When curator Anlam de Coster first stepped into Istanbul’s Zeyrek Çinili Hamam a year ago, she knew the 500-year-old Turkish bath’s freshly renovated and marble-clad interior could offer a backdrop for art. “Everything sat in a subtle harmony, not only physically but symbolically,” she told AN Interior. This led her to organize the currently ongoing exhibition, Healing Ruins, with 22 Turkish and international artists.
Located in the Zeyrek district on the city’s historic Golden Horn peninsula, part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, the roughly 32,000-square-foot bath was commissioned around the 1530s by the navy admiral Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha (also known as Barbarossa) to Mimar Sinan, the celebrated Ottoman architect whose masterpieces include Süleymaniye Mosque. After various phases and centuries of decay, the architectural marvel was acquired by the Marmara Group in 2010. What was planned as a regular facelift evolved into a 13-year restoration project.
With every layer of plaster the restorers peeled off, new facets of the building’s design and culture were revealed. A Byzantine-era cistern reemerged from beneath the complex, ornate frescoes returned to daylight over the soaring ceilings, and around 10,000 tiles embellished with 37 unique ceramic patterns resurfaced. (Some of the tiles have been in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Louvre museum.)
Unearthing such aesthetic wealth prompted the hamam’s new owners to recontextualize its fresh phase with contemporary art before heat revives its actual function, which will be open to the public in March 2024. “Historians, archeologists, and archivists were discovering the building’s history, while I was doing my research for the exhibition,” said de Coster. She familiarized herself with the bath’s tactile characteristics by delving into its myths, secrets, and ghosts: “I looked into materials, such as ceramic, and brass, as well as paraffin and silk, textures that physically and spiritually speak to being inside here.”
On the practical end, staging an exhibit at a historic venue proposed particular challenges. Nailing into the walls and the ceilings was out of question; narrow and short doors restricted the artwork scale. “Simple physical restraints,” de Coster explained, “helped me to make sure the art doesn’t overshadow the marvelous architecture.”
Occupying “a healed ruin which was once built to heal people through bathing” guided the curator toward an installation that envelopes the traditional building with a contemporary veil. “I have always been passionate about ruins and their connection to psychoanalysis,” de Coster acknowledged. “Once the organizers heat the hamam and re-open it to bathers next year, art cannot exist here.” Until then, however, it does. “The absence of humidity, bodies, and whispers made the artworks even more necessary,” she added.
Hamams were essential for social life in the Ottoman Empire, especially for women whose lives were otherwise limited to patriarchal domesticity. Communal bathing inside these delicately adorned locales promised the exclusive opportunity to shed social and physical coverings. de Coster plays with the divide between the men’s and women’s spaces, infusing the men’s interior with femininity. “Most of the women artists indeed present works related to their own bodies,” the curator noted. Ayça Telgeren’s spectral concrete sculpture Dreamer (2023) or Candeğer Furtun’s haunting replicas of her legs in five pairs Legs (1994) occupy the section reserved for male privacy, while Mehtap Baydu’s The Distance Between Me And Everything Else (2017) claims the prime location. The polyester cast replica of her own likeness stretches—both poetically and alarmingly—like an inflated float over the göbek taşı, the circular marble center crucial inside each hamam.
The göbek taşı in the women’s section exhibits a trio of totemic jesmonite sculptures from French artist Marion Verboom’s Tectonie series (2021), crowned by Zoë Paul’s commissioned work, Eyes wide sees infinite lives (2023). The curtain-like, hand-rolled raku fired ceramic beads, glass, pearl, and brass sculpture hovers over a corner where a trio of elegant marble strains sits without use. The Athens-based artist’s beads form a genderless body, gently contorting to assume a saluting gesture. The expansive layout of art helps visitors to explore the overall setting unconventionally, unburdened by typical gender separation.
At the end of the cistern’s etching-covered tunnel hides The Dream (2023), Adrian Geller’s pigment on silk painting of a nude young man with the backdrop of a nautical landscape in aquatic hues. The French artist’s juxtaposition ties the daunting stories of young boys restricted to heating the hamams at subterranean furnaces with Istanbul’s many myths. Ending the show at the recently discovered cistern, that would remain beneath the thick grounds of the city had the restoration not unearthed it, extends the curator’s attempt to alchemize the present with Istanbul’s many fables. It is a fitting exhibit in which art contributes to the building’s physical and historical traits, inviting the visitors to discover an enduring architecture through a contemporary lens.
Healing Ruins is on view at Zeynek Çinili Hamam in Istanbul through November 30.