First Reflections on the 15th Istanbul Biennial

By Cornucopia UK | September 22, 2017

Istanbul's 15th Biennial, A Good Neighbour, arrives in a Turkey grappling with a particularly eventful two years. I’ve had the opportunity so far to see three of the six main exhibition spaces: The Galata Greek Primary School, the Pera Museum, and the Istanbul Modern. While it’s heartening to see so many international visitors and artists participating in this edition, the weight of that time seems hyper-present, sometimes because of its absence.

The aesthetic of much of the biennial is sparser than 2015's, with the exhibits at the Galata Greek Primary School a main example of this. The main exhibition space on the ground floor is cool, dim and sparse, home to a handful of movable platforms laden with furniture that is part of a performance art piece by Pedro Gómez-Egaña titled Domain of Things. Olaf Metzel’s piece Sammelstelle is a room covered in corrugated metal, an austere space that is reminiscent of Istanbul’s endless streetside construction sites.

An exception to the sparseness is Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s Scenario in the Shade. Entering into the installation is a bizarro journey through the looking-glass, with a converted temporary toilet as the portal into a shaggy home. The vintage wall paper and fixings hint at nostalgia, but the dim-lit collages lean towards something more lewd and free-wheeling. This is a sci-fi reimagining of California youth culture, in all its wonderland forms.The installation goes on and on, through unexpected corridors that resemble a fever dream of a childhood home crossed with an eternally untidied garage. The muchness seems to become part of the point, and it's more noticeable next to the austere work that's on display at this venue.

I enjoyed the collection of Biennial works at the Pera immensely. Fred Wilson’s work Afro Kismet is a highlight, combining art creation with art history and criticism. His work comments on the inclusion, exclusion, and erasure of black people, particularly during the Venetian and Ottoman empires. His installation includes really stunning pieces commissioned from other artists, like Özcan Özcan’s luscious miniatures. I particularly liked the way he pulled black faces out of the Ottoman-era paintings, underlining their presence during that historical period.

I was thrilled to see select works by Lee Miller tucked into a small section of the Pera Museum. A personal favorite, Miller was a renowned photographer who arranged to stay in Hitler's Berlin apartment just after the city's fall at the end of WWII. Her self-portrait bathing in Hitler's tub, washing off the dust of concentration camps as his portrait looms in the background, is as striking as any of the contemporary art in the Biennial.

Notable is how apolitical much of the art is at this edition of the Biennial. The curators Elmgreen & Dragset insist there was no pressure for self-censorship, but it's strange to have a show so rooted in place (especially with a theme like "a good neighbour") and not have the place inform the content more. Art has great capacity to process politics in a unique way, and it felt like a missed opportunity coming off such a tumultuous 2016. However, given the complicated political climate, perhaps it shouldn't be unexpected. While some pieces-- like Latifa Echakhck's piece Crowd Fade at the Istanbul Modern, which uses images of the Gezi Park protests as a source, or Alper Aydin’s D8M, which utilises trees cut down during the construction of the third airport-- start to scratch the surface, generally, politics seems like the elephant in the room, looming quietly, uncommented upon. Maybe the silence is what makes a good neighbour.


You may visit the 15th Istanbul Biennial through guided tours. The guided tours will be held every day except Sundays throughout the biennial at the Istanbul Modern, the Galata Greek Primary School and the Pera Museum. A single ticket allows for attending a guided tour in a single venue, while the combined ticket is valid in all the venues.

Guided tour ticket prices:
- Full 30 TL (single), 55 TL (combined)
- Student 15 TL (single), 25 TL (combined)

To book a guided tour, please contact:
+90 212 334 08 32

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