Art in America: Istanbul Curator Pulls Work From Auction, Sparking Censorship Debate

by Sheela Raman 

01/26/12, Art in America

The chief curator at the Istanbul Modern banned an artwork from a charity auction last month, sparking debate about the rise of censorship in Turkey.

Turkish artist Bubi Hayon donated a wooden chair with a chamber pot on top of it to the fundraiser. Hayon was among several artists selected to submit works for the auction. Levent Calikoglu, the museum's chief curator, said in an email interview with A.i.A that he knew Hayon was planning to donate a chair or throne made out of waste materials, but was not aware of the addition of the chamber pot until four days before the event.  Asked what was inappropriate about the chamber pot, Calikoglu replied that the nature of the artwork was fundamentally altered with the addition, and that this new character was not in line with the fundraising aims of the event. He said that Hayon told him, "The bourgeoisie should learn about art," when asked about the chamber pot, which he interpreted as another sign that Hayon was no longer cooperating with the museum's objectives.  

Hayon, a 55-year-old Istanbul-based artist, told A.i.A. that the museum had given him no guidelines. "If in fact they had placed any limitation or interference, I would not have accepted the offer," he said.  "An artist does not consider whether his creation is appropriate for exhibition or not, whether it is liked or not. He does not create with the apprehension of sale or approval," he said. His intention with the artwork, he said, was to present an object that is normally a symbol of power and control in an ironic way. He also hoped that the work would question taboos on the sacredness of art and point out that museums are not places of worship.  By vetoing his work, Hayon said, the museum decided for its guests what was good for them without consulting them, as if protecting them from danger or obscenity.  It reflects a limited notion of what guests are capable of appreciating, he said.

Members of the Turkish art community have rallied around Hayon. A panel discussion at the museum two weeks after the work was banned about an exhibition of women's art in Turkey titled "Dreams and Reality," morphed into a protest against censorship.

Eight artists, including Leyla Gediz and Inci Furni, asked that their works be removed from "Dreams and Reality" in response to the Modern's actions. Over 288 members of the art community have since signed a petition, written by artist Hakan Akcura, condemning censorship.

The Istanbul Modern has defended itself, claiming that the art community's reaction is disproportionate to the events. Calikoglu said the Gala was a private event intended to support the museum's educational programs, and the selected artists volunteered their work, knowing that the museum was aiming to sell and profit from their contributions. "If artists are free to change their minds and alter their creations at the last minute, then the curator, too, should have the right to decide not to include the object in the process, especially when the alteration fundamentally changes the essence of the project," he said.

Firat Arapoglu, an Istanbul-based art critic, said in an email message that the museum's defense that Hayon's work did not fit with the spirit of the auction was too vague and that, in fact, the removal of the work constituted censorship. He cited other recent examples of censorship, including the removal of a large monument, "Monument of Humanity," from the city of Kars on the order of Prime Minister Erdogan, and the jettisoning of artist Extra-Struggle (Memed Erdener)'s "Mausoleum of Extra-Struggle with a Minaret" by the privately organized Istanbul Summer Exhibitions. "Traditional lifestyles and contemporary art can sometimes clash," he said. "Contemporary Turkish art has undergone a rise, but the issues that it faces going forward haven't been discussed openly until now."

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