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The 9th International Istanbul Biennial, distributed across seven sites (Deniz Palace Apartments, Garanti Building, Antrepo No. 5, Tobacco Warehouse, Bilsar Building, Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, and the Garibaldi Building) used the city of Istanbul as not only its host but its principal theme. Visitors walked to and from each site, guided by the Italian Gruppo A12’s fuchsia paint on the venues’ façades and windows, occasionally getting lost in the streets of the Beyoğlu district. Rather than finding such wanderings a burden, visitors enjoyed the treats and surprises wherein they were routinely rewarded with the discovery of buildings that would otherwise have been inaccessible, and which contained a selection of artworks that questioned and engaged the history and politics of Istanbul itself. Considerably smaller than the Venice Biennale, the exhibition was also more manageable by comparison. Although the works at each site did not necessarily correspond with the chosen venues in any obvious manner, for the most part, the spaces accommodated the works well.
The exhibition relied upon the tensions generated by a dialectical vacillation between local and global, knowledge and its lack. Phil Collins’s (b. 1970) contribution to the exhibition, gerçeğin geri dönüşü (the return of the reality, 2005), provides a case in point. Focused on Turkish reality television, the work involved taped interviews of reality series participants, as well as posed photographic portraits. A visitor’s understanding of Collins’s implicit critique in both the photographic and filmic portraits depended on her or his familiarity with the tropes and conceits of Turkish reality television. Visitors without the biennial catalogue, an Istanbul native’s explanation of the sitters in the portraits, or someone who does not follow the development of reality television in Turkey would have been lost. While the curators of the biennial, Vasif Kortun and Charles Esche, contended that such works would help visitors come to know Istanbul, Collins’s work suggested the ways in which the exhibition assumed a prior knowledge of the city. Such questions of accessibility can be interpreted in two ways. Some might applaud the decision to privilege the local viewers over the international art audience that flocked to the city to see the biennial. Others, of course, might find good evidence herein to support criticisms regarding contemporary art’s privileging of specialized, and consequently particularized, knowledge.
Michael Blum’s (b. 1966) work similarly played on the specifics of local history. In his Safiye Behar’in Anisina (A Tribute to Safiye Behar, 2005), the artist created an archival case that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had a lover who was a feminist, Jewish, and a Socialist. Carefully researched and displayed, the installation documented the existence of Atatürk’s love, Safiye Behar, through a selection of her furniture and personal belongings that viewers were led to believe had been rescued from an apartment building condemned for demolition. A timeline provided a sense of Behar’s involvement in Turkish and US politics, including details of her life in Chicago. However, what surprised most visitors was the sensationalist information about Behar’s involvement with Atatürk provided by Behar’s grandson, an architect in Chicago, who suggested that Atatürk may have been his biological grandfather. As those savvy to the recent proliferation of fake archives and personas in recent art making may by now have guessed, Blum’s research and its results were all a ruse; Behar was not only not Atatürk’s lover, she also never existed. Even seasoned reporters fell for Blum’s enticing and convincing construction of history, which demonstrated quite well the critique the artist proffered about how we construct and approach the facts of history.
At the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Hüseyin Alptekin (b. 1957) reinterpreted the Triumphal Quadriga now at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Using a cast supplied by the Museo di San Marco, Alptekin tried to repatriate the quadriga that once stood in the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet in Istanbul until taken by the Crusaders during the 1204 CE Sack of Constantinople. Alptekin’s cobalt blue-and-white tiles lined the walls of the gallery, simultaneously making reference to both the Triumphal Quadriga (through the depiction of details of the sculptures) and the Turkish tile-making tradition. Alptekin’s piece not only engaged the past, but also the present, especially in a time when the repatriation of objects is being debated by museums around the world. The Museo di San Marco refused to loan the original quadriga, which Venetians had placed in a place of pride overlooking the Piazza San Marco. Even walking to the site of the piece required that one wend through Istanbul’s streets, including one of the city’s liveliest, Istiklal Caddesi, itself the subject of several other works at the biennial.
Issues surrounding Istanbul’s expansion and gentrification made several appearances in the biennial. For example, in Istanbul/Çizimi (Istanbul/Drawing, 2005), Dan Perjovschi (b. 1961) used graffiti to explore the changing city—from the “terracification” of Istiklal Caddesi to the rise of fundamentalism and the complexity of the European Union negotiations. His graffiti covered the inside walls of the Bilsar Building: line drawings of fashionable young Istanbullus parading themselves on the city’s busy shopping street and seated at cafés that are now located in formerly dilapidated buildings were positioned next to those of young women wearing headscarves and holding grenades. Perjovschi’s work remained unresolved, at least while he was still in Istanbul, due to his addition of new graffiti, such as a drawing that alluded to the debacle that ensued in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s delayed response to Hurricane Katrina.
