Art loses importance in times of economic crisis, says Turkey’s leading contemporary artist Güneştekin

The latest edition of Contemporary Istanbul, Turkey’s most important contemporary art fair, is a good indicator of the fragility of Turkey’s art market and the effects of its economic downturn, said Kurdish-born, Istanbul-based visual artist Ahmet Güneştekin.

Güneştekin, a self-taught artist from the southeastern city of Batman, is the first artist from Turkey that signed an agreement with the Marlborough Gallery, one of the world’s leading contemporary art dealers.

He displayed his work “Chamber of Immortality” drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh and made up of countless metal skulls at the 13th Contemporary Istanbul art fair organised in September.

The Turkish art market, which is said to have enjoyed a relative high from 2008 to 2013, has been facing difficulties since the 2016 coup attempt. The sector has also been hit by an economic crisis that has seen the lira lose about a third of its value against the dollar this year and high inflation. 

“The latest edition of Contemporary Istanbul an indicator for us. As a fair that every year attracts 100,000 visitors from Turkey and abroad, this year it failed to reach its potential,” he said, referring to the lower than expected impact and sales. “Naturally art becomes less important during a large-scale economic crisis.”

Fairs like Contemporary Istanbul, create an important dynamic for the art market by presenting artists’ works to art collectors, said Güneştekin. Art fairs also provide a space for dialogue for the audience, he said. 

He said that, after Reuters reported on his work “Chamber of Immortality”, news about the installation reached global art platforms and as a result he was able to present his work in additional places other than those that had been previously scheduled. 

“The fairs as platforms representing contemporary art have such an effect. Of course the way they are integrated into the art market, the price policies of galleries representing artists are also parameters affecting the prices of art works,” Güneştekin said, adding that in any case it was impossible to determine the main sources of price changes. 

He said buyers made decisions based on emotions that were impossible to identify. “The artists own conceptualisation of his/her work may have no impression on the buyer, the buyer may have a totally different perception, or the buyer’s taste may depend on a very personal reason which is impossible to predict.”

For that reason, it is impossible to define the buyer behaviour, but investment decisions and taste to a large extent work hand in hand, according to the artist. 

Global art buyers have recently entered into Turkish market, said Güneştekin. “Contemporary art today is a tool for investment, the main dynamics of it is branding and market cycles,” he said.

According to Güneştekin, some people are surprised and even enraged when they hear an artist’s work is bought at a very high price, because those people mostly believe that contemporary art does not have a meaningful function.

“They do not see art as beneficial or something related to an important activity. We pay for places to live, things to consume and wear and we believe our empirical insights to judge their qualities and market values. This way of thinking becomes much more dominant in times of economic instability,” he said. 

“During a big economic crisis, naturally art becomes a lesser priority. Maybe what I will say will contradict the situation in the market, but under such circumstances collectors who enjoy a certain purchasing power should buy more art works and both buyers and sellers should make all types of sacrifice,” he said. 

Güneştekin said that as he had strong links to the global art market, he was not affected much from the recent economic problems in Turkey. “But of course I produce my work in Istanbul, it is the city where I live. Living in an unstable economy has psychological and sociological consequences. I cannot be immune to them, they sometimes affect me negatively,” he said.