Reviews on 6th and 7th ISTANBUL BIENNALE (1999;2001)


An essay on Earthquake and 6th Istanbul Biennale as a contribution for Thomas Büsch’s Website:by Beral Madra

Thesaurus is a treasure. A glance at the entry for “earthquake” will vomit to one’s face that all the words related to it almost explain everything that has happened and is happening in Turkey. Reciprocating motion, tremor, agitation, disturbance, violence, flux and reflux, shake, shiver, attack, stroke, shudder, eruption, change, blow up, outbreake, outburst, disruption, breaking out, disorder, tumult, fury, transition, blast, epidemic etc.
Earthquake is a well-known issue in Turkey; since more than fifty years three generations of people from different regions of Turkey have experienced it with pain and sorrow. The memory of earthquakes are still vivid and sore. Yet this one was quite different. It was not only the outburst of an enormous power pending in an impassable time and the outbreak of an unfamiliar fear and anxiety, but also the emergence of a bewildered but inevitable awareness. The energy waves throw away with violence the gangrenous cement dwellings together with the supremacy of the violent movements of the Capital and destroyed the confidence in the “sacrosanct” Nation-state and in its commanding bureaucratic apparatus. If Freud’s “unheimliche” (uncanny) is well-founded and convincing, one can imagine that 30000 people were the martyrs for a revelation, for an awakening from a suffocating dream. So far, many of us keep on hoping that this disaster will teach the people not to surrender and succumb to the frauds and deceptive manipulations of the State apparatus.
The help from other countries was enormous and generous; the people have embraced the rescue teams with affection. Greek and Israel teams were the most popular and the most welcome. Yet, the damage and the catastrophe was beyond all imagination. It will take quite a time to restore the cities and heal the hearts and minds of the people.
There is a one month mourning in Turkey, all activities and festivities are cancelled except the Biennale. It is surprising that for the first time a contemporary art event is treated as a serious undertaking and not as an entertainment. It is announced that 20 artists have contributed works to an auction and the income will be donated to the victims of the earthquake.
A year ago, when he came to Istanbul, the artistic director of the Biennale Paolo Colombo would not have imagined that his concept “Passion and Wave” would be an ironic interlude to the catastrophe of the earthquake. We hope that the waves of the earthquake will not sweep his optimistic/humanistic/poetic concept away. Unfortunately, optimism and humanism cannot elucidate the ongoing debate among the macroscopic and microscopic elements of the global art scene. Lately there was a crucial question in the internet forum of the House der Kulturen der Welt. Catherine Mc Govern was indicating that there is a question that keeps coming up for her- in fact for everybody-: What are the implications, problems, issues surrounding the idea of organisations or individuals from the West going to developing countries to implicate themselves in art projects, as collaborators, educators, technical advisers, etc?
In the context of this question the following three issues should be discussed and negotiated:
1. To face and admit the imparity of the art systems between the developed and developing art scenes, to disclose the conflicts and deficits within and among the systems, and to give equal chance of speech and expression to the representing organisations and individuals.
2. To reflect on Beuys’ words: “Injustice characterizes all markets, including the art market. It is a consequence of the capitalistic system, which should be abolished. However, we do not yet have a method for doing this. Capitalism has the word freedom on the tip of its tongue, affirming that it works for man’s freedom, which is why it cannot be trusted.” (in Art Talk, The Early 80s, Edited by Jeanne Siegel, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988, pp. 77-84)
3. To consider that there are numerous artists within both systems who are not gratifying the current policies of the organisations or individuals from the developed art scenes.
What is left undiscussed, unquestioned is exactly the market processes that reinforce the author(ity) and the power of the curators. In the peripheral countries, the hegemonic developmentalist ideologies (in their neo-liberal disguise), in the name of the Development and the capital accumulation, enthusiastically applaud and welcome the Multinational Capital. It is true that the Capital does not have a nation and Capital is Capital. And precisely for this reason, all types of Capital should be questioned and regulated and the social fabric should protected from the violence of the markets and the Capital. However, the very logic of Multinational Capital defies control and regulation: The Multinational Capital flows towards the periphery precisely because it hopes to evade the social control that has been imposed on it in the Centre. Futhermore, the possibility of the Capital to flow away from the Centre towards the periphery, also known as the capital flight, enables the Capital to be much less vulnerable to the questioning in the Centre.
It is an imperative to investigate, question and deconstruct the intricate and complex linkages between the art market and the structural economic processes of the Multinational Capitalism. The Biennal of a post-peripheral regional centre like Istanbul should be different from the biennals of the Centre. It should be instead treated not like the showcase of the so many “humanist” curators’ personal speculations at random, but should precisely question the violence of the markets, the showcase itself, the modes of articulation of art and the cultures of consumption, and the claims of author(ity) of the curators. In an era in which artists names are turning into brand-names, one way to resist to this process is to turn our faces away from star- or hero-artists towards the discourses that are carried by many nameless artists who are living and working all around the world, both in the peripheries in the centers and the centers of the periphery.

