The 14th Istanbul Biennial is winding down just as the cooler weather rolls in. It seems somehow appropriate. On my trip to the Princes Island last week the sea air blew cold and nipped at my neck to the point where I could barely contemplate anything beyond the icy breeze. While travelling across the salty sea is part of the Biennial experience, according to the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, I eschewed the health benefits of salt water – the material that is the much-touted focus of this Biennial – and went inside the ferry to huddle up next to a heater with a warm tea in hand.
Yet the end of the Biennial is also bittersweet; it has been a truly incredible two months of art. After visiting more of the venues, I’ve compiled another list of my favourite works. The focus will be on the Galata Greek Primary School and Büyükada, both of which are host to some mammoth installations that are in close conversation with the site (and space) they occupy. This, to me, is the appeal of such a far-flung and large-scale biennial: site-specific works that would never feel at home in a gallery or even a museum.
Galata Greek Primary School
The Galata Greek Primary School houses a focused and concise collection of works, especially when compared to the 13th Istanbul Biennial for which the school was packed to the brim. Each floor is dedicated either to a single artist or to two artists whose works complement one another. Overall, the works touched on the subject of people who have disappeared or been made invisible.
Anna Boghiguian, ‘The Salt Traders’ (2015)
Anna Boghiguian’s installation ‘The Salt Traders’ (2015) is the first piece you see upon entering the school, and it is one of the best in the Biennial. Two sails hang from the ceiling – one a dark red, the other featuring a map of the world – and salt is scattered in piles on the floor. In front of a line of windows there are what look like chalkboards, with frames from a beehive taking the place of the boards. The orderly placement of these frames is punctured by the very different materials inside them: there are coloured salts, decaying honeycomb, historic photographs, sketches and paintings of maps, Ottoman power structures, the sea and much more. As a whole, these structures create an interesting dialogue on nature, art and historical narratives. Boghiguian describes the work as a boat carrying salt in ancient times reappearing in a future, post-digital world. Yet the installation reminded me of the global shipping routes run by Armenian merchants in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries, and the devastating political and social effects the rise and fall of economic networks such as these can have.
Michael Rakowitz, ‘The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours’ (2015)
Another large-scale work that reflects on the Armenian past and present is Michael Rakowitz’s ‘The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours’ (2015). It seems appropriate, in the literal sense, that one room features a giant table strewn with dogs' bones from Sivriada, the island were Istanbul’s stray dogs were sent in 1911. Also on the table (and covering the floor of an entirely separate room) are plaster casts of mouldings and friezes designed by the Armenian artisan Gabaret Cezayirliyan for the city’s Art Nouveau buildings. Using an ancient tradition of mixing dogs' bones in plaster, Rakowitz is resurrecting both the dogs and the design knowledge of an Armenian community that has severely diminished in size over the past century. On display in another room are the rubbings of architectural motifs found on buildings in Istanbul that were designed by Armenians. As a whole, the installation reflects on the expulsion and erasure of certain populations, while also rebuilding what has been lost.
Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, ‘From the Island of the Day Before’ (2015)
On the same floor as Rakowitz’s work is Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s installation ‘From the Island of the Day Before’ (2015). Occupying what used to be the school’s library, the installation recreates this centre of learning by lining the walls with cupboards filled with books and educational items from the Galata Greek School’s archives. On a table in the centre of the room 668 notebooks are piled high in the shape of an island, and hidden in each one is the name of a known student of the school. The installation poses the question of where these students are now, while simultaneously creating an environment where we, as the audience, become the students. Sitting on one of the school’s old benches and contemplating the topography created by Büyüktaşçıyan, you can’t help but feel the school has come alive again.
Finally, the Mumbai-based artist Prabhakar Pachpute has created multiple works on the lives of coal miners and the trauma and psychological impact of working deep in the bowels of the earth. Though all the works fall under the title of ‘What We Have Left is the Blue Water’ (2015), the most striking is a classroom that Pachpute has transformed into a coal mine. With flashlight in hand, you can explore this underground world and the miners who populate it.
