“WHAT IS RARE is almost not there,” writes the poet Ahmet Güntan, whom the late Fulya Erdemci often turned to for friendship and inspiration. Fulya was indeed a rare thing herself: a radical and tender vessel for art, poetry, politics, beauty, solidarity, and justice who could trace her legacy back to the budding contemporary art scene of Istanbul in the 1990s. She was a pillar in the infrastructures she built for progressive arts and civic politics in Turkey, and she enriched the art world and the world itself with her radiant vision of the future and her devotion to working toward that vision. The path she started as the executive director of the Istanbul Biennial in the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts in 1994—marked by many new initiatives, exhibitions, and structures, such as YAYA Exhibitions, the Santralistanbul Museum and Cappadocia Cultural Festival in Turkey, the SKOR Foundation for Art in Public Space in the Netherlands, and the SCAPE Biennial in Aotearoa/New Zealand—continued all the way through to her role as curator of the KØS Museum of Art in Public Spaces in Denmark, the last position she held. All the things she realized and challenged with her critical joy in various parts of the world were integral to each other, forming a curious puzzle of beauty and resilience that requires, to borrow her words, “Unlocking the Joints of the Real.”
As a curator, writer, and educator, I belong to a generation in Turkey that came of age after the 1980 military coup d’état that brutally traumatized and reshaped the country’s political, cultural, and social life and imagination. In an environment newly conducive to free expression, a pioneering group—Fulya Erdemci, Vasif Kortun, and Beral Madra foremost among them—laid the groundwork for the structures from which my peers and I learned about the political horizons of contemporary art. Her Istanbul Biennial directorship encompassed critical editions, such as “ORIENT/ATION – The Vision of Art in a Paradoxical World” by René Block (1995) and “On Life, Beauty, Translations and Other Difficulties” (1997), curated by Rosa Martínez, with whom she shared a lifelong comradeship. In a country of democratic discontinuities, she was a continuous and generous school herself, training many—myself included—with unexpected methods and in unexpected moments.
In his written tribute for her funeral, her longtime collaborator and friend Hou Hanru rightfully described Fulya as a crucial and loving voice of difference. Embodying that loving voice of difference, which tingled with her landmark bon vivant laughter, was the situated position she brought to every project, organization, and institution. Her idiosyncratic power emerged through cracks within discourses and margins rather than illusory common grounds. The fight she fought in the world and the art world resonated mostly for me in the complex questions of beauty and form she posed in an exhibition at Proje 4L in 2003 titled “Organize Ihtilaf / Organized Conflict,” which broached painting’s potential in the new millennium. The term “organized conflict” speaks deeply to the poetic disorder on which Fulya insisted. Artists, writers, and poets became her longtime conspirators; these include Ayşe Erkmen, Hale Tenger, Canan Tolon, Karin Sander, İnci Eviner, Fernanda Gomes, Christoph Schäfer, Maider Lopez, Leyla Gediz, Hera Büyüktasciyan, her longtime partner Murat Şahinler, Perihan Magden, Lale Müldür, Ahmet Güntan, and Sami Baydar.
Fulya always understood art as a language of everyday existence, not as a closed and exclusive aesthetic entity. From the first Pedestrian Exhibition (YAYA) in Nisantasi (2002); to the second edition, with Emre Baykal, in Karaköy (2005), her first major curatorial intervention in Istanbul’s inspiring, chaotic, multitudinously fractured public space; to “Wandering Lines: Towards a New Culture of Space,” the 5th SCAPE Biennial of Art in Public Space in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand (2008); to the peak of her oeuvre majeure, the thirteenth Istanbul Biennial, “Mom, am I Barbarian?” (2013)—referring to lines of Lale Müldür, another poet-muse—she leveraged public space as a sphere of conflict, confrontation, and essential political formation for citizens to actualize a democracy they dream despite capitalism’s incursions. Her vision of the anarchist noncitizen “barbarian” preceded what Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten call the “undercommons” and what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay calls “cocitizenship,” which is “not a goal for the future to come but as a set of assumptions and practices shared by different people—including scholars—who oppose imperialism, colonialism, racial capitalism, and its institution of citizenship as a set of rights against and at the expense of others.” For the Turkish pavilion at the Fifty-Fourth Venice Biennale, Fulya with Danae Mossman curated Ayse Erkmen’s “Plan B,” an installation which purified the water of the city’s canals; always, the plan was for the undercommons.
For Fulya, the power of art was matched only by that of the unexpected moment. I remember us standing together at the edge of Gezi Park in 2013, excited to see the waves of a protesting crowd, ready to join. It was one of the rare moments where the conflict between radicals and Neo-conservative society, as she called it, carried a possibility of societal change. That unprecedented antigovernment resistance, which ignited in response to the violent development plans for Gezi Park—and which exploded during the final preparation weeks of the Istanbul Biennial—led Fulya to make the challenging decision of withdrawing from public space and shifting the public paths of her project into the main exhibition in Antrepo, the traditional venue of the Istanbul Biennial that eventually fell prey to gentrification as well. She didn’t want authorities to instrumentalize art to silence the uprising. Her edition aimed to remind us how the exhibition is first and foremost a living, breathing space where we may cohabit and imagine together. Free for all visitors for the first time, it reached the highest visiting numbers in the biennial’s history. More recently, her dreams of open and immersive cultural space took flight within the magical setting of Cappadocia as part of the Cappadox Culture Festival, its core visual arts part which she curated from 2015–18.
Fulya Erdemci believed in a new language to conceive another world to come and worked for it at her own life’s expense. She was only sixty years old when cancer silently took her away in July. She had to witness corrupted politicians and developers destroying her beloved Istanbul. Her dream of new cultural space could have yielded more long-living visionary institutions, something much needed as previous democracies around the world lurch toward authoritarian rule.Yet her resilience and joy will continue through the voices she generously educated. We will continue to be her army of barbarians in the time of monsters.
Övül Ö. Durmusoglu is a curator, writer, and educator living and working in Berlin.