ONE OF THE MOST breathtaking works in the Thirteenth Istanbul Biennial, which opened to the public on Saturday, is a black-and-white film that was made more than sixty years ago. The sole mention of it is buried in the back of the biennial guidebook, and it is scheduled to screen only once, on an undisclosed day in October, at 5533, the most remote of the exhibition’s five venues. The only film ever made by Jean Genet, Un Chant d’amour (1950) is a talismanic study of autoerotic longing among a prison population hounded by curious and resentful guards. French censors banned the film as soon as it came to light. The United States Supreme Court deemed it obscene. Jonas Mekas smuggled a print through customs and was promptly arrested when it screened in New York.
Given the biennial’s minimal acknowledgement of the film’s existence, you might think it was still volatile, and rarely seen. But if anything, Un Chant d’amour is simply hiding in plain sight, in Istanbul as elsewhere. Anyone with a decent Internet connection can watch the silent film in its twenty-six-minute entirety, anywhere, anytime, on multiple platforms ranging from YouTube to Vimeo to Ubu. Certainly, Genet’s mesmerizing treatment of dreams, prisons, poetry, sex, violence, desire, repression, and the charged promise of an imminent revolt makes the film a terrific linchpin for the biennial as a whole. More problematically, so too does the impulse to pull back and retreat with the art into smaller and ever more private audiences.
Perhaps more so than any iteration of the biennial to date, this edition—organized by the Turkish curator Fulya Erdemci and titled “Mom, Am I Barbarian?” after a book by the radical poet and Istanbullu eccentric Lale Müldür—is shot through with tensions and contradictions. As Erdemci was assembling her exhibition, an enormous shift in Turkey’s political landscape cracked open the ground on which the biennial had been built, creating wild disparities of ambition and intent. As a result, this edition lurches dramatically between going for broke and playing it safe, between grabbing hold of a pivotal historical moment and standing to the side out of respect, discomfort, or both.
Consider the social confusion of the opening days. On the eve of the press preview, September 10, news broke that a young antigovernment protester named Ahmet Atakan had died in the hospital after being struck by a tear gas canister, which soldiers in the southern city of Antakya had lobbed at his head. Atakan, twenty-two, had been demonstrating against plans to plow a highway through the campus of a school. He was the sixth person killed in protests than have swept across Turkey since May.
The biennial and a slew of other initiatives organizing parallel events swiftly canceled their opening parties. To continue the revelry would have been in poor taste, and anyway, it was a time for returning to the streets. Friends and colleagues talked to me about gas masks and the imperatives of reportage. And yet, on the morning of September 11, day one of the putative preview, I shared a ride from the airport with the curator of a major New York museum. We compared notes. Her schedule was totally unchanged. On that level of elite privilege and institutional obligation, the social itinerary was very much intact, and totally at odds with the realities on the ground.
So began a week of conflicting agendas. There were intimate dinners and exclusive engagements at the opulent homes of Ömer Koç and Füsun Eczacibaşi, representing two of Turkey’s most powerful republican families, without whom the existing infrastructure of Istanbul’s cultural life would likely wither and die. There were lush, epic boat rides up the Bosphorus, a biennial tradition upheld by blue-chip Istanbul galleries such as Rampa and Galeri Mânâ. Another tradition, albeit a young one, was the three-year-old Non-Stage performance program, directed by Derya Demir and Filiz Avunduk. At root and throughout was the humbled and humbling task of trying to make sense of a very complicated biennial, which seems equally bound to and detached from its very complicated context.
Ever since she was appointed to her post in early 2012, Erdemci has made clear that the interests driving her biennial would be the city and the public, and redefining each in relation to the other. In stark contrast to her predecessors, Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, who made of their biennial a hermetic museological display, Erdemci wanted the tussle of an open forum, and the challenge of stitching her biennial into the unruly urban fabric of Istanbul.
Within a year, she was in the thick of it, battling for permissions from municipal authorities on one side, trying to convince hardcore political activists that she was for real on the other. A coalition of protesters broke up numerous events for the biennial’s six-month public program, titled “Public Alchemy” and organized with Andrea Phillips, on the grounds that the biennial’s corporate sponsor, Koç Holding, was responsible for gentrifying the same neighborhoods about which the biennial was supposedly concerned.
In a petition that began circulating in May, representatives of the Common Resistance Platform described the biennial as authoritarian, judgmental, and uncommunicative, and called for its umbrella organization, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), to rethink its structure. Several well-known artists signed, including Banu Cennetoğlu, Nilbar Güreş, and Ahmet Öğüt.
Then, something incredible happened. Demonstrations against the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) erupted all over the country, and remained nonviolent in the face of a severe police crackdown. What set those events in motion was the protection of Gezi Park, one of the seven public sites Erdemci had lined up for the biennial (the others were Taksim Square, the Galata Bridge, the main streets running through the neighborhoods of Tarlabaşi and Karaköy, the post office, and the dockyards). But clearly, what has come to be shorthanded since as “Gezi,” much like “Tahrir” in Cairo, has wholly surpassed the biennial, and Istanbul’s art scene with it.
