Holding a mirror to ideas such as the evil eye, gentrification, and the Istanbul gentleman, Murat Bulut Aysan makes us question the cultural codes of the city. He gives his view on an ancient metropolis that is changing before our eyes.
Perhaps nobody understands Istanbul better than an artist. The cityscape is inextricably linked with art, from the grand scale of mosques to independent artisans working in tiny shops. And perhaps no artist understands it better than one who focuses on the private codes and public identities of the city. Murat Bulut Aysan’s work examines precisely these subjects, casting an ironic eye on the social traits of the city. Aysan is also a co-founder of the London art collective DA!, famous for squatting in several multi-million-pound properties in the English capital.
If gentrification is a heated topic in London, it is even more so in Istanbul. As an artist who has paid attention to Istanbul’s urban change for 30 years, Aysan has strong opinions on the subject. “Istanbul is changing on the one hand, but deep down there are some things that really don’t change at all,” he told The Guide Istanbul. “This contrast is what lends itself to the description ‘dynamic.’ But a lot of the change in Istanbul is very superficial. You could call it PR, or spin.” Under the economic boom that has expanded the city, Aysan sees certain qualities that have not changed for centuries. “A lot of the tribal culture in the background of Turkish people and the influence of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture, these things don’t change overnight,” he says. “And going even farther back than that, there is the expression ‘it’s very Byzantine,’ which explains the complexity of this city.”
The artist currently lives in Galata, a neighborhood that used to be a no-go area for tourists but is now filled with up-market cafes, bars, galleries, and shops. His photo series “We’re beautifying Galata!” shows residents wearing a Justin Bieber mask, a humorous contrast that questions whether urban beautification is possible or desirable. “The idea now is to make Galata beautiful, but apparently 100 years ago it was a lot prettier. You can only imagine what it was like when it was Genovese,” he says. “They’re beautifying Galata and using all these slick images, but behind the Justin Bieber mask is the same guy. Maybe the people I photographed don’t even live here anymore. I’m pretty sure one of the places in that series has turned into a coffee shop.”
The Karaköy neighborhood near Galata used to have a similarly low-life reputation, while it is now full of trendy bars and cafés. As well as displacing older residents, Aysan believes this change segregates people whose lifestyles and worldviews differ. “Because of restrictions on alcohol licenses, a set zone has been created for bars in Beyoğlu instead of spreading them more evenly throughout the city,” he says. “So this is more a case of constructing identities – one kind of person goes to this neighborhood, but you don’t see other kinds of people and they don’t see you.”
Part of this rapid urban change is cultural, Aysan argues, linking it to the Turkey’s level of development compared with neighboring Europe. “In Istanbul there’s an insatiable desire for novelty. Even if something’s really good, there isn’t a sense of permanence to anything – not even friendships or relationships,” he says. “In developing countries there is a short-term life strategy, meaning the idea is to quickly get a result. When there are millions of people in a city with that mentality, you can see what happens. That’s why the work is always sloppy, nothing is ever done on time, and you’re always hustling.”
Aysan has also cast his ironic eye on that most familiar souvenir, the nazar boncuğu or evil-eye bead. Aysan’s Nazar series blends science and superstition in the form of pills colored with the evil eye motif. “The irony is that when you package it like this, the word ‘nazar’ does sound like a generic drug name. For someone in the West the nazar pills might seem like a real medicine. For someone in the East, it’s their own beliefs taken to the next level,” Aysan explains. “Friends tell me I should have the pills manufactured and I’d become incredibly rich. It would just be sugar pills as a placebo, but if people feel better hanging a nazar bead on their walls then they might feel just as good taking a nazar pill.”
His latest project investigates the shady character of the “Istanbul gentleman.” This mythical man is an archetype who was never born and never dies. “I would ask a taxi driver or people working in shops, ‘Have you seen the Istanbul gentleman?’ They give the answer immediately, straight from the heart,” says Aysan. “I think everyone has the same initial idea: the Istanbul gentleman is a posh, educated guy. He’s warm, cultured, and has a certain way of talking. But it’s from another era – this guy wears a top hat and carries a cane.” The changes to the city over the last 30 years have altered this character to the extent that he is now “the last Istanbul gentleman.”
Only time will tell whether this mysterious character sinks into the past, or walks into the future with a different set of refinements. As the artist explains, “The idea that he’s the last Istanbul gentleman is more to do with now. They feel that the city is so crowded, and there are so many vulgar people, that when they see this character they say, ‘He’s the last Istanbul gentleman.’”
See examples of Aysan’s work at www.muratbulutaysan.com