Ancient city of Mardin gets big dose of contemporary art

Under the blazing sun in Mardin, a group of men with traditional baggy pants and prayer beads were trying to make their way to the local mosque for Friday noon prayers, but the narrow, cobbled street was blocked by buses and a white Mercedes with Istanbul plates. An elderly man shrugged and remarked, “There are more cars than people in the city nowadays.”

Back at the hotel, an ancient caravanserai (travelers inn), a harried woman negotiates with the receptionist for two additional rooms while simultaneously shouting into her phone. “You have to pick them up from the airport,” she says to the person on the other end, dropping the names of two of Turkey’s most famous art collectors. Meanwhile, artists speaking French wait for their bus outside, while several Turkish women loudly discuss what they will do the rest of the day now that they’ve opened their exhibition of “ebru,” the Turkish art of marbling, at the Mardin Museum.

The first 10 days of May transformed Mardin, a city in the southeast known for its religious and vernacular architecture, into a bustling international arts hub. The Mardin Biennial inaugurated its fourth edition on May 4, featuring some 40 artists from Turkey and abroad. On May 3, the Dilek Sabanci Art Gallery opened its exhibition of works by Ai Weiwei, showcasing some of the pieces by the Chinese artist recently on display at Istanbul’s Sakip Sabanci Museum. Several other art events popped up in the city, including a marbling exhibition by a collective of artists from Istanbul and an “anti-biennial” displaying the works of local young artists in a traditional teahouse.

Thus, as happens every two years during this contemporary art event, Mardin locals found themselves rubbing shoulders with captivated foreign artists snapping photos of the city’s dazzling gold-hued stone walls, stressed public relations managers in their black Chanel jackets and shades, the Istanbul-based cultural glitterati and art collectors sporting understated designer brands.

The relatively young Mardin Biennial has been carving a niche for itself as one of the few international events held in Turkey outside Istanbul, the country’s undisputed cultural capital. “We aim to bring a momentum to the city through art and put Mardin, a city with many hidden treasures, at the center of artistic venues,” Done Otyam, director of the biennial, told Al-Monitor.

Otyam discovered the city’s artistic potential 10 years ago when she turned down a request to curate a retrospective of her father, Fikret Otyam, a painter known for his depictions of rural Turkey.

“I tried to explain to [the local authorities] that I would rather work on a longer-term project,” she said. “So I brought 10 contemporary artists to Mardin for an exhibition on October 2009.” That show became the embryo of the first Mardin Biennial, held in May 2010 and playfully titled “Abbara-cadabra.” “Abbara” is the local term for the arched passageways that link houses to the streets.

“When I look back, I think we must have been rather daring to found a biennial in a city we hardly knew,” said Otyam. “But Mardin, its architecture, its people somehow dragged me in. I made friends, from the priests and pastors of the churches to the local artisans. Besides, there are so many great venues in this city that we discover something new with each exhibition.”

The fourth edition of the biennial, “Beyond Words,” was curated by three young Turks — Derya Yucel, Nazli Gurlek and Firat Arapoglu — and crowdsourced with small donations. The installations, video art, performances and photographic works are distributed among nine sites around the city, with the bulk concentrated at the German Military Headquarters in the old town center.

The headquarters’ three-story 19th-century mansion has maze-like corridors, alarmingly steep and narrow stairs and cubicle-like rooms. It once belonged to the Armenian businessman Iskender Atamyan, but after the Armenians were forced from the city in the early 20th century, the Germans moved in during World War I.

In one of the mansion’s cubicles, John Gerard’s video art piece “Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas)” shows fog rolling from the top of a pole to slowly unfurl into a flag. This work by the Irish artist known for his large-scale, real-time computer simulations is a criticism of the vastly increased levels of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. The flag makes this invisible gas, a global threat, into a national symbol.

“I was very happy to display this work here, with its proximity to Syria and the Middle East, where oil plays a central role,” Gerrard told Al-Monitor.

The sense of displacement, loss and memory lie at the heart of this year’s and previous biennials. This is hardly surprising, given that the city’s history is scarred by the forced departure of Syriac Christians as well as the Armenians immediately before and during World War I. Ipek Duben’s “Farewell My Homeland,” on view at the Mor Efrem Monastery, consists of an open scrapbook and a series of photographic prints on the plight of migrants in different parts of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. One of the photographs shows a father and child and the scribbled description “Kosovars fleeing to local refugee camp.” Emre Zeytinoglu’s installation, “Chest of Karnik Derbekyan,” traces the life of an Armenian artist who lived in Mardin in the early 20th century and made a living painting images of assorted types of chests.

Even the harshest critics of the biennial acknowledge approvingly that many of the works displayed this year, and indeed in the past, pay homage to Mardin’s heritage.

“I will never forget one of the works that put hearts, real hearts, in glass jars,” said a local sculptor who requested anonymity. “I am very critical of this biennial, as it hardly invites artists from Mardin, but there is no way I would ever forget that work. I cannot think of a better tribute to the people who were forced out of the city and whose memories still loom here.”

The sculptor was referring to an installation by the Turkish-Armenian artist Ani Setyan entitled “Conservation,” consisting of 47 jars containing animal hearts preserved in a solution and situated in a niche in one of the walls of the German Military Headquarters. It was exhibited at the third edition of the biennial in 2015.

Mardin’s heritage is a dominant theme this year as well. “Some of our artists visit the city long before the biennial for inspiration and selecting the venues for their works,” said Otyam. CANAN, a Turkish artist, has selected the Yildiz Hammam, at the heart of the old bazaar, for her works in fabric, one of which features peacocks, a symbol of Mardin. Merkezkac, an art collective in Turkey’s southeast, has chosen another symbol of the city, scorpions, for its “Moments of Ecstasy,” in which 1,000 polyester scorpions crawl on the walls of one of the rooms at the German Military Headquarters (see above).

After each biennial, some artists choose to leave a legacy by donating their site-specific works to the city. A larger-than-life egg, made by the Ankara-based art collective Yaygara for the third biennial, still animates the churchyard of the Mor Khirmiz Chaldean Church. There is a good chance that Taner Ceylan’s “Man of Sorrows,” an oil on canvas depicting Christ succumbing to agony, will remain in the Catholic Syrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was recently restored and reopened on May 10.

The Mardin Biennial runs through June 4.