PRINT December 2009

Charles Esche

I HAVE TO DECLARE A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF PERSONAL INTEREST in my choice of the Eleventh International Istanbul Biennial as the best show of the year, given that I’ve been on the advisory board of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts since 2005. Nevertheless, I saw the latest edition as so full of the possibility (and impossibility) of what art can do in the world that I cannot avoid highlighting it in a survey of 2009.

“What Keeps Mankind Alive?” was the titular question posed by the Zagreb-based curatorial collective What, How & for Whom (WHW). Like the oft-posed revolutionary question “What is to be done?” it serves both an interrogative and a rhetorical purpose. On one level, the question “What keeps mankind alive?” could imply that we sometimes fail to do so, a fate recalled by Territory 1995, 2009 (an extensive work by Marko Peljhan about the Srebrenica massacre), and by Hrair Sarkissian’s photographs of Syrian city squares that serve as the sites of public executions. These works in the biennial address the title’s question directly, reflecting how often our societies abuse the right to life. However, the question, which originates from a song in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, begs for more than just this existential answer, because life as measured in terms of artistic fulfillment has to be about more than food and simple survival. The fact of art’s constant existence in human history proves a demand for self-awareness, reflection, and speculation about what might be at the core of human existence—our shared need to think beyond our present circumstances. But equally, art cannot ignore the here and now in its imaginative speculation, because to do so would reduce it to the merely fantastic.

By posing Brecht’s fundamental question as a curatorial conjecture, WHW set the ground for an exhibition that could afford not to be fantastic or spectacular because it engaged the far more crucial problem of art’s role in the world today and, indeed, the state of the world’s collective imagination. Unlike the concurrent Venice Biennale, which suggested that art and the environment have the resources to produce an endless series of parallel worlds, WHW’s proposition took seriously Alain Badiou’s simple assertion that there is only one world. The curatorial team then asked the artists to consider what art can do or think that might parallel the political and economic choices we are forced to make collectively within this one world.

Did this framing device make the 2009 Istanbul Biennial a political show, as so many reviews have claimed? The answer depends on how we understand politics and from which corner of the globe we observe it. The exhibition was not in any way an activist show. It did not spill onto the streets (except in smartly organized protests against the sponsors at the opening), and it did not bother with the rituals of social engagement and production in situ that occupy many forms of politically intentioned art. In fact, it made use of the familiar tropes of fine art in well-installed, museumlike white cubes that spoke for the work’s autonomy from its immediate surroundings. The biennial’s politics were therefore not directly interventionist, unlike the demonstrations documented by Marco Scotini in his important and ongoing archive, Disobedience, begun in 2005.

Rather, the presence of the political in art was made tangible throughout the course of the exhibition itself, as gesture, as representation, and, almost uniquely for a biennial, through the creation of reflexive moments where the context of production was revealed. Political gestures could be seen in Rabih Mroué’s confessional performances, in Sharon Hayes’s inappropriate declarations of love, in KwieKulik’s slides of their child, and in Artur Żmijewski’s interviews with Polish émigrés—to cite only four works that make, out of the intimate confines of a personal account, a passionate call for political responsibility that cannot yet be articulated for a global populace. Representation was explored, in part, through the precise inclusion of works from the height of the ideological wars of the mid-twentieth century, as in contributions by Vyacheslav Akhunov, KP Brehmer, Sanja Iveković, and Mohammed Ossama, as well as through wonderfully simple yet shocking works such as Mladen Stilinović's Nobody Wants to See, 2009, in which a single numeral 3 is placed opposite huge pallets of paper on which the number is written six hundred million times to emblematize the fact that the three richest men in the world own as much as the six hundred million poorest. The third conception of the political that the biennial explored was the most radical. A reflexive approach to the laborious production of the exhibition was continually evident in the citing of numerous facts and figures concerning how money was collected and distributed and where artists were born and are located, as well as in the intelligent choice to leave the remains of the Feriköy Greek School’s curriculum on the walls of the biennial’s most evocative venue. This approach was also evident in the contributions of Cengiz Çekil, the Museum of American Art, Aydan Murtezaoğlu and Bülent Şangar, and Société Réaliste, all of which conflate the act of looking with its political consequences.

Yet this explanation of the biennial’s political strategies leaves open the question of what kind of agency the exhibition set in motion. This is essential to understand, because the question of art’s political (im)possibility requires an articulation of agency of some kind: Simply put, what might an exhibition cause a viewer to do in the course of and after experiencing it? In this case, the biennial very precisely defined art’s potential political agency in terms of education—art as an informative intervention. Visitors to the biennial could learn and produce for themselves new forms of personal understanding. The possibilities for learning ranged across geographies and cultures, from the US (Trevor Paglen and the Museum of American Art) to Palestine ( and Avi Mograbi), from Russia (Chto delat?) to the Netherlands (Marko Peljhan and Wendelien van Oldenborgh), but predominantly the exhibition proposed a modernist legacy that does not comply with the standard narrative of Western origination and Eastern adaptation as promulgated, for example, by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Rather, through works that were made in Central and West Asia in particular, the biennial taught us that a worldwide modernism grew through parallel and agonistic international relationships—a message that WHW clearly articulated through the installation. These processes of learning resonate, of course, with Brecht’s ambitions and with an abandoned leftist ideal of consciousness raising. This biennial, its curators and artists suggested unashamedly, had something to say about the urgent and unpleasant imbalances in the world. They argued that an international exhibition is a means to represent these conditions and even to touch people emotionally because of them, in a way that is unique and particular to this format, its protocols, and the ways they allow for the consumption of images.

What impressed overwhelmingly was the commitment of the curatorial team and its desire to expose the means through which its ambitions were realized. The show is a challenge—a dagger, perhaps—thrust at the heart of a field (or industry) that imagines that meaning in art is produced through an exchange of experiences between equals in terms of cultural knowledge, political rights, and economic conditions—a limited world in which context is understood (“among us,” so to speak) and does not need to be made explicit for the outside. By turning this logic on its head and by constructing ways in which those subscribing to the dominant art orthodoxies might even feel excluded at certain precious moments, the biennial threatened to generate a political moment within its own terrain.

It threatened this . . . but it did not, and probably never could, truly deliver. Instead, in retrospect, the show feels more like an opening gambit. The emotions that linger after visiting the biennial are ambivalent ones of admiration and uncertainty. Is art, are artists, is the art industry, ready to spill its secrets, to change its understanding of its own autonomy? Or does it need privacy in order to function as an aesthetic field or as a special kind of market commodity? The demonstrations, at the opening, against the biennial’s collaboration with Koç Holding, the country’s largest corporation, might have been a foretaste of what would result from full disclosure. Institutional self-critique opens a can of worms.

Yet if taken seriously, the commitment exhibited in Istanbul this year could hugely empower an existing collective project that sees art as a means to imagine new kinds of political encounters. If the show encourages yet more institutions to envision different ways to reveal context, to reformulate the modes of education, or to try something more directly interventionist, then its impact could be tremendous. There are also signs, in the midst of economic recession, that a growing number of fellow artistic and curatorial projects are able to take a clearer position in defining what is at stake when a work of art is made public. The Eleventh Istanbul Biennial represented a stage on which the art and agendas of such crucial initiatives became more internationally visible than ever before.

Charles Esche is director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and codirector of Afterall Journal and Books.