There are no real movements in contemporary art these days, replete with passionate advocates and passionate opponents. But then again, this also has its plus side. Just about anything is possible, and contemporary art appears to be an amazingly diverse enterprise, especially given its increasingly globalized focus. In the absence of art movements, what is certainly occurring is a movement of curators, and by this I mean a fairly tight band of itinerant curators whose exhibitions (especially large-scale, international exhibitions) frequently address socio-political issues. What these exhibitions also share is a tendency to place the curator squarely at the forefront as a quasi-artist utilizing other works to develop his or her own mega-installation. Moreover, this position of star, or would-be star, curator involves a drastic expansion of scope. The curator functions not only as an arbiter of what’s good and valuable in contemporary art, but also as a political commentator, a cultural theorist, a professorial instructor, and a philosopher.
Into this fray steps Dan Cameron, Senior Curator at the New Museum in New York, and this year’s curator of the Istanbul Biennial, now in its eighth incarnation and still one of the most significant of the large-scale exhibitions held in cities far from the usual art world centers. While the choice of Cameron was a good one— he’s an acclaimed curator both in New York and internationally, and someone long known for his astute and sympathetic engagement with a broad range of international art— it also came with fascinating, let’s say, "issues" having to do with an American curating a big deal show in an Islamic country at a particularly combustible time. Titled Poetic Justice, Cameron’s show had much to do with the politics of this combustible time, and in his unflinching essay accompanying the exhibition he emphatically took issue with the Bush government’s misadventures in Iraq, the aftermath of September 11th, and the increasingly stark problems of globalization. He also admirably professed a conviction that contemporary art can be humanly, even spiritually, cathartic in a difficult time, and optimistically suggested that the increasing mobility of artists provides an excellent trans-national social model: global citizens who move easily between and among nations and cultures, with a real spirit of tolerance and curiosity.
The exhibition involved eighty-five artists from forty-two countries, and was mounted in four primary sites, with other projects scattered throughout the city. One reason why the Istanbul Biennial is so engaging is its sites. Most works were shown at Antrepo, a cavernous space converted from a former customs warehouse on the Bosphorus. Others were at the Hagia Sophia, a famous Byzantine church, later a mosque, and now a museum; the Yerebatan Cistern, a grotto-like, sixth century underground cistern, which is one of Istanbul’s top historical sites; and the impressive Tophane-i Amire Culture and Arts Center at Mimar Sinan University. Spanning Europe and Asia, and for centuries home to a mix of cultures and religions, Istanbul is also a particularly fitting place for this kind of diverse show.
Videos, and especially narrative videos, have become one of the growth engines for such exhibitions, and they were abundant here, occupying much of the Antrepo’s first floor, where they were displayed in cylindrical viewing units, each the size of a small room. Fikret Atay is a Turkish artist from the comparatively remote city of Batman, where there is little arts infrastructure to speak of at all. His video of two boys hanging around, hamming it up, dancing, and singing songs in a cubicle housing an ATM machine was among the most riveting works in the show ("Rebels of the Dance," 2002). The songs seem to reach back into history, and suggest a cultural legacy stretching across centuries, while the ATM machine functions as a latter-day secular god; a stark symbol of impersonal global capital. You also surmise that these two kids do not have much in the way of material things, while the ATM machine simultaneously proffers and denies riches, and their dancing and singing here seems like both an exuberant act of resistance and an impromptu celebration of selfhood and dignity. Likewise riveting was the better known Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman’s video "1 + 1 = 1" (2002), which breaks just about every rule for snappy videos these days. It’s long (50 minutes); on two screens all you see is the same Turkish Cypriot woman talking about her life and her experiences; and the camera always maintains the same steady, seemingly banal, head-on view. Still, one gets completely absorbed by this woman’s account of life in a country divided into Turkish and Greek sections, an account that is by turns whimsical and harrowing, deeply personal and blazingly moral. Upstairs, the Iranian Seifollah Samadian presented a video that tracks a woman in a black chador as she inches down a bleak Tehran street during a blizzard, and blizzards are extremely unusual in Tehran ("The White Station," 1999). Seen from a distance, the woman leans into the biting wind, tries to make do with an umbrella, waits for a bus but doesn’t get in, and struggles to proceed through an onslaught of weather which also poetically evokes many more meanings— a repressive regime, rampant social restrictions, and other beleaguering difficulties. Samadian also contributed wonderful photographs that all have double and perhaps many more meanings. In one, a fisherman is being shaved by a colleague, but in a way that also suggests torture or an execution.
Berlin based Italian artist Monica Bonvicini contributed the most dramatic sculptural work in the show: a functional staircase that involved suspended chains and glass walls with bullet holes and fissures ("Stairway to Hell," 2003). Suggesting inevitable punishment and a tortured attempt to ascend to the next level, Bonvicini’s work also gleamed inordinately and had an almost magical presence in the space. Curiously disappointing was American Ann Hamilton’s installation of several huge, mechanically moving curtains in the middle of the exhibition space. The blue and white colors were supposed to represent the colors of the United Nations flag, and an accompanying soundtrack (which wasn’t functioning during my visit) was supposed to broadcast questions asked to alleged perpetrators of war crimes in Bosnia at trials in The Hague. Even if the political purpose here had really come out, it would have been of a thudding and dogged sort, and in any event one was left with big, mobile curtains that seemed more monumental than anything else.
