Return of the exhibition

12th Istanbul Biennial

The 2011 Istanbul Biennial could just as well have taken place at the Istanbul Modern, its neighbouring institution within the Antrepo warehouse compound in the city’s Tophane district. This is a biennial that knowingly does not want to behave like one. It instead acts, beguilingly, as if the Biennial were a museum exhibition, estranging both at once. The opening curatorial essay in the Biennial companion guide sums it all up: ‘The 12th Istanbul Biennial advocates for a renewed attention to the importance of the exhibition itself by privileging the display and juxtaposition of artworks in one central location’. It is a slightly ironic gesture, given that the art biennial is in itself an alternative exhibition model that sought to distinguish itself from museum set ups and ideologies, and so falling back into a museal visage would not be its most desirable outcome.

This edition of the Biennial, co-curated by the Brazilian independent curator Adriano Pedrosa and the Costa Rican-born Jens Hoffmann, who is Director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, is in its small way wanting to be a game-changer. It is conscious of the history of biennials and their shortcomings, yet wants still to be discernible as one and so finds a way to critique it whilst being complicit in the act. The curatorial gambit that they have resorted to is rather unexpected; taking the work (and life) of the late Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996) as their departure point, the curators latched onto Gonzalez-Torres’s series of ‘Untitled’ works and named the Biennial in the same fashion, alluding to the usual chestnut of affording changeable meanings over time and space to an activated audience base. Each of the five distinct group shows within the Bien­nial—Untitled (Abstraction), Untitled (History), ‘Untitled’ (Ross), ‘Untitled’ (Passport), and ‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun)—deployed a specific artwork of Gonzalez-Torres’s as its lynchpin, with the latter three sections being the actual titles of those works. And in a masterstroke of applied centrifugal genius, fifty solo artist presentations were variously anchored to these five group exhibits and segmented by an assumed, legible difference and thematic consistency across each grouping. Helping this along was the minimalist exhibition design by the architectural office of Ryue Nishizawa in Japan, which held the Biennial together with a series of interconnecting and labyrinthine white-box rooms that had large sheets of corrugated steel wrapping around them—each group exhibition was also distinguished from the other solo presentations via gray walls—keeping in sync with the industrial location of the Antrepo and probably helping the biennial to keep within budget.

There are rich pickings to be had from Gonzalez-Torres’s works, informed as they are by a heady mix of sexuality, tenderness, humour, love and loss, conceived on an explosive backdrop of AIDS politics, gay rights, war protests and the market capitalism of the eighties and nineties. These concerns remain very much present up until today, so it is small wonder that the curators chose to concentrate on regions such as Latin America (also native lands of the curators), the Middle East and Eastern Europe for their choice of artists. The dialogues that Hoffmann and Pedrosa want to instigate seem to come from a place that is firstly intimate but also infinitely topical and punctual, so it would appear that they were not interested in scouring the whole world for a balanced representation or to be on the money for the hottest young artists. Included were certain international biennale stalwarts, like Elmgreen and Dragset (whose The Black and White Diary, Fig. 5, 2009, a series of framed informal black-and-white snapshots of gay life and gay couples overloaded onto a long corridor of shelves, seemed glibly underwhelming); the French collective Claire Fontaine (who predictably angled for political agitation with requiem handouts on the police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, and a brick wrapped with the book cover of Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle), and the ubiquitous home favourite Kutlug Ataman. However, the most surprising (and rewarding) aspect of the biennial was its eagerness to draw on the past, or art history to be exact. The curators seemed keen for us to remember the past by giving us contextual placeholders, like the Bicho (1960) sculptures of Lygia Clark, the revolutionary photographs of Tina Modotti, the Vietnam War photomontages of Martha Rosler, and the masochistic performance work of Chris Burden (1970). They also introduced, to a new generation, lesser known older artists such as Dora Maurer, Teresa Burga, Elizabeth Catlett and Füsun Onur. This demonstrated the shared continuum and legacy within which all art must proceed and also be judged, rather than encouraging the sui generis assessment that one tends to make when at a contemporary art biennial.

