Every city has its idiosyncrasies but some have more, and the complexities of Istanbul have been expressed clearly enough by the ongoing Gezi Park resistance. Employing peaceful forms of protest, the Gezi resistance has no leaders, but has developed a new language. It questions governing forces without using political tactics in any traditional sense. Not to underestimate the magnitude of this movement, and with all due respect to the memory of the six people killed during the protests as well as the thousands injured, there are similarities between the mind-set of the artist Erol Akyavas (1932-1999) and the general stance of the Gezi groups.
Best known for his paintings based on Islamic mysticism, Akyavas was by no means a militant artist; as shown in his retrospective at Istanbul Modern, the most recent to date, he had no ideologies, no set forms for the sacred. Just as myriad groups, from Communists to anticapitalist Muslims, nationalists to LGBT activists, remained respectful of one another at Gezi, Akyavas was open to and wondered about the ideals that are considered sacred by different groups. Having studied at Saint Joseph High School in Istanbul and trained as an artist (in Istanbul and Italy) and architect (in the US, notably with Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology), he developed both Western and Eastern sensibilities, and became interested in art from all disciplines that explores the spiritual. He delved into the history of religions, most directly in the installation Fihi Ma Fih (What Is in It, in It), first exhibited during the Second Istanbul Biennial in 1989 at the Hagia Eirene Museum, a Byzantine church inside the Topkapi Palace. Fihi Ma Fih, named after a collection of discourses by Rumi, comprises three double-sided Plexiglas sheets. These reflect the three monotheistic religions, with symbols of each on one side, and on the other, sketches that look as if they were inscribed by the hands of hundreds of believers. A fourth sheet stands opposite these three; appearing to emit a green glow that is meant to reflect the essence of all religions, whatever that might be for the onlooker.
The design of the retrospective at Istanbul Modern allows the viewer to explore the range of Akyavas's art. The placement of his paintings, prints, and installations shows the continuity of the spiritual quality in all his works as they take different forms. The careful onlooker can detect an architectural labyrinthine shape morph into a hand motif in Variations on Cologne Cathedral, 1981, then into sweeping calligraphy, as in Ana'! Flatly, 1987, a large painting inspired by the medieval Persian poet Mansur al-Hallaj. The space where the erotic collages titled "Icons," 1973-76, are exhibited feels like a sanctuary; the dimmed lighting helps bring out the almost religious treatment. The spiritual theme continues in the Miraj Nameh works. The Miraj (the Prophet Muhammad's ascension) inspired Akyavas to also produce sketches for a Miraj Model or Labyrinth Project that he once considered proposing for Taksim Square--which brings us back to the Gezi Park that is located there. Akyavas chose the image of a labyrinth as a metaphor for the determined mind's pursuit to perceive multiple spaces as a way of attaining clarity. In light of the current situation in Istanbul, his utopian quest seems reflected on the street as much as in the gallery. Through the resistance to the oppressive interventions by government forces, Gezi Park has become a model for how multitudes can reside together despite their differences. The message is clear: The basic needs of humans are respect and freedom; it does not matter if you are an atheist or religious, traditional or avant-garde. Diverse minds working together in a complex situation can find a way forward. And the aura of Gezi Park remains as sharp as the light Akyavas envisioned beaming from his Miraj Model.