that “Our guiding free spirit is awareness of our existence and surely is R. Mutt’s Fountain”—a reference to another famously censored toilet-as-artwork: Marcel Duchamp’s readymade, upturned urinal, which was hidden from view in 1917 exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists in Philadelphia. 

The Chamber Pot Affair:
Bowels of the Art Market, Limits to Creativity in Turkey, and the Question of Censorship

Zeynep Oğuz, Ph.D. candidate
GIT-North America

A series of news items and responses appeared in the Turkish media over the last few weeks in relation to a work of art commissioned and subsequently rejected by Istanbul Modern Art Museum. The artist, Bubi Hayon, accused the museum’s curatorial board with censoring his work, and his supporters took his accusations to the press. The news sparked up a larger debate in the art world about the definition of censorship, but also, and perhaps more importantly, made evident the power dynamics among the leading institutions and individuals therein.

The “chamber pot” incident differs from the more common kinds of debates centered on accusations of censorship of art commissions and the publicity that ensues thereafter around the globe (one notorious historical example of which is Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men); and the difference is twofold. First, the work was commissioned for auctioning purposes only and would be displayed at an exclusive after-hour fundraiser event organized only for collectors. Second, because there was no legal contract signed between the artist and the museum, there was little proof other than the post-event testimonials of both parties.

Regardless of the eventual rejection of the work (without providing a comprehensive reason) or whether or not that qualifies as censorship, it was mind-boggling that an art institution internationally recognized and as well-established as Istanbul Modern could patronize works without assuming any accountability and could see it fit to operate in a vague, unprofessional, insensitive and top-down framework. However the subsequent response of the museum as well as the attitude of other institutions that took part in the public debate revealed dirtier secrets of the networks of patronage, production and distribution of works of art in Turkey. The patent uncritical justification adopted by the museum was that the artist was well aware of “the primary purpose of the work” he was asked to create, which “was to raise funds”: it was a selection based solely on marketability! Shockingly, the Turkey section of International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and Turkish National Committee of the International Plastic Arts Association (UNESCO AIAP) seemed to join forces with the museum in an effort to marginalize the artist Bubi Hayon. Especially the last press release of AIAP hinted monopoly over claims to political engagement and social activism in the Turkish art circles, as well as stating that an artist’s rejection should be her emotional struggle and not a publicity-driven petition. The sincerity of the cause of the artist and its supporters was deemed questionable because of their lack of engagement with other sociopolitical causes.

For more (in Turkish) on the acts of other artists in protest of Istanbul Modern’s curatorial team go to a news item and a related commentary on Radikal.

This entry was posted in Atılkunst, bubi, Ceren Oykut, Güneş Terkol, istanbul modern, levent çalıkoğlu, leyla gediz, Neriman Polat, sansür, Selda Asal, İdris Naim Şahin, İnci Furni by omosis. Bookmark the permalink.