Exploring the venues on Büyükada, the main Princes Islands venue – with the staging of works in old mansions no longer in use – felt like an escape into the past. The fact that the art on display, while both grand and captivating, does not critically engage with the island, Istanbul or any other broader regional issues furthered this idea of travelling to Büyükada as an escape of sorts.
Adriàn Villar Rojas, ‘The Most Beautiful of All Mothers’ (2015)
You can’t go to Büyükada and not mention the artist Adrián Villar Rojas and his stunning installation ‘The Most Beautiful of All Mothers’ (2015). Staged in the sea at the foot of the Yanaros Mansion, more commonly known as Leon Trotsky’s house, are Villar Rojas's gigantic sculptures of animals. Composed of both organic and inorganic materials, each sculpture has one animal cast in white fibreglass which is burdened by another animal made of organic materials such as wood, pottery and cloth. As the de facto showpiece of the Biennial – a photograph of the installation is featured in just about every write-up I’ve seen – it certainly does impress.
Marcos Lutyens, ‘Neurathian Boatstrap’ (2015)
Yet I found myself drawn to other works on the island. The two installations on the Kaptan Paşa Sea Bus heavily featured salt water and the sea. Marcos Lutyens’s installation ‘Neurathian Boatstrap’ (2015) has you enter into the centre of the ferry, which has been covered in a type of rough felt, through an increasingly narrow entryway made of old wooden planks. Once you’ve arrived, you find an overturned dinghy that has been stripped to its skeleton. There are many working parts in this installation (more than can be mentioned here), yet they come together to form an hypnotic space.
When you walk to the top of the Kaptan Paşa Sea Bus you'll find Pınar Yoldaş’s installation ‘Saltwater Heart’ (2015, main featured image). Salt water is pumped through a series of tubes reminiscent of blood vessels. Watching the water make its way through the structure, against a backdrop of an expanse of blue sky, is mesmerising.
Merve Kılıçer, ‘Mater.ial’ (2014–2015)
Merve Kılıçer’s installation ‘Mater.ial’ (2014–2015) at the Büyükada Public Library is another favourite. Though not nearly as grand as the other installations on the island, Kılıçer’s drawings, etchings and prints are both delicate and powerful. I was particularly drawn to her two handmade books; they tell the creation stories of Tiamat and Inanna with intricate, colourful, other-worldly drawings.
Susan Philipsz, ‘Elettra’ (2015)
One of the major draws of the Biennial exhibitions on Büyükada seems to be the venues themselves. In the Rizzo Palace, a traditional wooden house that has been unoccupied since 2010, the crowds were more interested in taking photographs of the decrepit building than watching Ed Atkins’s stirring video installation ‘Hisser’ (2015). The same was true, though to a lesser degree, for William Kentridge’s five-channel video installation, ‘O Sentimental Machine’, at the Hotel Splendid Palas, a stately, Art Nouveau-inspired building.
The work most in tune with its surroundings is Susan Philipsz’s ‘Elettra’ (2015) at the Mizzi Mansion. This installation focuses on the remains of the ship Elletra, which belonged to Guglielmo Marconi, the radio-telegraphy pioneer. Philipsz photographed the remaining segments of the ship, which had been cut up after falling into a state of disrepair. The photographic prints are paired with underwater recordings, ranging from radio signals to the sounds of boat engines. Influenced by Marconi's idea that every sound we ever make is still out there, Philipsz explores the spatial qualities of sound, and their relationship with architecture. As you sit listening to the sounds of the sea bouncing off the old mansion's walls, you'll begin to look at the space as a part of the installation – site-specific artwork at its best.
The Biennial runs until November 1, although the Biennial exhibition at Istanbul Modern has been extended to November 26.
All photos have been provided by IKSV.