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Issue 95

9th Istanbul Biennial

Including the work of 53 artists and artist-groups and held in spaces as varied as a vacant office building, a former tobacco warehouse and a run-down apartment block, the low-key and locally engaged 9th Istanbul Biennial, curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, was simply titled ‘Istanbul’

BY Jörg Heiser, Erden Kosova and Jan Verwoert in Critic's Guides | 14 NOV 05

Jörg Heiser

In September an Istanbul attorney charged novelist Orhan Pamuk with the ‘public denigration of Turkish identity’: Pamuk’s ‘crime’ was to call the early 20th-century genocide of one million Armenians by its name. Four weeks later the Austrian Conservative government blocked EU membership talks with Turkey in an attempt to win a provincial election by fomenting anti-Turkish resentment (they lost). It’s hard to not think of these two events when talking about the 9th Istanbul Biennial, simply titled ‘Istanbul’. The unholy alliance of European and Turkish chauvinism, and of economic and military interests, forms the drone above which floats the broken, brilliant tune of this city of 15 million inhabitants.

In the biennial, the only reference I could find to the developments that had lead up to these events was in Dan Perjovschi’s graffiti installation Istanbul Drawing (2005), which included a couple of ironic comments about the relationship between the EU and Turkey. Nor was there any reference to them in official statements by the curators Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun – but then name-checking the suppression of free speech is easier than creating an actual space to highlight it.

The biennial – which occupied, among other places, a vacant office building, a former tobacco warehouse and a run-down apartment block – felt low-key, free-range and full of potential. One work in particular embodied the freedom of speech issue: Nedko Solokov’s Realised Opportunity (2005). Earlier this year Solokov was invited to the Sharjah Biennial and met a young art student, Sarah Ayoub Agha, who does life drawing in the style of Lucian Freud. As the strict religious laws of the United Arab Emirates don’t allow this kind of work to be displayed, especially when done by a woman, Solokov promised to show it in an international exhibition within six months – and did so in Istanbul.

A number of works in the biennial used pop music to conjure moments of grassroots participation. Displayed on a monitor, young artist Jakup Ferri, a pair of cheap computer speakers on his lap, listens to John Lennon and Yoko Ono screaming each other’s names – a track from their 1968 Two Virgins album. Ferri tries to fill the silence between screams of ‘Yoko!’ and ‘John!’ with his own ‘Jakup!’ thus completing Three Virgins (2003). The piece outlives the initial delivery of its punch-line: it joins the faux Oedipal shock of a boy flinging open the door of his parents’ bedroom with a comedian’s mockery of artistic self-obsession.

For his video One Per Minute. 10 Minutes in Istanbul (2005) Jon Mikel Euba invited Istanbul teenagers to imitate rock star poses, creating a weird sense of dislocation by shooting the scenes either at night or during the day in anonymous suburban wastelands. Johanna Billing employed slicker production values: a group of children in a recording studio rehearsing a song called Magical World (2005). The result was like a cross between Jean-Luc Godard’s film of the Rolling Stones in the studio (One Plus One, 1968) and the video of ‘We are the World’ (1985). The haunting 1960s’ soul tune by Sidney Barnes is supreme, even when sung by kids, and perhaps that’s the point: a great song and a great work of art can make you feel a deep sense of empathy you might not otherwise have felt.

Karaoke is the master medium for this kind of response. Seeing Phil Collins’ video of people of various cultural and sexual orientation singing songs from The Smiths’ 1987 album The World Won’t Listen reveals hilarious and heartbreaking insights into cultural identity. The world, of course, does listen. But Collins frustrates an all too easy sense of translation. Just as the karaoke piece bears an un-translated Turkish title (dünya dinlemiyor, 2005), so too does his piece about participants in a Turkish reality TV show (gerçeg?in geri dönüs¸ü/the return of the real, 2005), whom he invited to share, for the first time, their experiences, many of which were horrendous. Videos of the event and individual interviews are not subtitled for non-native speakers. But experiencing the ‘other’, to riff on Emanuel Lévinas, can mean precisely not understanding at all. This admittance of estrangement shouldn’t be understood as an assertion of the incommensurability of cultures, but as a kind of existential respect, a refusal to colonize others, whether it’s Smiths fans or TV trash stars, into one’s world-view.