About omosis

Selected exhibitions, activities: 2013 Artist presentation: "Being in Sweden, being an immigrant, being an artist", Adaevi, Museum of the Princes' Islands, İstanbul, Turkey "Yersiz: Kader Birliği", Mardin, Kızıltepe, Turkey “Ja jag vill leva jag vill dö”, Tegen 2, Stockholm "Vilken tur! Himlen omfamnar oss!" / "What luck! The sky embraces us!" / "Ne şans! Gökyüzü hepimizi sarıyor!" Photography Exhibition, Ideas and Innovation Fair, Stockholm "Milat" Exhibition for Hrant, Getronagan Lisesi'nden Yetişenler Derneği, Harbiye / Rumeli Han C blok 6.Kat - Beyoğlu, İstanbul 2012 Migration Connections Project 2012 Exhibition, Museum of the Princes' Islands, İstanbul, Turkey Edinburgh Middle Eastern Film Festival, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK Artist Talking and Screening, Agent Ria, Still Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK 2011 Ars retorica, Hall the university library of Paris 8 – Saint Denis, France The Exhibition on the 20th Anniversary of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey: Where Fire Has Struck, DEPO Istanbul, Turkey 2010 PAI 2010-2011 in Thebes, Conference Center of Thebes, Greece International Media Arts Festival Videfesta’10: Archive Fever, Goethe Institute, Ankara, Turkey Temps D'Images Portugal 2010 Festival Film Award for Films on Art section "From childhood to police station" Exhibition, Free Expantion Platform, Istanbul, Turkey HEP Iran screening, Sazmanab Project, Tehran, Iran AthensArt 2010 contemporary art exhibition, Athens, Greece PAI 2010 contemporary art exhibition, Samothrace, Greece "Thistles of Sazak" screening and exhibition, 7th Karaburun Festival, Izmir, Turkey Distance Festival, London, UK "Artist Cinema", Art Beijing, China Over trubled water, Tegen 2, Stockholm, Sweden Ankara International Film Festival, "Video: Spaces of Memory", Ankara, Turkey Direct Channell, Canakkale' Turkey !F Istanbul Film Festival 2010 online program: See it yourself (This village)' Istanbul, Turkey HEP Screening, AFA Beijing, China Tornavideo, Tamirhane, Ankara, Turkey 2009 “Projected Visions: 35 years of Turkish video art” exhibition Meeting Europe - Istanbul, Wacken Exhibition Centre, Strasbourg, France HEP (Human Emotion Project) Screening, AFA @ Portuguese Bookshop Gallery, Macau, China co-exhibition "Dirty Story", BM Suma, Istanbul, Turkey HEP (Human Emotion Project) Screening, Caldas-da-Rainha, Portugal HEP Screening, Berlin, Germany "Thistles of Sazak", art performance, Karaburun, Izmir, Turkey "Istanbul-Off-Spaces" co-exhibition, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, Germany co-exhibition "Interzone:Nation", Gallery Galzenica, Zagreb, Croatia HEP Screening, LaSala in Cigunuela, Spain HEP screening, Melbourne, Australia "Varning för klämrisk", Solo Exhibition, Tegen 2, Stockholm, Sweden to Ankara International Film Festival, Ankara, Turkey 2008 1st Int. Roaming Biennial of Tehran, Berlin, Germany "Hög på Golvet" group exhibition at Tegen 2, Stockholm, Sweden 1st Int. Roaming Biennial of Tehran, Istanbul, Turkey International Mail Art Project 2008, Conceptual Continuity Supermarket 2008 Art Fair with Tegen 2, Stockholm, Sweden 2007 "Fear of god" co-exhibition, Hafriyat Karakoy, Istanbul, Turkey "Bodrum Film Festival", Bodrum, Mugla, Turkey "Jag, min husses hund" group exhibition, Tegen 2, Stockholm, Sweden "Nightcomers" project in the 10th Biennial of Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey Scope NYC [PAM], Scope Art Fair, Lincoln Center, New York, USA 2006 co-exhibition "Labyrint" in Botkyrka Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden Artist's "Sann dialog" ("Real dialogue") contemporary art activity has been started. Stockholm, Sweden Artist sent his videoperformance named as "Öppet brev till Migrationsverket" to Migrationsverket ("Open letter to Sweden Migration Board") 51', Stockholm, Sweden 2004 Artist given his art-object named as "För uppehållsstillstånd" to Migrationsverket ("For residence permission"), Istanbul, Turkey co-exhibition "Bridge from east to west", BBK Karlsruhe, Germany 2003 co-exhibition of AIAP "Hal/iç" with work name the "Difficult sleep". Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Turkey 2002 co-exhibition "Arts Plastiques" in METU Spring Festival at METU Congre Center, Ankara, Turkey co-exhibition "A travel into life" at Kargart, Istanbul, Turkey 2001 "Sometimes when I'm high, I watch TV", video performance screening, Dulcinea, Istanbul, Turkey Artist's "Solitudo" contemporary art activity has been started. A solo contemporary art exhibition with 210 participants: I want my mirrors. Dulcinea Istanbul, Turkey 2000 co-exhibition "Veritas Omnia Vincit", Istanbul, Turkey Artist's "I want my mirrors" contemporary art activity has been started, Istanbul, Turkey 1999 "2th Interbalcanic Symposium of Visual Arts" and co-exhibition, Samotrache/Greece 1998 "...self", solo exhibition. Dulcinea, Istanbul, Turkey co-exhibition "The Other", Istanbul, Turkey 1996 "Citypaintings", solo exhibition. Habitat II/NGO Forum '96 art activities, Istanbul, Turkey Publication of book of poems: "Limpin Bird" (Aksak Kus) (168 page, 81 poem, 81 picture), Istanbul, Turkey 1995 Fourth Biennial of Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey co-exhibition "Young Activity/Borders and Beyong", Istanbul, Turkey 1991 Short film maker and director, ("Everything is as it is", 24', 16 mm. Included in TRT's "Young Cinematographers" programme), Istanbul, Turkey

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