The Chamber Pot Affair:
Bowels of the Art Market, Limits to Creativity in Turkey, and the Question of Censorship
Zeynep Oğuz, Ph.D. candidate
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.
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.