It seems that in recent years the majority of biennales, through the lofty chorus of their titles and curatorial rationales, with the curator as sage, the artist as advocate and the artwork’s self-declared role of ‘interrogation’ or ‘confrontation’, collectively presume to apprise, offset and/or enlighten us about our current global travails. These include the socio-political, the economic and the environmental, if not more, implying that art can absolve us and correct the world: art as theology, panacea, salvation.
The most recent example of this is Adam Szymczyk’s documenta 14, split in 2017 between Kassel and Athens. Its double act was announced at the height of rancour between Germany and Greece, calling attention to Europe’s economic, migration and democratic crises and its violent progeny of racism, re-emerging nationalism and rampant capitalism. Entitled ‘Learning from Athens’ Szymczyk proposed a documenta that ‘interrogates [there’s that word] the position of the institution by reversing the role of host that it has grown so accustomed to, instead shaping an exhibition in a context where it is a guest…’1 In doing so, of course, he was making a political point about the hegemony of Germany within the European Union and its browbeating of Greece, as the weakest member, over its economic vandalism and political obstinacy. (He has described documenta as ‘the equivalent of the international art world’s conscience’.2 —my emphasis.) Szymczyk has form here. His 2012 Berlin Biennale was roundly chastised by critics for its indulgent Left politics and attachment to the fantasia of the then Occupy movement. Reports indicate that the Athenians did not take too lightly to the idea of sharing, accusing the title of being ‘condescending’, launched amid accusations of ‘colonial attitudes’, and castigated by graffitists as ‘crapumenta’. Whereas in Kassel, the ‘political urgency’ continued the artistic ‘confrontations’ [and there’s that word] with issues such as ‘the endangerment of democracy, neoliberal globalisation and the refugee crisis.’3 To repeat, art as theology, panacea, salvation.
Stephanie Rosenthal’s 2016 Biennale of Sydney titled The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed, similarly presented art for our deliverance but, thankfully, less stridently. It offered its venues as ‘embassies’ or ‘safe spaces’ for thought, implying an indispensable need in our challenged daily lives. The venues focused on ‘our interaction with the digital world, displacement from and occupation of spaces and land, and the interconnections and overlaps between politics and financial power structures’4—this after the fracas of 2014 generated by activist artists against the Biennale’s corporate sponsor. Other biennales lean towards an equally homiletic yet geo-political directive, such as the 2016 Singapore Biennale: An Atlas of Mirrors, which positioned Southeast Asia as a ‘vantage point through which we recognise our world anew’, its arc of shared histories, diverse cultures and pre-state national entities highlighting ‘the challenges that beset contemporary conditions’ (again my emphasis).5
Orhan Pamuk’s character Mevlut Karatas, from his novel A Strangeness in My Mind (2014), a portrait of Istanbul between 1969 and 2012 seen through the life of a boza (traditional drink) seller, would give testimony to the current condition of the city, both its topography and psyche, and its moody oscillations between pessimism and optimism. As one eminent institutional director opined at the press launch of the 2017 Istanbul Biennial: A Good Neighbour, ‘The city has been brutalised, but it is still beautiful’. This was in reference to the 2016 so-called coup from which journalists, the judiciary, military, government and education employees were purged and gaoled, to multiple terrorist attacks against international tourism and the economy, and the ongoing physical and political transformation of President Erdoğan’s building blocks towards a revived Ottoman Empire with himself as chosen successor, ‘the Sultan of a new Islamic caliphate’. 6 The Gezi Park protests were emblematic of a long seething public response. Turkish artist Halil Altindere’s video work Wonderland (2013), exhibited in Fulya Erdemci’s 2013 Istanbul Biennial, highlighted such frustration and resistance, if not profound animus. In it a group of combative Romani hip-hop rappers, Tahribad-ı İsyan (Rebellion of Destruction) lament the Turkish Ministry of Housing’s forced redevelopment of the historic neighbourhood of Sulukule, home to Istanbul’s Roma population since the Byzantine Empire. Confirming this work’s merit, it was purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2015 as one of only five contemporary Turkish works in its collection.
While this year’s (post-coup) constitutional referendum was a marginal victory for Erdoğan, presenting him with unprecedented powers, he lost the vote in Turkey’s main cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. A neighbour if not provocateur to volatile events in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, the country now staggers between a creeping Islamist nationalism and efforts to retain its secular Kemalism, a bipolar split between urban and rural, and a worsening conflict with its Kurdish population. Erdoğan’s skirmishes with Europe, over the latter’s ongoing unwillingness to accept Turkey into the EU, given its dubious human rights record exacerbated by post-coup repression, has resulted in the Continent flooded with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. At the time of the 15th Istanbul Biennial’s launch, it secured a major arms deal as (an anti-Soviet Russia) NATO member, with Russia.
In light of Fulya Erdemci’s post-Gezi Park Istanbul Biennial: Mom Am I Barbarian? (2013), which presented germane considerations of contemporary forms of democracy, civilisation and barbarity, and the making and unmaking of the ‘public’, and seen in synch with documenta 14, the 2017 Istanbul Biennial: A Good Neighbour had the potential to expand upon similar considerations. These were implied by its title, not least because Turkey is bordered by eight countries of varying disequilibrium. Is it a good neighbour? Given the increasingly regressive political environment, the Biennial could be seen to be in survival mode in a country besieged by increasing uncertainty and suppression.
The Istanbul Biennial has been organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) since 1987, with this year’s version curated by the Danish artist duo Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset. Being artists themselves, and as a continuation of themes engaged in their own practice, their exhibition focused on differing notions of home, neighbourhoods and identity, preferring to give voice to the individual artists, that it might ‘bear traces’ of being curated by them. Its softly-softly but no less resonant focus was on,
… multiple notions of home and neighbourhoods, exploring how living modes in our private spheres have changed throughout the past decades. Home is approached as an indicator of diverse identities and a vehicle for self-expression, and neighbourhood as a micro-universe exemplifying some of the challenges we face in terms of co-existence today.7
The notion of community was further advanced through the selection of its six venues within walking distance, with fifty-five artists from thirty-two countries, offering a more compact and focused structure than the braggadocio of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev‘s oversized 2015 Biennial.
The pre-opening press conference on 12 September revealed that the duo’s concept emerged during the fallout surrounding Brexit, and the USA presidential race during which, as is widely known, Donald Trump called for a wall to be built between the United States and Mexico. Both countries were supposed at that time as not being good neighbours, a hypothesis perhaps predictably modish from the European Left posturing against Anglo-American hegemony. Absent was an equal critique of other concurrent, disquieting entities—Syria, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Russia—all Turkey’s neighbours—China and North Korea. Their inquiry into what makes a ‘good neighbour’ was directed towards the personal challenges of coexistence, placing scrutiny upon real lives (‘people live differently to media headlines’). In lieu of a curatorial statement they offered forty questions, ranging from; ‘Is a good neighbour from a neighbouring country? Is a good neighbour a stranger you don’t fear? Is a good neighbour a man with a gun to protect his property?’ to ‘Is a good neighbour someone who just moved in? Is a good neighbour someone who would never complain? Is a good neighbour someone who lives the same way as you? Is a good neighbour too much to ask for?’8
This understated approach was apparent in many of the mainstream, at best subtle, works presented at the converted warehouse, Istanbul Modern. There were exceptions to this, including Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet’s Colosse Aux Pieds D’Argile (2015), an installation comprising concrete cylinders and marble columns from Beirut buildings, intoning capitalist profitmaking and the processes of ruin. Another exception was Mongolian artist Xiao Yu’s Ground (2014/17), a durational performance between a stubborn donkey and two equally stubborn Chinese farmers ploughing a field of dirt and concrete, seen as a comment upon the rampaging development of the city and Erdoğan’s ambitious schemes for the transformation of the country’s infrastructure (referred to as his ‘crazy projects’). And also Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed’s freestanding sculpture Cri (2015), a life-size statue of the naked, screaming girl fleeing from the napalm bombing of her village, from photojournalist Nick Ut’s famous 1972 Vietnam War image, its discordant combination of choreographic poise, violence and suffering, and loss of home underscored by its material, small pieces of ivory.
In contrast, the artists showing at the Galata Greek Primary School presented works of greater potency. Unlike other biennials centred around state funded museums, many of Istanbul’s visual art venues are privately sponsored, cultural extensions of major corporations or banks, or reanimated buildings. The Istanbul Biennial over the years has been presented in makeshift museum or warehouse spaces such as Istanbul Modern, the until recently adjacent Antreppo building, now demolished for a mega-harbour side development, and what is considered the cultural and architectural icon of Istanbul, the Atatürk Cultural Centre at Taksim Square, a venue in 2007 and now closed, the announcement of it being demolished as part of the proposed Gezi Park/Taksim Square redevelopment adding incitement to the 2013 riots. This is the third occasion where the Galata Greek Primary School has been used as an exhibition site, one of the main education centres for Greek children for over a century, now testament to the city’s many changes of demography, forced or otherwise. In classrooms, hallways, stairwells and the school’s ballroom, artworks enticed the viewer’s sympathy, viscerally, through their varying degrees of intensity. The most patent of these is Turkish artist Erkan Özgen’s short video Wonderland (2016), (not to be confused with Halil Altindere’s aforementioned work of the same title), of a deaf, mute thirteen year old boy, who had escaped the Syrian town of Kobanî near the Turkish border, when ISIS invaded in 2015, fitfully acting out his witness to the trauma of capture, depravation and execution. Its shocking visual narrative and title invoked the impossibility of the viewer’s understanding of the unspeakable. Retreating from this work, one may have compared the artist’s positioning of trauma with the viewer’s experience, to Ai Weiwei’s crass photographic re-enactment of the fate of another Syrian boy, who drowned off the coast of Turkey in 2015.
Less extreme, were the following works. German artist Olaf Metzel’s Sammelstelle (1992/2017), of a ruptured, perhaps vandalised corrugated iron enclosed room, the material analogous to temporary and military constructions, the entrance to which is gained via a turnstile, indicating, somewhat literally, political and social displacement, and enclosure. Iraqi artist Mahmoud Obaidi’s Compact Home Project (2003-04), an archive of books and folders presented on shelves, made from mangled metal and mesh dividers, and including sketches and newspaper clippings collected by the artist since he left Iraq in 1991, responded to loss of homeland and art’s portrayal of dispossession and its amelioration. And Turkish architect-photographer Ali Taptik’s Friends and Strangers (2017), an installation of mural size photographs occupying the staircase landing walls to the building’s four floors, reflected upon empathy, proximity and urban interconnection, and echoed the curators’ forty questions by asking ‘How do we relate to individuals we don’t know?’ (its online component of characters further echoes the Biennial’s theme of co-existence, relationships and understanding). One of its photographs, in numerous shades of moody monochrome, has several of Istanbul’s ubiquitous dogs lazing before the rear aspect of a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic and its defining ideology of Kemalism,9 being the first statue of him erected in 1926 at Seraglio Point on the Golden Horn, overlooking the Bosphorus. Surrounding the seemingly forgotten statue is a ramshackle building-site fence, strands of barbed wire, a neglected garden within a decaying stone wall, and stadium-type lights on modern concrete poles, an image of ‘co-existence’ absoluteness and forthrightness, and symbolic of the prevailing outlook.
The politics imbued in A Good Neighbour might be deceiving, but how confrontational the curators and the Biennial were intended to be may be conjectured. The appointment of an internationally known gay artist duo, and in the current repressively charged atmosphere, has hardly been mentioned in the international press as if to be polite or not wanting to make any substance of it;10nor has it seemed to have presented itself as an issue beyond the administration of the Biennial. Despite the apparent softly-softly approach, some works, as noted, are quite evident in their emphasis. This is fine, but being political does not make it ‘art’; some presentations failed to transcend the pedagogy of their wall texts, a failure of much recent ‘art’ and biennales.
The Pera Museum, a private museum, once a hotel, is a stunning example of Istanbul’s historic architecture, and this is its first participation as a Biennial venue. It presented probably the most cogent grouping of artists, perhaps equally so with the Galata Greek Primary School. Here American artist Fred Wilson’s installation Afro Kismet (2017), of historic photographs, engravings, paintings, chandeliers, antique furniture, miniatures, contemporary Iznik tile panels and more, related to Ottoman culture and the roles of black people within it, the politics of inclusion, exclusion and erasure in global cultural histories. Monica Bonvicini’s video Hausfrau Swinging (1997), of a naked female (the artist) repeatedly bashing her head (in a box) against a double screen seemed to me to be more contextually challenging than Adel Abdessemed’s Cri, not only for the inciting nakedness of the female body, albeit presented minimally via a small television on the floor below said screens, but also for its feminist stance against domesticity and gender roles, and the home as a limiting space permeated by violence, a galling issue in an increasingly conservative and still patriarchal environment that has seen some art exhibitions closed down for being ‘anti-Turkish’.11 Of the other venues, the Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam, a male and female public bath house built in 1477, saw its immediate neighbourhood, architecture and historicity, surpass the audience’s interest in its artworks. In a bathing room gender-swap, Monica Bonvicini showed again here in the male section and American artist Stephen Rhodes in the female. In this context the artists could have been seen as bad neighbours, both inside and out.
Invariably, there is an independent exhibition that hovers on the margins of an international biennale that riffs off its theme but presents an equally, if not more, compelling response to its motivation. Halil Altindere extended the Biennial’s axiom of neighbour, community and co-existence with his tour de force exhibition Welcome to Home-Land organised by Pilot Gallery, installed in the dilapidated Sadik Pasha Mansion in Cihangir (perhaps in its wonderfully rundown state a metaphor for the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and post-Republic Kemalism). Altindere brings together multidisciplinary works focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis, through the figures of two refugees as ‘heroes’. Space Refugee (2016) maps the life of the second Arabian and first Syrian astronaut, Muhammed Ahmed Faris who spent seven days in space in 1987, and who fled to Istanbul from the Syrian civil war as a refugee in 2012. It envisions Mars as a utopic proposal for ‘home’, an alternative shelter for refugees where there is no ‘us’ or ‘them’, or politics. The video Homeland (2016) extends the resonance of Wonderland’s power via rap music, again used for its political and narrative immediacy. It presents rapper Mohammad Abu Hajar as another Syrian ‘hero’, a displaced refugee wanting to return to his homeland. His vehement lyrics rage against the civilised world, demanding his return to the country he has been forced to leave, as he sails across the seas, jumps over national borders and refugee-deterrent landmines, on a journey from Bodrum in Turkey to the disused Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, now an emergency refugee camp. In the photographic work Köfte Airlines (2016), Altindere wryly addresses the physical problems of transportation for refugees. In proposing a plane as a ‘köfte place’, the work considers the perilous journeys that refugees are forced to make, here perched on top of the plane’s fuselage and wings, advancing the question of what might humane conditions mean for them in the current context of regional and global turmoil. In Welcome to Home-Land Halil Altindere engages universal matters from a regional perspective, examining mutual feelings and desires for co-existence, while reminding us also of our own deterritorialisation.
The Istanbul Biennial is now in its thirtieth year, more recently operating within fluctuating and insecure circumstances (in comparison Sydney held its first biennale in 1973 and presents its 21st iteration in 2018). It might be imagined how during its longevity it has endeavoured to be a good neighbour, to its city and to its constituents, and now to its future enterprise.
Rayyane Tabet, Colosse Aux Pieds D’Argile, 2015. 16 marble and sandstone columns, 19 marble and sandstone bases, 292 concrete cylinders,
each column 30 x 15cm diameter, installation 1500 x 600cm. Courtesy the artist. Collection Aishti Foundation. Photograph Sahir Uğur Eren.
Ali Taptik, Friends and Strangers, 2017. 4 archival pigment prints, folio wall paper, 6 x 4m, 3 archival pigment prints
120 x 120cm. Produced with the support of SAHA – Supporting Contemporary Art from Turkey. Photograph Sahir Uğur Eren;
Istanbul Biennial Billboard Project. Photograph by Lukas Wassmann, graphic design by Rupert Smyth.
Halil Altindere, Welcome to Homeland exhibition. Installation view, Sadık Pasha Mansion, Istanbul. Organised by Pilot Gallery, Istanbul.
“Is a good neighbour from a neighbouring country? Is a good neighbour a stranger you don’t fear? … Is a good neighbour someone who lives the same way as you? Is a good neighbour too much to ask for?”
1. Documenta website. See http://www.documenta14.de/en/news/13738/documenta-14-and-the-national-museum-of-contemporary-art-athens-emst-announce-their-collaboration-in-athens-and-kassel
2. Quoted in Helena Smith, ‘“Crapumenta!” … Anger in Athens as the blue lambs of Documenta hit town’, The Guardian, 15 May 2107. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/may/14/documenta-14-athens-german-art-extravaganza
3. Quoted in Raimar Stange, ‘Documenta 14: Kassel’, Art Review Asia, 13 June 2017. See https://artreview.com/opinion/online_review_june_2017_documenta_14_kassel_raimar_stange/
4. Media Kit, the Biennale of Sydney, 15 March 2016. See https://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/20th-Biennale-of-Sydney_Media-Kit_20160315.pdf
5. About Singapore Biennale 2016. Singapore Biennale website. See https://www.singaporebiennale.org/about-singapore-biennale-2016.php
6. For further reading see Gary Lane, ‘Turkey’s Erdoğan: Islam’s New Caliph?’, CBN News, 14 September 2017. See http://www1.cbn.com/globallane/archive/2017/04/19/turkey-rsquo-s-erdogan-islam-rsquo-s-new-caliph
7. Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts, ‘The title and conceptual framework of the 15th Istanbul Biennial is announced’. See http://bienal.iksv.org/en/archive/newsarchive/p/1/1438
8. See the full list at http://15b.iksv.org/agoodneighbour
9. ‘Atatürkcülük, is the main structure of realistic ideas and principles about the state, ideologies, economics and the society’s fundamental institution that assure the Turkish Nation’s full independence, peace and welfare for the present and the future, the state’s being dependent on the nation’s solidarity, and the Turkish culture’s standing over the modern civilization with the guidance of reason and science.’. See http://www.erkutaldeniz.com/what-is-kemalism/
10. Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled’s Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man (2017), shown at ART KÜLTÜR, exposed the complex history of regional homosexuality through the fictionalised home-museum of a gay Egyptian who has fled his homeland to Turkey, where homosexuality has been legal since 1858.
11. See for example Ceyda Nurtsch, ‘Art according to the rules: Self-censorship in Turkey’, DW, 2 January 2016. See http://www.dw.com/en/art-according-to-the-rules-self-censorship-in-turkey/a-18230185 and Sukru Kucuksahin, ‘Turkey’s artists face growing government pressure’, Al-Monitor, 11 July 2016. See http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/07/turkey-artistic-community-come-under-pressure.html; also Erman Ata Uncu, ‘The Grey Zone: Censorship Disguised’, di’van A Journal of Accounts, Issue 1, 2016, pp.22-29.
Alan Cruickshank is Editor and co-publisher of di’van | A Journal of Accounts, Sydney; and was Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, and Editor Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet magazine, 2000 to 2015.