Runa Islam, Scale (1/16"= 1ft), 2003.

Runa Islam, Scale (1/16"= 1ft), 2003.

8th International Istanbul Biennial

Runa Islam, Scale (1/16"= 1ft), 2003.

As I write, there is news of bombs exploding in Istanbul. Reviewing that city’s recent art biennial, organized by Dan Cameron, senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, feels not only difficult but misguided, almost inappropriate. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the bombs are an expression, however dreadful, of the increasingly dire geopolitical situation that many works in the exhibition, titled “Poetic Justice,” attempted to address. Take, for example, Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From, 2002—2003, a photo-and-text piece shown in an Ottoman cannon foundry (one of four spaces transformed for the purposes of the exhibition). Jacir—who is Palestinian born but holds an American passport—posed a question to Palestinians living in exile or unable to move freely at home: “If I could do something for you anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” Taking advantage of the mobility granted by her passport, she paid a bill for one respondent, watered a grave for another, and even went on a date, documenting her actions as she carried out the requests. Her photos and notes conjure a sense of loss all the more palpable for the simplicity of the activities they depict. Another work that takes interethnic conflict as its starting point is Bosnian artist Jasmila Žbanić’s heartrending 35 mm film Red Rubber Boots, 2000, which weaves together the story of a mother looking for the remains of her children in the mass graves of Bosnia and that of a man whose job it is to excavate these sites. As in Jacir’s piece, the matter-of-fact quality of Žbanić’s document brings the viewer into intimate contact with unspeakable tragedy and makes visible the concrete consequences of extremist nationalism.

The dream of cultural polyphony with which these two works are engaged (through their focus on its failure) is a more or less explicit subtext of much art discourse today. Istanbul, a city of millions that’s historically multicultural, embodies the potential for the realization of that dream; at the same time, it’s a microcosm where the fraught relationship of Eastern and Western cultures can be seen up close. And that the Istanbul Biennial’s eighth iteration bore a New Yorker’s signature—New York being a symbolic capital of the Western world as well as one of the major centers of contemporary art—brought Istanbul’s vexed “in-between” position further into relief.

Bruna Esposito, Public Composting Toilet (detail), 2003.

It is probably the fate of all large international biennials to be read against the global political situation (especially, perhaps, biennials on the “periphery”). One could even argue, as some did in these pages as part of a recent roundtable on “the global exhibition” [November 2003], that international art biennials are a symptom of globalization and can’t be read outside its logic. Which leads to all sorts of speculations: Is art now a geopolitical and infrastructural lubricant? Are the migratory artists of our day exemplars of the new economy’s ideal workforce (flexible and relocatable)? In his curatorial statement, Cameron formulates a reading more optimistic than these. From within a critique of globalization, he suggests that today’s artists constitute a possible model for a global citizenry, one that could produce new networks and values that challenge injustice. In the contemporary art world’s increasing nomadism Cameron sees the beginnings of a new global community that includes cultural difference and is built via intercultural communication and exchange.

This vision is clearly reflected in his focus on a generation of artists who address global concerns through specific, local experience. One example is Turkish artist Esra Ersen (Hassan Khan, Zarina Bhimji, and Fiona Tan are others). In Ersen’s video If You Could Speak Swedish, 2001, the artist asks a language class of immigrants to Sweden what they would like to say to their new compatriots, then has the students read their thoughts in Swedish to their instructor. The teacher’s corrections remind us of the speechlessness suffered by the members of the world’s diasporas, but the students’ attempts also testify to the possibility of communication.

Though Cameron’s selection of works personalizing the experience of cultural crossing engaged social and political concerns addressed by other large international surveys, he did not choose to complicate or reflect on the exhibition qua exhibition. Indeed, in his biennial there was an almost restorative tendency, with an emphasis on clarity, finished form, visual pleasure, and spatial grandeur, as with Ann Hamilton’s sweeping drapery or Monica Bonvicini’s staircase, which, encased in a curtain of chains and bullet-ridden glass, linked the two stories of the main exhibition hall. Also, in comparison with other recent biennials, “Poetic Justice” was organized on a human scale; its manageable size and overall coherence allowed it to stand out against a teeming host city and its complex layers of past and present. But it was the many strong film and video works that, in forms ranging from found abstraction to a kind of subjective documentary, told the tale of the biennial (in light of the times) most poignantly. In Ergin Çavuşoğlu’s video installation Entanglement, 2002, helicopter searchlights in the night sky produce a beautiful play of light and color against a sound track of airplanes and sirens. And in Kutlug Ataman’s 1+1=1, 2002, a Turkish-Cypriot woman speaks about the wartime history of the contested island. A torrent of words captured on film, the piece testifies to the fumbling inability of language to represent the dreadful but nonetheless challenges us to speak.

Sara Arrhenius is a writer and director of IASPIS (International Artists’ Studio Program in Sweden), Stockholm.

Translated from Swedish by Brian Manning Delaney.