To ask what the role of contemporary art can or could be at such a time or in such a movement is a question that goes far beyond the biennial’s reach. And so, in the months that followed the uprisings in May, the biennial began to withdraw. Projects slated for public space—fourteen in all—were canceled or reconfigured for five indoor venues: Antrepo No. 3, Arter, SALT Beyoğlu, a Greek school in Karaköy, and 5533. In August, Erdemci and Phillips scrapped the rest of the “Public Alchemy” program.
On Wednesday evening, I dropped in to see Vasif Kortun, the director of research and programs at SALT. He had opened a major retrospective for Gülsün Karamustafa the night before, but he had canned the party and gone to Taksim Square instead. Having organized two previous editions of the biennial, he seemed well placed to consider the Gezi effect on the art scene.
“This is the first nontraumatized generation in our history,” Kortun said of the young protesters who led the Gezi movement. They weren’t defeated by the coups that shook Turkey’s political establishment in the 1970s. They didn’t have their hopes dashed by the economic privatization that followed. They haven’t been demoralized by what amounts to a civil war in the east of the country. “They didn’t need to learn anything from that,” he said. “We are their baggage. We hold them back.” Throughout Gezi and after, “they created something new.” Or, as he posted on Facebook in early June: “We saw heaven and it was in the present. Self-organized in near-perfect harmony an unscripted future lies ahead of us. We used to feel so alone, disenchanted by our acquiescent attendance to a world that looked so unavoidable. Look who is lonely now?”
“Something unimaginable happened in Turkey, and that’s why we can’t talk about anything else,” explained the writer and curator Övül Durmuşoğlu, who I ran into Thursday night, at a slightly paradoxical roof party for Non-Stage. Gezi pieced together a patchwork of “impossible identities,” she said. “The LGBT community, football supporters, women, students, ultra-nationalists, religious fundamentalists who don’t believe in capitalism. They were all together and this is what scared the government so much.” Erdoğan called the protesters çapulcu, meaning “looters” or “bandits.” The art scene stepped up and owned the term immediately, imagining itself an awkward band of fragile, tender bandits, but bandits nonetheless.
Erdemci doesn’t want to bandwagon the term, she told me when I sat down with her Friday afternoon, in the café of Istanbul Modern, and so she doesn’t use the word çapulcu, not in conversation and not in the emotive text she wrote for the biennial. But it might be the key. And it might be through the guise of that fragile bandit figure that many of the contradictions of the exhibition begin to make sense and bear fruit.
For example, a certain renegade spirit runs through the gorgeous simplicity of Annika Eriksson’s video I Am the Dog That Was Always Here (2013), a story of urban upheaval in Istanbul as seen through the eyes of stray dogs, and extends to Hito Steyerl’s heroic lecture-performance Is a Museum a Battlefield? (2013), which finds the artist playing the part of an amateur weapons inspector, untangling the knotted complicities that exist among museums, biennials, corporate sponsors, and the arms industry. Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s The Incidental Insurgents (2012–13), adapting Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives to what looks like an exploded film treatment, likewise celebrates “the lean young wolves” who have historically energized the avant-garde through art, poetry, and film. Like Genet’s prisoners and petty thieves, these characters share obvious affinities with “the outcasts, misfits, bandits, anarchists, revolutionaries, and artists” who Erdemci describes as her raison d’être, “the barbarians” of her title, “who open the seams of the system and show the outer limits of language.”
“I don’t want to legitimize the authorities who have silenced citizens’ voices, violently so, to realize a series of artworks,” Erdemci said, finally, of her decision to withdraw from public space. “My gesture of withdrawal shows this conflict clearly. By their absence I want people to hear the voices of the street.”
And yet, that might not be good enough. As the preview days ended, I caught up with Ahmet Öğüt, who was still working through his own response to the biennial’s retreat. To do so, he recounted three anecdotes for me: In Tunis, Michel Foucault hides a printer in his garden for students to produce antigovernment leaflets in 1968; two years ago in Cairo, the Townhouse Gallery bags its exhibition program and opens every room for protesters who need a place to meet and plan; in Istanbul last spring, a hotel on Taksim Square turns its lobby into a makeshift hospital and a base of political action.
“It is important to imagine,” said Öğüt. “If we lose public and semipublic space, we lose everything. Artists give up their authorship when necesary, and it is the same for institutions. We need to find ways to get out of the art context, especially during historical moments like this. I don’t just mean anonymous, guerrilla-style projects. Artists often take those risks, step out of safe zones, and play around with permissions, regulations, and legal limitations. It’s time for the institutions to do the same, and to get more creative.”