Something awesome happened during this past weekend’s Istanbul Arts + Culture Festival. Mark Romanek is screening his 2003 music video of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” in a 16th century cannon foundry, when the Muslim call to prayer comes wafting in from a distant minaret. Entirely by accident, this ancient song of Islam meets Trent Reznor’s ballad of suffering and regret by way of an aging badass of American country music.
It was beautiful for the minute or so it lasted, and the best cross-cultural moment of a weekend that was supposedly devoted to them. Recite that old cliché about Turkey being at the junction of Europe and Asia all you want; conversations between Istanbul and the west don’t happen automatically, or even easily.
In that regard, Alphan and Demet Muftuoglu Eseli, the event’s young and well-connected organizers, are doing a lot of heavy lifting. One of the event’s major selling points for celebrity guests, of course, is that it’s a pretty easy side trip if you’re at Cannes. Last year, Tilda Swinton and Kirsten Dunst came through, the latter having just won the festival’s best actress prize. But still, it’s harder than you might think for a well-funded event based in a stunning and exotic city to land big names; Karl Lagerfeld, Willem Dafoe, and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci all agreed to come this year and then bailed.
The lone migrant from Cannes was Andrew Dominik, who’d just premiered Killing Me Softly, otherwise known as the Brad Pitt hitman movie. He’s trying not to read reviews anymore, he said in a public talk with Alphan Eseli (also a filmmaker) on Saturday, but if he did, he’d see that his gangster flick that’s also “a self-conscious political cartoon” about the Wall Street bailout has been pretty well received.
Like most of the chats, this one covered past and present, from the “warfare” Dominik waged with studio execs during the making of his previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the next project he’s developing: a Marilyn Monroe biopic that he’d like to tell “from totally inside her,” the way Hitchcock or Polanski would have done it.
Here’s a true statement: “When you sit back and look at fashion, it can be really absurd.” Mario Sorrenti said it, during his talk with Visionaire and V editor Cecilia Dean. Sorrenti wasn’t all that forthcoming about his work, so the session ended up being more about a slideshow of the photography he’s done over the years for both publications—a varied, provocative portfolio that includes balloons wearing dresses and a hilarious spread called Everything but the Kitchen Sink that simultaneously skewers and celebrates fashion’s surreal excesses. (Dean told me later that after the session, former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, in Istanbul to do a signing of her book, Irreverent, came up to her and said, “‘Oh my god, I’ve rediscovered Mario.’”)
It’s easy to make fun of fashion; it’s hard do it well. Onstage with Pinar Yolacan, Dazed & Confused founder Jefferson Hack pointed out that she’s one of few female artists (Cindy Sherman is another) who appropriate the language of fashion photography without mocking it. It’s a great point, even if an implicit critique resides within Yolacan’s elegant portraits of older women draped in garments gorgeously sewn from off-cuts of meat.
Since that attention-getting initial series, Turkish-born Yolacan (who lives in Brooklyn) has been incorporating her cultural heritage into her work more explicitly. For the portraits in “Ida,” she took women farmers near the ancient Anatolian town of Aphrodisias and shot them wearing fruit garlands of the sort found in Greco-Roman friezes. For “Mother Goddess,” another inspired inquiry into classical beauty, contemporary norms, and the female form, she used paint and bodysuits to add a mystifying layer to her fleshy models. (Yolacan revealed, interestingly, that the bodysuit fabrics inspired by Turkish kilim patterns had to be ordered from Korea.) She’ll be back in Turkey soon, if a project involving dance and the country’s Roma community works out.
A very awkward thing happened while Yolacan was talking Hack through her latest series, “Not a Stone,” in which her images of super-sized women smeared with liquid latex and wrapped in netting blur the line between photography and sculpture. Not a mainstream idea of beauty we’re seeing here, Hack pointed out. No, Yolacan responded, that model is no Kate Moss. Hack went deep red. If Yolacan was aware that Hack is Moss’s baby daddy, she hid it well.
Saturday night can be described as follows: the Boom Boom Room had a pop-up club, and lots of people got drunk.
Sunday’s big draw was Romanek, who spoke eloquently about bringing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to the screen. He told a questioner that he’s interested in making “a traditional fairytale with no gimmicks” and minimal CGI, which doesn’t sound like the movie a lot of people assume he’ll be directing next: The Lost Symbol, the latest installment of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code series. Romanek told the crowd he’d be into directing that one “if the script somehow transcends the quality of the [original] work.” Well said, sir.
And now, a closing scene from the festival’s opening night. We’re at the headquarters of Istanbul ’74, the art collective behind much of the festival. In the upstairs gallery, there’s a tiny exhibition of works by Robin Rhode, who uses time-lapse photography to create simple but evocative little dramas on two-dimensional surfaces of the urban street. Artists Nate Lowman (who told me he’d never traveled this far east) and Marco Brambilla (who’s planning a future exhibition in Istanbul) are arguing about whether the metal wall a man is smacking snowballs into in the first Rhode piece, is in fact a Richard Serra sculpture. (It is.) Meanwhile, Grey Area retailers Kyle DeWoody and Manish Vora are hawking artist-made jewelry, including rubbery, monotone “fake Rolexes” that probably are on their way to becoming a bit of an inside thing.
It was Berlin-based Rhode’s second time exhibiting in Istanbul. When I talked to him about his impressions of the local art scene, he pointed out that the city’s new biennale has brought young Turkish artists a lot more exposure. “The art world is shifting, and the spotlight will move more and more into countries that I refer to as ‘geographical peripheries,’” Rhode said.
Even so, Rhode said that in his native South Africa, “I might as well be down at the South Pole.” Here, in an ancient city once called the navel of the world, he was finding himself closer to the expanding middle.