Walking in the Supermarket and Reading the Koran

The Ninth Istanbul Biennale art exhibition seems more regional than international.

ISTANBUL - The organizers of the Ninth Istanbul Biennale have had only partial success in turning the host city into the focus of the event. The biennale, which closes on October 30, represents an exploration on the changing relations between East and West, and is not just about art.

Among the 53 artists and groups participating in the official part of the biennale, only three are American; at previous biennales, there were many more. This year, the world power's presence is mostly felt indirectly, via the presentation of consumer culture. Most of the artists are from Turkey, the Balkans and the Commonwealth of Independent States. There is only one representative from the Far East, from Korea, and sub-Saharan Africa is not represented at all. This biennale is effectively regional, and celebrates this localness in the belief that it is a satisfactory cultural option, confident that it can make an international contribution from its own space.

Awakening after 200 years

The biennale buildings are concentrated in the city's Beyoglu neighborhood, and have been marked with pink - mostly around window frames and entrance ways. Sometimes parts of the sidewalks leading up to the buildings have been painted as well, for easy recognition. The markings were done by the 12A Group, which was founded in the early 1990s, and whose members live in Genoa and Milan. The group looks for new ways to uses existing spaces in their cities. The problem with this type of work, as with many others at this biennale, is that it is more interesting to talk about than to experience.

The Garanti Building, a particularly ugly structure, is being used to exhibit works created as reflections of social issues and situations of architectural power. Among the works are more than a few photographs and video installations showing urban scenes, but not all of them add up to a significant statement.

One of the more interesting works in the building belongs to Wael Shawky, an Egyptian artist who spent six months in Istanbul as a guest artist. He created "Cave," a video film in which he is seen walking in an Istanbul supermarket reading suras (chapters) from the Koran. One of the suras tells the story of the Seven Sleepers, people from the pagan period who were persecuted for their art and fled to a cave, where they fell asleep and awoke 200 years later. When they woke up, they discovered that Christianity had become the dominant religion.

Without reading the text in the accompanying catalogue, the story is not completely clear, but there is something almost hypnotic about the rapid recitation of the verses in the supermarket - a symbol of Western consumerism - and the filming with a gently swaying camera that creates a feeling of instability and a very contemporary metaphor for the relationship between Islam and modern society.

Two exceptional works by Israeli artists, Yaron Leshem and Yochai Avrahami, are also on display in the Garanti Building. Leshem's photographic composition, "Village," consists of 50 photos of a training camp built by the Israel Defense Forces. The photos have been combined to form a single work. Avrahami brought a work that was exhibited last year at the Herzliya Museum of Art. His installation focuses on the minibuses that travel from the territories to Israel and the alternative life and traffic routes that develop alongside political and military orders.

The tobacco warehouse and the Bilsar Building are two locations that can be skipped if one's time is limited. Although the walk to them is pleasant and the big tobacco warehouse with the rough wood floor is impressive, the level of the works displayed there is almost embarrassing. The only work that justifies an effort to go and see it is on the top floor of the warehouse, and is by Pavel Buchler, a native of Prague who lives in Manchester, England.

Huge loudspeakers scattered throughout the low space emit the reading of an unidentifiable text from Franz Kafka's "The Palace." The text, which deals with foreignness, has great significance in this city that brings together people from different communities, but like many other works at this biennale, it can only be fully understood by reading the catalogue.

Loudspeakers and muezzins

Wandering uncomprehending about the room, one can focus on the voice and the loudspeakers, and ponder the muezzin, whose call is heard throughout the city, and the constant murmurings that accompany visitors wherever they go. Somewhat surprisingly, this work is reminiscent of pieces by Luigi Russolo, the futurist musician of the early 20th century.

The Garibaldi Building, on the other hand, should not be missed. Here one can see two works by Y.Z. Kami, an Iranian artist living in New York. Kami has placed circle upon circle of gray alabaster stones on the floor of the exhibition hall, which looks like an old spacious dance hall. The stones are cut like bricks, similar in shape but not uniform. Something in this work at first reminds one of creations by minimalist artists like Robert Long and even Jozef Bajus, but it relates to Sufi philosophy and each stone is engraved with a word from a poem by the Persian poet Rumi. It is steeped in Iranian heritage but works exceptionally well as a modern work.

When seen from the gallery above the hall, the circles seem to come alive, as if composed of dancers. The huge chandelier and the wooden floor combine with this work to create the impression of a formal European ball, the way they are presented in period films.

The second work is a collage of pictures photographed by Kami in Konia during celebrations of Mohammed's birthday. Kami has painted on top of the photos, such that the work looks not like a collage in a tourism brochure, but rather like a collection of memories that have changed over time.

At Antrepo 5, a warehouse beside the Bosphorus, the art is disconnected from the city and loses its sense of place. The lower floor displays official biennale exhibits, while the upper floor houses shows accompanying exhibitions, the largest of which belongs to students from art academies worldwide, including from the continuing education program at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, whose students came to Istanbul for a two-week workshop.

Most of the works by biennale artists displayed here are not of high quality, again with the exception of an audio-video presentation, "Life Preservers" by Israeli artist Smadar Dreyfus. Filmed on the Tel Aviv beach, it shows religious women and their children bathing. At first it looks like a regular seaside vignette, but closer examination reveals a cluster of women, some with their hair covered, and both they and their children are floating with the aide of inflated rings.

Cairo's new neighborhoods

The work by Hala Elkoussy is also intriguing. Elkoussy, an Egyptian artist, has created a video work dealing with the new neighborhoods surrounding Cairo. She has created a collage of commercials and footage of the Western lifestyle in those neighborhoods along with dialogue about diets and health food. This work is somehow on the same plane as Shawky's with his recitation of suras in the supermarket.

The students' exhibition is quite perplexing on the whole, and it is not at all clear why it should have been give an almost equal platform with the artists. The seven Bezalel students produced works of much lesser quality than usual. The most outrageous incident at this exhibition was the disappearance two days ago of a work by Lior Shvil - a bulldozer made of thick plastic. The fate of the bulldozer is still unknown, and conjectures by the Bezalel participants that political machinations are behind the theft are not really convincing.

Alongside the biennale, the Istanbul Modern as it's called (or Istanbul Museum of Modern Art), has opened an exhibition titled, "Center of Gravity," curated by the museum's chief curator, Rosa Martinez. The exhibition features works by 13 internationally acclaimed artists, including Janine Antoni, Louise Bourgeois and Anish Kapoor as well as three important Turkish artists. This ratio reflects the old, conservative view of the international art scene.

Martinez, who curated the 1997 Istanbul Biennale and the Venice Biennale this year, with co-curator Maria De Corral, says that Istanbul is starting to offer a different type of art center. Despite this declaration, the exhibition is good but conservative.

The first important international exhibition

"Center of Gravity" is this beautiful museum's first important international exhibition (the permanent exhibition contains a particularly interesting collection of art from modern Turkey, in which Israelis will be able to identify dilemmas and problems faced by Israeli art. Three of the outstanding works in "Center of Gravity" are by Anish Kapoor, and offer a type of meditative art that is very different from that in the biennale.

Concurrent with the biennale, a conference of the International Association of Art Critics was also held, in the first renovated building of what will be Istanbul's new cultural center, due to open in another year and a half. An ambitious project, the complex covers 12 square kilometers (4.6 square miles) and is built on the ruins of a power plant that served Istanbul until the 1960s.

Plans for the cultural center include a huge museum for contemporary art that will guarantee Istanbul's place in the contemporary art landscape, along with the biennale, the Istanbul Modern and the activities of local galleries.