Crossing the Tracks: the Journey of Art Discovering Heritage
By Özge Toktaş
Few days back, a dear friend of mine told me that we should expel the word “Art” from our dictionaries, that the word itself causes too many confusing and often way too powerful suggestions. Regardless of whether naming itself is the one that causes trouble, here I am, embracing its immense power on the occasion of an exhibition “Oxytocin: Experiments on Trust”, here in İstanbul.
This contemporary art exhibition took place for a single day on 14–15 October in one of the buildings at the Haydarpaşa Train Station Complex. It is nothing new to use abandoned buildings for art shows and exhibitions. There are many such examples that can be named from the past 10 years. Although the European and American trends of using old or abandoned buildings as exhibition spaces or artist studios first appeared out of a need for affordable or even free space, it was soon realised that these experiences were quite beneficial to both parties: the abandoned buildings and the artists themselves. These buildings, with their vast space, often belong to the Industrial Age. Factories and warehouses that used to host a crowd of both machines and people later on completing their function, left alone abandoned until these creative initiatives came along. We all know how crucial the proper reuse of this heritage is, because buildings like us aren’t fit to live alone.
Back to the exhibition in İstanbul, what strikes me the most is that in one day more than 500 people (who came to know about the exhibition through social media) came to visit a building that they never even knew existed.
Haydarpaşa Train Station is one of the essential parts of İstanbul’s silhouette with its almost 120 years of history and its architectural heritage. However, most of the inhabitants (myself included), didn’t know that Haydarpaşa indeed harbours several other historical buildings. One of them, the exhibition’s space was built between circa 1903–1908 by Mimar Kemaleddin, a prominent architect of the early 20th century Turkey. First thought to be a guest house for immigrants and then to have been used by the veterinary students, the building finally became the place where railway workers’ uniforms began to be manufactured in 1956.
So, I hit the road without knowing any of this beforehand, merely excited by the idea that I could wander around inside an abandoned historical building. I reached the place by crossing the railway tracks as Haydarpaşa Train Station was closed 3 years ago. Approaching the building, I notice that the city’s sounds seem quite far away here. A minute later, I met the exhibition crowd and then Hüseyin Tekin, Haydarpaşa complex’s security chief of staff. He tells me that he put on this uniform for the very first time there in 1983, on the 18th of March. I grow even more excited having met an “insider”. We continued talking and I learned that until the second half of the 90s, the building kept functioning as it was and later for two years or so, it housed about 70–80 railway workers who were single and new to İstanbul. It began to deteriorate after around 2000 only as there was nobody left to take care of it and therefore no life in it.
I left the exhibition with two things on my mind: firstly, how an exhibition can make a heritage site visible and secondly, how vital the proper reuse of our tangible heritage is –the kind that won’t weary its structure and at the same time be sensitive to its original function. A few days later, I saw my professor only to discover that this building is actually one of the buildings she wrote her doctoral thesis on. Once again, I was struck quite good by the power of Art and how it made discernible the things around us and especially how much it belongs to the public nowadays. The latter is obviously very open to discussion but we should give credit at least on this kind of occasions. There lies the gap between “the academy” and its knowledge and the varied ways in which that knowledge spread out there. As in this case, sometimes we just need to fill that gap to reach out more.
P.S. The mentioned buildings in the Haydarpaşa Train Station area and Haydarpaşa Train Station itself have only been declared as a historical and urban site since 2004 by İstanbul №5 Board of Protection for Cultural and Natural Assets.
I would also like to add a very sincere thank you firstly to Yonca Erkan and other academics like her for their endless efforts for and love of heritage and then to DAS Art Project, the independent contemporary art initiative for their choice of exhibition space and their awareness of heritage, finally to Hüseyin Tekin, Haydarpaşa’s security chief of staff for his commitment to preserving Haydarpaşa’s heritage.
 Erkan, Yonca. 2004 “Oryantalist Bir Mimari Hazine: Haydarpaşa Limanı Hizmet Yapıları”, İstanbul 50, s.28–34