Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series), 2007, packaging, newspapers, and glue. Installation view, Antrepo No. 3, 10th International Istanbul Biennial. Photo: Serkan Taycan.

Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series), 2007, packaging, newspapers, and glue. Installation view, Antrepo No. 3, 10th International Istanbul Biennial. Photo: Serkan Taycan.

the 10th International Istanbul Biennial


THE NINTH INTERNATIONAL ISTANBUL BIENNIAL was always going to be a tough act to follow. That edition, organized by Vasif Kortun and Charles Esche in 2005, was exemplary: Clustered in the Beyoglu area, it engendered a productive dialogue with the city, using found buildings (including a tobacco warehouse, former offices, and an apartment block), all within walking distance of one another, encouraging a seamless interaction between the urban milieu and the works of art being exhibited. It showcased a generation of emerging artists, many of whom had produced their projects in the Balkan region, some during long residencies in Istanbul (itself half in the Balkans). The exhibition was accompanied by a reader of critical essays and a Kurzführer with intelligently written captions and—amazingly—installation shots of the works in situ. Titled simply “Istanbul,” the ninth installment of the biennial was refreshingly modest in its ambitions (no grand narratives or portentous themes) yet positioned the eponymous metropolis as a thriving regional center for contemporary art in the Balkans and the Middle East. It was rare proof that biennials can be self-reflexive and constructive gestures rather than merely tools of the tourism industry, urban regeneration, and cultural globalization.

Hou Hanru, curator of the Tenth International Istanbul Biennial, offered no such poignant interruption to the smooth flow of festivalism. His puzzling and prolix title—“Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War”—seemed to signal a fatigue with “criticality” and a desire to replace it with a more upbeat view of the world. To make his case, he spread four exhibitions across three venues: “Entre-Polis” and “Dream House” in Antrepo No. 3, a dockside warehouse adjacent to the Istanbul Modern; “World Factory” at the IMÇ, a sprawling 1950s manufacturing complex selling traditional women’s clothing, textiles, and carpets; and, finally, a show with the wincingly blunt title “Burn It or Not?” at the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM), a wonderful polished slab of ’70s modernism apparently slated for demolition.

Added to these core exhibitions were assorted off-site projects: an education and film space way up the Golden Horn in the SantralIstanbul museum, the touring show “Emergency Biennale in Chechnya” at KAHEM on the Asian side of town—both impossible to reach except by taxi—and “Nightcomers,” an open-call video program assembled by Hou with five young curators, spread across twenty-five far-flung public spaces in the city.

The overriding theme of the overlapping shows at Antrepo No. 3 was utopia and the construction of new realities through architecture, a trope arguably more in tune with the late ’90s than with the present decade’s concern with community and citizenship. The style of installation—chaotic, overbearing, cacophonous—was typical Hou and harked back to “Cities on the Move,” his peripatetic magnum opus cocurated with Hans-Ulrich Obrist in 1997. One’s first impression upon walking into the warehouse was of great hulking installations and an onslaught of overspilling sound tracks: Fikret Atay’s amped-up video of a teenage boy drumming on the outskirts of the Turkish city of Batman (Tinica, 2004); Wong Hoy Cheong’s installation of Roma kids in Istanbul (Oh Sulukule, Darling Sulukule, 2007); and, inescapably, Yan Lei’s blaring video of his collaboration with Beijing punk band Brain Failure (A Gift from Beijing to Istanbul, 2007). After a few hours in this sonic Hades, “brain failure” could not have been a more apt description of my condition.

The survivors of this conflagration were few and far between: Allora & Calzadilla’s There Is More than One Way to Skin a Sheep, 2007 (an evocative video portrait of the city, based around the inflation of a bicycle tire by means of a regional bagpipe); Ivan Grubanov’s slide show of drawings made during the Milosevic trial (Visitor, 2002–2003); and Michael Rakowitz’s scale reconstructions of Iraqi treasures looted from the National Museum in Baghdad (The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007). One of the few densely layered and compelling works in this biennial, Rakowitz’s display was interwoven with the tale of Dr. Donny George, former director of the museum, who worked at archaeological sites to avoid Ba’ath Party meetings and who played drums in a Deep Purple cover band. The group’s version of “Smoke on the Water”—whose lyrics describe a fire during a Frank Zappa gig at the Montreux Casino in 1971—filled the installation with a moody Arabic take on the song’s well-known hard-rock riffs. This sound track provided an oblique cross-cultural backdrop for studying the labels accompanying the models, which were constructed from cheap packaging materials from the Middle East: Information about provenance was offset with quotes that were by turns poetic, reflective, and sickening (no prizes for guessing that many of the latter derived from former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld). Skeptical about looting and American ignorance, but also about patrimony and the purpose of collecting, Rakowitz’s installation pushed the Broodthaers formula in a poignant new direction.

