Designing humanity

The 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial aims high, but falls short

By Emma Harper | November 13, 2016


When the Transparent Man first visited Turkey in 1938, residents of Istanbul and Izmir flocked to see the life-sized model of a man whose transparent plastic skin reveals the secret interior of a human body: the spatial relationship between the organs and the skeleton, the snaking structures of the circulatory and nervous systems. Intended as an educational device, the Transparent Man was also a remarkable design artefact, with millions of copies created for schools and homes.

The ability to peer into ourselves, a dramatic innovation of the early 20th century, revolutionised self-perception. It seems fitting, then, that the Transparent Man is back in Istanbul and on display at the Galata Greek Primary School as part of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, which aims to have a similarly transformative effect. Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina, curators of the biennial, want to rethink design. It is their belief that to talk about design is to talk about the state of our species and the development of humanity over time. Consequently, the biennial centres around the deceptively simple question: ‘Are we human?’

The academics Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina curated the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial

Wigley and Colomina are big-picture thinkers. Observing a planet and species in crisis, these two professors of architecture (Wigley at Columbia and Colomina at Princeton) imagined a design biennial which looks at the intimate relationship between the concepts of ‘design’ and ‘human’; humans have produced designs for centuries but are also radically reshaped by the designs they produce. As they wrote in their curatorial statement: ‘We live in a time when everything is designed.’ Their intention was to create a biennial to document design’s ubiquity, while also contemplating the role it has played throughout history and the ways in which it will shape the future.

Underlying such an approach is the assumption that design, as normally understood, is unserious. In their introduction to the biennial catalogue, Wigley and Colomina wrote that ‘design biennials are too often trade shows for the products produced over the previous two years, as if life will suddenly get better with a new chair or a lamp’. Rather than settle for this narrow definition of design, the curators aim to document how humans have designed the planet, our bodies, our brain and genome. The biennial is structured accordingly, with projects grouped into four ‘clouds’: designing the body, designing the planet, designing life and designing time. As Wigley declared at the opening: ‘Don’t think that the world of design belongs to designers.’

The biennial’s conceptual underpinnings have all the trappings of a thought-provoking lecture or university course, and in fact the curators did hold graduate seminars on how to define design at their respective universitites. Yet what makes for engaging theoretical debate doesn’t necessarily translate into a coherent or compelling visual display.

‘Objects of Daydreaming’, a work by the Istanbul-based studio PATTU, presents 3D-printed hand axes

Take as an example the biennial’s preoccupation with archaeology. In awe of the Archaeological Museums, one of the five biennial venues, and inspired by the momentous archaeological discoveries made in Turkey at sites such as Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe, the curators posit that archaeologists are the best design experts. Almost all the projects dealing with the role of design in human history look good on paper, if not in execution. A highlight is PATTU’s installation ‘Objects of Daydreaming’, which can be found at Alt Art Space. Tracing design back to the ancient Acheulean hand axe, the project team created 30 modern hand axes using 3D printing, emphasising the design and ornamentation of an object best known for its utilitarian function.

Lucia Allais’s installation ‘Mixed Being’ (2016)

Yet the installation ‘Mixed Being’, which investigates the archaeological operations at the fortess of Karatepe, is difficult to parse. The hanging panels and floor displays – unfortunately a common feature of the biennial – are like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. As a result the big picture is obscured. Only by reading an out-of-the-way wall panel does the visitor learn that the installation explores three aspects of the dig: the original carvings at Karatepe, their preservation, and the archaeologists themselves. The entry by Lucia Allais in the exhibition catalogue, however, is a fascinating read about the nonlinear reconstruction of ancient sites.

This disconnect between theory and practice is a common thread running through the biennial. Interesting topics, such as the human design of the Amazon rainforest, are made inaccessible through disjointed installations. The presentations of the more than 70 research projects range from information overload to head-scratching over what exactly you’re looking at. However, there are some which hit that sweet spot in the middle – Ali Kazma’s two videos at the Galata Greek Primary School come to mind, as do a number of the installations at Alt. But the revolutionary rethinking of design, while a fruitful line of academic inquiry, gets lost in the translation from concept to creation.

The 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial runs until November 20. The biennial is staged primarily at the Galata Greek Primary School, with additional displays at DEPO, Studio-X, Alt Art Space and the Archaeological Museums. Click here for information on visiting hours.

Posted in Archaeology, Design, Exhibitions
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