A brief review of the 7th Istanbul Biennale

7th Istanbul Biennale has opened after the world shaking disaster in New York and on the horrifying panorama of world affairs. A tragic moment for mankind, but it may also be a decisive point of turn for art itself. Recently, producing and consuming art presented two prospects /perspectives: To have faith in art as the resistance and challenge field of rational understanding, intellectual responsibility and critical approach to world affairs was considered as outmoded. To refrain from direct involvement in the complexity of ever emerging polarization between the cultures and ride on the saddle of Pegasus to the realms of aestheticism, philistinism, irony and surrender to pleasure was supposed to be trendy. These have been witnessed in the art production, escalating from 80’s on. Both attitudes and milieu had its lucrative aspects as well as limitations. Within the current shift of paradigm these will face some alterations…

Although the shadow of war was lingering on the air, it was a warm, sunny, peaceful September morning, when the press opening started in front of St Irene and Imperial Mint at the precinct of Topkapi Palace. Though, a number of artists and guests could not come-or did not come-to Istanbul, possibly in view of the fact that Turkey is one of the danger territories within the new conditions-the ground was full of prominent international and local personalities. It attracted my attention that there were many contemporary art experts from the Balkan countries, Israel and Greece, even though artists of these territories were not presented in the exhibitions.

The concept and presentation of the Biennale was made by the president of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art and Yuko Hasegawa; yet, both of them did not particularly mention the current global devastation, and the audience seemed to be submissive. A crucial opportunity was missed. If a biennale is not the place to make a manifestation, where is the place?

However, Yuko Hasegawa’s concept Egofugal-described in her catalogue text as “diversity, collectivity, the endless formation of interrelationships, a new order for survival”-had an astonishing foresight in inviting the artists, art experts and art audiences to a kind of spiritual and mental transformation towards reciprocity that would respond to the growing needs of the world, specially caused by economic inequalities, media manipulated cultural distortions and depraved social dispositions.

For the first time since the Istanbul Biennale is being curated by foreign curators, the concept/theme is not focused on the city and its position between the East and the West, on its appeal with historically loaded ambiance, and on its ambiguity suppressing a heterogeneous, hybrid culture, but directly concentrates on a universal human condition- the ego- that was frantically elevated and encouraged within the post-modern discourse of the global capitalist system. Possibly therefore, at least from the local point of view, there was a visible enthusiasm to see the works, which were supposed to deal with the concept, and touch some of the issues of the concept.

Two works were placed in cardinal positions in St. Irene: the monumental mirror of Ana Maria Tavares and the cushioned floral platform of Michael Lin. Since the first biennale St Irene is-which in fact is a difficult space to deal with- being used for the exhibitions; and here again for the first time the apsis was daringly exploited by a mirrored wall, closing it to the access of the audience. The mirror reflects the space to the space itself, which did not exist in the Byzantine iconography; a twist in art historical hierarchy brings in the Renaissance perspective and Surrealist illusion…this work is reminiscent of Daniel Buren’s oblique mirror installation in Bordeaux Contemporary Art Museum (1990). The huge platform also outlines an interaction between the artist and the audience, between the appeal and function of the artwork; it invites and comforts the audience, while it symbolically deconstructs the hierarchy in the nave of the church; it integrates an informal and divergent way of sitting. In the 9th Documenta Franz West had installed in an open air space banks covered with oriental carpets and invited the audience to reflect on their body experience within the art context. On both sides of the apsis, the two computer animated video installations of Magnus Wallin are engrossing the attention of the viewer with their connotative images liquidly fusing into each other, not devoid of stereotyped images of fascism and Holywood-ism.

