From Istanbul to Düsseldorf, Diving into Art that Makes you Think, by Being with the Artists Who Make it, and by Writing about it
I had a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting in my room when I was a child. I looked at it for more than five years, every morning and every night. My parents had bought it from Amsterdam before the founding of the Van Gogh museum. I was five or six years old when I wanted to make a sketch of it, and so when my parents noticed that I was interested in art and making copies of things, they started giving me more and more reproductions and more postcards, which I could make copies of. I made hundreds of them.
When I was 16, I started attending painting classes in the local art museum in Istanbul. The students in these Saturday classes were mixed, including talented and untalented young adults together. There was a guy in my class who was drawing beautifully. We were drawing just objects on tables, but this guy was extremely talented. I saw his works and my works, and in just two minutes I understood that I would never be as talented as him and that I had to do something else. It was the same story as Glenn Gould and Thomas Bernhard in Der Untergeher.
The art world fascinated me. It was totally different from all the other things in my life, and I didn’t want to miss that. I enjoyed very much being part of the weekend courses, the old museum, talking to the teachers and to art people because they were authentic, eccentric, and welcoming/ There was always a very nice atmosphere in the classes, and I had to think of something to make this a part of my life. I went into journalism in university. During my studies, I had an internship in the newspaper Cumhuriyet. By chance, they were looking for someone who was interested in covering art exhibitions. I started to work there, without any skill or knowledge. But my relationship with art people was a key factor, I was able to go to the studios and interview artists. My editor was impressed that I wrote my articles myself (he thought, at first, that my parents had helped) and sent me to interview an important artist, one of the doyens of Turkish Modernism, Zeki Faik Izer, who at the time was having a huge retrospective exhibition in Istanbul. He was impressed with my questions and gifted me one of his earlier drawings from the studio of Andre Lhote.
My research and dedication paid off, and I got more and more into the art circles in Istanbul, and started writing small introductory texts—not real critiques yet, and light biographies. Through this experience, I understood that I needed an education in art history. It was not possible to study modern art history in Istanbul, so I went abroad, first to Germany, but also to France and England. Of course, I was still following this talented friend of mine who drew better than me, Taner Ceylan, and who later became a successful artist, acclaimed internationally for his fearless paintings.
Still in Istanbul I used to go to the British Council library and the American Library to read art magazines. I understood that there was a huge gap between what I conceived as art and what these magazines featured, that art doesn’t only deals with academically good drawings or paintings, that it should also be conceptual and context based, and that this is the main factor to understand contemporary art better. I asked for help from one librarian at the British Council library, and she recommended “Ways of Seing” by John Berger. “Read this” she said. It was a real eye opener. Besides, when I was reading in Turkish about art, I couldn’t understand what the writers meant: somehow it was extremely difficult for me. But when I was reading about art in German or in English, or even in my poor French, it was easy to understand. Especially Berger, I could understand and follow each sentence, which reassured me—I wasn’t stupid.
Curare. During my PhD, I worked as a volunteer in different German and Austrian museums. I took care of artists, picking them from the airport or train stations, helping them install their pieces in the museum, and offering them food and beverage. This was very important for me since I learned how to serve artists then. The term curator comes from the Latin cūrāre “to watch over, attend”. Working this way was my eye opener. I also worked nearly two months for German conceptual artist Jochen Gerz, at the Kunstmuseum Wıesbaden, which taught me a lot.
