I suspect that by the time this article appears in print, many art reviewers will have publicly bemoaned the ‘self-censorship’ affecting this Istanbul Biennial, A Good Neighbour. While the issue is a real one—Turkey is going through a very troubling political phase, the ramifications of which are felt across all sectors of civil society—Western preoccupation with artistic freedom in non-Western countries may be somewhat misplaced. Censorship is an extremely serious problem for the media, academia and political debate, but how much does it damage art? All great masterpieces of European art created before the 19th century have been produced in societies in which it would have been dangerous to publicly express heretical political or religious opinions.
It is true that dictatorships of the paranoid kind, such as regimes in which dabbling in abstract painting is enough to get you into trouble, drive genuine art underground. But the success of this small biennial demonstrates that in countries ruled by ‘merely’ authoritarian governments it is still possible to produce important art and beautiful exhibitions. If anything, A Good Neighbour shows that although commitment to making explicit ideological statements is understandable, even admirable, it is not always conducive to the creation of artworks that transcend the immediate urgency of local political situations.
As former participants in many large international exhibitions, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the Danish artist duo who curated this exhibition, have experienced firsthand the distortions created by over-ideological curatorial plans. Like other artists-turned-curators, they do not suffer from the kind of creativity envy that often drives professional curators to contrive pseudo ‘artistic’ exhibition rationales. On the contrary, they have created an exhibition that respects the individuality of the artworks and the agency of the spectator. This biennial is not packed to the rafters with legions of artists competing for space and attention, and because of this the visitor does not feel the need to rush through to pack it all in. Even the video works can be experienced in full—a rare luxury at an art biennial.
A Good Neighbour focuses on the personal, social and political dimensions of neighbourliness, a thematic thread that provides a very readable and coherent curatorial narrative. Such is the clarity of the display, one does not need to refer to the catalogue to fathom why works were selected and presented next to each other. This level of intelligibility is a great achievement, especially if one considers how often interpretations of contemporary group exhibitions need to rely on the exegetic crutch provided by curators’ essays.
In line with its focus on neighbourhoods, the curatorial narrative has a genuine local flavour. Not only does the exhibition showcase many Turkish, Balkan and Middle Eastern artists, but it also engages intelligently with Istanbul’s extraordinarily rich urban fabric. Local artists and curators with whom I spoke at the exhibition’s opening praised Elmgreen and Dragset’s commitment to the local art scene, which they came to appreciate by spending a great amount of time liaising with local galleries, artists, curators and cultural institutions. This inclusive approach has paid-off, resulting in an event that feels very much at home in Istanbul, a characteristic that links it to exhibitions, such as Manifesta, conceived to reflect the specificity of the host town. This commitment to the specificity of place was reinforced by an absence of the usual coterie of global-art superstars and commercial and institutional backers. (A similar lack of deference to celebrity and big money was evident at Documenta and the Venice Biennale.)
Generally speaking, A Good Neighbour is a show in which the political manifests through the personal. This indirectness can have significant impact when artists concentrate on the concreteness of human experience rather than indulge in ideological declarations. Probably the most moving and powerful work is Erkan Özgen’s Wonderland, a single-channel video installation showing a Syrian boy silently mimicking his experience during his country’s civil war. The boy’s extraordinary expressivity more than compensates for his lack of speech, his disability being a kind of bodily ‘censorship’ that undermines verbal language but leaves intact a more profound kind of physical and emotional communication.
Özgen’s work is echoed by Adel Abdessemed’s Cri, a three-dimensional sculptural rendition of Hunh Công Út’s Pulitzer-winning photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running away from a burning village. Here too, a young victim of war speaks to us through her muteness, her silent scream resonating in an empty room. The ivory body is sculpted with exquisite finesse, as if it were a precious figurine produced to adorn the living room of a rich collector, creating an unsettling clash between the formal beauty of the work and the horror of the subject matter. It is worth noting that the original photograph was at the centre of a recent media controversy that ensued when Facebook censored it, proving, once again, that censorship is by no means a problem exclusive to authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. This is a topical issue at the time when WikiLeaks and the controversy surrounding the use of social media by terrorist organisations have reignited the debate about the limits of freedom of expression.
In some of the works the eloquence of silence is deeply unsettling. Vajiko Chachkhiani’s Life Track confronts the viewer with a slow-motion video of a scowling middle-aged man who gazes suspiciously at us from beyond the
glass panes of a closed window. The man’s hostility hints at the dark side of interpersonal relationships between strangers living next to each other, almost as it were an ironic rejoinder to the ‘good neighbour’ celebrated by the exhibition title. On another level, it may be legitimate to read into the work an allusion to the deep mistrust that undermines Turkey’s relationships with many of its regional neighbours, such as Greece, Russia, Armenia, Syria and, above all, the still unrecognised Kurdish nation.
Not all references to divisive political or social themes are so oblique, and several artists dealt quite openly with issues surrounding gender identity and sexual preference. A striking example is Mahmoud Khaled’s Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man. This touching installation occupies a whole three-storey home, which the artist had transformed into the fictional abode of an imaginary gay person, his life narrated by an audio recording. Each narrative segment of the recording links aspects of the protagonist’s lonely and mysterious life to the house’s contents: furniture, ornaments, even entire rooms. It is work that openly references those types of museum interpretive displays in which the visitor is guided through the home of a famous historical figure. Khaled’s installation, however, eschews the narrowly documentary approach of museum pedagogy, emphasising instead lyrical indeterminacy.
A similar emphasis on the enigmatic poetic resonances of domestic objects links Khaled’s work to Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s Domain of Things. This is a performative installation in which the contents of an old-fashioned bourgeois living room are mounted on mobile platforms. Two black-clad performers hide under the platforms and slowly move them, incessantly transforming the configuration of the room. This is at first hard to discern, as the installation is immersed in almost total darkness and the performers do their job very slowly. Eventually the dream-like quality of the work comes forth with great efficacy, mesmerising the onlooker with the eeriness one experiences when the familiar turns into the uncanny.
Perhaps, the success of exhibitions such as A Good Neighbour or, to a lesser extent, the 2016 Manifesta 11—an intelligent event also curated by an artist—may suggest the recipe for good biennial: keep it small, engage the host community, do not overcook the conceptual framework, respect the independence of the artworks and the intelligence of the onlooker.
Adel Abdessemed, Cri, 2013. Ivory, 138 x 111 x 60cm. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe. Photograph Sahir Uğur Eren.
Erkan Özgen, Wonderland, 2016. Still, single-channel HD video, 03:54min. Courtesy of the artist. Presented with the support of SAHA – Supporting Contemporary Art from Turkey. Photograph Sahir Uğur Eren.
Pedro Gómez-Egaña, The Domain of Things, 2017. Metal structure, wooden panels, furniture, sound, performance, dimensions variable.
Vajiko Chachkhiani, Life Track. Still, single-channel HD video with sound, 03:34min. Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Marzona (Berlin).
Dr Marco Marcon is Artistic Director and Co-founder International Art Space, Western Australia.</p>