CULTURE CAPITAL ; Istanbul's Modern Art Scene Is Booming, with New Galleries Cropping Up All over the City -- Even Its Hotels Are Holding Exhibitions, Says Michael Hodges

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[broken bar] HIS is either an extremely early start or a very late one -- we are on the terrace of the 360 bar and and the sun is just about to rise. The fact that it will be coming up over Asia and the terrace is in Europe gives away our location -- Istanbul, a city of more than 13 million people that sprawls on either side of the Bosphorous, the 17-mile long waterway that links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean.

This unique location at the crossing point of trade routes has attracted people since Greek traders founded their colony of Byzantium here in the 7th century BC. From the terrace I look across the Golden Horn to the minarets of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, pale fingers that point to the ancient city's time as capital of first the Byzantine and then Ottoman empires. But as the pulse of the music signals, this is a 2,500-yearold city that is looking forwards. Istanbul is undergoing an astonishing creative resurgence, powered in the main by that equally ancient double act -- commerce and art.

Last autumn's 12th Istanbul Biennale attracted some of the best- known names in contemporary art from around the world including Tracey Emin (herself partly Turkish Cypriot). You could also enjoy Andy Warhol at the Gallery Linart, take part in Art Beat, the video and digital art festival, and visit new galleries such as Pilot in Beyoglu, which opened with work by Halil Alytundetre, one of Turkey's most popular contemporary artists, who makes a point of poking fun at the state and its symbols (a trickier proposition in a country with Turkey's occasionally troubled history than in, say, Shoreditch).

Internationally, Turkish conceptual artists such as Ozlem Gunyol and Mustafa Kunt are the talk of the London and New York contemporary art scenes and Taner Ceylan, the homoerotic photorealist, and arguably Turkey's leading painter, is breaking records for Turkish art at Sotheby's.

Not surprisingly Istanbul's corporate leaders are grasping the opportunity to win cultural influence to match their commercial might. "Every businessman wants to open a gallery," Taner Ceylan tells me when I visit his studio in Yenikap, on the southern side of the promontory between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. "It is like a craze here." Today there are more than 70 art galleries in Istanbul, tomorrow there could be more, and as I only have a long weekend I go for maximum return on minimum footfall and visit the Istanbul Modern on the quayside at Tophane.

Opened in 2004, this airy space is essentially a metal warehouse with concrete floors. In places it is brightly contemporary, the installation of hanging books in the basement, False Ceiling by Richard Wentworth, is great fun and utterly intriguing, but there are shades to the mood here. A doleful self-portrait by Abumecid Efendi stares out over the Bosphorus. Abumecid was the last Ottoman caliph. Exiled to Paris by Kemal Ataturk's post-Ottoman Nationalist regime, he has reason to look doleful, perhaps -- as well as losing his title and position he died as the French capital was liberated in 1944.

On the same floor I find great Turkish painters from the last century such as Nedim Gunsur, but it is the playful, more recent work, that stays with me. One piece by Burhan Uygosik is simply a brightly painted cupboard door -- a folksy, abstract and thoroughly happy piece in memory of a friend's dead father. And in a video installation Nezaket Ekicic kisses an entire room and its contents in a cheeky deconstruction of female roles in a country with such an Islamic culture. …