Amal Kenawy, Silence of the Lambs, 2009, video transferred to digital video, color, sound, 8 minutes 31 seconds.

Amal Kenawy, Silence of the Lambs, 2009, video transferred to digital video, color, sound, 8 minutes 31 seconds.

the 13th Istanbul Biennial

Various Venues

Amal Kenawy, Silence of the Lambs, 2009, video transferred to digital video, color, sound, 8 minutes 31 seconds.

THE THIRTEENTH INSTALLMENT of the Istanbul Biennial, curated by Fulya Erdemci, marked a shift in tone. This was an uncompromising exhibition about a world in which our shared spheres of collective freedom are rapidly shrinking. Gone were the warm conviviality and slightly naive hopes of relational aesthetics. Instead, a gloomier and perhaps more realistic atmosphere prevailed in works that relentlessly presented us with barriers and unsurpassable frontiers. Here, art was not expected to offer alternatives to such divided realities, even if Erdemci stressed the presence of social alchemies transforming staid conceptions of “the public.”

Even before entering Antrepo No. 3, the warehouse complex that formed the show’s main venue, one encountered Turkish artist Ayşe Erkmen’s bangbangbang, 2013, a huge green plastic ball attached to a crane, which monotonously struck the side of the building to no avail. And as if further underscoring the insistent blockade between art and the real, the very first work the viewer saw once inside was a massive brick wall, El Castillo, 2007, by Mexican artist Jorge Méndez Blake. Looking closer, one could find a tiny displacement in the geometric alignment of the masonry, caused by the presence of an object wedged at the very foundation: a paperback Spanish edition of Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1922). This structure reiterates the plight of the novel’s protagonist, a land surveyor who is consistently thwarted in his struggle to access knowledge, and his place, in a village.

To whom does a city belong? It’s unusual that a large international exhibition, with contributions from eighty-odd artists, should explore a single question in such a coherent way. Advanced contemporary art in Turkey is mainly visible in privately funded spaces; in contrast, the show was originally planned as a series of interventions into public spaces throughout Istanbul. But the city’s increasingly violent atmosphere in the wake of the massive police attack on demonstrators in Taksim Square last May, where thousands of citizens protested against a development project in Gezi Park, forced a reconsideration of the biennial’s focus: It became a show about, but not in, urban space.

The exhibition’s title, “Anne, ben barbar miyim?” (Mom, am I barbarian?), was borrowed from a 2006 book of essays by Turkish author Lale Müldür; like its namesake, the biennial explored territories and lines of demarcation, homogenized shared spaces, and individual deviations from the norm. Fittingly, such poetic, even absurd forms of intervening in the everyday could be found here in the modest films of the collective Akademia Ruchu (Academy of Motion), begun in Warsaw by the artist Wojciech Krukowski. By the 1970s, they were organizing group performances, for instance Stumble I and Stumble II, both 1977, in which various people walking around the same central urban location would purposefully trip with jarring regularity. (There were no further consequences, but for unsuspecting passersby, normalcy was momentarily interrupted.) Also on display was documentation of a related work of intervention from a few years earlier, Washing, 1974, in which American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles cleaned the sidewalk in front of the New York gallery A.I.R. for five hours and declared it art—although it didn’t disturb anyone.

Subtle displacements of ordinary life were likewise found in the work of Czech artist Jiří Kovanda, including Contact, 1977, an action that consisted of purposefully colliding with other pedestrians, and Untitled (Escalator) from the same year, a series of escalator rides with strangers in which the artist would suddenly turn and look deeply into the eyes of the person standing behind him. In Prague’s highly controlled public sphere during the 1970s, these intimate and almost invisible actions had a distinct political dimension, as small demonstrations of communal connection and creative disruption alike. Today, their documentation (in black-and-white photographs) risks becoming a nostalgic cipher of a period in which we could still identify what political practice looked like. The same pleasantly radical atmosphere is conveyed to greater effect by Gordon Matta-Clark’s classic Conical Intersect, 1975, shown here via the documentation of two circular holes cut through a Paris building adjacent to the future site of the Centre Pompidou. Although clearly belonging to history, these works were the perfect starting point for the biennial’s central discussion about contemporary urban development and gentrification.

More aggressive action was taken (and reactions triggered) by the late Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy, who in 2009 organized Silence of the Lambs, a collective performance involving thirteen men and two children crawling on hands and knees through the congested streets of central Cairo, stopping traffic. Turkish artist Halil Altındere, a resident of Istanbul since the ’90s, also explored a city’s social tensions through direct confrontation. His initially amusing hip-hop video Wonderland, 2013—with Roma teens protesting the commercialization of the Sulukule district, their former home, through street fights and sabotage—grows progressively more violent. Suddenly, when the kids set a cop on fire with gasoline, it’s not fun anymore. But the work—perhaps the most discussed during the opening days of the exhibition—was not only meant as raw entertainment but as a compelling sensorial comment on the barbarization of the “other.” When empathy is lost, anything goes.

The show withheld false promises and wide-eyed optimism. But it did not lack beauty, a sense of lyricism, and sometimes even glimpses beyond the walls of the city. I am the dog that was always here (loop), 2013, Swedish artist Annika Eriksson’s film about wild dogs living on the borders of Istanbul, conjures the harshness of urban expansion and its violent peripheries. There is not much hope here for us humans, but there is still a great sense of energy and intelligence among all living things. That’s probably as close as we can get to the “alchemy” Erdemci was hoping to convey.

Daniel Birnbaum is Director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Artforum.