(12TH ISTANBUL BIENNIAL), 2011
Reflecting more on the Istanbul Biennial makes the latent reasons of its success clear and this success has nothing to do with what the BBC radio announced: “The Istanbul Biennial with its last edition is comparable to the Venice Biennial”. Istanbul Biennial does not take the other biennials but its own history as its reference point and each edition tries to situate itself in this history. What differs Istanbul Biennial from the other examples is that the extremely low budget of the Biennial forces the curators to have an experimental approach and to come up with solutions that might have been not considered otherwise. Moreover, national representations have been avoided since its inception. These specifics of the Biennial have been thoroughly considered and put into practice predominantly since the 9th Istanbul Biennial, which was curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, in 2005. From then on, the Biennial went through a deep self-criticism and since each edition is a response and a reaction to the previous one, it elevated the standards of the biennial.
Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, the curators of the 12th Istanbul Biennial, organized a two-days conference series titled Remembering Istanbul eleven months prior to the exhibition and this event brought the history of Istanbul Biennial to the fore. By inviting all the curators of the previous editions Hoffmann and Pedrosa managed to rewrite the history of the Biennial and gave the chance to the curators to reflect on their experiences of organizing the Biennial. The benefit of the conference was the clear distinctions that the 12th Biennial curators set from the previous editions; its non-title, its selection of venues and its non-announcement any of the artists’ list until the opening. The inspiration of the Biennial comes from the works of Cuban artist Felix Gonzales Torres and sets his oeuvre as a point of departure. The work of Gonzales Torres is first and foremost politically provocative and has strong formal qualities. The artist managed to combine political issues and the politics of everyday life with formal aesthetics. Applying these two aspects to the exhibition have been the main concerns of the curators. Another important characteristic of Torres’s work is the titles that he gave to his works. He chose to work with Untitled, which followed by a description in parenthesis because he believed that meaning is always shifting in time and space. The curators also follow this aspect of Torres work and therefore they critique the wide-open biennial titles, which obscure the theme of the exhibition. As opposed to the previous editions that chose various sites within the city of Istanbul, be it the historical and monumental buildings or the buildings in the art district, which allowed the audience to explore various parts of Istanbul, the 12th edition is withdrawn from the city and takes place at warehouses next to each other at one single venue. Instead of making the audience to walk from one place to another and therefore explore the surrounding, the curators aim the public to focus on the exhibition itself. In order to achieve this objective, the two curators worked with Ryue Nishizawa as the architect of the space who built the exhibition venue inspired by the work of Torres and also by focusing on the city layout of Istanbul. Nishizawa’s plan achieves to give due respect to the works and therefore helps the audience to concentrate on the individual pieces with ease. However, the layout also neutralizes and sanitizes the space to a degree that the space is more in lines with a museum setting. Finally, the curators declared that the decision of not announcing the artists name was related to highlight the exhibition itself more than the individual artists, nevertheless, the strategy of refusal can and did provoke more curiosity until the opening of the Biennial.
The exhibition consists of five group exhibitions titled Untitled (Abstraction), Untitled (Ross), Untitled (Passport), Untitled (History), Untitled (Death by Gun), all inspired by one specific work of Torres, which is surrounded by 50 solo exhibitions that are related to the themes of the group exhibitions. Untitled (Abstraction) gathers works that subvert abstraction by bringing political themes and elements from everyday life, which Torres negotiated throughout his oeuvre. The works of Lygia Clark and Rivane Neuenschwander (both Brazilian artists) stand out in this section. Bicho, 1960 is a work by Lygia Clark made out of sheets of aluminum, brings abstraction into interactivity since the piece can be altered by the audience. At a Certain Distance (Public Barriers), 2010, by Rivane Neuenschwander brings the street into the grid. The grid, made out of steel cables, is connected to poles which are stuck in concrete bases cast in buckets. She attaches wooden objects that are found on the streets of Istanbul. This is a piece which connects the exhibition Untitled (Abstraction) to the exhibition Untitled (Passport) by traveling around the exhibition space. Untitled (Ross) gathers works of gay love, relations, desire and sexuality. The work of the artist duo from Norway and Denmark Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset called The Black and White Diary Fig. 5, 2009, consists of 364 black and white photographs that the artists took of their friends over the years in different settings. These photographs, some overtly sexual and others in neutral poses, narrate an alternative definition of family. The work of the Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman is a strong commentary on the Turkish government’s