After months of secrecy about its venues and participating artists, the 13th Istanbul Biennial opened to the public last weekend. Exploring such ideas as freedom of expression in the public domain, poetry and visual language, the voices of the oppressed, the artist as ‘barbarian’, and the privatisation of culture, this year’s festival showcases the works of 88 artists and collectives from Turkey and beyond. There is a strong concentration on Latin American artists and – to a lesser extent – artists from the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa. The aim of the curator, Fulya Erdemci, was to prioritise less-privileged geographies in order, she says, to ‘challenge the dominant structure in the field of art in the public domain, which consists mainly of artists of European and Anglo-Saxon origin’ – a strategy which has made this Biennial all the more compelling.
The majority of the exhibits are displayed at Antrepo No 3. The venue, a former warehouse, is itself set up as a public space, another strategic decision by the organisers. We are greeted by a brick wall, the work of the Mexican artist Jorge Méndez Blake whose oeuvre is marked by a tension between architecture and literature. Look closely, you see that the wall stands upon Kafka’s 1922 novel The Castle, in which the protagonist struggles to gain access to a castle governed by mysterious authorities. Three constructed ‘squares’ – two focusing on urban transformation and collective living practices, one showcasing works that challenge the concept of the ‘monument’ – further contribute to the idea of the venue as a public space.
Another feature of this year’s Biennial is the heavy concentration on video, with one particular work garnering a lot of attention. Wonderland (February 2013), by the Turkish artist Halil Altındere is a staged hip-hop clip using in-your-face imagery and lyrics to give a voice to the communities of Sulukule (especially the Roma community which has resided in the area for over six centuries), now being pushed out of the neighbourhood to make room for Public Housing Project (TOKI) apartments. The use of hip-hop is a clever device, for the genre has a long history as the music of the oppressed, and the sight of young boys rapping is even more so – reminding us just whose future is at stake, thanks to this rampant gentrification.
In Maider López’s video Making Ways (2013), made especially for the Biennial, the artist questions what makes a space public. She filmed the traffic at a busy junction in Karaköy and presents her findings on three screens – one showing a black-and-white recording overlaid with a street grid, one with a colour wide view and the third with a colour close-up. These contrasting views (isolating vs intimate) effectively explore the intricacies of co-existing in a public space.
Moving away from video but staying in the domain of public space is Rietveld Landscape’s Intensive Care (2013), in which the spectator is invited to enter a pitch-black room where the only light comes from a small, breathing installation of the façade of the Atatürk Cultural Centre. The artists’ collective describe Istanbul as a ‘patient’ that is ‘consistently roving between life and death’. Before they could ‘intervene’ in a public space – they had planned to erect the work in front of the actual Atatürk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square – a real intervention took place with the advent of the Gezi protests. The way events unfolded undeniably added a somewhat ominous dynamism to the work.
For his work Music for a Small Boat Crossing a Medium Size River (2012), the Mexican artist Fernando Ortega commissioned Brian Eno to write a piece of music especially for the boatmen who transport passengers across the Bobos River in Mexico. Ortega presents his piece with eight photographs showing the crossing, a CD of the music, and his correspondence with Eno. However, we cannot hear Eno’s composition – that is exclusively reserved for the passengers on the boat. In constructing a situation where something can be experienced only by undertaking a certain action, Ortega explores the importance of where we live and the journeys we take.
Carla Filipe’s work, among other things, is designed to read like a ‘chronicle of modern Portuguese history’. Her installation at Antrepo No 3, If There Is No Culture, There Is Nothing (2011–2013), is a powerful look at the way culture is impacted by gentrification. The display of antique books eaten by worms, a sight that will affect any book lover, is an ode to Filipe’s favourite bookstore in her hometown of Porto which is struggling to keep its doors open, largely due to Portugal’s unstable economic situation. Making the work even more pertinent is the fact that a direct connection can be made to Istanbul and the recent news that the Beyoğlu bookstore Robinson Crusoe is likewise ‘fighting urban renewal onslaught’.
The Turkish artist Ipek Duben invites us into the domain of visual language with her work Manuscript 1994 (1993–1994), in which 51 paintings, each depicting a part of her naked body, are arranged around a room. Her poem, in both Turkish and English, is written on a placard that stands in one corner. Duben grew up in a culture which dictates that the female body must be kept away from the public eye. Her subtly beautiful paintings and her poetry both address the female body in a way that challenges the preconceptions set out in religious texts.
The Dutch duo Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis take up a large proportion of the third Antrepo ‘square’ with their work Monument to Humanity – Helping Hands (2011–2013). The work centres on a public debate that arose after the Turkish artist Mehmet Aksoy’s sculpture ‘Monument to Humanity’, in the city of Kars on the Armenian border, was demolished before it was finished after Prime Minister Erdoğan described it as a ‘freak’. The monument, showing two standing figures facing each other with one extending his hand, was commissioned as a kind of peace monument in acknowledgement of the deep-rooted Turkish-Armenian conflict. Osterholt and Uitentuis wheeled a model of a giant hand, extended in peace – the only part of the original monument that wasn’t completed – in a cart around Tarlabaşı and other neighbourhoods to capture the reactions of passers-by and question how a monument can be destroyed without public participation. As Erdemci pertinently says: ‘How can the prime minister decide what is art and what is not when he is by no means an expert?’
The Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl’s installation Suspect was originally exhibited in 1980. In a brand-new reproduction – reminiscent of a whodunit film set – we are presented with two interconnected spaces: in one room, a recreation of an artist’s studio ransacked by police after the artist’s neighbours accuse him of ‘unusual’ behaviour; in the other, glass cases displaying the objects deemed suspicious. The accompanying text on the wall lists the ‘unusual’ behaviour which landed the artist in hot water, such as spending a lot of time in bookshops and parks, coming home late at night, and participating in left-wing demonstrations. For Erdemci, this work is ‘emblematic’ of the Biennial and its themes, and its set-up is certainly effective. Artists, Erdemci says, ‘make the utopic moments possible and are therefore deemed suspects’.
The German-born documentary film-maker and writer Hito Steyerl’s filmed lecture/performance Is a Museum a Battlefield? (2013) attempts to link the contemporary arms trade with the contemporary art world. Steyerl’s friend Andrew Wolf, a radical leftist activist and PKK militant, was killed in Van, East Turkey. The artist went to the area to collect paraphernalia such as empty bullet casings to question how the two seemingly different worlds of art and weapons are connected. The artist talks to the viewer directly in her performance, raising controversial topics such as the potential relationships existing between the funders of the Istanbul Biennial, for instance, and the arms companies. Confrontational stuff.
Stay tuned for the cream of the crop in the other Biennial venues in forthcoming blogs.