by Anna Zizlsperger

When the first edition of the Istanbul Biennial opened in 1987, then curated by Beral Madra under the theme Contemporary Art in Traditional Spaces, it brought together 107 artists from 11 different countries. It not only featured internationally acclaimed artists, along with those from Turkey for the first time, but also contemporary Turkish paintings from 31 private collections. The same year, Haldun Dostoğlu had moved his gallery from Ankara to Istanbul and remembers that there was only a handful of art collectors around at the time, namely Nejat Eczacıbaşı, Erol Aksoy, Halil Bezmen, Mustafa Taviloğlu and Ali Koçman. “When we opened an exhibition” he recalls, “we waited for one of those five people to come and buy from us.” Due to these limitations local galleries had to stick to ‘safer’ works. Artist and writer Nancy Atakan remembers, that in the early 1990s commercial art galleries were less interested in new media and instead promoted painters and sculptors working in more Modernist styles. In reaction to these galleries’ rejection of their works, some artists further sought to challenge the status quo through acts of rebellion. Gallerist Selin Söl talks of Taner Ceylan’s Private Party exhibition in 1992, wherein the artist, disappointed by the galleries’ rejection of his works, supposedly due to their ‘homosexual content’, made a move to provoke collectors, gallerists, and critics by inviting them to a ‘private party’, which in fact turned out to be an exhibition of his most provocative art. Söl speaks of the event as “a turning point, not only in that artist’s life, but as one of consequence for the Turkish contemporary art scene.” Such demonstrative acts began to create ripples of change throughout the art scene, and by 1995, many felt that the launch of the 4th Istanbul Biennial had appeared as a true revelation. Curated by René Block under the theme of ORIENT/ATION, it was the first Biennial in Turkey to feature an international curator and can be considered a milestone in the country’s contemporary art scene.