Istanbul Biennial

Yuko Hasegawa, curator of this year’s Istanbul Biennial, set out to make an exhibition around what visual culture theorist Pierre Lévy has called the anthropology of cyberspace. Her idea was to deconstruct the traditional Western idea of the individual as an entity organized by and around a strong ego. “Egofugality” is nothing less than an evolutionary proposal, according to Hasegawa—the individual’s liberation from itself on a line of flight toward a collective intellect. Hasegawa describes a movement away from what she calls the West’s three monolithic M’s: man, monetarism, and materialism. Instead she proposes three centripetal C’s: collective intelligence, collective consciousness, and coexistence. In a perhaps more elaborated way, this resonates with the “Beyond the Self” mantra of this year’s Berlin Biennale and its three C’s of connectedness, commitment, and contribution.

Asian women were strongly represented among the sixty-three artists here. In fact the overall tone suggested that the male (artist) ego is history—practically Cro-Magnon. It seems women are better equipped for the ride through the “egofuge,” emerging on the other end as avatars of strong, ambiguous, even monstrous femininity, as & Korean artist Lee Bul’s female cyborgs in silicon and polyurethane suspended over the illuminated still waters of the subterranean Yerebetan Cistern, built in the sixth century. Their isolation and lack of bodily wholeness can evoke not only pain and frustration but an abject ecstasy of hybridity—also the subject of the mainstream manga film Ghost in the Shell, rather heavy-handedly juxtaposed with Lee Bul’s work, though this curatorial appropriation from pop culture was an interesting challenge to the ongoing digital animation projects by Philippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Their films about Ann Lee—a fictitious persona based on a manga character purchased by the artists—form a strangely gripping narration of subjectivity in the digital age, but it is hard to outdo the effervescent and schizophrenic narrativity of real manga.

Rirkrit Tiravanija elaborated the exhibition’s theme of collective identity. His Community Cinema for a Quiet Intersection, 1999/2001, was a remake of a project originally conceived for a Glasgow housing project. In Istanbul, the artist screened two Hollywood productions and two Turkish movies with antediluvian equipment on a square between the sealed off streets near the American consulate. A motley audience of poor street kids and evening strollers, mostly men, benignly welcomed the new urban element. As a public service event adding another C to Hasegawa’s litany of alliterations, namely coziness, the event took on an inscrutable atmosphere somewhere between the gratuitous and the self-referential.

In recent years the Istanbul Biennial has not enjoyed the full benefits of being on the global art circuit. In 1999, Turkey suffered a great earthquake exactly one month before the exhibition was scheduled to begin, and this year's opening, too, suffered from last-minute cancellations by the art pros as disaster struck the very flows of global infrastructure. Still, the 2001 Biennial was hardly more nor less sensitive to locality than any other international exhibition. The comprehensive international/multicultural group show that persists as the biennial format is still the most inclusive model available, but there is a need to rethink it—especially, perhaps, in relation to what its real effects are within its specific local context. In this case—and together with remarkable work in the exhibition by artists such as Ömer Ali Kazma, Leyla Gediz, and Kemal Önsoy—the local art scene was redeemed outside the aegis of the biennial in the opening exhibition of Proje4L Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum, a new experimental gallery space in Istanbul’s financial district. Here, in concrete corporate halls, contemporary art was put on a par with advertising agencies, digital consultants, and other exponents of the new economy: a no-nonsense starting point for a discussion about contemporary art’s location in culture.

Lars Bang Larsen