Sep 24 2013

In and Around Istanbul’s Biennial Week

by HG Masters

Ayşe Erkmen’s bangbangbang (2013), outside the Antrepo customs depot that houses the main portion of the 13th Istanbul Biennial. Every hour, the yachting buoy is swung into the building, which is due for imminent demolition after the Biennial closes as part of a large Bosporus-fronting tourism project.

The 13th Istanbul Biennial, with its unlikely question for a title —“Mom, am I Barbarian?” (taken from a book of poems by Lale Müldür)—is centered around a series a challenging proposals about the meaning of citizenship, processes of urban development, forms of education and the conditions of labor in the neoliberal city. The Biennial was meant to address the rapid, contested development of Istanbul and the modern megapolis at large, but its realization was interrupted by the Gezi Park protests of late May and June—an explosion of discontent at the authoritarian, sectarian policies of the Turkish government. While these recent (and still ongoing) social uprisings are addressed in only a few artworks, many of the underlining causes are—including the egregious urban planning policies that displace marginal communities and privilege corporations over citizens. At its more poetic moments,  the exhibition reflected the spirit of the Gezi resistance in the suspended, unfinished, provisional, impermanent, transient and collaborative qualities of works by 88 artists and collectives. Beyond the Biennial itself the week’s festivities included openings of new exhibitions at galleries and art spaces, a performance series and even the debut of a new art fair. Here’s a look around Istanbul in mid-September.   

Biennial director Bige Örer welcoming members of the press in front of Jorge Méndez Blake’s The Castle (2007), a brick wall which runs over a copy of Kafka’s 1922 novel of the same name (visible in the lower left corner).

The UK-based Freee art collective’s banner Protest Drives History (2008) was one of several works that obliquely referred to the protests in Turkey over the government’s authoritarian rule while speaking—rather optimistically in this case—about the transformative power of social movements.

Yogyakarta-based new media collective House of Natural Fiber’s Diamagneti (Sm) Species (2012–13) in the center of Antrepo takes the frequencies emitted by plants and transforms them into visible vibrations on suspended geometric forms and charts.

Working with professional filmmakers, Halil Altındere created a music video, Wonderland (2013), for the Roma hip-hop group Tahribad-ı İsyan, who rap about the redevelopment (read: gentrification) of their Sulukule neighborhood by Turkey’s Public Housing Project (TOKİ).

Biennial curator Fulya Erdemci giving journalists a tour, talking about the Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis’s project Monument to Humanity – Helping Hands (2013) about a peace monument in Kars, near the border with Armenia, destroyed on the orders of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who called it “freakish.” The duo pushed a cart around Istanbul with a replica of the monument, and cast 120 people’s hands in plaster, which they then planted in the ground in Kars, near the destroyed monument.

Taking the form of a sacred book, the pages of İpek Duben’s project Manuscript 1994 (1993–94) show the influenced of feminist and conceptual art practices, as well as her concerns about depictions of women in Western self-portraiture.

Influenced by the forms of Indo-Persian miniature painting, Shahzia Sikander’s three-channel video Parallax (2013) is a revised version of a piece shown at the 11th Sharjah Biennial earlier in the year, here with a soundtrack featuring readings of Turkish poetry. 

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Timeline: Work in Public Space (2012) is, as the title suggests, an overview of his many public installations rendered in his signature cut-and-paste, cardboard-and-tape style. A monument to Thomas Hirschhorn, by Hirschhorn.

At the Galata Greek School building, İnci Eviner’s Co-Action Device: A Study (2013) is an unfolding, performative installation involving workshops with students from various disciplines—part surrealist theater, part educational model. Visitors could walk around any part of the installation as well as above it.

Upstairs at the Greek School, Peter Robinson’s Ruses and Legacies (2013), made from felt, Plexiglas and wood, comprises abstract forms, carefully arranged yet still emergent as they become structures suggesting architecture or artworks.

At the entrance to Salt Beyoğlu on İstiklal Caddesi, Halil Altindere’s miniature wax figure Guard (2012) keeps watch over Diego Bianchi’s sprawling, chaotic, junk-strewn installation State of Spam (2013).

Beyond the Biennial, upstairs at Salt Beyoğlu, was Gülsün Karamustafa’s long-overdue survey “A Promised Exhibition.” Here, her vitrine Gold Venus with Mirror (1985), with collage in the background.

Shown for the first time ever, Karamustafa’s “Prison Paintings” (1972–78) are recollections of her time in the İzmit Women’s prison, where the artist served time after being sentenced in 1971 for her political activism.

Gülsün Karamustafa being interviewed in front of My Roses My Reveries (1998/2013), featuring an image of the artist as a young girl leaving her father behind on the train between Istanbul and Ankara. The words on the walls are the rhyming words from poems she recited in her youth.

At Salt Galata was a retrospective of photographs by Istanbul-based photographer Elio Montanari, “One, No One and One Hundred Thousand.” Since the 1980s, Montanari has been recording artists at work, installing shows with curators, primarily around Europe. Here are images capturing James Lee Byars’ performances in Venice.

Elio Montanari himself, with the artist Köken Ergun standing next to him, describing projects he had witnessed and captured on film.

A homage to James Lee Byars, featuring a photograph of the artist’s work set alone on a gold-leafed wall, with a red-painted room behind it.

Outside of the major institutions, the NON-Stage festival organized performances around the city. Here, at the nightclub Babylon, Berlin-based Nevin Aladağ’s seven-minute dance piece The Man Who Wanted to Jump Over His Shadow (1999) featured a breakdancer illuminated by a single spotlight.

Another NON-Stage event, Gabriel Lester’s Holes in the Sky (imagination is the higest one can fly) (2013), took place one afternoon in Fındıklı Park on the Bosporus. Experienced kite-flyers tried to launch several of these circular forms high into the sky, although the wind was largely uncooperative that afternoon.

Standing on a roof of the Turkish restaurant Kiva Han, a lip-reader with binoculars was recounting to us viewers a lecture by Ahmet Öğüt, who was hundreds of feet away on the top of the Galata Tower. A performance called The muscles behind my eyes ache from the strain (2013), it was another NON-Stage event.

Ahmet Öğüt, in a white shirt, standing on the balustrade of the Galata Tower, telling stories about the times his works were censored, damaged or altered because of their content, while being interpreted by a professional lip-reader.

Among the week’s openings was this Protocinema exhibition by New York-based Trevor Paglen, in a disused factory. The gleaming orb is a model for a non functional satellite.

Füsun Eczacıbaşı’s art-filled home in Galata was the venue for many parties and receptions throughout the week. Here, a peak at the works on the ground floor, including Ai Weiwei’s plastic crabs, Ori Gersht’s photograph of an exploding vase, a sculpture by Do-Ho Suh, Vik Muniz’s photograph of a skeleton made from junk, and portraits of women wearing animal-organ fashion by Pinar Yolacan.

A project by Rampa gallery, Nevin Aladağ’s video projection Voyeur (1996/2008/2013) of a waiting woman is situated on the corner of a busy street near Beşiktaş.

The week’s final event was the art fair Art International, located on the Golden Horn in the Haliç Congress Center. After a busy opening Sunday, the fair’s three public days were quiet. Here, a remake of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin’s Mattresses to Imaginary Destinations (2003) with Richard Hudson’s steel sculpture Marilyn Monroe (2013) in the background.

At Galeri Manâ’s booth, a hair sculpture and two photo-collages by Valérie Blass, with an Ayşe Erkmen metal sculpture beneath, and a new photography by Pinar Yolacan to the right.