In Istanbul, Art Tries to Imitate Life - and Fails

Against the backdrop of the demonstrations at Gezi Park and Taksim Square, the city’s biennial retreated indoors.

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

“Imagine a biennial that takes place with such drastic shifts on a societal level happening in the background, and that these very shifts are precisely the ostensible topic of the biennial itself, and that all this emerges just three months before the opening,” writes the Turkish artist Elmas Deniz in his penetrating review of the Istanbul Biennale on the Art Agenda website. Put succinctly, this is the story of the 13th Istanbul Biennial, which got into trouble, reaching a stalemate between its own stated intentions and the reality on the ground, a biennial that hoped to uncover art’s political power and exposed its helplessness instead.

Under the title “Mom, Am I Barbarian?” the biennial sought to deal with public space as political space; explore the relationship between art and activism; restore art to the people; rethink democracy, representation, anti-representation and civics, and emphasize “dialogue with the city,” as curator Fulya Erdemci put it. As the biennial’s website states, “Aspiring to open new avenues for thought and imagination, the Istanbul Biennial will activate social engagement and public fora to generate a possibility for rethinking the concept of ‘publicness.’”

The website continues: “Questioning what the reintroduction of the concept of ‘barbarian’ as a reflection of ‘absolute other’ reveals in our contemporary society, Erdemci referred to art’s potential for engendering new positions and constructing new subjectivities for the sake of creating a space for the weakest ones and the most excluded by destabilizing dominant and deep-seated discourses.” The biennial was originally going to focus on exhibits in open, abandoned and disused public spaces in the city. Schools, courthouses, military buildings and post offices, public transportation hubs and industrial buildings such as warehouses and shipyards, hotels, offices and shopping centers were to have undergone transformations into art spaces, with two of the most prominent open areas, Taksim Square and Gezi Park, taking center stage. This was all supposed to lead to “spatioeconomic justice.”

But when the protests began in late May, Erdemci did a kind of tactical about-face, giving up completely on the idea of making outdoor urban space into art space. The biennial ended up in five indoor spaces — the Antrepo No. 3 exhibition space, the Galata Greek Primary School, the ARTER exhibition space, the SALT Beyoglu exhibition space and the 5533 art space.

Zbigniew Libera, 'first day of freedom' 2012.
Sener Ozmen, 'Untitled', 2005.
Jorge Mendez, 'Blake El Castillo', 2007.
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Zbigniew Libera, 'first day of freedom' 2012. Credit: Servet Dilber
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Sener Ozmen, 'Untitled', 2005.Credit: Servet Dilber
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Jorge Mendez, 'Blake El Castillo', 2007.Credit: Servet Dilber

“Before the Gezi protests, we were planning for the biennial to include numerous projects that intrude in urban public spaces. But when we questioned what it would mean to exhibit works of art on the streets with permission granted by an authority that denies its citizens the right of freedom of expression, we saw that this would ... contradict the main reason why these projects were created,” Erdemci said, giving the reason the exhibition had been moved out of the open spaces into the indoor ones: “not doing in order to tell more.”

The move drew a great deal of criticism. Sensitivity to social issues was seen as concern over image — a desire not to be seen as using the demonstrations to promote the exhibition, which barely camouflages the desire to stay out of trouble. In addition, the Koc Holding company — the exhibit’s major sponsor, whose funding enables the public to attend the biennial for free — has close ties with the government and the defense establishment, and supplies ammunition to the army and the police.

Pretensions and assumptions

So even before the exhibition opened, it was clear it was collapsing under its pretensions and assumptions. “The protesters — we, citizens — were a diverse group of intellectuals, environmental activists, urban planners, researchers, artists, football fan clubs, hackers, LGBT coalitions, various small-scale leftist groups, anarchists, and some members of political parties, plus white-collar workers, workers’ unions, and students; in fact, people from all walks of life. This group was busy freely expressing dissent and opposition, and arguing for democratic rights right out there in the open, in public space,” writes Deniz. “Since one could say that the public itself has been actively expressing their creativity in the medium of the public projects, and doing so without claims to authorship at the Gezi occupation and park forums, for example, the notion of an official biennial artist aiming to make a ‘public contribution’ rings hollow in Istanbul.”

Two of the Biennial exhibitions were opened on Istiklal Street, in the shadow of the vehicles used to disperse the demonstrations and with massive police presence.  The sight of the crowds and art-world chatter alongside the police, with their gas masks ready, was stronger than any planned or organized scenario could have been. Was this a ridiculous show of social detachment or the epitome of a civic event? It is hard to decide.

Although the biennial is not a historical exhibit, it presents several examples from past mixtures of art with politics in the public space. One is a full documentation of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s installations of “maintenance art” from the 1970s and Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 work, “Splitting.” Are these test cases that function as a key to the entire exhibition? Why were their works chosen as an ideological flaw out of the enormous abundance of exhibits and works of this kind that were prevalent from the 1960s? While there is no ongoing historical connection between the works from the past and the contemporary ones, many of the latter are influenced by the documentary display aesthetics and works of the 1970s.

The exhibition celebrates a certain aesthetic tradition and an ideological direction that suggests underground or anti-consumerist art. To those familiar with the concept who are active in the alternative community, this has a whiff of “connection with what is happening on the ground.” The problem is the visual attrition created by the accumulation of more and more works of this kind, and their lack of credibility as far as current technological manufacturing options go. Who does research these days using photocopied photographs in a library? Who reports about an event using posters that have been loosely hung up? This is actually an anachronism that has gotten drunk on itself, and in some cases a truly annoying hipsterish game.

'Optical Propaganda' (2012) by Sener Ozmen, from Istanbul Biennial 2013. Credit: Servet Dilber

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