Up to this point the installation of the works appear to be in a harmonious dialogue with the space; however, one cannot say the same for the white spiral stairs-like sculpture of Kemal Önsoy and the rather post New Expressionist, computer print-material painting of Fabian Marcaccio , which give the impression that these works are either misplaced or in dispute with the space and the other works. Cem Arik’s large architectonic mosaic plates with implications to traditional decoration of the churches as well as to the surface coating of the modern buildings of the 50’s needed to be attached to the stone walls of the church rather than to the wooden plates. The feeling of interpreting the space with the artworks or integrating the artworks to the space increasingly disappears at the other parts of the exhibition. Particularly the upper storey appears like an ordinary exhibition space with works lined side by side. Here, Guillermo Kuitcka’s exquisite plan-paintings of historical/architectural masterpieces and Isa Genzken’s glass models for the new Berlin buildings salute the viewer with a synthesis of rationalism and poetics. Yet, Jan Fabre’s ensemble of work placed in the southern aisle of the upper storey hits the viewer mercilessly. The recently produced video presents a conversation between Jan Faber, Dietmar Kamper and Peter Sloterdijk performing a struggle with three huge balls on a meadow. A white over-sized mattress and a ball covered with green scarab fossils complements the complex installation.

The Imperial Mint has been described by all curators of the biennale as a labyrinth or as a city within the city; in fact, it is a heterogeneous construction consisting of cellar-like stone entity and an elegant art nouveau factory building. Still to be renovated and transformed into a city museum by History Foundation, this building is purely exotic and fascinating for the artists; yet it does not so easily yield to the desires and fantasies…To my opinion, Anja Gallacio’s A “Green Baked Greener in the Greenest” was the most harmonious work within this space. She found a courtyard between the walls, filled it with green broken glass and let grass grow on this ambiguous ground; a scene between a fairy tale and a crime… All other works have utilized the rooms as ordinary spaces; more than 10 video installations were installed; almost all of them have a tendency to be documentary, social research or pop music video clip more than art work. Exceptional were Chris Cunningham’s spine-chilling, creepy videos “Come to Daddy” and “Window Licker” which were placed into one of the cellars, transforming the space into a Hades, and Stan Douglas’ serial “Interior- Pilot’s Quarter Night”. The latter a nightmarish stereotyped video serial in English and Turkish found its intimate place in two adjoining cubicles. Two semi-monumental installations, the transparent Japanese style marriage bed of Lu Hao and the elaborate oriental tent of Chris Burden put the viewer on the track of Eastern adventures. One can say that Burden has been honest to himself and to the false oriental image of Istanbul; he implicates that a Western foreigner cannot escape to have oriental fantasies.

The so-called Yerebatan Palace (the Byzantine cistern) is one of the most mythological and mystic space in Istanbul and attracts the interest of artists since the beginning of the biennale. The artists usually react to the maze of pillars, to the shallow water and to the play of shadows. Once more, this time we encounter between the pillars dramatically lit dissected/castrated female figures of Lee Bull. Her science-fiction animation narrating the superpowers of a heroine were projected on the water. This biennale’s local discovery Ali Ömer Kazma’s minimal video on water drops and Joyce Hinterding’s energy generating installation with copper wires stretched between the pillars were the other rather unexciting contributions to this splendid but hermetic space.

Four works directly dealt with Istanbul, its inhabitants and the daily life: Rikrit Tiravanija, Gabriel Orozco, Alberto Garutti and Cambalache Collective. Tiravanija has bestowed the public with four most wanted Turkish films; Alberto Garutti has connected lamps placed on Bosphorus bridge with a maternity hospital and invited the public to celebrate the birth of babies; Cambalache Collective has collected a huge amount of personal objects to be included into their Street Museum; Gabriel Orozco collected phallus-like street barriers, transported them into the exhibition venues and replaced them with slightly modified replicas. To my opinion these kind of works have a future; first of all the artists integrate their work concept directly into the city; and then the public is alerted and stimulated to take notice of the works. A perfect fusion with the concept Egofugal.

Within the instability of world affairs and needy economy in Turkey, we should take Istanbul Biennale as a precious gift. Nonetheless, it is not realistic to announce that Istanbul Biennale – as it has been stated during the press conference – is one of the most “dazzling” events of the art world. It can easily be shadowed by other more precisely planned events in the region. Already, Tirana Biennale has appeared with an alternative system, inviting 35 curators to present their artists and announcing a very low budget. Southeast European countries prefer a vibrant communication and exchange; they are enriching their art systems with all year visionary projects, and not particularly favor a biennale. This standpoint of involving a great number of artists into a direct exchange based art events might be a more rational and practical for countries who have missed to integrate their art systems into the sophisticated international art market.

While Istanbul Biennale has an ambition of maintaining its position within the biennale system, the continuing absence of crucial institutions, architectural infrastructure, international art market and collectors as well as silent two years between the biennale, makes it difficult to accept as true that it is really generating from the heart and mind of the city itself.