Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night
They Might Be Giants
Istanbul is the final destination on my journey, so it is with some sadness that I write these last posts. It is a sadness I associate with the concept of ‘hazun’ which Orhan Pamuk describes in his evocative book about Istanbul. Hazun is a state of melancholy that Pamuk believes the whole city suffers from, that evokes a sense of spiritual loss reflected in the physical degradation of what was once magnificent, but which ultimately is positive as well as negative. Pamuk writes of hazun as a collective state, but it is also a state I feel as an individual. It is similar to the way I feel when I am in Riga, the capital of Latvia where my parents were born, where the city’s crumbling architecture mysteriously tugs at something deep within my psyche.
I had never considered Istanbul as a travel destination until very recently, when a number of colleagues had returned from visits there to see the Istanbul Biennial of contemporary art and raved about how much they loved the city. I had a rather dark picture of Turkey in my mind – grubby and shady, where women were in constant danger and the streets were full of disreputable dealers. But how wrong I was! And how delighted I am that I was so wrong! I have fallen in love with Istanbul. It has captured my heart and my mind in a way I can’t quite pinpoint. There is the wonderfully exotic mix of east and west, the emotive calls to prayer around which day and night are structured, the mosques and minarets and byzantine churches, the boat-laden Bosphorous, the endless stream of people on the Galata bridge, the fish stalls and pomegranate vendors, the stylish shops and cafes along Istiklal Street, the tiny alleyways crammed with little businesses, the beautiful wooden houses, the carpet sellers, the mouthwatering Turkish delight, the cats that live everywhere and glide around your feet in outdoor restaurants, the ruins of the past at every turn in Sultanahmet… But of course, the city is much more than a sum of its parts. Perhaps Pamuk is right when he talks at length about how the state of hazun has pervaded Istanbul, perhaps hazun itself is the glue that binds the physical city with its spirit.
The key reason I have come here is to experience the 13th Istanbul Biennial, this year curated by Fulya Erdemci. I’ve been to a number of other big international contemporary art exhibitions several times, the most recent being the Venice Biennale, but I’ve never been to this one, so I am interested to see how it will compare.
The Biennial is called Anne, Ben Barbar? (Mom, am I Barbarian?) also the title of a book by Turkish poet Lale Muldur. The word ‘barbarian’ stems from the ancient Greek ‘barbaros’, which refers to non-Greeks and non-citizens, and thus to foreigners. Of course now, the word has strong associations with a crude, uncivilised type of ‘other’. The curator has used this concept to develop a curatorial focus on the relationships between power, art, public space and politics, themes that were truly challenged as the Biennial was being organised. There were a string of public demonstrations centred around Taksim Square that started in May, continued into June and began again in September just prior to the opening of the Biennial. These anti-government protests were originally spurred by the violent break up of a public sit-in against plans to turn Taksim Gezi Park into a shopping mall. They became increasingly brutal with tear gas and rubber bullets being fired at demonstrators who were becoming more and more frustrated with the government’s anti-democratic behavior. As a result, the Biennial organisers changed their original plans to exhibit socially engaged work in public spaces, which included Taksim Square and a number of nearby locations. Instead, they chose five more conventional venues, four of them on the Beyoglu side of the river, the fifth in a shopping mall on the old side of the city.
I think the organisers made the right decision in terms of public safety, but I also think they may have missed an opportunity to really make the curatorial premise come to life. Here is a statement from the Biennial website:
The notion of the public domain as a political forum will be the focal point of the 13th Istanbul Biennial. This highly contested concept will serve as a matrix to generate ideas and develop practices that question contemporary forms of democracy, challenge current models of spatio-economic politics, problematize the given concepts of civilization and barbarity as standardized positions and languages and, above all, unfold the role of contemporary art as an agent that both makes and unmakes what is considered public. (Erdemci, F. Conceptual Framework. http://13b.iksv.org/en, viewed 12/10/2013)
I don’t know what works were omitted as a result of the changes, but perhaps one or two could have been shown without physical risk to the public. The statements in the catalogue and on-line website are so strong, it was ultimately disappointing to see a lot of work that failed to move me as art, let alone as politically active art. But I am probably being too harsh.
I have a professional pass to see the Biennial before it opens to the public and so Gerard and I get to see the show amongst an audience of curators, artists and journalists. We head to the main pavilion first, Antrepo No 3, which is in a large industrial building next to the Istanbul Modern, a private museum and art gallery that opened in 2004 on the banks of the Bosphorus. The first work we see as we approach the entrance to Antrepo is a huge rubber ball suspend from a crane-operated chain that gently crashes into the front of the building. Created by Turkish artist Ayse Erkman, it suggests a potential threat to both art and to architecture. We have our passes checked by attendants in the bright yellow Biennial t-shirts and then climb the stairs to see the work inside.