Not at Antrepo, but at the neighboring Tophane-i Amire Culture and Arts Center, New York-based Palestinian Emily Jacir’s series of photographs coupled with short texts had real political bite ("Where We Come From," 2002-2003). Jacir asked various Palestinians who are not allowed to enter Israel to name the one thing they would most like to do if they could return, and she then personally accomplished each wish, documenting the action with a spare photograph. She visited someone’s mother and hugged and kissed her; she climbed Mt. Carmel in Haifa to gaze at the Mediterranean; she placed flowers on a mother’s grave in Jerusalem on her birthday. Jacir’s work is haunting, painful, richly humane, and thoroughly insightful of what it means to be in forced exile from one’s homeland. Colombian Doris Salcedo presented a large outdoor sculpture made of hundreds of wooden chairs crazily stacked in a gap between two buildings. Rising to the height of a small building, Salcedo’s work was formally and visually stunning, but it also evoked vanished human presences, such as the many victims of so-called "disappearances" in her country and elsewhere.
Generally, the more idiosyncratic works were the more intriguing, and they occasionally had a refreshing level of intelligent wackiness. Kim Beom, from Korea, presented a series of three transformed household items that used formal sculptural high-jinx to tap into an agitated climate of instability and flux— an iron that assumed the form of a radio, a kettle that functioned as an iron, and a radio that became a kettle. Speaking of flux, another Korean, Jung Yeondoo, exhibited a slide show in which an image of a person as he or she normally is fades into a dream image of what that person would most like to do, who she or he would most like to be ("BeWitched," 2001–ongoing project). In one sequence, a woman working at a Baskins Robbins ice cream store fades into the same woman standing in an ersatz Arctic environment, equipped with a dog sled and igloo. Her big dream is to travel to the North Pole. Throughout, Jung Yeondoo’s work navigates between mundane realities and fanciful, even outlandish, aspirations.
Bjørn Melhus, from Germany, and Gerard Byrne, from Ireland, both expertly incorporated found material, from films and a magazine respectively. Melhus’s video installation "Sometimes" (2002), previously shown at Roebling Hall in Brooklyn, features four projections of the artist wearing pajamas and childishly clutching a stuffed animal; these multiple Melhuses surround a pile of monitors that functions as an electronic campfire. The characters engage in a fraught and anxious conversation that entirely consists of repeated snippets from dialogues in horror movies, including both female and male voices; meanwhile, the "campfire" pulsates and glows like some alien orb. Here, twin pillars of Americanness— Hollywood and cowboy mythology— get dislocated, subverted, and rendered completely strange, while the whole work taps into primal fears about safety, an uncertain future, and creeping isolation. Using actors, Gerard Byrne reenacted a 1970s roundtable discussion published in Playboy about the wonders of the sexual revolution; the reenactment was staged in a utopian glass house in Ireland built at almost exactly the same time as the original discussion. Photos and videos document the goings-on, and it’s hilarious seeing Linda Lovelace, Larry Flynt, and others (represented by actors) earnestly discussing multiple partners, open marriages, and sex roles. Byrne’s quirky look back at this moment in cultural history reveals the extent to which the sexual utopia imagined then has hardly come to pass, but also underscores how the eccentric ideas of a previous era are commonplace now. When faced with a preponderance of videos, installations, and photographs, it was excellent to encounter a full-on, out-sized painting by New York-based Ethiopian Julie Merhtu, full of her reeling, quasi sci-fi imagery made by layering hints of architecture, maps, comics, graffiti, smudges, and curving lines.
Of course, there were some problems with Cameron’s attempt to fuse the personal and the political, spirituality and social engagement. Multiple videos, including many that are quite long, were tough to fully appreciate en masse, and the exhibition largely continued a trend with this kind of show to focus on younger artists (say 40ish and younger), even though many older artists are pioneering figures when it comes to the exhibition’s theme. At the soaring Hagia Sophia, only American Tony Feher’s subtle window installation made of blue tape really fit with the dramatic space. Each window across an entire wall had its bottom half taped and this blue, horizontal band used a decidedly mundane material to evoke stained glass and spiritual meditation. Other works here, including photos by Ozawa Tsuyoshi, from Japan, in which vegetables were fashioned into the shape of weapons, or a freestanding locked room by Spanish artist Dora Garcia, seemed overwhelmed by their gorgeous, historically freighted surroundings.
What’s most commendable about Cameron’s curatorial effort is how a politicized exhibition allowed room for the complexities of individual works, and indeed of individual artists, to flourish, something that didn’t happen all the time, but did happen enough to make the show of abiding interest. In this sense, Cameron’s exhibition acknowledged that while artists may indeed be motivated by urgent political concerns, many other things also motivate them, such as poetics, including the ability of a work to suggest multiple meanings, nuances of emotion, and gradations of spiritual import. What Cameron certainly accomplished as a curator was to shift the focus from an ideological imperative to the intricate human energies coursing through works, and as a result his show seemed far more revelatory than instructive or didactic.
Gregory Volk is a New York-based art writer, freelance curator, and former Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.