Finding one’s way. One day, I heard that other volunteers working in the same institution asked the chief curator to be named in the exhibition leaflet. They were German. Me, I didn’t know that it was a possibility, and why it could be important for future applications etc. I thought about it for nearly two days, but when I got to the chief curator and asked her for my name to be included, she said no, because there was no more room on the leaflet. I confronted her, she said if I leave, I wouldn’t get a confirmation for my internship, but still, I picked up all my stuff and left within the hour. However, it ended up being a very good day for me, following this decision of mine. I got internships in other museums, and they were kind enough to even ask me to write small texts for their catalogues. Around 2000, one of my first texts in German about the work of Mona Hatoum, for the Museum Moderne Kunst Ludwig Sammlung, in Vienna, opened many, many doors. And I understood that there is a specific need to explain why she made performances and what fragility meant, in general and in the context of feminism, institutional critique, or other issues brought up especially by non-Western artists. I later went to see her in her studio in London. I could never forget this visit in my life. It made me realize how I had to move on in this job, what aspects I needed to further cover: mainly not well-known artists from non-Western cultures, the MENA region with, let’s say, extremely creative minds from fragile geographies. Also in Paris, I met with Iranian artist Chohreh Feyzdjou, I was interested in her site-specific installations, because they were extremely challenging. She was dealing with her own identity as a Jewish woman coming from Tehran, and even using this nearly unspeakable name. Once again, this was extremely fascinating for me. Some days we spoke for more than three or four hours in her cave-like studio, I was so enthusiastic. I offered texts about her work to different magazines. They all refused, but I started to connect with such artists and this became my specific topic.
In 1987, I met Jannis Kounellis. He was invited by the curator Beral Madra to participate in the first international group exhibition in Istanbul, and I had been asked to write something about it. He refused to speak in English and we communicated in my broken French. We walked around the historical city center for nearly half a day, also visiting Hagia Sophia, which was still a museum then. This was unforgettable. He spoke to me about what type of context he offers in his work, the historical background, the unwritten things from history, his reflections about the great antique monuments and the antique philosophy of old Constantinople. I didn’t understand everything he said, but he opened a door, so to speak. That conversation helped me understand about context-based frameworks, which are part of the invisible, about a certain level of abstract thinking and reflection behind contemporary art practices.
“Printing Futures”. Currently I am working on the exhibition, “Printing Futures” at Kunsthaus Göttingen, a partner project of documentafifteen. I was invited by Gerhard Steidl to create a small presentation with artists from Turkey, Sibel Horada and Alper Aydın. Continuous geopolitical changes have been shaping a different type of contemporary image making in Turkey. The search for unfrozen, affective images that arise from artistic research creates a new platform for experimentation and has a link to fundamental changes in Turkish society. This not only became a source of inspiration for artists, but also provides tremendous support to all fields of cultural life. There are three main gourps of questions that our presentation tackles: How have political changes influenced the works of creative individuals in Turkey? What is the role of “performing transition” in the process of perpetual transformation? How are artists reflecting this in their works and which metaphors arise through their processes? / Are generation specific topics being raised through the attitudes, approaches, and roles that contemporary artists are adopting in their works? / and How are forms of artistic reflection changing today? How is art blurring with poetry, black humour, and cultural activism? I visited many studios, talking to artists very openly about the changing political climate. They showed me how they related to the current situation but how, in their works, they want to create a new language to deal with all these difficulties. I am interested in works that aren’t literal, documentary, or too expressive, works that use metaphors and their own language to create political reflections about deep cultural and socio-economic issue—access to potable water for instance, as included in this exhibition. I am focusing on emptiness of life, basic everyday conflicts and how artists create works in their own visual code. Perhaps for these types of works you must make an effort, read between the lines, grasp the unseen, be interested in their context.
I am currently reading “Ich sehe Hunde, die an der Leine reissen” by Christoph Heubner. It gathers truly moving reflections about three stories happening in the aftermath of Auschwitz. Heubner is a poet and the Executive Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee. He also did a presentation at Kunsthaus Göttingen, with his Institute to Remember, so we were very close for several days, working on the same floor. His book moves me a lot, because of his interpretation and understanding of the Holocaust. Christoph is German, he comes from the Bildungsbürgertum—the German bourgeoisie—and he reflects on his family history. He wrote a fantastic fictive diary of painter Felix Nussbaum and his totally unknown but very talented spouse Felka. Like Felix and Felka, he collected stories about the people who were deported, and their ashes left in the surrounding landscape—one of the reason the nature surrounding former concentration camps is so beautiful. It is so lush and green, because of the specific biotope the ashes create, despite the violence of what created it. The prose of Christoph is unexpected, very well-researched, and deeply emotional.
