Protest Is Beautiful: Berlin Responds To Istanbul

Visitors to the “Agoraphobia” exhibit at Tanas Gallery, in a remote corner of Mitte, might notice something unusual when they visit: though the exhibition was mounted in May, just before Turkey’s recent civilian-police clashes kicked into full gear, the works within are rife with protest. Photos of a man screaming while holding a megaphone stand on one wall, while a large mural piece labeled “Protest is Beautiful” decorates another. The artists are in large part Turkish, the gallery is dedicated to contemporary Turkish art, and the theme is protest, but the whole thing was curated and hung on the walls long before the current protests began.


Mismatch deluxe at Tanas Gallery. Photo by C. Phillips.

Asked about the strangely predictive quality of the works in “Agoraphobia,” Tanas’s press representative Karin Barth is expectedly enthusiastic: “It was quite visionary… all this [protest] opens up and verifies the concept [in the exhibition]… it’s a very strange and dramatic coincidence.”

Exhibition’s Future Tested

“Agoraphobia,” curated by Fulya Erdemci, Bige Öre and Kevser Güler, was originally designed to have a Berlin run at Tanas, Berlin’s only gallery dedicated to contemporary Turkish art, as a “prologue” to the Istanbul Biennial in the fall. In Istanbul, the show would be altered for the Biennial, with various pieces shown in spaces throughout the city, including Gezi Park. Due to the current protests and the show’s theme, which “question[s] the politics of space in relation to freedom of expression,” plans now aren’t so certain.

Tanas staffer Melis Golar poses before the work "Freee." Photo: C. Phillips

“It is now completely unclear what is going to happen, how the officials will react, or whether they will support the Istanbul Biennial,” says Barth. She describes the artists and curators as reconsidering their plans for the exhibition’s future, both in terms of the work they think would best support their theme in light of current circumstances, and where and when such an exhibit could be shown.

Berlin Eyes Trained On Istanbul

The artists and curators involved in “Agoraphobia” aren’t the only ones in Berlin with their eyes trained on Istanbul. Miraz Bezar is a Berlin-based film and stage director who works frequently with Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, a Kreuzberg venue dedicated to staging works relevant for Turkish and Turkish-German audiences.

He attributes the current protests to a groundswell movement from the populous, and emphasizes the important role Istanbul’s creative class played. He also sees that the protests have been festering in these communities for years. “You can see that there are people [in Istanbul], especially creatives, who did not start to be active from yesterday to today. The potential has developed there, and this is what can be seen now.”

The Fuzz is a big theme at Tanas. Photo: C. Phillips.

When asked how he and others in Berlin who have close friends and family in Istanbul feel about the protests, Bezar says, “People here care for what’s going on there, but also they’re scared of what could happen.” Still, Bezar remains optimistic about the protests, pointing out that though protests in Gezi Park have gotten violent, many more civil discussions have begun to unfold elsewhere in the city. “After the Gezi Park was taken by the police, people took other parks in Istanbul to discuss and to gather their ideas. Now there is time to discuss their thoughts, and how they’re going to channel this power they have gained.”

Berlin's Own Protests

In Berlin, protests from the artistic community, particularly from artists with a Turkish background, have been running strong since events in Istanbul broke out. Bezar, along with a group of 40 to 50 other creatives, has participated in weekly demonstrations in solidarity with the Istanbul artists.

Earlier in the month, an actress scheduled to perform in Ballhaus Naunynstrasse’s Die Saison Der Krabben lost her voice after participating in a protest in Istanbul during which tear gas and pepper spray were used by the police. The theater canceled the evening’s performance and instead held a spur-of-the-moment solidarity concert for Turkey, which performed to a packed house.

The City Is Our Factory by Christopher Schäfer. Photo: C. Phillips

Other protests have taken creative form. Just last Sunday, Jasmin Ihrac, who had been in Istanbul for several protests, performed an homage to Erdem Gunduz, a man who gained internet fame by standing silently and unmovingly in Taksim Square for hours on end in an act of defiance. Ihrac choreographed a piece for seven dancers, who performed a slow-paced dance inspired by the standing man on Tempelhofer Feld.

On-The-Ground in Istanbul

Other artists affiliated with Berlin are, as one might expect, currently in Istanbul participating in protests. Yasam Sasmazer is a Turkish, Istanbul-based artist who’s been represented by Berlin Art Projects since 2009, and had intermittent showings in Berlin since then. She is currently in Istanbul, taking part in the protests. When asked via email if she saw artistic responses to the protests, she answered that “many of the artists are busy resisting right now.”

Down the line, Sasmazer said, the protests might inspire artistic responses. But she emphasized that framing an artistic answer was far from her mind at the moment: “Now is the time to listen, contemplate, resist and act!”

Article by Christopher Shea