Mardin is a historic hilltop city in the southeast of Turkey, high above the plains of Upper Mesopotamia. On a clear day you can see Syria. Although it’s only a two-hour flight from Istanbul, the way some people there refer to it makes Mardin sound like another country altogether. On the streets – which, when I visited, were non-existent, being resurfaced for the first time since (someone claimed) 1880 – you hear Arabic and Kurdish, even Aramaic, more than Turkish. Until the 1990s, fighting between the state and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) meant that Mardin was all but out of bounds to tourists, and the southeast region remains intermittently fraught, even before the camps of Syrian refugees began to gather along the border in 2011.
If you were to start a biennial of contemporary art within all of this, how would you compete with such a palpable history? One response would be for artists to weave themselves into the city’s fabric rather than point at its fraying edges. Invited to spend a week in Mardin prior to the opening of the city’s second biennial, this is exactly the route that Mike Nelson took. The London-based artist, whose British Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale focused on the centuries-old trade routes between Turkey and Italy, chose not to produce the immersive installation that the organizers were likely expecting. Instead, he spent several days walking the dusty streets and steep alleyways, making a detailed map of the old city, taking account of piles of timber as well as the hilltop fortress.
This response echoed the ethos of the biennial itself, which was titled ‘Double Take’. Curators Paolo Colombo and Lora Sariaslan sought to provoke in viewers and visitors some kind of confusion about what was and wasn’t an artist’s intervention. Several works were installed in unmarked venues on and around the main street: Nelson’s map, A Transient History of Mardin Earthworks (2012), was shown at a small cinema club; a video by Wood and Harrison was shown on a tiny monitor in a busy coffee house (Table and Chairs, 2001); a Nelson-esque installation by Manfredi Beninati could be glimpsed through a peep-hole in an alley (Ali Kaya’s Bedroom, 2012). Aided by confusingly vague maps, many of the art works were burrowed into the city so successfully that I’m not sure how many I would have located without a guide.
It should be said that the budget for the 2nd Mardin Biennial (provided in part by the Orwellian-named Ministry of Development Southeastern Anatolia Project Regional Development Administration) was miniscule, a fraction of the first edition’s. My guess would be that it wouldn’t even be possible to organize a biennial with much less. The exhibition was correspondingly small, raising the question of whether a biennial is the appropriate model for the budget and location. Along with the ten or so pieces dotted around town, ‘Double Take’ was essentially a modestly sized group show installed in Tokmakcilar Konagi, one of Mardin’s oldest mansions. The work there was for the most part video and works on paper. Sketches made over the last 20 years by the self-taught artist Sami Baydar – of shoes and peacock feathers, angels and smiling penises – shared a small room with a cabinet of notebooks by his friend, the poet Murat Sahinler. Colombo has collaborated with Baydar many times before, and an endearing aspect of the exhibition was that it felt like the work of a community of friends. Many of the pieces in Tokmakcilar Konagi were installed in the hope of reanimating the domestic spaces. For example, Anri Sala’s film of his grandmother making pastry (Börek, 2000) was installed in what was once the kitchen, while assemblages of instruments by Latifa Echakhch were displayed in the music room (Phantom, 2011). I’m not a fan of this kind of mimetic curating, a mix-and-match approach that can feel overdetermined. But here the works often cohered to evoke an absent domestic life, marked by a pleasant quietude that ran through the show.
Though the biennial’s stated aim was to bring contemporary art from the west of Turkey to its east, it was relatively international, and there were also several younger artists from the east of Turkey, such as Fikret Atay and Seyit Battal Kurt. Tucked-away stand-outs included Pier Paolo Pasolini’s short film La Ricotta (1962); Rä di Martino’s ‘No More Stars (Star Wars)’ (2010), a series of photos of abandoned Star Wars sets in Morocco; and Hrair Sarkissian’s ‘Construction’ (2010), imagined versions of his Armenian grandfather’s house. But my loveliest discovery was the religious tapestries of Nasra Simmes, an 86-year-old Aramean artist, recently named Turkey’s Woman of the Year, who has lived in Mardin her whole life. Sometimes you have to look the hardest to find what’s been there all along.