For fun, I like to dance and cycle. With my friends we go to different locations, share a meal, chat, and dance free style to oriental music. We like Naturfreibad (mineral water swimming pools) to picnic or swim. Some friends play tabla, ney, or duduk. I also like cycling very much, especially since I don’t like to wait for public transportation, in particular late at night when there are so few buses and trains. Do you know the beautiful artwork of Mona Hatoum: Waiting is forbidden? This is, metaphorically seen, my life’s motto. So I am not waiting, I move everywhere cycling it, even at midnight, it gives me wonderful sensations.
Whenever I work on an exhibition, I spend a lot of time with the artists. The creation process is the most important thing. We call, we talk, we spend time physically together, going out to eat or cooking or in the studio. I am part of the process; it helps me learn about it. I like to be able to offer new commissions, which means the artists can research more about what they didn’t before. I thrive on this in-between state when you are still in the unknowing. A work will come, but you don’t know yet what, and perhaps the commissioning institution is asking you about what the artist will do. This is extremely sexy, you know, it helps me passing the borders between artist and curator. We face things together, and the work and resulting exhibition become part of our life, regardless of us spending close time together for the last six months, six weeks, or just two days. It’s a sharing experience. I’m always saying to my artists that I’ll try to get them anything they want, say a specific more expensive material, but they need to share an explanation with me. So, on the one hand I grow to understand them better, and on the other, I can communicate with the institution better. I am not acting as in the habitus of a artistic director or chief curator—I like the freedom of being an independent curator. After the opening, I am gone. This is so good. But I always make sure that every single contributor to a project is paid, this is very important for me, I am often debating, negotiating, or fighting with institutional structures for everyone to get paid and receive their per diem.
If I wasn’t curating, I would write more. Maybe I would write a prose text or script for cinema or theatre about the bitterness of artistic, curatorial life: La vie bohème. This is a longtime dream of mine. Last week I spoke about this with my French editor, Timour Muhidin, and he said to me that what I want to write is something of an “exercice de prose créative” (an exercise in creative prose). I have never heard about this before.
Necmi Sönmez (1968, Istanbul) is an independent curator and art historian based in Düsseldorf. He received education on art history at Mainz, Paris, Newcastle, and Frankfurt universities. He had his PHD at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University on Wolfgang Laib (2000).
After working as curatorial associate in Museum Wiesbaden and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, he served as Curator for Contemporary Art, Museum Folkwang Essen (2001-2005). After working at Kunstakademie Kassel, he became the Artistic Director at Kunstverein Arnsberg (2005–2008) and member of the Acquisition Committee at FRAC Franche-Compté (2005-2008). He established the artists’ residency program ArtCenter İstanbul (2009-2014) and curated many long-term exhibition projects for Borusan Contemporary. Sönmez was the curator of PORT IZMIR Contemporary Art Triennial, Izmir (2010) and the inauguration exhibition SARMAL of Yapi Kredi Kültür, Istanbul (2017).
He has independently carried out several international cooperation based curatorial projects, international residency programs and has worked as an adjunct tutor/curator at different museums including Tate, Staatliche Museen Berlin, Kiasma, Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Kunstmuseum Bochum, Sabancı Museum and Elgiz Museum. He writes on regular basis for Unlimited contemporary art magazine and has published various texts for exhibition catalogues, as well as editing some insert projects and handmade artist books. Since 2015 he is collaborating with SKIRA Editore, Milan as an advising editor for monographic books. Currently he is working as guest curator for the exhibition Printing Future: Art for tomorrow under the artistic director Gerhard Steidl for the Kunsthaus Göttingen. The exhibition is a partner project of documenta fifteen, Kassel.