Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) since 1987, the 15th Istanbul Biennial is spread across six locations; Istanbul Modern Museum, Pera Museum, ARK Kültür, Galata Greek Primary School, Yoğunluk Artist Atelier and Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam. Despite the modest and manageable scale, the exhibition features 56 artists from 32 countries, including 30 new commissions, and generally has a strong bend towards the medium of sculpture.
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the curators of the 15th edition of Istanbul Biennial, based the show on a signature approach of narrativistic subversions and installative sleights of hand, a technique in which they are consistent and art to convey notions that are anti-simplistic in nature. However, in the age of bullies-as-politicians and group-thinking boycotters, complexity has in itself become a political cause that needs to be celebrated, protected, and given ample space to be experienced. Ultimately, in a period of political and social turmoil for Turkey, the Danish-Norwegian duo had to face a central question: How can one carve a space wide enough for the biennial and its artworks to unfold, rather than be forced through a narrow filter tinted by the latest headlines?
Therefore, instead of a curatorial statement, the curators have developed forty questions that have guided the process of making the exhibition. These questions were first presented live in Istanbul by 40 performers of different ages, genders and backgrounds in December last year. Titled “a good neighbour,” the 15th Istanbul biennial asks what does it mean to, simply, coexist. The question—which is being used for an international billboard project presented in several cities around the world— is presented as an incomplete sentence, as Michael Elmgreen explained at the biennial’s press conference, and most likely one ending with a question mark.
The curators’ overarching theme, however, reaches into the charged realm of domesticity, otherness, identity, and belonging. However it could have easily been summarized in a reliance on post-modern discourses that may or may not enhance the interaction with the works, depending on the beholder. Besides, having had experience in biennial exhibitions, the curators have chosen a scale that ensured the viewers’ full engagement with every work on view.
The Istanbul Modern museum, located on the Bosporus seafront, is said to be demolished, and possibly replaced by a Renzo Piano-designed museum which will be part of a greater construction project. It seems likely that the venue's contested fate may have affected the selection of works in this part of the biennial, and their combined effect of bleakness. Indicative of this idea is Latifa Echakhch’s Crowd Fade (2017) which collapses in front of the viewers’ eyes. Istanbul Modern also includes a few of the biennial’s more curious selections, including a work by Xiao Yu, Ground (2014/17) that includes a live donkey and two Chinese farmers ploughing a plot of cement by the museum’s entrance. On the other side, the visitor meets Adrian Villar Rochas’ sculpture The Most Beautiful of All Mothers (2015) which is indicative of the artist’s preoccupation with nature and existence.
Inside, the first work one encounters is Adel Abdessemed’s Cri (2013), a complex piece that takes the iconic image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, better known as the Napalm Girl, and renders her haunting naked figure in ivory. For this viewer, the argument that an additional layer of meaning and value is given to the photojournalistic image of the horrors of war by this extreme object remained unconvincing. Similarly, Rayyane Tabet’s Colosse Aux Pied D’ Argile (2015) through a direct reference to the destruction of Beirut’s historical buildings, points out the unlikely affinities of the economic and symbolic exchanges that comprise ‘culture.’
Art works whose political content is more directly related to the realities in Turkey tend to be more visually delicate, and a number of them are found in the Pera Museum. The need to give a piece multiple and more critical interpretations is evident in Gözde Ilkin’s series of embroidered textile pieces, Inverted Home (2017). Melding patterned domestic fabrics with embroidered figures culled from photographs, the Turkish artist addresses issues of self-censorship, performativity in public space, and the oppression of prescribed roles, among other things.
In fact, notions of gender and sexual identities are addressed by many works in the exhibition. Specifically, a Bauhaus-style villa housing the cultural space Arc Kultur, is entirely dedicated to one work by Mahmoud Khaled, called Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man, (2017). Khaled, like the curators, has used similar narrative devices. He weaves a story about the reclusive and secretive man who previously inhabited the house. An audio guide leads viewers thought around this suggested museum and through carefully selected personal effects, the artist connects the man’s imagined life with the report released by Human Rights Watch in 2004, titled “In a Time of Torture,” describing Egypt’s crackdown on homosexual conduct.
The Galata Greek Primary School hosts some of the most striking works of the biennial. Generously installed pieces by Pedro Gomez Egana, Dan Stockholm, and Kasia Fudakowski for example, placed on different levels of the building, each speak of the home, its physical and personal foundations, the bodies inhabiting domestic spaces—or the separations keeping others out of them—in stylistically varied ways. Together, they create a common thread through the location leading up to the top floor, where a work by Leander Shönweger, comprised of a maze of white-washed walls and unusually sized door frames, sends viewers through a disorienting and potentially claustrophobia-inducing quest.
The old classrooms are each dedicated to a work by a single artist, and the careful use of space is at times urgently needed. More specifically, for one video piece, Erkan Özgen’s Wonderland (2016), the darkened black box becomes something akin to a memorial. Shot in a simple domestic setting, the video shows a deaf and mute 13-year-old boy who, with gestures and facial expressions alone, describes the destruction of his hometown in northern Syria by ISIL in 2015. The trauma contained in the boy’s small body is beyond the reach of language.
Another classroom in the school is dedicated to the exuberantly detailed drawings of Andrea Joyce Heimer. By giving her colourful figurative panels extremely long titles, the artist unfolds succinct yet rich and intimate stories about childhood and adolescence, filled with humour, anxiety, longing, and projected selves.
Public spaces feature a number of biennial works and events. One of the works on display belongs to Burçak Bingöl, an artist known for using ceramics and ornamentation in her works. In her series, Follower, the artist makes a critical interpretation of the surveillance culture of today by decorating the surveillance cameras, which have gradually become one of the common sights of cities in the last ten years, with plant patterns she collected from Beyoğlu. Besides, the artist Ugo Rondinone participates in the 15th Istanbul Biennial with his neon sculpture Where Do We Go From Here? (2007–17), which belongs to his Rainbow Poems series and is an adaptation of his work first shown at the 6th Istanbul Biennial in Taksim Square. The Public Programme is coordinated by artist Zeyno Pekünlü and encompasses a variety of events and discussions related to the concept of a good neighbour.
The curators, Elmgreen & Dragset urge both artists and viewers to contemplate on the role of art, the spaces it fills, and what can be expected of it in politically fraught times. It is sad to consider that two days before the biennial’s public opening, news came out of Turkey’s signing a landmark missile deal with Russia, pointing to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s clear pivot away from NATO and Europe, and with it concerns about the strained and fragile coexistence of neighbouring peoples along the country’s borders.
Words and Images By Dimitrios Spyrou
Art Historian | Curator | Art Critic