in Critic's Guides | 09 JAN 08
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Issue 112

10th International Istanbul Biennial

Curated by Hou Hanru, ‘Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War’ was a solidly conceived exhibition that included 96 artists and collectives from 35 countries

in Critic's Guides | 09 JAN 08

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Fikret Atay, Tinica (2004)

Weak-as-water titles that allude to everything and nothing are arguably the norm for large-scale groups exhibitions such as biennials. But under the banner ‘Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War’ this year’s 10th International Istanbul Biennial bucked the trend. That’s not to say that its title, which is a bit of a verbal brick, didn’t irritate and provoke uncomfortable questions, including whether optimism has been so wholly co-opted by global market forces as to push dissidents of all creeds into resignation, negation or joyless forms of critique. Whether you agree or not, one thing is for sure: perverse optimism in some form (except for the naive variety) is undoubtedly necessary for art-making, not to mention for undertaking a biennial.

Rising to his own challenge to find positive strategies in the face of global injustice and violence, curator Hou Hanru delivered a vibrant, solidly conceived exhibition with 96 artists and collectives (including 18 Turkish participants) from 35 countries. Here art was meant to be aesthetic but also topical and intelligible to a wider audience. Accordingly, it was deployed to illustrate, inform and relate to other works in admittedly complex contexts. Crucially, through a group of highly symbolic and problematic venues, the city of Istanbul itself and Turkey’s chequered history were taken as all too tangible examples of the project of modernization in the non-Western world.

The exhibition was full of good intentions and careful politics, and quite probably razor-edge d0.iplomacy, on every level – for instance, through the inclusion of Rainer Ganahl’s bitingly direct project Silenced Voices – Bicycling Istanbul’s Topography of 21 Murdered Journalists (2007), which involved the artist marking the sites of the killings, many of which remain unsolved. The exhibition’s form, including lots of video- and information-based work and essential wall texts, offered a heavy, issue-based frame that suits a certain kind of art-making yet which was still easily preferable to Robert Storr’s similarly themed Arsenale in Venice as an open and discursive encounter. The Biennial seemed also to have strained its financial resources, although every attempt was made to make a virtue of production values, presentation and cost-cutting informality. At the opening much was made of the pledge that Koç – the main corporate sponsor – has made to secure the event’s funding until 2016.

As with most biennials, it was impossible to see everything. There was a formidable amount of travelling required between the three main venues and other side-projects reaching from the project space Santralistanbul, housed in an old power plant, to the Kadiköy Public Education Centre on the Asian side of the city. In addition, Nightcomers, a 24-hour art-in-public-space project (fitting for a city that ticks relentlessly around the clock), introduced dozens more sites, including a screen on top of the Mamara Hotel tower in downtown Beyog˘ lu. This geographical dispersion was one of the best aspects of the exhibition: the venues and sites were integral to the arguments and issues raised and to the relation of this major cultural event to its sprawling, bipolar, metropolitan host.

Hou studiously avoided oriental kitsch, focusing instead on exemplary architecture dovetailing with the exhibition’s theme exploring the abandoned, half-realized and embattled project of modernization. The suggested starting-point for the exhibition was the foyer of the Atatürk Cultural Centre on Taksim Square, which in terms of urban symbolic vision is the republican heart of Istanbul. Here the melancholic post-Utopian mood was perfectly set by Erdem Helvaciog˘ lu’s echoing sound installation Memories on Silent Walls (2007), which used multi-track recordings including an altered mix of performances in the iconic building as well as interviews about its fate. I asked a young Biennial staff member at the reception desk what she thought about the building and the proposal that it should be converted into a car park. She admitted that she didn’t really care if it was demolished because, ‘I don’t like modern architecture’. To unravel her simple opinion would be to decode all of the conflicting and ancient cultural and political threads that are modern-day Turkey. Els Opsomer’s multi-media presentation Shades of Survival/Around Me (for AKM) (2007) addressed the building and its fate directly through slide projections, tourist books and a discussion table. Works such as Vahram Aghasyan’s photographic series ‘Ghost City’ (2005), depicting a drowning unfinished housing estate in Armenia, and Aleksander Komarov’s video On Translation: Transparency/Architecture Acoustique (2007), shot at the Reichstag in Berlin and a Rotterdam factory, extrapolated beyond the local context through architecture. Arguably, though, the building itself overshadowed the works on display.

Istanbul and Turkey have changed exponentially and radically since the first Biennial 20 years ago, but it’s an uneasy, fractured change pock-marked by vested interests, class and secular versus religious and ethnic conflicts, not to mention the grassroots effects of global economics. A second venue, titled World Factory, in the Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market, was a microcosm of this condition. Erected in the 1960s, the site is a conglomerate of about 1,000 shops in an open-plan, concrete vernacular Modernist building. Here the Biennial opening audience – not a headscarf in sight – strolled between art projects and conservative Muslim fashion boutiques. Among the projects was Claire Fontaine’s The True Artist (2004), a poster declaring: ‘Whoever fights for the class of the exploited is an immigrant in his own country.’ Next door was the lively, heartening CODE: RED, Brazil, Daspu (1996/2000–6) – a presentation of the work of Daspu, a political activist collective for sex workers in Rio de Janeiro who also run a fashion label, in collaboration with the artist Tadej Pogacar. The piece included a video of a wedding frock with a necklace of condoms and a train of patchwork cloth taken from ‘love hotels’. Ursula Biemann’s extensive documentary video installation Black Sea Files (2005) is a compelling study of social geography consisting of interviews with farmers living on the Caspian oil pipelines and gives voice to those who are normally silenced and marginalized.

On the day of the press preview the towering luxury passenger ship Costa Serena blocked the view of the Bosporus and its continuous procession of oil super-tankers from the windows of the largest venue, the Antrepo, a warehouse on a wharf. (The next day the ship was gone, and the following day it was replaced by the equally invasive Galaxy, with a pod of dolphins barking metallically under its bow.) This venue housed the ‘Entre-polis’ section of the Biennial addressing ‘issues of global trading, migration, border crossing and their impacts on urban life … in a labyrinth-like street-square-street micro-urban structure’ and above it, on platforms, ‘Dream House’ intended for evening viewings. Overall ‘Entre-polis’ was a cacophony equating loudness with subversive vitality. Fikret Atay’s video Tinica (2004) jumped out of the attention-seeking throng. It depicts a teenager drumming on pieces of garbage on a hill and then kicking the lot over to the sprawl of the city of Batman below. Equally clear, if more pensive, was Lia Chaia’s video Minhocão (2006), in which the artist eats and regurgitates a pile of photographs of buildings around the divisive São Paulo roadway. Silent but totally engrossing was Cristina Lucas’ Pantone (2007) – a kind of animation in which of a map of Pantone-coloured empires and countries shifted and disappeared from 500 BC to the present. Another highlight was Extrastruggle’s poster series ‘What?’ (2007), in which viewers could declare themselves to be one or more of many different minorities in tongue-in-cheek Raymond Pettibon-esque cartoons.

The critically viable optimism promised by the Istanbul Biennial’s title seemed rather to apply to the project as a whole – its existence and making, the people involved, the open internationalism of the event, the multitude of formal and informal dialogues and discussions that arise in the making of such a show, the equal importance given to local artists and to the engaged guests. It was this abstract community of participants and viewers who were pitted against the spectre of global war. Personal ethics probably demand that the challenge is not to make impressive ‘biennial art’ but to articulate and get involved. By emphasizing this, the 10th International Istanbul Biennial was an engaging proposition and, as such, a success.