How to navigate this year’s massive Istanbul Biennial

By Victoria Khroundina | August 25, 2015

It’s almost time for another edition of the Istanbul Biennial – and the 14th instalment promises to be bigger, bolder and braver than ever. There will be works by 80 artists, hailing from every continent, displayed in over 30 venues on both the European and Anatolian sides of the city. Venues range from museums and dedicated art spaces to more unusual venues such as hotels, boats, former banks, schools, gardens, garages, shops and private homes.

The curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev – who was voted the most influential person in the international art world by the UK magazine Art Review in 2012, so it’s really exciting she’s at the helm – had a lot of work to do to put together a biennial spanning so many venues. The Biennial’s highly conceptual theme is ‘Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms’, which she describes as follows: ‘This sprawling exhibition spans from Rumelifeneri on the Black Sea, where Jason and the Argonauts passed searching for the Golden Fleece, through the winding and narrow Bosphorus… and down to the Princes Islands… where ancient Byzantine emperors exiled their enemies and where Leon Trotsky lived from 1929 to 1933. It presents over 1,500 artworks, some very tiny, including over 50 commissions by artists as well as other visible and invisible manifestations such as materials from the history of oceanography, environmental studies, marine archaeology, Art Nouveau, neuroscience, physics, mathematics and theosophy.’

Works range from an 1870 painting of waves by Santiago Ramón y Cajal (who received a Nobel prize in 1906 for discovering the neuron) to the ground-breaking abstract ‘Thought Forms’ by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater (1901–1905), a new installation by Aslı Çavuşoğlu that reflects on an ancient and lost Armenian technique for extracting red dye from an insect, and a new multichannel installation by William Kentridge inspired by Trostky’s passage through Turkey. Some of the country's most important artists and writers were involved in the organisation, including Orhan Pamuk (honorary chairman of the International Council of Friends and Patrons of the 14th Istanbul Biennial), Emre Hüner, Füsun Onur, Emin Özsoy, Elvan Zabunyan, Başak Şenova and İnci Eviner. A number of international artists also lent a hand.

It is suggested you set aside at least three days to fully visit the Biennial. The main venues – Istanbul Modern, ARTER, the Özel İtalyan Lisesi (Italian High School) and the Galata Greek Primary School – display works by a number of artists, but other locations will each showcase a work by one artist or artist collective only. If you have the time it is highly recommended that you do the three-day tour so you can appreciate not only the artworks but the lesser-known sights and historical buildings of the city. Here are the recommended routes.

Day 1: Beyoğlu

If you have only one day to spare, follow this itinerary. Start early – it’s going to be a long day. Begin at SALT Galata on Bankalar Caddesi 11, just west of Karaköy Square, and then pop into the recently opened Vault Karaköy The House Hotel (above) at No 5. Then make your way to Kasa Galeri on the corner, and when you’re done there, it’s a five-minute walk to the next venue along Kemeraltı Caddesi, the Galata Greek Primary School, which was also a venue last year. Follow the big red sign to Istanbul Modern for a large group exhibition, and then head to DEPO at Lüleci Hendek Caddesi 12.

Next, take the long street leading up to İstiklal Caddesi, Boğazkesen Caddesi, which has several biennial venues off it. There’s the Museum of Innocence on Çukurcuma Caddesi 2 and the Italian High School (above), located at Tom Tom Kaptan Sokak 3, where visitors will find new works by five artists on the ground floor, the gym and the attic. The French Orphanage, known as the Palace of St Eugène and built in 1869, is one of three fictional biennal venues. Today it is rented by the plaster-cast man, Kemal Cımbız, and is to be imagined as a venue only. Up in Galatasaray, there’s a work in a room of the House Hotel Galatasaray at Bostanbaşı Caddesi 19. Across from the hotel, a house (No 30) will display a work of one artist and another nearby building, housing the Cezayir Restaurant, at Hayriye Caddesi 12, presents another artist’s project, as well as events forming part of the biennial’s public programme.

Turn left when you reach İstiklal Caddesi, and you’ll soon come across the second fictional venue, Casa Garibaldi (above, currently being restored), which belongs to the Società Operaia, an association founded by Italian workers in 1863 and named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, who lived in Constantinople in the 19th century. Spend a bit of time at ARTER at No 211, which hosts the biennial on all its floors. FLO, housed in the Anadolu Han, built at the end of the 19th century and now a shoe store, will host one artist’s work on its fourth floor.

There are two more biennial venues in the Pera district: the Pera Museum hosts the biennial on its third floor, while a room in the Adahan Hotel and the Adahan Cistern (above) are also venues.

Day 2: Kabataş–Kadıköy–Büyükada

Take a ferry from Kabataş to Kadıköy, where you can visit the small studio of Tunca Subaşı and Çağrı Saray on Yeldeğirmeni Sokak (above). Then take the Kaptan Paşa Seabus – which will be one of the venues as well as transporting visitors but will itself be one of the venues – to Büyükada, the largest of the Princes Islands.

On Büyükada, there are six venues: the public library, five rooms and the courtyard of the Hotel Splendid Palas, the Rizzo Palace, built in the 19th century and used as a residential house until 1961, the Mizzi Mansion (above), built in the second half of the 19th century and renovated by the prominent Italian architect Raimondo D’Aronco after an earthquake, Çankaya 57 (main image), a twin house built by an Armenian tradesman for his daughters in 1907–1908 and where Trotsky is said to have lived briefly when he was exiled on the island – more recently the location for a Turkish soap opera – and the Trotsky House or Yanaros Mansion, built in 1850s by Nikola Demades, where Trotsky lived between 1932 and 1933.

Day 3: Şişli, the Old City and the Bosphorus

Start in Şişli, where there are two venues: Hrant Vakfı and Agos, the new headquarters of the Hrant Dink Foundation on Papa Roncalli Sokak 128, and the Hrant Dink Vakfı and Agos–Parrhesia Centre, both dedicated to the Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor-in-chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, who was assassinated in 2009. Then walk (20 mins) or take a five-minute taxi to Taksim, from where you can take the 55T bus to the Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamam (above), which is located between Sultanahmet and the Byzantine walls, and is a short walk from the south coast of the Golden Horn.

The final venue is located in Village Bosphorus: European Shore and can be reached by the 150 bus from Hacıosman metro station. Located in Sarıyer, Rumelifeneri, a coastal village near the northwestern end of the Bosphorus, will host an artist’s work at the lighthouse. Opposite on the Asian side, in Beykoz, is the third imaginary venue, the Riva Beach.

A map showing the Istanbul venues (copyright CNES 2013, satellite images provided by Yandex, sourced from

Outside Istanbul, a provisional Biennial venue will be Kastellorizo, a Greek island two kilometres away from the Turkish coast. This week-long project in collaboration with the Fiorucci Art Trust will take place from September 7 to 13, 2015.

The 14th Istanbul Biennial takes place from September 5 to November 1, 2015.

Posted in Contemporary Art, Design, Exhibitions, History, Modern Art, Museums, Photography
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