Istanbul Biennial

The profile of the 11th Istanbul Biennial fits in with our chastened times. The curatorial collective responsible for the show, What, How & for Whom? (WHW), is a socially and politically aware quartet that is promoting artists largely outside of the established biennial network. Like the Moscow Biennale (see p58), the emphasis is on the peripheries.

WHW comprises four women who studied art history and comparative literature at the University of Zagreb in Croatia: Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic. Their theme, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”, was taken from the title of a song in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” of 1928, which inevitably leads to an assertively conceptual basis for the biennial. The collective has been working together for ten years, and has a history of similar frameworks for its shows. “As in the case of our first exhibition, ‘What, How & for Whom’, dedicated to the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, the manifesto was not the subject of the exhibition, but a trigger to initiate a public debate on the issues of recent history,” the curators told The Art Newspaper. “The biennial will not directly thematise Brecht’s heritage or repeat his method. Rather, it will try to reflect on what is the potential of Brecht’s belief in the political engagement of art.”

So, it looks like we’re in for a politically shaped biennial, and the curators are keen to emphasise the relevance of the Brechtian framework to today’s situation. “We are working in a moment of obvious crisis, which has many parallels with the economic crisis of 1928, which than led to fascism and World War II,” they told us. “The issue of responsibility in this moment seems crucial. That is why some of Brecht’s thoughts that we took as a starting point for shaping the exhibition are his insistence on talking about the ‘truth of our situation’, and also his constant demand for action, no matter how complicated the circumstances in which you find yourself.”

The exhibition is spread across three venues: Antrepo No. 3, an old customs warehouse located on the Bosporus near Tophane, the nearby Tütün Deposu (Tobacco Warehouse)—both venues used for previous biennials—and the Feriköy Greek School, a now defunct school in the Sisli district. All three sites are located on the European side of Istanbul where most of the cultural events take place. “We are composing a very classic, white cube, almost museum-like exhibition,” WHW told us. “While the past two biennials have actively engaged with the city of Istanbul, offering new viewpoints of its urban identity”, their aim is to question the cultural institution of the mainstream biennial. “In all of our projects it’s important for us to link contemporary art production with older practices…In this respect, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” will differ from most biennial exhibitions in that it will not insist on recent art production, but will include many historical works and create dialogues between works…we were interested in bringing together artists of different generations, many of them from the ‘marginal’ or ‘ghost’ geographies of European modernism.”

Historical works will include collages, books and drawings from the 1970s by Uzbekistan artist Vyachislav Akhunov, shown for the first time, and a restored 1970s film, “Kentaur”, by Hungarian conceptual artist Tamas St. Auby, a banned film that has never been shown in public before now. WHW’s biennial does not include new commissions, but a number of new and recent works will be shown, including those by Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan, German artist Simon Wachsmuth, US artist Trevor Paglen and Russian collective Chto delat. Younger artists such as Inci Furno and Nilbar Gures from Turkey, Doa Aly from Egypt, Jesse Jones from Ireland, Vlatka Horvat from the US and Etcetera from Argentina will also be showing new works. “We are showing two very interesting artists from Iran: Jinoos Taghizadeh, whose work is dealing with the anniversary of Iranian revolution, and Shahab Fatouhi, who is building a nuclear shelter within the exhibition,” WHW told us. “Sanja Ivekovic’s Shadow Report looks at women’s rights in Turkey and Danica Dakic is showing her new work Isolla Bella, filmed in an insane asylum near Sarejevo.” The curators were also keen to include a strong presence of Turkish artists from various generations, including a series of works from the 1970s by one of the pioneers of conceptual art in Turkey, Cengiz Cekil, and works by Erkan Ozgen and Canan Senol addressing a wide range of political issues such as abuse of women and social repression in Turkish society.

This article was published in The Art Newspaper, September 2009, p59. To see it in context, click on the PDF link below.

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