Shadow Cast on the Biennale

(English version of my article published in Cumhuriyet, 17 September 2013)

I wrote many “biennial articles” in the past; this time I must say that I am finding it hard to write on the 13th Istanbul Biennial.  The difficulty arises neither from the aesthetics dimension of the Biennial, nor from the individual works. It arises as I am forced to evaluate the biennial in connection with the problematic social and political conditions of Turkey as we are passing through turbulent times.  In this article, I will mainly touch on these problematic structural matters rather than the exhibitions of and individual works in the Biennial—and that with the ultimate comfort of knowing that nobody expects an article of praise from me!

The conceptual framework put forward by Fulya Erdemci (no doubt developed through a prior field research and in consultation with her interlocutors) has advocated for the investigation and the defence of the public sphere. Incidentally (or not), this framework comes at a historical moment when the  trauma of urban transformation and gentrification process that had been going on by gaining momentum since the mid-2000s has been felt by many with unbearable heaviness. To the extent that it spoke to this zeitgeist, the conceptual framework was undoubtedly an highly relevant one.

As she carried such a great responsibility, Erdemci must have evaluated comprehensively the discourses, productions and practices of those who came before her.  Presumably she has tried to work with local actors and groups who had laboured in this field over the years. Presumably she has presented it by working and sharing it with the experts who have asked similar questions prior to her and with those who have been long burdened by this heavy and complex matter.

We have seen plenty of foreign names in the Biennial team; it is difficult to know how much these people are at ease with what is going on in Turkey currently. Eventually the presence of a dependable group of people whom she could rely on in order to overcome the conflicts and the tension that would inevitable emerge during the course of implementation was necessary. Nonetheless, we more have observed that the conferences and workshops organized prior to the Biennial and eventually forced into the meeting rooms of 5-star hotels were not sufficient for those who found the conceptual framework to be at best unconvincing and at worst an insincere attempt at “the normalization of the problems” .

Before the discord between the conceptual framework and the business activities of the corporation sponsoring the Biennal was yet to be resolved, Taksim Gezi Park revolution has exploded. First against the effects of the urban transformation and gentrification, later against the various forms of violence conducted by the  government, the police and the media. Thereafter the conceptual framework of the Biennial has once again entered into another phase of critical evaluation. The management of this process was also fraught with difficulties and has evolved toward alienation rather than a mutually agreeable solution.

The Gezi community has produced a significant amount of visual material and creative activity in the public sphere under conditions of life and death.  Even if this production had its roots in the politically and socially aware artworks and performances realized in the public sphere as well as in the institutional exhibition halls throughout the last 30 years, it was not an easy task to find an intellectual and practical platform where and intersection could be found between the actions of Gezi and that of the Biennial.

Under these circumstances, as they quickly realized that they cannot benefit from the bright halo of respectability provided by the Biennale, potential sponsors began to withdrawal their support. Furthermore,  the main sponsor, first found itself in the midst of a political conflict with the government ignited by the Gezi uprisings, and then in the midst of a collector-artist controversy that broke out in relation to Kutluğ Ataman’s involvements with the Gezi uprisings. All of these cast a shadow on the anticipated and the desired  glory of the Biennial. We witnessed the cancelling of the public space projects and a withdrawing into secure spaces in order not to attract any more unfavourable reactions.

The Biennial claimed that due the “authoritarian” stances of the administration, it was impossible to work in the public spaces; I do not find this explanation convincing.  Istanbul has municipalities which are not “authoritarian” – or which are governed by opposition parties – and which have active suitable spaces for art and culture, for example in Şişli, Beşiktaş and Kadıköy. Did such municipalities also not accept to host the Biennial?  If they did not, this is grave! If any presentation or exhibits of any works of art had been planned in the various public spaces and places inside the city, their lists should have been disclosed and the justifications given by the administrations for the obstruction of their realization should have been disclosed.  In the end, this is a subject of grave censorship and is a very detestable situation that has serious consequences for future of art in Turkey. If the Biennial was silenced by this, what are we to do?  This explanation may be the last resort taken to paper over the impending deadlock of the Biennial process; but it will surely have negative consequences for the art scene in the coming years.

When I visited the Antrepo 3 and Galata Private Elementary School, I observed a reforming effort in spite of the negativities during the period building up to the Biennial. This was in part due to the fact that the works of the artists (who must have been keenly observing what is going on in Turkey through the summer) for the most part resonated with the conceptual framework. I also noticed that the list of artists was quite fresh and from different geographies and cultures and not a ready-made list. Most importantly no priority was given to the sponsor in the promotional presentations of the Biennale.

But, I did wonder whether four or five of the artists invited from Turkey were themselves not bored from being perennial Biennial artists. While it is good to encounter once again some of these widely-exhibited works, one cannot help but ask if there could not be a list that is more explorative and younger, especially given that the project applications responding to the solicitation of the submission of projects rumoured to be in the hundreds. It is now a well-established fact that the general calls for the artists (“send your projects” invitations) are mostly nominal; even though one or two discoveries are made, in the end the curators invite the artists whom they know, whom they are acquainted with and whom they trust.

Local and foreign journalists touched only lightly on the subjects we mentioned here, in the introductory articles they wrote-no doubt because they wrote an article of introduction that everybody can understand and not a critique.  They detected some issues and were informed by hearsay, but they could not quite fulfill the function of reflecting the truth as required in journalism.

Beral Madra, September 2013

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