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Istanbul: Spot light

Next year's European capital of culture is fast becoming a contemporary cultural and artistic hub, finds Josh Sims

Josh Sims,

Istanbul has been almost as much blighted as blessed by its location. Perched on the hills either side of the Bosphorus, history has noted it as the romantic demarcation between west and east. As such, it has perhaps fallen between two stools, and its cultural offerings gone unfairly unnoticed.
However, it is as much a symbol of Europe's growing political cohesion as it is the nation's revamp of recent years, that, when 2010's European Capitals of Culture begin their year-long round of arts events, eyes are likely to be turned not to Essen, an obscure German mining town, or Pécs, an even more obscure Hungarian city, but to the year's third Capital of Culture, Istanbul.

The city's worldly mix and unique vision is now being recognised on the international stage. It is a progressive representation of the country at large, where openings are happening at a prodigious pace: bars and clubs pounding to Sufi electronica, boutique hotels, stores and galleries such as Galerist and Platform, and, most recently, an outpost of New York's W Hotel.
This is definitely Istanbul and not Constantinople, as it were. 'Turkey has a fantastically hungry, young generation of artists and designers,' says the ground-breaking Turkish-Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan. 'But more importantly it is a future-thinking country.
 People who come from that culture can do a lot with it.' Chalayan, alongside the likes of Ergin Çavuşoğlu and Turner Prize nominee Kutluğ Ataman, is one of a number of Turkish creatives whose talents are now internationally recognised. Other successful Turkish fashion brands include Damat and Tween, Machka and Desa.

Despite the fact that cinema travels so poorly, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has twice carried off the Cannes Film Festival critics' prize, and has become something of a figurehead for the new Turkish arts scene. Last year he won the best director gong for Three Monkeys. Ceylan is not alone in driving Turkish cinema: the provocative Fatih Akin picked up the 2007 Cannes best screenplay award for The Edge of Heaven. The visual arts in Istanbul have, over recent years, undergone a transformation to match the social and political changes affecting the country and also the world - changes that only go to make the capital all the more intriguing.

The Istanbul Biennial, for example, is a growing rival to those of Berlin or Venice; the city has seen the opening of its first contemporary arts museum of international standing, Istanbul Modern (financed by the industrialist Eczacibaşi family, Turkey's answer to the House of Medici); witness, too, the continued edginess of the pioneering Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum. The Istanbul International Music Festival's growing pulling power has seen the likes of Montserrat Caballé and the Bolshoi Ballet perform alongside Turkish artists. Istanbul Design Weekend , launched five years ago, highlights local design talent such as Autoban and Gaia & Gino.

Krispy Kreme has announced plans to open 25 outlets across Istanbul over the next five years; in a city whose traditional tatlisi shops have been selling baklava, tulumba and myriad other sweet treats for centuries. That is a sign of progress that not everyone, whether Turk or tourist, will welcome. Raise a cold glass of Efes in this rediscovered metropolis sooner rather than later.



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