the 9th International Istanbul Biennial

Various Venues

In the face of the remarkable glut of biennials that attends the current evolution of globalization in art, a number of questions still remain unanswered: To what degree does the biennial act as a force of transnational gentrification, creating a market of elite consumer goods and rarified experience in far-flung places (often playing on earlier avant-garde tropes of exoticism) in order to tender the ground for the subsequent onslaught of corporate imperialism? How might the biennial function as a vehicle for a city’s self-promotion—as a quick fix to generate marketable uniqueness through cultural capital and thereby attract tourist dollars and foreign investment? Conversely, how might these exhibitions operate positively as engines of diversification, placing disparate cultures in contact in order not to level differences but to increase our sensitivity to them, facilitating substantive exchange and forms of international solidarity? Of course, such exhibitions are constructed through complex and contradictory motives and created by a limitless range of actors and institutions. But these are the pressing issues that must frame a critical response to the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, set within a border country whose standing as a crucial pressure point of geopolitical interest is dramatically underscored by its ongoing bid for membership in the European Union. Not that the biennial provided clear-cut answers; but, at the very least, it posed its own skeptical queries and successfully avoided the worst traps. Its greatest provocation was that it recast the biennial’s paradigm of globalization as a problem to be addressed rather than a cause to be mindlessly advanced.

Taking its own city as subject, this biennial was distinct for not relating arbitrarily to its geographical setting, as do many others that only happen to be in, say, Venice, Berlin, or São Paulo. Its goal, carefully articulated by cocurators Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and Vasif Kortun, director of Istanbul’s Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, was to commission and select artworks, many by artists from Turkey or surrounding areas, that would reflect on the city of Istanbul, understood provocatively as being split between real urban location and discursive entity. To this end, the show was held at seven venues in the city’s modern regions of Beyoglu and Galata, where one would find old industrial warehouses and crumbling nineteenth-century apartment blocks, instead of the Sultanahmet district of awe-inspiring—and all-too-easily overwhelming—historical sites. Visitors were meant to confront the everyday conditions of Istanbul as a postindustrial city composed of contradictions: between Western secular state and Eastern Islamic empire, spaces of ostentatious wealth and the grit of abject poverty, emerging democratic institutions and authoritarian undercurrents. And they did. This was no celebratory PR campaign fabricating a whitewashed Turkey or exploiting the seductive romanticism of the city’s orientalist flavor. Istanbul, thanks to this biennial, emerged in a new light.

On the curatorial level, this site-sensitive directive was advanced by offering roughly half the participants residencies lasting anywhere from one to six months—an initiative that led to many documentary works addressing the inner-city reality of Istanbul, both its history and future. The results, whether offering critical accounts of Istanbul’s urban planning or recovering suppressed information on its former radical inhabitants, were mixed. But among the standouts was Solmaz Shahbazi’s video Tam Size Göre (Perfectly Suited for You), 2005, which documents the growth of gated communities, areas of elegant comfort and security for an upwardly mobile class that emerged in the ’90s. The video depicts new multistory complexes fitted with private gyms and gourmet grocery stores, with the young and fashionable traipsing around carefully landscaped parks and golf courses, while a voice-over offers biting analysis by the artist and her academic interviewees who question the meaning of citizenship and community in a place where the poor are rendered increasingly invisible. Less successful was Michael Blum’s blunt memorial A Tribute to Safiye Behar, 2005, in which the artist reconstructed the flat—down to her original diaries, photographs, and furniture—of a remarkable Jewish Marxist and feminist who had an enlightening but underappreciated impact on the father of modern secular Turkey, Kemal Atatürk. Here, the work was saturated with fascinating history but undeveloped as artistic representation, revealing the short-term residencies’ risk of eliciting formulaic responses to Istanbul. In fact, such responses were not uncommon and account for the biennial’s extreme unevenness. Among other pieces determined to showcase Istanbul’s urban life was Miss Turkey, 2005, Halil Altindere’s video of humorous street interventions—a beauty queen wandering down a busy thoroughfare, or a group of young athletes playing volleyball at a stoplight—that read as superficial gimmicks. Alternately, there were aesthetic approaches to the city, such as the watercolor-and-gouache easel paintings of Silke Otto-Knapp, which captured a tinselly artifice through shimmering gold-and-silver surfaces that rhymed with cheap design but also flirted with vapid decorativeness.

