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Contemporary Art at a Not-so-contemporary Hammam (PHOTOS)

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Amidst the Gezi protests Istanbul is hosting a world renowned Italian artist, Angelo Bucarelli, for his site-specific installation at Istanbul's oldest and biggest hammam. Bucarelli aims to convey the city's rich culture and history in a single water drop.

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These days, Istanbul is notorious for its protests and protesters after Gezi Park hit the headlines of international media. Many cancelled their vacations, some called off their concerts or shows and a few decided to postpone their business travels. But one artist decided to go ahead with his prearranged plans. World-renowned Italian artist, sculptor and photographer Angelo Bucarelli chose an Ottoman bath in Cibali, a historical neighborhood along the Golden Horn, to showcase his contemporary artwork. And this is where I found him.

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Bucarelli has been shuttling between Milano and Istanbul for the past year to assemble his site-specific installation at Istanbul's oldest and largest hammam. The installation is part of the 13th Istanbul Biennial and the artist's aim is to take up the challenge of expressing the unique city in a single water drop. The name of the piece, "Water. Like Tears of Love", was taken from a verse written by Tursun Bey, an Ottoman poet who accompanied Mehmet the Conqueror as the sultan was earning his sobriquet by taking Constantinople.

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As curator Laura Barreca says, the exhibition of Angelo Bucarelli, in all its complexity, is a journey through the history, poetry, memory and love, in the temple where the water, the purest of the elements, becomes an expression and a metaphor of renewal.

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"Since I first came to Istanbul in 1972" said Bucarelli, "I've understood that the key to the Istanbul's identity is water."

"Looking at the Bosporus and the Golden Horn from a terrace of Galata," he continued, "I have thought of Tursun Bey, who was also struck by the abundance of water in the city when he first entered Constantinople and 'like tears of lovers', he wrote."

Taking the advise made by Alessandra Ricci, an Italian historian from the Koç University's Archeology and History of Art Department, to heart, Bucarelli immediately knew that the 500 year-old hammam was the best venue for his installation. After being shown the deserted hammam, Bucarelli felt like an invisible hand had protected it for 500 years just for the sake of his site-specific installation, which will be held between September 15 and October 13 this year.

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The invisible hand

Yavuz Mermerci, current owner of the hammam, is probably the last ring in this chain of invisible hands protecting the hammam. "Mermerci Holding purchased the hammam in 1995 and started an 18 years long restoration work since then so as to prevent a collapse," Mermerci said. He is glad his hammam will be hosting this event.

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Actually it was Leyla Alaton, a highly respected businesswoman, philanthropist and member of board of Alarko Holding, who convinced Mermerci to let the event be held at the hammam. Speaking at Palazzo Venezia, an allegiant historical Venetian palace in Istanbul used as the residence of Italian ambassador, Alaton told me about why she supported the installation. She said she got excited when an Italian artist discovered one of the long abandoned jewels of Istanbul and wanted to present it to the world.

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Pınar Akalin, the executive director of the exhibit, said the cost of the site-specific installation is around 230.000 euros, most of which is covered by sponsors. Akalin said the installation organized by the Italian Institute of Culture in Istanbul and curated by Laura Barreca will be ready for the opening on Sept. 15, and those interested will have an opportunity to see both the art and the building until Oct. 13.

Italian Ambassador Gianpaolo Scarante, renowned for his efforts to demonstrate the common values shared by Turkish and Italian cultures, worked tirelessly to promote the installation. Scarante said he is working on two more projects, both of which will be permanent artworks that would enrich the city.

Water is the identity of Istanbul

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Continuing his research on concepts of identity, Bucarelli discovered in water the essence of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul's identity and choose it as the mode to reflect his art. "My work inquires about the complex world of identity and primordial human instinct of communication," said Bucarelli. "Isolating words, I try to enter the difficult space of meanings and experience. In this new challenge, I would like to stimulate the observer to open his mind to a personal simple and deep perception of encountering a different culture and make it his own."

As location, Bucarelli chose Cibali, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul and an old hammam, the epicenter and the symbol of social civilization, where water is protagonist. The Kucuk Mustafa Pasha Hammam is a beautiful complex -- closed in the 1990s and subject of a meticulous restoration project -- built in 1477 during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, 24 years after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul.

"The ancient bath known as Kucuk Mustafa Pasha Hammam is near the shore of the Golden Horn below the Fourth Hill. This is one of the oldest and grandest hammams in the city, founded before 1512 by Koca Mustafa Pasha, grand vizier under Beyazit II" the American historian John Freely tells of the hammam in his famous book, A History of Ottoman Architecture. But in fact the hammam is founded by Kara Mustafa Pasha, nicknamed as "Kucuk or little" so as to prevent confusion with Koca Mustafa, who also lived in the same era.

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Bucarelli involved the local community and handicrafts to expand the role of his art. As is usual for him, the work utilizes different materials such as iron, glass, as well as fabrics and embroidery, integrating them all with photography, which is his passion. The light that penetrates the hammam from the circled openings of the dome gives rise to bright lively colors.

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Rain of glass words

A part of the installation, named "Rain of Glass Words," recreates the form of a large globe with the dome as northern hemisphere and iron meridians forming the southern hemisphere, from which hang, like drops of water, precious Murano glass sculptures that duplicate Ottoman calligraphy.

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On the walls, the traditional horizontally striped Turkish towels, or pestamals, become woven tapestries that bring eleven words again in Ottoman calligraphy in gold, chosen by the artist to describe water: Thirst, horizon, dark and light, depth, respect, mirror, spring, sweat, weather and poison. Bucarelli uses the written text in its dual symbolic and evocative essence, with the aim to give back the semiotic sense of poetry and the visual purity. Those pestamals will remind one of the usual hammam items but at the same time the calligraphy will recall mosque decorations.

In the quest to reflect the city's identity, Bucarelli wanted those eleven words to be read in six languages spoken in this city throughout the history, among which were Turkish, Kurdish, Latin, Greek, Armenian and Hebrew. This is to indicate one should refer to more than one nationality, language or culture so as to understand Istanbul's rich and complex identity.

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Sept. 15, 2013 - Oct. 14, 2013
Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamam, Müstantik Caddesi 23-25, Küçükmustafapaşa, Fatih