Elsewhere, Antrepo No. 3 was dominated by monumental installations that filled the warehouse with a confident scenography, the size often in inverse proportion to sustainable interest. Gunilla Klingberg’s colorful scaffolding Cosmic Matter, 2007; Alexandre Perigot’s fun park of rotating partitions, Soundborders, 2007; Cao Fei’s slick bar RMB City, 2007—all took up more physical than mental space and trampled over quieter neighbors. The Gulf, 2007, Rem Koolhaas’s high-end presentation of architectural innovation in the Persian Gulf region, seemed emblematic of the biennial’s call for “necessary optimism.” Koolhaas, incredibly, managed to spin the Gulf’s exploitation of migrant labor into a celebration of multiculturalism and conveniently ignored the region’s neck-deep implication in environmental damage in favor of eulogizing its myriad opportunities for visionary designs by “starchitects,” himself included. This overblown display of engineering feats for the privileged made Hou’s rhetoric seem ever more uneasy. Why get bogged down in critical distance when we can fantasize a new future of commercial urban space, or, following Cao Fei, escape into a city on Second Life?

Fortunately, the other two venues provided a chance to spend time in some realized architecture, fully functioning and ideological. The AKM, a glossy time capsule of ’70s design on Taksim Square, was filled with mainly photographic work, much of which invited comparisons between that building and its international siblings: Moscow’s Hotel Rossija (Markus Krottendorfer), the United Nations building (Daniel Faust), and an abandoned and partially submerged Armenian housing project (Vahram Aghasyan). None of these photographic series added significantly to this overfamiliar genre, part Candida Höfer, part Tacita Dean, but they did add up to a compelling argument for the AKM’s preservation. The sculpture in this venue was less successful: a rhizomatic Lee Bul (replete with gushing information label lifted directly from Basel’s “Art Unlimited”); a sub–Dan Graham pavilion by Vermeir & Heiremans; and an overwrought mountaineering camp, purporting to show the tip of Everest, by Xu Zhen.

The IMÇ was as shambolic as the AKM was polished. With shoddily installed works crammed into unoccupied storefronts, the biennial here seemed to take a budgetary nosedive (and one couldn’t help noticing that the artists in this section were those without upmarket gallery representation). The only redeeming space with anything vaguely approaching conceptual cogency positioned Chen Chieh-jen’s video booths showing laborers in abandoned buildings (The Route, 2006) next to Julien Prévieux’s pithy correspondence with potential employers expressing his lack of motivation (Non-Motivation Letters, 2000–2007) and Burak Delier’s antiauthoritarian combat clothing (ReverseDirection: Counter-Services, 2007). All three artists express resistance to dominant norms of employable compliancy, although the appearance of their respective works couldn’t have been more divergent. Once again, the installation was an amateur mess. Outside the shop, Chen was selling “pirated” copies of his own videos, a pleasing loop consistent with both the themes of his recent practice and the IMÇ venue.

If my comments seem overly focused on the curatorial it is because, in a show this size, the responsibility for the communicability of works of art—whatever their quality—rests with this meta-authorial figure. It is not just the will to stylistic overload at the expense of individual digestibility that makes the recent Istanbul Biennial so frustrating and slapdash—it is the entire apparatus that surrounds it: from the shoddy interpretative texts (lazy, pretentious, inconsistent) to the numerous technical ineptitudes (Atom Egoyan’s video looked like YouTube on wide screen; Kan Xuan’s video was inaudible, drowned out by the parping of Klingberg’s installation and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ Flash animation; in the IMÇ five artists’ videos were entirely invisible on a bleached-out screen). The catalogue attempts to bring substance to the framework with an essay by Okwui Enwezor, informative interviews with architects, and assorted bubbling texts by Hou in which the biennial is optimistically proclaimed to be not just an exhibition but “a non-stop machine of production that generates new visions and proposals for a change in reality.”

While individual works may propose such changes, their presentation in this particular exhibition seriously impeded their purported ambition. In sacrificing legibility and concentrated viewing to experiential effects that actively prevented sustained engagement (the total absence of seating in Antrepo No. 3, for example), Hou led many works that could be compelling in the right environment to fall at the first hurdle. A “dynamic” display doesn’t necessarily equal radicality, just as the contemplative spaces of Documenta 12 are not automatically reactionary; what matters is the way in which viewers consume and recall the totality of an exhibition. What results from the Tenth Istanbul Biennial is not just a chaotic jumble from which a mere handful of pieces emerge unscathed, but a superficial nod to East/West hybridity and the “urban multitude” that fails the artists and leads them precisely into the hands from which (one hopes) they wish to be delivered: the banal vortex of the culture industry. (Hou’s “Entre-Polis” essay reads like a proposal for a musical: “This urban maze . . . unfolds in all directions—up and down, right and left, disorientates, chaotic, spectacular but is full of mysteries and surprises.”) In 2007, is there anything to be gained from such scenographic indulgence and euphoric assertions of the global? Ninety-six artists, from thirty-five countries—to what end? In skimming around the world, gathering token scraps to reassemble in a compromising and illegible installation, Hou willfully ignores the reality (expressed by some of the artists in the show) that such mobile visions are the terrain of the privileged few. The result is an internally disconnected exhibition that could happen anywhere and nowhere, divorced from the material realities of Istanbul or indeed any other context in a virtual, ungrounded, and blithely global future.

Claire Bishop is an assistant professor in the department of art history at the University of Warwick, UK.