Integrier mich am Arch (Integrate My Ass), declares a deliberately misspelt German slogan superimposed over a naked cowgirl shaking her bum, which alternates with a mugshot of Germany’s new Chancellor Angela Merkel (who during her election campaign catered to anti-Turkish resentment). The video Gegen die Bridge (Against the Bridge, 2005), by Serhat Köksal, was the one great chance encounter in what was otherwise a confused and cobbled-together ‘Hospitality Zone’ in a former warehouse that Esche and Kortun had given to a group of local initiatives and art schools – a gesture that felt strategic rather than heartfelt. Köksal’s video – with its anarchic, early 1990s’ cut-up energy – was an antidote to the newly opened museum next door, the Istanbul Modern, which included work by Ghada Ahmer and Haluk Akakçe. There the first exhibition by Director Rosa Martinez was on show; disappointingly it felt concerned more with its top-notch display than with strong curatorial ideas. Given the funding structure of the museum (it largely depends, like the biennial, on the Eczacibasi family), it’s not surprising that the permanent collection seems compromised, and even includes some appalling work: for example, a large, schlock academic-style painting from 1908 of a man testing a sabre at a weapons stand in a bazaar is hung in a very central position, as if to quell any doubts about the Young Turks who took power that year and under whom, around 1915, the atrocities against the Armenians took place.

Bearing this kind of smug amnesia in mind, back at the biennial Maria Eichhorn’s response to the theme of ‘Istanbul’ felt all the more acute. Billboard Istanbul Biennial 1995 (2005) is a video piece about the artist’s participation in the biennial of ten years ago. On a large billboard on Taksim Square she had displayed posters of numerous left-wing groups and subcultures. Although the hoarding was erected with the permission of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, it was nevertheless still taken down twice by the local authorities. In her video Eichhorn interviews the biennial’s director of communications, who negotiated the piece’s re-installation; however, it becomes clear that the problem was not censorship but bureaucracy. The weird political fuzziness of the video muddles its conceptual allure: why does she at no point specify the political aims of the groups she invited to participate? And why is the footage of a big panel discussion that may or may not have taken place during the 1995 biennial impossible to hear? If this is supposed to be a visual marker for ‘political debate’, it’s a remarkably empty one.

Eichhorn’s story begs the question of whether her engagement with the local context is more than a rhetorical gesture. There were a couple of works in a public art project (concurrent but not linked to the biennial) that made fewer claims but actually allowed one to engage with the city environment more. Karin Sander turned snapshots taken by the organizers in preparation for the project into a free book that read like a visual diary of commercial and residential sites in the centre of the metropolis (Tünel-Karaköy, YaYa Sergileri 2, Pedestrian Exhibitions 2, 2005). One such site is a park area along the Bosporus, which on the map is indicated as a garden zone but is actually used for, among other things, selling household goods and sleeping rough. Some works became tools for exploring this place and its neighbourhood. Use House (2005), an elegant white Modernist structure by Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen, had no roof but a built-in fireplace and a view of the Suleyman Mosque. It functioned as an art work, but also as a shelter and squat. As a contextual conundrum, it had a Utopian spark of conviviality while demonstrating contemporary culture’s as yet unstable status in a place where the tectonic plates of local and world politics collide.

Jorg Heiser is co-editor of frieze.

Erden Kosova

Much has been said about the way biennials began to spring up in ‘peripheral’ places in the 1980s, serving to whitewash the politically problematic recent pasts of the respective host countries. The Istanbul Biennial, established in 1987, was certainly a case in point; yet a genuine willingness to reform and enliven a cultural atmosphere burdened with the legacy of the merciless coup d’état of 1980 was clearly present in the early stages. The Istanbul Biennial is part of the occasional activities organized by IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts), set up by the Eczacibasis, a bourgeois family with social democratic leanings, whose desire to bolster the image of ‘the bright face of Turkey’ has intermittently overlapped with the interests of a new intelligentsia seeking to break free from 100 years of solitude, localism and introversion and to integrate with contemporary global culture.

The third biennial, in 1992, curated by Vasif Kortun and the fourth one, in 1995, curated by René Block, strove to relate the event directly to its geographical and historical context, trying to reflect on the newly emerging creativity in the surrounding countries after the collapse of state communism. Both exhibitions were in keeping with the trend in the 1990s for politicized art content, and both were highly beneficial in introducing this part of the world to the global art circuit in more detail.