Yet for all of its innovative additions, this Istan­bul Biennial may strike one as rather didactic and achieving too many pedagogical ends. It rightfully sought to foreground aesthetics (form, composition, medium, etcetera) as equal to political content and commitment. And while the biennial display was deemed to be meaningfully tight and artfully put together, it was perhaps too carefully considered and well-placed, leaving few loose ends for viewers to pick up. Therefore, the tradeoff for this conceptu­ally rigorous, erudite and respectful exhibition may be that it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, the remain­der variable of an enigma, the poetry that dances in between the gaps of logic and bodily senses. The sections that suffered most from literal determin­ism were undoubtedly ‘Untitled’ (Passport), and ‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun), where the works selected effusively plied us with images of passports and weapons. Kris Martin’s Obussen II (2010) is a pile of decorative emptied Howitzer shells; and two Pales­tinian artists, Dor Guez and Baha Boukhari, referred to the shifting status of Palestinians via docu­mented changes and ID requirements in scanned passport pages. Otherwise, we were hit with images of unadulterated violence, such as Weegee’s photos of dead men in the streets of New York, and Letizia Battaglia’s matter-of-fact gory documents of per­sons murdered by the mafia, shot while she was working as a photojournalist in Sicily in the mid- 1970s. However, when the chosen artwork did work, the effect was driven by both gravitas and levity, as can be seen in Mexican artist Edgardo Aragón’s HD video, Family Effects (2007–09), where children role-play in a make-believe sequence of organized crime shootings and defensive retaliations that are in fact a real part of their family history. Vesna Pavlovic’s atavistic slideshow installation Search for Landscapes (2011), which was commissioned for the Biennial, is equally mesmeric. Instead of passports, we get a travelogue of a family’s trips around the world, in the 1960s, through a palimp­sest of images that give us a profile of the popu­lar tourist landscapes that have galvanised most of our home photos. The slow click of Pavlovic’s slide projector was later superseded by video projections that seemed to send us into a time compression chamber. This was evidenced in the video, Untitled (TIME) (2010), of American artist Mungo Thomson, in which he flashes, in rapid sequence, all the covers of Time magazine from 1923 to 2010 within two minutes; and Ali Kazma’s video O.K. (2010) which hypnotically captures, over several monitors, a gov­ernment clerk so ferociously stamping documents in lightning repetitive rotations of the wrist that real time seemed to have been left behind. In the same spirit of re-organised time, Akram Zaatari’s affect­ing Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010) blends a lovelorn and sexual dialogue between two men into the discordance between the screen image of an inscribing typewriter and the virtual internet chatroom to which the conversation most properly belongs.

Cribbing (in order to undermine) the common chronological unfolding of art movements and themes in art museums, the biennial opened with the section Untitled (Abstraction), positioning itself to address the criticism regarding ‘modern art’s will to silence, hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse’, to quote Rosalind Krauss (as the cura­tors did). The purported indifference of formal­ist art to life or death is an aspect that Hoffmann and Pedrosa would like to challenge and, fittingly, the first biennial work that one was most likely to encounter was Adrian Esparza’s Far and Wide (2011), which deconstructs and restrings traditional Mexican serapes into a new geometric wall hang­ing, but according to what he sees as the inspired layouts in the historical Mexican vista of José María Velasco’s painting Hacienda de Chimalpa. The cura­tors, to some degree, succeeded in making it appar­ent to us that preoccupations with line, shape and colour can be rerouted to satisfy our cultural and emotional needs, reuniting them with our imagination, bodies and experiences. The articulated fold­able plywood floors in São Paulo-based Renata Lucas’s Failure (Falha) (2003) is exemplary of the transformed states of modernist grids, where the viewer can physically reconstruct the terrain that is under his or her feet. These rectilinear boards move up and down depending upon who steps into the room, dismantling any long term fixtures of abstract frames of reference.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the curators could be seen to be guilty of the very thing that they themselves accuse of high modernist abstraction; the curatorial conceptualisation of the biennial appeared so bloodlessly crystalline that it threat­ened to ossify into rigid vectors that steer mean­ing into directed cul-de-sacs. The series, ‘Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect’ by Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin, which assidu­ously attempts to embed 1940s modernism (in the shape of an Alexander Calder) within a geopolitical constellation of world powers who were jostling for supremacy at that time, is emblematic of the Bien­nial’s overweening ambition to make (abstract) art speak to its locale and history. Some interpretations just cannot be forced, but when they do happen, they are often serendipitous and compelling. The case in point is Juan Capistran’s Black on Black (Two Johns) (2007), a sharp but poignantly touch­ing piece that communes with all the five thematic sections. The black John McCracken-like planks are anthropomorphically bent, mimicking surreptitious gay cruises in dim corners, but also containing the aggression of physical harassment in conflict-ridden places. The Istanbul Biennial could have been so much more nuanced, if only the organisers could be hell-bent in other more capricious ways to take apart the biennial as exhibition. 

Edgardo Aragorn, Family effects, 2007-09. HD video, 25:35mins. Courtesy the artist. 

Kris Martin, Obussen II, 2010. 700 found objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy Sies+Höke, Düsseldorf, Germany. Photography Achim Kukulies. 

Renata Lucas, Failure (Falha), 2003. Plywood, hinges, pushers, dimensions variable. Photography Nathalie Barki. Courtesy the artist. 

Vesna Pavlovic, Search for Landscapes, 2011. Five 35mm slide projectors each with 80 slides, five portable vintage screens, and five projector stands, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and G Fine Art Gallery, Washington DC, USA. Photography Nathalie Barki. 


‘Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial)’, was held from 17 September – 13 November 2011.

Adele Tan is a curator and critic based in Singapore. She holds a PhD in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.