Yet overall the biennial managed to avoid the potential dangers of geographical essentialism or limited parochialism by diversifying its conception of its site—and this was a sign of the exhibition’s complex ambitions: The organizers posited Istanbul as a relay between locality and globality, where globalization was encountered as a lived process mediating between a real place and the forces that move through it, between one’s actual location and the discourses that determine or are inflected by it. Numerous selections advanced this modeling of site, and the biennial’s sophistication coalesced particularly well when artwork engaged contexts outside Istanbul, such as Iraq, Jakarta, or Israel/Palestine, inevitably drawing attention back to the city through implicit comparison and contrast. Exemplary was Urban Conditions (Berlin), 2005, Axel John Wieder and Jesko Fezer’s sprawling installation that maps the transformations of public and private spaces and the fluctuating paths of migration in the German capital since the country’s reunification. Videos document critics contemplating the mostly negative effects of Berlin’s explosive development, which is variously celebrated in a spread of recent design and architecture magazines laid out on the floor, while several different three-dimensional models, schematic and sometimes zany, trace the city’s oscillating existence according to a range of socioeconomic modulations. The piece offers an amazing, if necessarily incomplete, attempt to conceptualize a city’s shifting contours as capital, power, and people flow through it, relating the lived experience of urban space to more abstract forces that define it.

Another favorite was Sean Snyder’s photo-text assemblies, including The Site, 2004–2005, which investigates media representations of Iraq by focusing on the sensationalized discovery of Saddam Hussein’s final hiding place. Presenting a series of grainy blown-up photographs that document the famous spider hole, the piece counterposes written excerpts of news descriptions, culled from CNN, the BBC, Fox, and other mainstream sources. The language, neutrally represented, humorously oscillates between variation and repetition, inevitably mischaracterizing Saddam’s last possessions—the obsessive identification of which dramatizes a commercial transformation of banal objects into newsworthy events, as geopolitics descends into personal-interest story. Recalling Martha Rosler’s historic conceptual examinations of how photographic and linguistic description join in the production of stereotypes, Snyder’s project, expanding the analog domain to the internet, updates the analysis to the transnational dimension, where territory and discourse intersect at a site defined by unilateral acts of military power and media dominance.

The convergence of military and media perception, each instrumentalized in the total control of its object, is brilliantly captured in Snyder’s Untitled (Iraq), 2003–2005, and in his video Casio, Seiko, Sheraton, Toyota, Mars, 2005. The first presents a grid of amateur, postcard-size photographs from the war zone, each snapped by a soldier or contractor and downloaded by the artist from file-sharing websites. The scenes are prosaic—still lifes of confiscated weapons, desolate landscapes seen through the crosshairs of a rifle scope, clichéd portraits of locals—but damning insofar as they catalogue how the US mission perceives Iraq. The second, a video of appropriated commercial and war footage mixed with Snyder’s analytical sound track, explores the application of photojournalistic conventions in the theater of war. While the voice-over predicts ominously that the military will soon subsume journalistic functions, recording and editing its own images for direct mass consumption, the video shows a US soldier as the new cyberwarrior who, with digital video camera strapped to machine gun, even now battles on a territorial-informational field. That Snyder’s work was hung in a room whose window overlooks the distant mosque of the famous Islamic conqueror—the sixteenth-century sultan Süleyman the Magnificent—was fortuitous: It recalls the tremendous price a neighboring country paid (involuntarily, of course) for entrance into the global order, thereby implicating the Muslim-majority Turkey, an eager aspirant, in a potential clash of civilizations. How this will end, no one knows.

Where the curatorial strategy ran into trouble was in its dependence on the legibility of the disjunctions set up between exhibition venues and the spaces of everyday life. Exiting the venues, one encountered a culture shock—which was not unintended, as one of the curators informed me. But while making the visitor experience the sometimes-gaping cultural divisions between genteel art-viewing and the drudgery of manual labor in a developing city, which hopefully prompts introspection and self-estrangement, the curious lack of mediation between the two irreconcilable zones highlighted the rather conventional object-based appearance of the majority of artworks, nearly all of which were safely contained behind walls. The public art projects were only four in number—among the work of fifty-three included artists—and mostly pathetic, hard-to-find distractions. The spectacularly worst was Serkan Özkaya’s thirty-foot-tall golden replica of Michelangelo’s David, which fell over upon installation and broke into pieces. This decision to cloister artwork was inconsistent with the biennial’s otherwise-provocative exploration of the relationality of its site. Still, one project did succeed in addressing public space without following the examples of the biennial’s uninterestingly theatrical and excessive so-called “en route” works—but it was not even located in the city. This was Superflex and Jens Haaning’s display of one thousand official biennial posters placed throughout the streets of Copenhagen, aiming to elevate the value of Turkey’s image in the eyes of its emigrants who have taken up residence in Denmark and to counter Danish xenophobia and racism by proclaiming Turkey’s admirable participation in the world of international art. Challenging those who conceive of national identity as rooted to a particular geography, this work, in an intriguing metonymic act, projected Istanbul beyond Turkey’s borders. By appropriating the biennial’s advertising campaign, the artists critically acknowledged the show as a commercial venture and diverted its promotion to catalyze a sense of belonging within an exile community through the public recognition of Turkish culture. The work incisively positioned globalization as an ongoing struggle between the forces of commercial exchange and cultural differentiation, making one all too aware of the simultaneous potential benefits and risks.

T. J. Demos is a newly appointed lecturer in the Department of History of Art at University College London.