Collective Memories


Left: Istanbul Biennial curators Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic. Right: Storm clouds gathering over Istanbul. (All photos: Rachel Higgins)

THE ELEVENTH ISTANBUL BIENNIAL opened a fortnight ago with its usual Ottoman fanfare, gathering representatives from all corners of the art world for revelry and an overtly political exhibition. As in previous years, the show spans traditional and repurposed exhibition spaces throughout the European side of the city—Antrepo No. 3, an ex-tobacco warehouse, and the former Ferikoy Greek School. Though past editions have been organized by big-name curators like Dan Cameron, Charles Esche, Vasif Kortun, and Hou Hanru, this show was curated by What, How, and for Whom? (Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic, and Sabina Sabolovic), a young collective that oversees Gallery Nova in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.

On an insider tip, I crashed the Wednesday-night patrons’ soiree at Antrepo. Lacking a paper invite, the broadest, heaviest ticket I have ever seen, I worried that my trip was already getting off on the wrong foot. Fortunately, Istanbul doormen aren’t nearly as rigid as their New York brethren. “Just have fun,” the bouncers jested as they ushered me in. The cavernous space was filled with Turkish celebrities and TV crews, violet lights, and living sculptures. Two long banquet tables (one devoted entirely to dessert) stood against the walls, and a quick glance around revealed a delightful dearth of fellow Americans.

Left: Artist Emre Huner and with Rodeo Gallery's Sylvia Kouvali. Right: Artist Pinar Yolacan.

Once past the metal detectors, I met up with artist Pinar Yolacan, who showed me around. “It’s a funny crowd,” she said. “But they know how to throw a party.” I found Rodeo Gallery’s Sylvia Kouvali spreading the word about a reception for (one very American) Jordan Wolfson later on at Mikla, a restaurant on the roof of the Marmara Pera Hotel. Before making the trek over, Yolacan and I stopped to sample ice cream from the dessert table: “It’s from the region where my father grew up,” she noted. “So thick they use a knife to serve it.”

Mikla’s elevator opened onto a celestial panorama of the city’s seven hills—as well as an ominous gathering of storm clouds. As soon as we arrived, the rain came down and the umbrellas opened up. I dashed under the nearest one, which belonged to Beirut-based artist Mounira Al Solh. She slipped me an address and phone number along with a message to make an appointment to visit her Not Only Arabic magazine outpost, one of the biennial’s off-site projects. Downstairs, many wet nighthawks made their way down the block to the Londra Hotel’s lobby bar, whose intoxicatingly over-the-top colonialist decor swallowed the rest of the night.

A few hours later, I was back at Antrepo for the 10 AM press conference. (Some chose shades for the occasion.) WHW introduced the biennial via a dispassionate series of facts and statistics—exhibition budgets and demographics of participating artists. Though the commitment to transparency and to underrepresented categories of artists was commendable, the presentation (most of which was lost in the industrial acoustics of the space or behind the large columns that obstructed much of the audience’s view) also lent the affair an air of empiricism. It was a distancing, politicized performance that hewed to this year’s theme, borrowed from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera: “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” “This is almost Stalinist,” someone shot behind me. But as far as press conferences go, at least this one made an impression.

Left: Protestors outside Antrepo. Right: Biennial artists Mounira Al Solh and Igor Grubic.

The big event Thursday evening was the Sarkis retrospective at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. I arrived late and quickly found Slag Gallery’s Ozkan Canguven, a New Yorker and former Istanbulite, who pulled me along to dinner with friends. As we were leaving the museum, a car nearly rolled into us. “Did you see her?” said a passerby. “She had a mean look.” The vehicle stopped and produced a stately Zaha Hadid. Seemed we’d left the party too early—or just in time, depending on your perspective.

Friday brought a slew of openings at galleries around Beyoglu, the main arts and nightlife district, as well as the official opening of the biennial. I spent much of the day seeing work and again made friends in the rain, sharing a cab to Taksim with critic Lisa Bloom and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s Betti-Sue Hertz, who commented on the general strength of the video works across the biennial. No surprise, perhaps—video is the biennial art par excellence—but true, nonetheless. After Platform Garanti’s reception for the My City EU-Turkey artist exchange program, I joined Yolacan at Antrepo for a reprise of Wednesday’s opening, this time featuring the addition of a crowd of demonstrators protesting corporate sponsorship.

On our way to the afterparty, our growing entourage passed a row of fish restaurants hemorrhaging out-of-towners. As Art in General’s Anne Barlow sadly noted, it seemed impossible to grab a table at any of them, so I continued on to the party at Liman, a resplendent restaurant with a dozen or so balconies overlooking the Bosphorus, itself lined with mosques and cruise ships. I made my way through the unnecessarily convoluted drink lines and came across curator Michele Thursz, who bid me good-bye on her way to another beer stand. “This is a carnival,” she noted. I danced and then left the building with National Gallery of Canada curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois, hopping into a cab blasting a heavy Balkan beat. “The party continues!” she said, and indeed it did.

Left: A view of Istanbul. Right: Biennial artist Shahab Fotouhi and artist Babak Golkar.