Izmir’s art revival

Talking to Nursaç Sargon

Talk during “Behind the curtain” exhibition, December 2018.

In the past two decades, Turkey’s contemporary art scene has become increasingly concentrated to Istanbul. Both young and established artists have moved to the huge metropolis, where most of the country’s galleries, museums and relevant stakeholders are based. But in recent years, this trend has also been reversed. A new form of brain drain is taking place, where creative professionals leave Istanbul for smaller cities, in particular Izmir on the Aegean coast.

This also means that the art scenes in these cities are blooming. In Izmir, one example of this is Monitor, founded in 2018 and dedicated to showcasing contemporary art videos. The non-profit, run by Nursaç Sargon, has already organised nine exhibitions in the city, each following the same concept: bringing together one artist from Turkey and one from abroad around a specific topic. Every exhibition Monitor does is set in a different venue and part of Izmir, as the group does not have its own fixed space. 

With the new art season about to start, we spoke to Monitor’s founding director and curator Nursaç Sargon about her projects in Izmir and the decentralisation of Turkey’s artistic scene. 

What was the starting point of Monitor?

Except during certain periods of time, Izmir’s art life used to be dependent on the outside. People with an interest in art had to visit Istanbul or go abroad to follow up on the latest developments. But as a result of remigration to Izmir in recent years, demand for art and cultural activities has increased. Still, it is not easy to follow contemporary art for many students, artists and art audiences in Izmir because of limited mobility. The starting point of Monitor was to find a sustainable way to bring artistic innovations to the city.

People with an interest in art had to visit Istanbul or go abroad to follow up on the latest developments.

Exhibition “Forgive me, I can speak no louder” with artists Ali Kazma and Plateauresidue, September 2018.

What is the state of the contemporary art scene in Izmir? Do many young artists still migrate to Istanbul?

Many have done so, but the situation has changed a bit. Even if some of those who left achieved their goals, they also faced different problems. Rising political pressure has played an important role in people’s decisions to move away from Istanbul. Many have chosen to live in quieter cities instead of being in the middle of a high-tension city. Recent developments of Izmir’s art scene – and the desire of people to improve their quality of life – played an important role in reversing the migration trend. In recent years, artists have started to move back from Istanbul, thinking they can live more peacefully and comfortably. And for many, Izmir was the first choice. In 2018, more than 130,000 people migrated to Izmir, many of them from Istanbul. 

I think the main reason for this is psychological, but there are also other reasons. The first one I think is Izmir Metropolitan Municipality’s attitude towards art and culture. They are working to create a local cultural policy and are open to collaborating with different cultural actors in the city. Besides this, there is the Spaces of Culture program, which has invigorated the art scene in Izmir for almost two years.

Being mobile is an effective way to represent contemporary art in different parts of the city.

You hold your exhibitions at different venues each time. Why did you decide to be a nomadic project?

Monitor’s mobile structure allows us to have space for freedom while organising exhibitions. To not depend on a specific place can make your mind more open. But sometimes a space that is conceptually compatible may present technical difficulties. 

Being mobile is also an effective way to represent contemporary art in different parts of the city. One of the biggest opportunities for us is that we can choose the space according to each curatorial concept. That way, local audiences can find more meaning in each exhibition.

Ali Kazma’s work “Safe” was showcased by Monitor Izmir.

You focus on video art and film screenings. Why did you decide to do that?

Video is a powerful contemporary art medium with a strong visual language, enabling interaction with the audience. Also, for a non-profit independent art initiative, video is a sustainable medium and gives you more freedom to realise exhibitions. 

It is also important for us to do site specific projects related to specific spaces and memories in Izmir. This is costly but thanks to the support of Spaces of Culture, we could acquire our own equipment.

Adrian Paci’s video “The Column” was part of “As far as I can remember I’ve always been around” exhibition in December 2018.

Is there something similar to Monitor in other Turkish cities, besides Istanbul and Ankara? Is there a need to decentralise the contemporary art scene further?

In Izmir there are many art initiatives, such as Darağaç, Shelter Artist Run Space, Hayy Open Space and Kendine Ait Bir Oda. In Çanakkale there is the new initiative Sub. There are also several pioneering projects in Diyarbakır, including Loading, A4 Space and Merkezkaç which organise exhibitions, performances and talks. I think it is important to create structures in each different city where artists or curators live. Every city has its own dynamics and ways of collaborating and working with contemporary art. Sinop, with its biennial Sinopale, is a good example of a decentralised art concept. Alternative spaces are an effective way to create a new path for artists and audiences in any city.

What were the main achievements of Monitor’s first year?

We hosted many artists who had not participated in any exhibitions in Izmir before. Francis Alÿs, Hito Steyerl, Chto Delat, Halil Altındere, Gülsün Karamustafa, Ali Kazma, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen and Adrian Paci are some of them.  In just a short time, Monitor managed to catch people’s attention – not only of those who live in Izmir but others from other cities in Turkey too. 

What are your upcoming projects?

Our first exhibition this coming year will take place at the end of September in an old printing house, and is about examining what is essential for art and life and how these two transform each other. It will feature two video works, one by Ali Cherri and one that is a collaboration between Pelin Tan and Anton Vidokle.

In late October, we will have an exhibition in Amsterdam together with Corridor Project Space, focusing on the relationship between nature and humans. It will examine how our human desires and abilities changed during the transition periods between agricultural, industrial and information societies. For all exhibitions, there will also be thematic conversations.

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