Despite such external references, Istanbul as theme dominated the biennial, as seen in Halil Altindere’s (b. 1971) video installation Miss Turkey (2005) at the Garanti Building. The video depicted a woman adorned with a Miss Turkey sash riding on a small bicycle along the bustling Istiklal Caddesi. Some people turn to look at her, but the majority continue with their quotidian activities as she struggles to bicycle through the crowd. In another clip of the same video, two men dressed in suits and armed with a boombox start breakdancing in the street. Another man, with his head covered by a ski mask, awaits an ATM user, presumably to rob him. Later, the police surround a man who has a gun held to the copy of a portrait of Mehmet II (Fatih, the Conqueror), a work attributed to the Venetian Gentile Bellini (ca.1429–1507) and now at the National Gallery in London. In each of the video’s sections, people merely glance at the events without paying much attention. They register no shock. The significance of Altindere’s engagement with the street’s many functions through his reenactment of its simultaneous roles as center of artistic, criminal, and commercial activities becomes most clear after the viewer has spent time in Istanbul and observed the general attitude of indifference various populations display toward each other.
In Lukas Duwenhögger’s (b. 1956) contribution to the biennial, Pazar Öğleden Sonra (Sunday Afternoon, 2002), a bald man in the painting’s foreground sits knitting in a white undershirt; the man to his left sits barefoot and in repose, his gaze resting upon a half-dressed figure, of which all we see is a bare back, a blue-and-white sarong, and a leg. The man in the sarong sits coyly, as if avoiding the gaze of the man in the pink shirt, but also refusing our own entrance into this intimate male sphere. While the walls and furniture of their room are decorated brightly with flowered and striped throws, out the window we see part of a bare and nondistinct building. The figure of the man in the blue-and-white sarong reminds one of Henri Matisse’s work, particularly his odalisques, upending the traditional Orientalizing aesthetic of the languorous female figure. Another reference to an Orientalizing aesthetic, of a more traditional kind, appeared in Caner Karavit’s (b. 1960) cardboard reinterpretation of Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Turtle Trainer (1906), which recently sold for $3.5 million, the highest price at auction for a painting by a Turkish artist, and which now sits in the new Pera Museum in Istanbul. Karavit, however, added a twist to his trainer’s tale. Whereas Hamdi Bey’s painting depicts the turtles not obeying their master, Karavit’s are depicted mastering several tricks. The playfulness of Karavit’s reinterpretation of Hamdi Bey’s piece ends with his Bir patlama sonrasi Istanbul sabahi (An Istanbul Morning After Bombing, 2003), also on the second floor of the Antrepo No. 5, the biennial’s largest venue, which shared the waterfront with the recently opened Istanbul Modern. Although made from the same materials, the latter piece tackles the topic of a bombing and the detritus left behind by the explosion. As with other parts of the biennial, curators Esche and Kortun did not shy away from allowing works that explored Istanbul’s difficulties in grappling with the tensions of increasing religious and secular fundamentalism.
In Antrepo’s Hospitality Zone, a space devoted to lectures, film screenings, and two smaller exhibitions within the biennial—Projeckt: Production Fault, curated by the artist group Hafriyat Art Group, and Free Kick, curated by Altindere—the works are more provocative, tackling issues of political repression and Turkey’s ongoing aspirations to EU membership. Upon entering the second floor and looking directly to the right, viewers were confronted with an installation in an elevator shaft where photographs of victims of the instatement of the Turkish military junta in 1982 are hung. The photographs, most of them casually posed head shots, dangled on string, while across from them an installation entitled Çatal (Fork, 2005) by Mihran Tomasyan commemorated the work of the singer Ahmet Kaya, who died in Paris in exile after singing a Kurdish song at an awards show, an act for which he was rewarded by attendees throwing dinner forks at him. On the walls surrounding this installation, photographs from NAR Photo News Agency depict a number of topics, including scenes of street crime, as in Haluk Çobanoğlu’s (b. 1957) Lost in Istanbul; the difficulty of a bellydancer’s life, as in Burcu Göknar’s (b. 1980) Dancing to Survive; and the cityscape reflected in store windows, as in Mehmet Kaçmaz’s (b. 1978) Istanbul Reflected. With its varied themes, this one corner of the biennial encapsulated the range of much of the rest of the exhibition.
Although remarkably eclectic, the 9th International Istanbul Biennial’s unifying thematic choice of the city of Istanbul proved effective. Under Kortun and Esche’s guidance, the biennial’s contributors managed to avoid chaos and confusion. Instead, by examining and engaging Istanbul’s past, present, and future, the exhibition succeeded in its goal of tackling the city from many angles, and it demonstrated the potential of contemporary art to engage current topics without being exclusively local.
Leslie J. Ureña
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University
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