‘I went to Istanbul to curate a contemporary art exhibition’ is not something I expected to hear myself say by twenty – though I think that sounds, if not more impressive, than at least more pretentious than it was in reality. Early this year some friends from ECA had come to me with a problem: they had a great idea for an exhibition, they had a group of artists, they even had a venue, but they had no one to curate it – that is, no one to do the writing and put it all together in some meaningful and intelligible way. I was very surprised and flattered to be asked, but then came the kick: the venue was in Istanbul.
I asked my partner to fly out with me, for help with the construction work some of the installation pieces entailed, but also for support. One of our shared worries was communication, and we struggled ineffectually with a phrase book on the flight out. In reality, this was only a problem buying food on the first day, when in a mixture of bad English and horrible Turkish, we inadvertently and quite unintentionally established with the shopkeeper that we were not British, but German and – worse – not a couple, but brother and sister. Too tired and nonplussed to argue, we accepted our alternate identities and simply avoided any show of affection in sight of the shop for the rest of our stay.
Istanbul has always held a special place in my romantic imagination, but is somewhere I never dreamed I’d be able to visit. You can imagine then, that I was a little disappointed that, with the exception of one incredible day, all I saw of Istanbul was the inside of one white room in one gallery. I had spent months writing guidebook and press release, and had carefully crafted an exhibition that spoke of lofty and disparate concepts, all meticulously sketched and laid out according to a plan of a gallery which, at this point, I had never seen. You can perhaps also imagine then, how most of this careful planning fell apart immediately. I found the attitude of Istanbul gallery owners to be considerably more lackadaisical that that of those in Edinburgh, which while in some ways liberating was also very frustrating. A week later however, and in spite of some shouting and very last-minute stuff, the exhibition was open and – I still can’t quite believe it – a fabulous success. Even when on the opening night a lorry reversed over a water pipe in the street outside and turned it into a fairly significant river, people came, and in numbers. This wasn’t just down to me, but all of us who worked on the project, especially my co-curator, without whose endurance in practical matters neither my writing nor the efforts of the seven artists of whose work the show comprises would have seen light. I am very proud of what our little multicultural group accomplished, and, although even in the short time I was there I was painfully aware that it is a place with problems, I’m thrilled beyond words that it happened in dizzying, overwhelming, beautiful Istanbul.