The biennial of 1997, curated by Rosa Martinez, marked a visible shift in the agenda of the event. With the emphasis on the curators’ personal preferences and choices came a certain detachment from the local context. As a result, Istanbul began to be portrayed in an isolated, even narcissistic way, romanticized and aestheticized as a site of passion, beauty and otherness. This perspective chimed in with the local desire to promote the city as a major tourist attraction. The rapid growth of the Turkish economy between 1994 and 1997, and the increased self-confidence that went with it, meant the city needed to be marketed in a new way, and a new ideology sprang up that emphasized the city’s exoticism. At that point IKSV also abandoned any sense of criticality and started to operate virtually as an alternative ministry of tourism and culture, seeking above all to send a positive image of Turkey to Europe. Instead of the social, cultural and urban problems of an exploding megalopolis, it was the city’s historical profile, and the physical silhouettes of the domes and minarets, the melancholic seascape of the Bosporus and all the accompanying clichés, that were brought centre-stage.

Two years ago curator Dan Cameron tried to correct this romanticized image by injecting a set of documentary-style video works that dealt directly with political issues – the title of the show, ‘Poetic Justice’, was indicative of a more balanced approach. Yet the remarkably poor use of the majestic interior of Hagia Sophia as one of the exhibition venues clearly indicated that there was a need for self-criticism within the biennial structure itself. Inviting Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun to curate the ninth biennial was seen as heralding a more sober approach. Esche has been a leading figure in the re-politicization of contemporary art practice in Europe, and Kortun had already produced a wide-ranging criticism of the previous biennials. Their programme included major structural changes: instead of using historical sites that appealed only to tourists, the biennial would put itself right at the heart of the urban flux. The project would extend beyond the two months of actual exhibitions and be supported by a series of talks and other events. Also the number of invited artists would be decreased, in order to keep to a budget that would allow them to spend more time in the city and to relate to the intricacies of the urban texture rather than relying on surface impressions. Guided tours, weekly supplements in a local newspaper and other media would be used to reach a larger audience. Moreover, the biennial would concentrate on the city itself, striving for alternatives to the dominant, competing ideologies of rampant neo-liberal gentrification on the one hand and suicidal nationalist isolation on the other.

Two different types of city-related exhibitions held last year were seen as models to avoid. The first was exemplified by the two scandalous exhibitions held in Germany, ‘Call Me Istanbul Is My Name’, at ZKM in Karlsruhe, and ‘Urban Realities, Focus Istanbul’, at the Walther Gropius-Bau in Berlin, both of which inherited the representational approach typical of other exhibitions about the Balkans that toured Europe in 2003, and pushed neo-Orientalism to the limit. The other show to have a cautionary effect on this year’s Istanbul Biennial seemed to be the last Berlin Biennial, which was heavily criticized for its over-literal, over-intellectual view of the city of Berlin itself. Trying to distance themselves from representational and over-analytical takes on the city of Istanbul, Esche and Kortun successfully combined restraint with a genuinely artistic sensibility.

Nevertheless, to my surprise, humour and emotion were privileged over direct political references: confrontational and activist positions were pushed into the side-projects in the ‘Hospitality Zone’; analytical urban approaches were confined to the seminars preceding the exhibition; hope for social change was articulated in the biennial reader and the critical debates took place in the weekly newspaper inserts. The main exhibition itself was somewhat muted and lacked bite; it didn’t challenge the centrality of Istiklal culture (the city’s axis for shopping and night life, between the Karaköy and Taksim districts), and, while distancing itself from the imperial Golden Age, it partially subscribed to the melancholy romance of another historical period which has been eclipsed by nationalist ideology of the last century: the rich, cosmopolitan and decadent age of Istanbul at the fin de siècle and early 20th century.

Considering the way the city’s newly founded museums and institutions are tending to create an aestheticized, sterile and banal local art scene, one suspects that the reforms offered by Esche and Kortun will prove to be only temporary. Perhaps this show is about as political as it is possible for the Istanbul Biennial to get. It’s certainly time to ponder daring alternative structures.

Erden Kosova is a critic and curator who lives and works in Istanbul and London. He is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths College, London.