There are over 50 works in this venue, but I will only tell you about the ones that made a strong impression on me. One of those is by Mexican artist Jorge Mendez Blake, who has built a long narrow dry-stacked brick wall, no cement or render anywhere to be seen. It is so long and so narrow that it threatens to collapse at any moment. Although I see the work on two different occasions, it is only when I read about it later that I realize the whole structure is built on a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, a novel that explores the links between power, knowledge and bureaucracy. This gives the work a new edginess (and I can’t believe I didn’t see the book when I was in the gallery!).
Just opposite the wall is a large bill-board sized digital image by Freee art collective showing three people holding an orange banner that reads ‘PROTEST DRIVES HISTORY’ against a backdrop of a rocky escarpment. It is a powerful work, and I wonder what impact it would have had if displayed somewhere in Taksim Square. The natural rock formation also creates a charged conversation with Blake’s Kafkaesque wall.
Another standout work which I find both compelling and highly disturbing, is a hip-hop video called Wonderland by Turkish artist Halil Altindere. It features a group of young discontented men from the Sulukule neighbourhood of Istanbul which was once home to the Roma people before the government decided to redevelop the area. The youths are part of a gang seeking justice. They run through the streets, along the city’s old fortress wall, they are chased by the police, they sing and dance, and in the end they are shot to pieces after setting fire to a policeman. The music and cinematography are incredibly compelling but I find myself cringe when the young men start violently kicking the policeman and then set fire to him. It robs the video of its initial power, which was based on using art and music to challenge authority.
There are some quieter works in the show that I am drawn to for their understated elegance and conceptual depth. One is by New York based artist David Mareno, who references John Cage in his work Silence. It consists of a series of death masks with paper loudspeakers emerging from the mouths of each portrait. The visual aesthetics are simple yet profoundly poetic. I put my ear to some of the paper trumpets, but there is no sound and I am a little disappointed. It would have been exciting to access just a small diminuendo sample of the voices of the dead.
Gerard was particularly impressed with Claire Penecost’s soil-erg, in which she explores the links between food production and capitalism. In this work, carefully stacked bars of soil, moulded to the shape and size of gold ingots, have become the new currency. These are accompanied by over forty drawings of philosophers, thinkers and artists interested in ecological systems.
We also see a performance devised by Swedish partnership Goldin+Seneby who have contracted an actor to rehearse a play by Jo Randerson that challenges our participation and our complicity in a range of actions. The actress is incredibly energetic and works us hard – for example, do we stop her from trying to set alight a pile of plastic bags? At the time, I didn’t realize that the production funds for her performance are being traded on the financial market and the performance will last only as long as the money lasts.
The most compelling work at the Antrepo site is a video by Santiago Sierra created in collaboration with Jorge Golindo. Set in Madrid, it features a cavalcade of cars that slowly make their way down the main street of the city, carrying the upside-down portraits of all of Spain’s post-Franco prime ministers. It’s filmed in black and white and is accompanied by a rousing Soviet march. It is incredibly powerful and evokes a strong sense of deeply entrenched political corruption. You don’t need to know about Spanish history or that the country is undergoing an economic crisis or even where the work has been shot – the questioning of the misuse of political power is implicit.
The second site we visit is the Galata Greek Primary School, about a ten minute walk down the road from the Antrepo. The exhibition extends over five floors and features about 25 works. The first floor is completely overtaken by a strange and rather challenging series of performances devised by Inci Eviner. There is a woman moving about on a large scaffolding, another woman on a stage who constantly looks as though she is about to perform but doesn’t, and a series of workshop-like spaces where people seem to be interacting with each other about something I am not privy to. I am never quite sure what my role in these spaces or interactions is supposed to be – there is action and a constantly changing environment, but it is difficult to penetrate the essentially esoteric nature of the scenario (with the exception of an obvious reference to Duchamp). I am also being a bit stubborn – I want the work to engage me without having to read extensively about it.
On the staircase there is some photographic work by Wang Qingsong that was also on display at the Venice Bienniale and on the landing of the third floor, a text based work by Scottish artist Nathan Coley – WE MUST CULTIVATE OUR GARDEN – and a video by Annika Eriksson that features a group of stray dogs that live on the outskirts of Istanbul. There are numerous other video works that I watch for a short time, but I am frustrated by the demands they make on me as a viewer, so I tend not to stay long if there is a lack of narrative or the filming is poor quality.
The work I find most interesting on the fourth floor is a reading and writing room by Danish artists Elmgreen and Dragset who are interested in poetry, the theatre and the uncanny. They have installed an arrangement of desks, chairs and reading lamps (always very evocative for me) in a darkened space. On each table is a handwritten diary that, unfortunately, I am unable to understand because the writing is in Turkish. It is not clear who wrote the texts or why they were written – and the catalogue fails to offer any clues. I ask if I can add to the work by writing in one of the diaries but that is not allowed. I am impressed with the atmosphere that the artists have created but the language barrier has made it very difficult for me to engage with the conceptual underpinnings of the work.
On the top floor of the Galata Primary School is a little café and a series of works in the adjoining room that all seem to look like half finished documentary projects. There is too much reading required – pages of uninviting text and images pinned to walls and boards, newspapers on shelves and tables, and so on. Gerard and I sit in the café area and rest, contemplating our next destination, the Dutch Art Institute (DAI).
While we were wandering around the Galata Primary School, we had a surprise encounter, running into Sarah Jones, a past student of the Tasmanian College of the Arts who has been on the road for well over a year. She is now a Masters candidate at the DAI in Arnhem, which is holding a graduation exhibition in Istanbul. (Last year they held their graduation exhibition in new York!) The approach to education by DAI is based around monthly residential programs, often held in different parts of the world. Sarah talks about this teaching model with great enthusiasm and also reveals that for the first time, she loves art theory. I am very impressed. I get to briefly meet the head of the program and will email her at a later date – I want to know more about how they engage students with theory!
We meet up with Sarah at the Istanbul DAI, a rather cramped venue for the graduation show, but it is so interesting to see the work of international postgraduate students.
The third Biennial site is called SALT and it’s on the wonderful Istiklal Street. On the way there, we stop at a beautiful Antique print shop and I buy a map of Australia and the Pacific that was printed early last century, before Ataturk’s reforms that saw the replacement of Arabic with the Roman alphabet. The map is coloured pink and blue and the Arabic script, scrawled across Australia, looks both stunning and ominous.
SALT is a large gallery space with a number of floors, but the Biennial is only on the ground floor and features the work of only four artists. The space is dominated by a large installation by Diego Bianchi inspired by shopping, performance and the commercial world. It’s a wildly constructed landscape that has some elements of interactivity. For example, there are instructions to put your hand through a hole in a board and flip through your stored photos.
Halil Altindere, who also created the hip-hop video about dissatisfied youth has another, completely different work at this site – a hyper-real miniature security guard made of wax who looks rather odd with Gerard standing next to him! There is also a video work by Indian artist Amar Kanwar, but it fails to ignite my interest.
The most interesting part of our visit to SALT is an exhibition that is not officially part of the Biennial. It’s a comprehensive overview of Gulsun Karamustafa’s practice which includes painting collage, installation, printmaking and video. At first, I thought this was a group exhibition, but then learned that it is in fact the work of one artist. Karamustafa was without a passport for many years and I understand she was imprisoned for about 6 months but I am unclear about the reasons. There is a series of paintings that illustrate prison life, there are works that are completely over the top in their kitschness, there are videos and installations concerned with cultural displacement and installations about the formalities of etiquette … it is an impressively varied body of work.
The fourth Biennial site is Ater, also on Istiklal Street and with four floors of art works. Here I spend a long time with a video work by an Australian artist, Angelica Mesiti, that shows four different people making music in four different ways. It’s a meditative experience and I am surprised at my patience and attentiveness. I am particularly moved by a Tibetan throat singer. I also see a powerful video by Iranian artist Jananne Al-Ani, that was included in the last Sydney Biennale. It shows aerial shots of a desert landscape that appears to be under constant surveillance and threat of attack, accompanied by an apocalyptic soundtrack. Palestinian artists Basel Abba and Ruanne Abou-Rahme have created an installation that once again demands reading lots of text and absorbing lots of images, and American artist Jimmie Durham has contributed a strange totemic sculpture.
The fifth and final Biennial site is at 5533 IMC Blok, a modern shopping complex that sells carpets and clothing for Muslim women. It takes us some time to find the site, but eventually we make our way into a converted shop that has a table in the centre and a series of A4 images with text on the wall. It’s not a very big space and there is really not much to see, but the people here are friendly and so we sit down, drink Turkish tea, share some bread and discuss the art project by Lebanese artist Maxime Hourani that is being documented in the space. I’m not completely clear about the various stages of the project – that involves interpreting the notes on the A4 pages on the wall – but it is a socially engaged project that will ultimately end up producing a book of songs about particular places on the outskirts of istnabul. The artist invited musicians, architects and artists to use their own methodologies to research sites around the city that are considered marginal and then to work with musicians to turn those findings into songs of resistance. I question who is really going to benefit from this work and how it will ultimately impact on local communities. Is it art? Or is it a type of social work?
Overall, the Biennial leaves me feeling a bit flat. There are some compelling works, particularly at the Antrepo site, and I have to admit it is refreshing to see an exhibition that doesn’t just present another cross section of the most well known international contemporary artists, but there is too much overly demanding video and the experiments with socially engaged work fail to move me. I feel old fashioned. I want art to engage me aesthetically, to wow me and woo me through its formal qualities.
I might end this post on an exhibition we saw in Tatiania Kourochinka Gallery called Green Flower Street that is established in an artist’s wonderfully Bohemian and stylish home. The exhibition is actually a sideshow to the Biennial and features some beautiful works. One is incredibly simple – a video of a floral curtain blowing in the wind, projected in a room with a few pieces of simple Turkish furniture. This is on the lower floor of the house but we are also taken upstairs by the Russian curator working there who shows us art work by the artist who lives in the building. There are amazing papercuts, bold paintings and a very peaceful courtyard. Everything in this space feels so carefully considered and aesthetically pleasing, so well placed in relationship to everything else. Perhaps I am just an interior designer at heart…