“4th International Instanbul Biennial”

A number of worlds overlap in Istanbul; these include Islamic fundamentalism, Eastern stock exchange, and Western capitalism. With only a half-dozen galleries in the center of town that tend to be dominated by a belated expressionism, the Istanbul Biennial represents an attempt to link up with the Western art market. Artists participating in the Biennial were thus given the opportunity to respond to an interweaving of disparate elements. But Maria Eichhorn’s billboard emblazoned with posters for alternative political parties, gay and lesbian initiatives, and other related groups—which was installed in Istanbul’s busiest square—remained the show’s only incursion into public space. Olaf Metzel’s installation, a guard booth that he borrowed from Besiktas—one of the most popular Turkish soccer teams—and decked with souvenirs, magazine clippings, and other materials, was far more popular than Eichhorn’s piece. For the opening, the entire soccer team was present to give autographs to the crowd.

René Block, the show’s artistic director, gathered the work of over one hundred artists into three sites: the Yerebatan Cistern; a former customs warehouse; and the Hagia Eirene Museum, formerly an early Christian church, now a national landmark. For his installation at the Hagia Eirene, Ilya Kabakov exposed several square meters of the original flooring in order to construct an imaginary narrative about concealed ornaments and their relation to the unconscious. At the same site Mona Hatoum installed two prayer mats in a whitewashed oriel window. These mats, exquisite in their execution, were held together by thousands of pins, and a compass rested toward the center of the piece, its needle pointing toward Mecca.

The mingling of historical sites, contemporary nomadism, and industrial esthetics was very much part of the exhibition’s central concept. The Biennial’s title, “Orient/ation,” suggests a historical problem that was well articulated by a Turkish philosophy professor at a related symposium: “For too long the West has stood in front of the mirror and blocked the view. Now it has to ‘reorient’ itself completely.” In general, however, the show suggested few shifts. Instead, one sensed an overbearing correctness that seemed to flatten the disparate works that were presented. At the same time one detected, in the retrospective portion of the exhibition, a certain preference for work by canonical European artists.

The exhibition made a special point of including a large percentage of works by women artists. Fariba Hajamadi’s wallpaper piece, Rapt, 1995, combined various Goya engravings depicting violence against women, illustrations from the Kama Sutra, and a mix of replicas of empty museum vitrines, sculptures depicting love scenes, and reproductions of paintings over which “protective” newspaper pages had been glued. The newspapers’ headlines, in turn, dealt with violence. In creating her “Untitled” pictures, Egyptian artist Ghada Amer stitched sex scenes with female couples onto canvas, the figures eventually vanishing into a thick tangle of unsewn threads. In these works, Amer contrasts sexual freedom with stereotypes of femininity. Alongside these more urgent themes, Barbara Bloom’s Pictures from the Floating World: Short Screen, 1995, a printed screen examining the history of eroticism, came off as overly literary.

Within the customs warehouse Micha Ullman created a hermetic space, a cube entitled Sand Lamp, 1995, that served as a monument for Istanbul. One had to peer through three small windows to see the inside, which, like the exterior, was painted bright white. Reddish sand from Israel was strewn on the floor as though it had trickled down from the ceiling. This cube had the same dimensions as the piece Ullman once set up in Berlin’s Köllwitz-Platz to commemorate the book burnings that were held there; that space, too, was empty, for in Ullman’s view, only repeated absence can render loss visible.

Across from Ullman’s piece, Hale Tenger, a resident of Istanbul, reconstructed a small guard’s house that once stood on the grounds, fencing it in with barbed wire so that it resembled a prison. Inside hung kitschy landscape pictures the guards had used to embellish their drab cell. Taken from a poem by Edip Cansever, a well-known Turkish poet, the piece’s title, We didn’t go outside, we were always on the outside; we didn’t go inside, we were always on the inside, seemed to sum up the many paradoxes of present-day Turkey.

Harald Fricke

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.