Jan Verwoert

The politics of a biennial come down to how the curators deal with the production machinery. There are those biennials where it throbs and grinds away, making its presence felt throughout the show. Vast spaces filled with works of art, give evidence of the huge logistical efforts that were made to compete with the production standards of big commercial galleries. On the other hand there are those biennials that downscale in order to stay closer to the actual working conditions of most of the artists who contribute to an international discourse. In the European context the first instalments of Manifesta played a key role in changing the look of biennials during the 1990s, promoting an aesthetic of informal, project-based work and home-made video productions.

This year’s Istanbul biennial followed this latter paradigm, in that its approach was clearly anti-monumentalist. It focused on art that seeks to communicate rather than impress, and gave a lot of room to each artist instead of cramming its seven venues with sheer numbers of works; the result was that, on the whole, the biennial presented a consistent discourse with a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. You could feel that what mattered here was not individual highlights but the general ideas and arguments produced by the way works were arranged in relation to each other. The cultural contexts addressed in the art on show stretched from Turkey to the Balkans, the Middle East, Iran and Egypt, as well as to all parts of Europe. There were few contributions from Asia and the Americas, and none from Russia or southern or central Africa. Concentrating your focus and avoiding claims to global representation is a legitimate approach given the existence of mega-shows such as Documenta. Convincingly, this biennial took Istanbul as its point of departure and worked outwards from there. Still, the question such biennials inevitably raise is: how do they construct the geographical and cultural space they seek to represent if ‘international’ doesn’t mean ‘global’? Won’t it risk instinctively falling back on imaginary entities such as ‘Central Europe’ or, in this case also the sphere of influence of the former Ottoman empire?

Conceptually, the exhibition discussed the potential of art as a form of cultural criticism by juxtaposing different formal approaches to the way social and political issues can be framed. While the last Berlin biennial looked at art’s political force primarily in terms of its capacity to teach and inform, the Istanbul biennial offered a more complex approach. The central argument it put forward was that giving information and telling jokes are two related methods of making a political point. In this sense a pattern that ran through the exhibition was a dialectic of documentation and caricature. The research project Urban Conditions (Berlin) (2004), by Jesko Fezer and Axel John Wieder, for instance, was shown alongside the satirical video New York Groove (2004), by Daniel Guzman. While Fezer and Wieder visualized the demographic changes resulting from the transformation of Berlin into the new German capital in makeshift 3D models and displayed assorted magazine articles invoking a phantasmagoria of the city as a vibrant metropolis, Guzman’s clip showed a motley crew of four urban characters who, after kicking each other, casually disco dance down a busy broadwalk in Mexico City to the bouncy beat and euphoric lyrics of ‘New York Groove’, by Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley. Both works address the politics of how the image of a metropolis is marketed. Fezer and Wieder document how Berlin is sold; Guzman makes an incisive joke about how you can apply the techniques by which New York celebrates itself to any city and enjoy the result accordingly.

The spectrum of approaches to documentary video and photography ranged from straightforward inquiries, such as Solmaz Shabazi’s images and interviews from the newly emerging gated communities on the outskirts of Istanbul, Perfectly Suited for You (2005), to works that mixed documentation with fiction. In Peripheral Stories (2005) Hala Elkoussy, for instance, described modern Cairo in photos of residential architecture and a video that, in interwoven narrative strands, told the stories of urban lives haunted by an elusive sense of trauma and repression which surfaced only in the occasional sudden surreal disruption to the film’s overriding mood of realism. Elsewhere documentary discourse was repeatedly punctuated by satirical works with snappy punch-lines. In Istanbul Drawing (2005), for example, Dan Perjovschi scribbled caricatures across several walls of the gallery. One showed a tourist looking at an Istanbul shop-front, cheerfully greeting the arrival of full-on Western capitalism with the words ‘Oh, the prices are already European!’ Another graffiti mocked the current fashion for taking the host city itself as the theme of a biennial, as this one did. It read: ‘It’s enormous, contradictory, very rich, very poor, fancy, hip, tragic, superficial, chaotic, beautiful. What city is this? Moscow Berlin New York My City.’

Through this dialectics of documentation and satire the biennial went a long way to broadening ideas about what it means for art to engage in cultural criticism. But it also prompted questions about the next step towards an undogmatic notion of criticality in art. The common denominator in this biennial was the idea that for a work to be critical it has to make a point, in the form of either information or a punch-line. The question remains, however, of whether a critical discourse could not also include works that focus less on making their point and are less clearly confrontational in terms of content, preferring to allow their message to develop more slowly through the experience they offer the viewer in terms of their artistic form.

Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze.