'Istanbul!': In or beyond history?

The 9th International Istanbul Biennial
16 September – 30 October 2005

First observation. ‘Istanbul!’, the 9th Istanbul Biennial, pitched its tent on the shiftiest of shifting sands by claiming special status for Istanbul’s geo-political position at this precise historical moment. Second observation. The exhibition featured a nice line in ‘jokey’ art: ‘faking it’ could have been its motto. What is the connection? The first is a counsel of despair—and if you don’t laugh you cry.

Michael Blum constructed an elaborate, museum style display about Safiye Behar, an Atatürk mistress and Marxist feminist agitator active in Istanbul in the early 1900s, who, as that profile might suggest, did not exist. Khalil Rabah’s fictitious Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind appeared in the same venue, the run-down Deniz Palas Apartments, their faded glory amplifying the art’s ersatz aura. Ahmet Öğüt elsewhere (in a former tobacco warehouse) presented photographic evidence of transforming randomly chosen vehicles parked around Istanbul into simulations of taxis or police cars with coloured pieces of material. Ola Pehrson showed a DVD and many clunky props for his remake of a documentary Hunt for the Unabomber, about the home-grown United States terrorist: the work evinced a DIY quality belying and complementing its subject matter.

Certainly there was less jocular work. Wael Shawky’s elementary but compelling video opposed capital’s velocity to the slower rhythms of the Koran, recited by the artist while prowling the aisles of an Istanbul supermarket. (Perhaps there was dark humour in the obliviousness of passers-by). Johanna Billing presented a movie of Croatian children singing, in English, Magical World (written in 1968 by American singer Sidney Barnes). Their accents were excellent, their understanding seemingly less perfect. Croatia, like Turkey, is knocking on the door of the EU, with mixed support. Billing’s piece relied on awareness of such political contingency to amplify its charm. Her little film was about make believe, for the best of throat-catching motives. Yaron Leshem’s more aggressive piece comprised a light-boxed photograph of a simulated Palestine village, constructed by the Israeli army for training purposes, accompanied by an equally fictitious CNN news report of massacres there, a dark satire half a degree from reality.

A video installation by David Maljkovic, also dealing with damaged pasts and futures, epitomised the intersection of documentation and scepticism interweaving through the biennial. His work, about the ‘rediscovery’ of a Yugoslav Communist era monument to World War Two victims by Vojin Bakic, found wistful humour in Stalinist shifts of history. (A version displayed in Zagreb shortly thereafter featured actual sculptures by Bakic, which worked better than the collages and maquettes in Istanbul1). The flat-out funniest piece in the Biennial also emanated from the Balkans. Jakup Ferri spoke directly to a video camera to send up presumptions of avant-gardism on both sides of the former iron curtain, while questioning the probity and judgement of curators today. Ferri’s sophistication chimed well with the claim in an International Herald Tribune that ‘Istanbul’s latest incarnation is as a European hot spot in the tradition of Prague and Berlin’. The vein of hopelessness beneath the surface of his work also resonates with the Turkish concept hüzün, much elaborated upon in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (2005)—a sense of personal and social melancholy plangent with memories of the lost empire.

The exhibition, in all, was suitably diverting, a sufficient reward for negotiating hot, hilly streets to find the seven principle venues in abandoned warehouses and apartment buildings. The short history of the Istanbul Biennial—established 1989, the eighth oldest in the world—reveals a complicated dance with Istanbul’s mythology and Turkey’s politics. The 2005 biennial, on the other hand, centred on the Beyoğlu and Galata districts, areas with a long history of receiving minorities and well known to foreign visitors, but, a dervish or two aside, not mass tourism zones like Sultanamet featured in earlier events (the previous one, curated by Dan Cameron, employed the Haghia Sophia as a venue). The IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts), set up by the Eczacibasi family, sponsored the event. A number of artists were invited to undertake residencies of some six months in length beforehand, the better to integrate their art with the city and country. This program paid off predictably in terms of generating a lot of work about Istanbul, thus offering pointed juxtapositions to works referencing other cities, for example Berlin and New York. One could, in all, cheerfully account the exhibition as a success—but, as my opening assertions imply, deeper problems remain. A local communications professor downplayed the significance of the biennial at the opening (just another event, she sighed, in a big city full of them), but it clearly constituted an attempt to participate in the wider world—thus helping to demolish the very condition of specialness to which its curators, Charles Esche and Vasif Fortun, laid claim.

The pair ventured the conundrum of organising a biennial which aimed to side-step (their word) the dominant doctrine of the market, even though the ‘burgeoning phenomenon of the biennial since 1989 has driven much of the artworld’s global expansion’.2 They certainly avoided the trophy-head, tourist-driven approach to biennials in favour of local assertion (in this contrasting with the concurrent exhibition, Centre of Gravity, curated by director Rosa Martinez, the first group exhibition in the new—and happily uniconic—Istanbul Modern). Istanbul!’s invited artists, limited to sixty in number, were centred in Turkey and its extended region: the Balkans, the Middle East, Egypt, Iran and, to lesser extent, Europe, including a complementary exhibition at Esche’s home institution, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The 9th Istanbul Biennial, in both its regional emphasis and its engagement with the host city/country, offered a model and a challenge to Sydney, whose biennales have yet fully to achieve the international reputation to which they have aspired. If disappointingly thin in terms of major art, the Istanbul result this time was refreshing as an aggregated experience, and in displaying the virtue of local colour it certainly commanded respect.

Charles Esche has a reputed penchant for the political. He aligns with the relational aesthetics paradigm of reintroducing politics—effectively expunged in the era of the anti-aesthetic—to art, through the open-ended location of art in intersubjective social relations, as spilt social work. He and Fortun cite Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community (1993), however, rather than anything by Nicholas Bourriaud, as ‘the key text here’, a layered disquisition advocating ‘the singularity of each citizen confronting another person as simply human’.3 The curators’ philosophy also reflects orthodox curatorial predilection for conceptually oriented work in the mediums of installation and video (in spite of their announced intention to downplay the latter medium, it crops up repeatedly).

The pair pinned their hopes of outflanking globalisation on the city itself, or, having it both ways, on outside perceptions of it. ‘Being placed on a perceived borderline in many senses (perceived at least from the outside) gives the city a particular character and responsibility that charges the works in the biennial with stronger meaning than would be the case elsewhere’, they aver, for ‘the control systemology of capitalism is less secure here…and the conflicting interests of citizens and capital are generally more visually obvious than in western Europe’.4 It is hard, at this point, not to think of the cliché-ridden character of European debate over Turkey’s proposed entry into the EU. If one wanted a cheap metaphor for the difficulty of negotiating the political history complicated by the endless intricacies of East-West relations one need look no further than the accidental destruction, in installation, of Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya’s nine metre golden replica of David. The work of Hala Elkoussy, from Amsterdam/Cairo, is also pertinent (beyond being, for this reviewer, among the few truly resonant works in the exhibition). They comprised large photographic works and a poetically constructed video featuring the fringes of the latter city. The aesthetic awareness of strong, indirect lighting amplified the documentary power of the still photographs, while surreal interventions similarly lifted the video’s naturalism. Both groups of work featured blocks of flats in a wasteland, a common sight on the further reaches of Istanbul’s sprawling suburbs—light years from the Biennial—and, it seems, as ubiquitous a sign of globalisation, or modernisation, as the tourist buses kicking up the dust around every ruined monument in Turkey.

We might note in passing that traditionally based Aboriginal art has flourished under conditions of more enduring specialness than plausibly applies to Istanbul, but in both cases a scarily familiar question arises: is side-sidestepping the market tantamount to outwitting history, and equally as impossible? Like the knight playing chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, can anyone contrive, at best, any more than a stay of execution?

But let us flip the argument. Is it necessary to find these little pockets of resistance to history, as improbable as anti-gravitational matter as they may seem, to make art? Manifestly, it can help, because by definition they are against the flow. But there are other, extra-historical values which give art its footing—for example, in biology and its foundations in the structure of things. Perhaps it is time to update the early modernist quest for universals, armed as we are with a quiverful of postcolonial caveats. It is precisely this deeper, and if you will, dumber level of connection which seems patently missing in so much of the work on display in this biennial, as in most any in this distracted world. The curators would surely disagree, but their exhibition, in its confused desire for historical specificity outside of history, arguably manifested an unconscious hüzün for the lost virtues of modernism, aching to be reborn in contemporary dress.

notes: 

1. In Insert (first retrospective of Croatian video art), curated by Timomir Milovac et al, Zagreb State Fair, per Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 23 September–16 October 2005.

2. Charles Esche and Vasif Fortun, ‘The World is Yours’, in Deniz Ünsal (ed.), Art, City and Politics in an Expanding World: Writings from the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, 2005, p.26.

3. Ibid., p.30.

4. Ibid., p.28.