stance concerning the gay community. He exhibits the health report written by the doctors of the military unit concerning his exclusion from the military service due to his condition which is a covert reference to his sexual choice. Untitled (Passport) brings together works that deal with national identity, trespassing, mapping, political and cultural alienation. The alienation is being highlighted by the work of the Brazilian photographer Claudia Andujar. Photographic series Mercados, 1981-83, documents the indigenous people living in Amazon by marking them with a 19-century identification method; hanging plates with numbers on their necks. This is the ultimate gesture to rip their identity off. Another work by the Turkish artist Meric Algun Ringborg The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms, 2009-2011, is an ironic work on the issue of traveling. Ringborg shows a thick encyclopedia consisting of systematically collected visa applications that the travelers have to go through. Untitled (History) brings attention to the writing of history. It questions history as a discipline as a totalizing master narrative. The work of Spanish artist Antoni Muntadas called Media Sites - Media Monuments Budapest, 1998, is a project on memory, media and silence and amnesia. The series consists of nine photographs that depict nine landmarks in relation to the history of the country. These sites are also the sites that have been explored repeatedly by the media. Untitled (Death by Gun) brings works that deal with violence, war, murder and acts of aggression focusing on the characters of killer and the victim. The Israeli artist Dani Gal’s neon installation THE/A/T/E/SHOO/TING/DONEBY/OF/OFFI/CERS/ARE/SHOT, 2009, is a phrase taken from a book deals with the subject of death in a provoking way. The installation light up in different combinations to create different phrases such as “the officers are shot” or “the shooting of officers”.
Although the inspiration that comes from the work of Felix Gonzales Torres is an advantageous starting point, the group shows do not succeed to work with the artist’s legacy in its full force since the interrelations between the works are quasi literal and the juxtaposition of the works do not open themselves for multiple readings. In this regard, the solo exhibitions that encircle the exhibition and related to the group exhibitions, work with the five themes in much deeper and by and large indirect ways. The Kuwaiti artist Ala Younis’ Tin Soldiers, 2010-2011, consists of 12235 soldiers in the scale of 1:200. The work is a depiction of nine armies that were subject to war in Middle East. The soldiers are all hand painted in the military outfits of Eygpt, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. Her work immediately reminds one of the uprisings in the Middle East region of today. The Brazilian artist Jonathes de Andrade’s Tropical Hangover, 2009, is an installation of documentary photographs shown together with pages from a diary that was found on the streets of Recife, Brazil. By showing them together the artist creates an urban fiction where the boundaries of construction and destruction and the fiction and the reality are blurred. Another work in this section is Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari’s Studio Practices, 2007. The artist delves into the archive of a commercial photographer in Beirut in order to detect the industry of image production. The performative images show couples in different creates a mise-en-scene poses which suggest relationships, power, sexuality. Chilean Camilo Yanez’s National Stadium 11.09.09, Santiago, Chile, 2010 is one of the rare video installations. The artist works with a continuous film take which presents the empty stadium with its seats mostly in ruins. The various usages of the stadium from the speech of the poet Pablo Neruda to a torture field during the dictatorship, its positive and negative symbolisms are engraved within the work. The Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s film Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, is a view on the three years history of crusades by utilizing meticulously detailed, 200 year old marionettes. Even though the subject matter emerges from historical facts, working with marionettes bring a surreal and mystical environment. The history of Crusades brings the question of history writing to the foreground and also allows one to have a look at the contemporary society via a pivotal moment in the world history.
In both sections of the exhibition, the curatorial choice of exhibiting installation-based, photographic works rather than hours-long videos, allows the visitor to comprehend the totality of the exhibition and not to loose the connection between the works. However, the none-inclusion of Gonzales’ works creates a difficulty for the ones who are not familiar with his works. The curators claim that the audience would feel Torres’ presence through his absence and yet each group show refers to one of Torres’ work and all the works are interpreted through the leans of Torres’ work. As a result, the non-professional audience who is not familiar with his work might receive it as an obstacle. Apart from this difficulty, the origins of majority of the artists come from either South America or Middle East and this is both in accordance with the background of the curators and the location of the Biennial and certainly beneficial to the audience in Istanbul. Moreover, the South American art production is so unknown even for the professional art audience in Istanbul that the audience will certainly feel refreshed and stimulated by the works at the 12th Istanbul Biennial.