‘Baby, I’m broke, I’m sick. I need your help.’ So James Baldwin declared when he arrived at the Istanbul home of actor Engin Cezzar in 1961. If the words resonated for Turkey’s beleaguered civil society in summer 2017, they chime elsewhere too: whose homeland doesn’t feel broken, sick, in need of help at this moment? One of the strengths of curators Elmgreen & Dragset’s markedly modest title for the IKSV-organized 15th Istanbul Biennial – ‘A Good Neighbour’ – is its allusion to reciprocity. If you’re my neighbour, I’m your neighbour too.
Neighbours imply homes, which appear in many forms across the biennial’s six venues. (The vast majority of the works are gathered in just three – the Galata Greek Primary School, Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum – located in a walkable cluster in the central Beyoğlu district.) Many are nostalgic: from Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s pretty collaged canvases, evocative of family photographs, to Andra Ursuta’s exquisite doll’s house recreations of her childhood digs in Romania and Andrea Joyce Heimer’s beautifully strange, intensely flat renderings of moments from her Montana upbringing. Heimer’s long, narrative titles – The Johnson Boys Used to Set Off Fireworks in Their Mother’s Home. Which Was Too Nice for Them, While We, Who Were Too Nice for the Johnson Boys, Pined over Them Fiercely from Afar. They Didn’t Know We Existed (2017) – come off like pages from the scrapbook of a lost Carson McCullers heroine. Some dwellings are more dispassionately treated, as in Sim Chi Yin’s The Rat Tribe (2011–14), which captures the poor inhabitants of Beijing’s basements and air raid shelters – dire spaces touchingly done-up with posters and decorated bedspreads. More bitterly, Morag Keil and Georgie Nettell’s lo-fi video The Fascism of Everyday Life (2016) follows an inhabitant around their London flatshare.
There are fun houses, such as Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s multi-room, Mike Nelson-meets-Bernadette Corporation installation, Scenario in the Shade (2015–17), and bird houses, too: sixteen, precisely, scattered on the floor of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s 2017 Conference of the Birds. (The number alludes to how many people are allowed to gather without permission in Turkey, a guide told me.) There is even a ghost house in the form of Yoğunluk’s installation, The House (2017): a pitch-black, mist-filled apartment at the top of an office block in which visitors watch furniture appear and then dissolve into the dark.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Khaled’s spellbinding Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man (2017) occupies the whole of Ark Kultur, an art deco house turned private foundation. The titular inhabitant is a fictional character based on an anonymous figure photographed after a raid on a gay nightclub in Cairo in 2001. An audio guide passes reserved commentary on his possessions: plates positioned like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s clocks, a tarnished mirror, unengraved trophies, a television looping a segment from Maher Sabry’s All My Life (2008) and a table, set for one. This relentless domestic emphasis at times feels desensitizing: watching Monica Bonvicini’s Hausfrau Swinging (1997) – a video that brings to life Louise Bourgeois’s 1990 Femme Maison (hanging nearby) – I, too, started to feel I had my head encased in a metal house I couldn’t escape. Not that focus is a bad thing – the curators’ selection of just 55 artists (a fifth of them Turkish) provides welcome manageability – but rather that, just as a house is not a home (as the song goes) a number of individual houses isn’t necessarily a neighbourhood.
Only occasionally did the issue of living together feel fully addressed. To watch Vajiko Chackhiani’s haunting video Life Track (2015) is to meet, dead on, the gaze of a plump man staring through a window, either out of malice or need. The stakes of neighbourly responsibility are drastically raised in Erkan Özgen’s Wonderland (2016): a short, simple video of a deaf Syrian child, narrating his experience during the civil war with expressive, non-verbal sounds and stupefyingly eloquent gestures. (Turkey is home to some 3 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country.) More subtly, Heba Y. Amin’s As Birds Flying (2016) overlays dialogue from the Egyptian film Birds of Darkness (1995) onto found footage of wetland birds, so that a discussion of, say, group belonging, coincides with a shot of nesting cranes.
These last three videos were some of the most striking works I saw not just in Istanbul, but all year. Did they really teach me about being a good neighbour – rather than, say, a good citizen, a good person? Maybe, maybe not – maybe that’s beside the point. The first morning of the biennial, a colleague of mine recounted being bombarded over breakfast with friendly questions from a hotel employee. Sometimes, we agreed, a good neighbour might leave you alone and give you, as Baldwin described what Istanbul offered him, ‘a certain silence, a certain privacy’. In its best moments, this is what the biennial’s non-polemical quiet achieved.
Main image: Heba Y. Amin, As Birds Flying, 2016, video still (detail). Courtesy: the artist, Zilberman Gallery, Berlin/ Istanbul, and Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Berlin