Taner Ceylan

Interview and photography by
Regis Trigano


Taner Ceylan is the star of the new Turkish art scene. Since one of his paintings broke a record at auction two years ago, his works have been included in the permanent collection of the Istanbul Modern Art Museum and shown at Art Basel and biennales around the globe. Meeting him, I was worried to find an egotist and capricious star of the art world. Not so. At 43, Taner is humble, gentle mannered, a bit shy, and was most importantly open minded and eager to share his life story with me. The first painter to introduce homoerotic subjects in Turkish art in the late 1980's (and possibly in the Middle East) he has worked against criticism and hostility his whole life. Today Taner hardly ever walks out of his studio on the outskirts of Istanbul, where he spends ten hours a day, seven days a week, working intricate details on his large scale oil canvases. We spoke about his craft and the secret lives of Turkish homosexuals at cafes in and around Taksim Square.

Regis: You were born in Germany?
Taner: Yes I was born there and grew up there. I came to Istanbul with my family when I was sixteen. That’s where they are from. I studied art at Mimar Sinan University here in Istanbul. This was the main art Academy at the time. I was taught classical techniques. They taught you to paint like a Renaissance painter.
Are you bound to this classical tradition?
Yes, I try to make my paintings on my own without any assistance. I travel to see paintings too. Last time I was in Madrid at the Prado I saw a little self-portrait by Durer, I stared at it for half an hour until the security guard asked to move along. He followed me out throughout the whole museum to keep an eye on me.
Has Turkish art had any influence on you?
Yes, the way I paint is rooted in a tradition of Eastern Miniature in Turkey and all over Islam. But Turkish modern art has a short history. About fifty years, because the painting of figures was forbidden by Islamic tradition. To paint a human face was considered a very serious sin. Things relaxed with the advent of the Turkish republic in 1923 when painting became allowed again. But painting in Turkey remained very conservative. I was the first painter to introduce homoerotic subjects.
How was that perceived?
I came out around twenty and started making homoerotic work at the Academy. It came as a surprise to my teachers who until then favored me over the other students. Once I started with the homoerotic subject matter they all rejected me, even some students became hostile. So I decided to leave the school.
What happened then?
Every gallery at the time in Istanbul rejected my work. So I rented a house in Taksim and made my own erotic exhibition. I advertised outside with a sign that read ‘Taner Ceylan, the dangerous homoerotic artist.’ But for fifteen years nothing. I taught art at a private university and got fired because of one of my paintings. It was a big scandal. It’s around the same time that one of my works was shown at the Turkish Biennale and things picked up quickly.
What are the laws like now in Turkey for exhibiting erotic work?
There are no problems now, at least in the galleries. The law says you can show anything you want as long as you hold a sign outside that keeps children from viewing it.
When did you discover pornography for the first time?
When I was a child in Germany. It was a very exciting experience but it was straight porn. It’s only much later that I discovered my homosexuality. I came out at the university. I saw the school’s psychologist then who told me that there was nothing wrong with me, that I should go out, meet men and try to be happy.
Did you go to clubs?
No, no. I’m very traditional. But my first paintings were club scenes with a homoerotic tension in them. It’s very strange because I had never seen a gay club before. Gay clubs started opening in Istanbul in the nineties. But when they opened they resembled exactly what I had imagined in my paintings.
Where do you live now?
I live way outside Taksim near the airport, about forty minutes away from here. There is nothing there. I lead a very silent life. I have very few friends. All I do is paint. That’s my life. The real life comes second. I’m alive when I make my paintings.
Is your life as a painter comfortable?
Yes it is comfortable. It is also freedom, a beautiful kind of freedom. I create my own subjects in very tiny detail, and sometimes I fall in love with them. I fall in love with the man in the painting and I dread finishing it. It goes on for months. It takes me about three months to finish one, sometimes more.
Your paintings often express physical pain. Is that ever on your mind while you paint?
There are two kinds of artists. Some take inspiration from pain, others from happiness. I take mine from happiness. You see I can’t deal with pain, because my pain is very painful. I must enjoy my process because it takes ten hours a day, for weeks and months. Real life is where the pain is for me.
What’s your feeling about Istanbul nowadays and this big push of capital here?
I hardly ever come here (Taksim) anymore. I’m a very naive person. If a handsome guy looks at me, I go with him. He wants my bag, he gets it. I’m a highly optical person. If I see beauty it’s finished for me. I can give all I have. It’s very dangerous. I’ve had numerous love affairs like this.
Where do you find inspiration?
I take photos on my own, or I find them on the Internet and magazines, in which case I ask for the photographer’s permission. If I get the permission I make the picture part of my own composition. I make a canvas size print out of the picture at high resolution and work from each section, painting them onto the canvas one by one. I develop details that often do not exist in the original photograph, or by compositing several images together to maximize the amount of details. There are textures sometimes I don’t know how to paint. I have to invent new techniques – it can be so difficult, I remember one case I cried out of frustration.
Is commercial success a blessing for you or a doom?
It took me more than fifteen years to sell a painting. It was not easy.  It was difficult and painful, so when my first painting sold, it was the end of a long haul. Now I can live off my work and it’s a blessing of course. Besides all the galleries always told me I would never sell a painting with homoerotic subjects- so when the first painting sold it was a big revanche.
What are your feelings about the gay community here in Istanbul?
Homosexuality has a very long tradition here. It has its own rules. It had no name until recently. It goes back to the Ottoman Empire, which was very liberal, and homosexuals were very free and open then. Since the Turkish republic was started homosexuality has become westernized. But there are tons of places, hamams, spots known only by the locals. Turkish gay men of my generation are very traditional. It’s a closed in-group that has its own rules. You must learn how to come in, you must learn how to live in it, and you must learn the rules. It’s not easy to come in. Those men are not seeking rights or more liberties like they do in the west. If you approach them with western rules it won’t work.
What are the places where they meet?
Places only known to insiders. One is of them is ‘Pasha’ in Aksaray.
What happens there?
You go inside and find very casual men. They sit there hand in hand. There are vases with roses in them – it’s very relaxed and romantic. A soloist singing around – mostly couples. It’s very traditional, and most of the men there are married with children, they come there to be with their lover.
Is there any sex going on?
No they take it elsewhere. But their lives are easy. It would be very difficult for them to be gay the western way.
Can you define painting?
For me painting is a moment that has the potential to be an endless moment. It has the potential to be everything – a painting. But I define it as a moment with endless time.

Published on 02 July 2010