ISTANBUL — Years before the earthquake actually happened, Ci Demi was taking photographs of it. The Turkish artist’s first series, Will the World End in the Daytime (2017–19), imagined signs of the impending disaster in eerily off-kilter urban scenes: a bouquet of bent rebar, an abandoned photo album, a cityscape mirrored in stacks of concrete blocks.
“I’ve always looked at Istanbul like a city living in a countdown, but we don’t know when that countdown started,” Demi told Hyperallergic.
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In what the artist called a “very sad coincidence … [that] sent a shiver down my spine,” a gallery show of Demi’s work opened in Istanbul just two days before catastrophe struck last month. The epicenter of the twin earthquakes that hit on February 6 was not in Turkey’s largest city, as many have been expecting, but some 600 miles away in the country’s southeast province of Kahramanmaraş. More than 55,000 people have died in both Turkey and neighboring Syria.
News images of the quake’s aftermath find visual echoes in Demi’s work, particularly his 2018 photograph “Your Lonely Passport and Fragile Identity,” in which pink and gray shards of concrete lie scattered on a carpet. His current show at Mixer with fellow artist Umut Toros, Beyond the Landscape, is one of multiple exhibitions at galleries in Istanbul’s central Beyoğlu district that were envisioned before the earthquakes but presciently speak to the profound sense of grief, pain, and disorientation now being experienced nationwide.
“Sometimes I think artists can feel things before they happen,” curator Elâ Atakan told Hyperallergic about her show A Momentary Absence at Galerist, which brings together four women artists exploring how people cope with unexpected loss. But the concepts all of these exhibitions grapple with are hardly new ones in a country that has experienced its share of political, cultural and social upheaval, along with previous natural disasters.
Childhood memories of the 1999 earthquake that struck near Istanbul, killing at least 17,000 people, as well as of a visit to the fragmented remains of her parents’ former village home have infused artist Sibel Kocakaya’s work with a sensitivity toward the fragility of the buildings people see as their sanctuaries. Her solo show Earth and Structure, also at Mixer, includes small clay sculptures of detached staircases and paintings and collages combining architectural elements in precarious-looking arrangements.
Chunks of ancient columns and more modern buildings are carried aloft by people walking down one of Istanbul’s main thoroughfares in Sena Başöz’s performance and video installation “The Parade” (2023), on view in her exhibition Possibilities of Healing at the cultural center Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat. The work highlights the layers of history on which the city has been continually rebuilt over centuries, including after conquest, disaster and dispossession.
Making what’s hidden visible and voicing what’s been silenced are also key themes in the similarly titled show Collective ‘Healing’ at the newly opened Metro Han cultural center. It features more than a dozen women artists, most with connections to Turkey, who find creative ways to confront topics such as gender-based violence and repressive social norms.
In Leyla Emadi’s site-specific work “Dead End” (2023), the words “Let me tell you a secret/ No one is exempt from pain/ It comes and goes/ Comes again, goes again” are carved in concrete blocks embedded in the steps of a staircase spiraling to nowhere. Tracey Emin’s video “Sometimes the dress is worth more money than the money” (2001) depicts a bride running through an arid landscape to a spaghetti Western soundtrack, while İnci Eviner creates a surreal tableau on the ragged fringes of Istanbul in her photograph “Nowhere-Body-Here” (1999), a response to controversial urban transformation processes.
The text for the Collective ‘Healing’ exhibition refers to a finding by the Turkish opinion research firm KONDA that women are more likely than men to report being depressed. Rather than offering a palliative approach, the exhibition seeks to explore ways of healing that can’t be bottled and sold, ways that instead require “looking directly into the pain,” curator Ayça Okay told Hyperallergic.
After many years of tightening restrictions on freedom of expression, people in Turkey are now doing exactly that, she added, referring to the outcry over how the government handled last month’s disaster. “So many things are gone after the earthquakes, but the [government’s] authority is gone too,” Okay said. “It has changed the fear that used to be in society.”
“The cost was really high but I’m hopeful after a long time for a change in the course of the country,” agreed artist Burçak Bingöl. Her work in the Galerist show A Momentary Absence has its roots in another traumatic period for Turkey, the series of bombings and other violent attacks that terrorized Istanbul, Ankara and other cities in 2015 and 2016. One such attack occurred the day a ceramic sculpture Bingöl was working on had exploded inside the kiln.
Afterwards, Bingöl said she found that she couldn’t let go of the broken pieces of her destroyed work. “It was some kind of artistic instinct, to figure out how to survive,” she told Hyperallergic. She glazed the fragments and painted flowers on them, then applied a similar floral pattern to a bomb suit made from handwoven silk. (The material, coincidentally, was produced by a family in Antakya, one of the cities hardest-hit by this year’s earthquakes.) “It was kind of an ironic statement — a ‘protective’ suit that wouldn’t protect me at all,” she said.
The floral suit and shards sat unused in Bingöl’s studio until late 2022 when Atakan approached her about contributing to an exhibition on absence. “When Elâ mentioned the topic to me, I thought of these works but was hesitant to bring those days back again,” the artist said. A week later, there was another bomb attack in Istanbul. Bingöl took a series of photographs of herself in the bomb suit, and added stems to her ceramic fragments to turn them into flowers (Flawless Flow, 2016–23) that blossom from the gallery floor and walls.
In the entrance room at Galerist, one of the photographs in Bingöl’s Postulated Sequences (2016–23) series is paired with a concrete sculpture by Ayça Telgeren of a shrouded, prone form that recalls recent news images of earthquake victims covered with cloths. Telgeren’s work, “Dreamer” (2023), in fact depicts a body wrapped in hair, a reference to the famously beautiful locks of her ancestors from the Caucasus region and an artistic response to the loss she feels over a culture and language that was never passed on to her.
“Exhibitions aren’t just about telling your story, they’re more like a portal to a space where people can tell their own stories, something we need in Turkey especially,” Bingöl said. “Art has to transform these catastrophes; no one needs to just see a cruel reality again and again.”
The exhibitions will remain on view through the end of the month.