The 11th International Istanbul Biennial: What Keeps Mankind Alive?by Robert C. Morgan
September 12 – November 8, 2009
On my sixth visit to the enchanting city of Istanbul—an urban fairytale comparable to Venice in its fascination and mystery—I still had little comprehension as to what I might encounter. Like Venice, Istanbul is a city that divides the East from the West, but in a more extreme manner. While Catholicism continues to undergird Venice, as evidenced in its myriad of ecclesiastical monuments, Istanbul’s stern Byzantine heritage teeters on the edge of Islam’s omnipresence. A city divided by the strait of Bosphorus, which separates Europe from Asia, Istanbul is an urban metropolis replete with breathtaking wonders and insatiable spectacles. It is a historic, de-sanctified, war-torn place deluged with complexity and contradiction—greater in scope and intensity than Las Vegas—where contemporary art still manages to thrive as a force in the city’s bipolar attractiveness.
The Istanbul Biennial has evolved as an important international exhibition over the past 22 years. Given its fluctuating precariousness in the new world order, the biennials here tend toward politics. Much of this has to do with the current state of advanced art as a political ploy in the biennial circuit—the New Left is very much alive in such places as Istanbul—and the 11th Biennial takes full advantage of the issues seething and often rumbling below the surface. The theme of this year’s Biennial is based on a song from The Threepenny Opera by Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, entitled “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” The question is general enough, but also points clearly in the direction of ideology. One might say that this year’s Biennial is a socialist one. There are three venues in which these films, videos, documents, montages, photographs, drawings, and occasional installations are displayed: Antrepo No. 3 near the port; the Feriköy Greek School, now abandoned; and the Tobacco Warehouse near a park filled with generations of immigrants. The four-person curatorial team is called WHW (What, How and for Whom). Based in Zagreb, Croatia, since 2003, the members are Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic, and Sabina Sabolovic.
This Biennial has a certain dynamic, which quickly dissipates if you see the sequence of images in the wrong order. The show is too formulaic, too uptight, as we Americans used to say in the 1960s. Still, I found much of the best work to be in film and video, probably because ideology needs time to explain, as Brecht understood. I am referring to the works by a Russian collaborative, known as Chto Delat (“What is to be done?”), specifically a video called Perestroika Songspiel (2008-09), in which a superb five-person Russian chorus interprets what is happening as the characters of each scene spell out their ideological preferences. I was also taken by Danica Dakić’s Isola Bella, one of the weirdest, yet most beautiful and well-paced artist’s videos I have ever seen. Here the masked performers, or inmates, as the case may be, occupy a “self-contained phantasmagorical space” at a clinic or treatment center somewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was also fascinated by the Turkish feminist, Canan Şenol, who transformed her lactating breasts into a Fountain (2000), thus offering her version of what Duchamp and Nauman have previously done, substituting breast milk for the desperately dominating phallus.
The haunting video of a rocking cradle by Jinoos Taghizadeh, entitled Good Night (2009), proffers revolutionary songs from the resistance movement in Iran in 1979 transformed into lullabies. Erkan Özgen, an artist from the Kurdish sector in southeast Turkey, runs through the old city of Diyarbakir wearing a face mask until he finds an egress, whereupon he runs up the side of a nearby hillside and reveals his face. The ambiguity of the film, entitled Breath (2008), is interesting, but remains too close to a similar work by Shirin Neshat done in the early 1990s. The Lithuanian filmmaker, Deimantas Narkevičius, shot an interview with the docudrama director, Peter Watkins, called The Role of a Lifetime (2003), in which Watkins’s resonant statement more or less sums up the intentions of the four curators: “I don’t believe or I’m not interested in the idea of a neutral artist, even if there were such a thing, I don’t think it is interesting very much, frankly.”
I should not fail to mention two other excellent exhibitions, concurrent with the Istanbul Biennial, which are separate, but equal: One is the Yüksel Arslan retrospective at the Santral Istanbul Museum, which is a 20-minute shuttle ride from Taksim Square. Arslan is a 72-year old Turkish artist who lives in Paris and paints on paper with various pigments, oils, and body fluids. Naturally, he has strong Marxist tendencies, but the work is much more expansive, poetic, obsessive, and inclusive. While some critics would be tempted to call Arslan an outsider artist, his weird sexual manifestations suggest a conceptual investigation into human relationships that is difficult to ignore. He calls these works “artures,” and they dwell on the dark side, the untamed side of human consciousness. The second show is a digital painting installation by 80-year-old Omer Uluc at the Beylerbeyi Palace. This tunnel-like journey through time and space is also about life and death. The forms are half-human and half-animal. They stare at you with an intensity as if to demand recognition that they are somehow connected to your primal past. Somewhere within these creatures one senses the work of a true visionary, an apostle from another era.
In addition, at the Pera Museum near the pedestrian boulevard in Istanbul called Istiklal Caddesi, there is a large exhibition entitled Octet: Selected Works from the School of Visual Arts, New York. This beautifully mounted exhibition covers two floors and is filled with excellent work, including mixed media by Gary Sherman, Suzanne Anker, Steve Miller, Elif Uras, Frank Gillette, Peter Hristoff, Joshua Allen Harris, among others. The works were carefully chosen and present a delicate, yet powerful response to the socialist venues that intend to shake the foundations of consciousness from its lethargy. The SVA show suggests that shaking the foundations can still be indirect and offer a personal point of view—mysterious, yet steady in its provocative glare.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.