Successfully Mining Politics for Feeling: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Istanbul Biennial

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Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Istanbul biennial SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms opened with speeches and song as the artworld gathered to see her first major exhibition as curator (or as she prefers to be called, “draftsperson”) since her rapturously-received dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012.

Its saltwater theme is layered with meaning, a varied metaphor that ranges from the sea and the Bosphorus of Istanbul to the flow of peoples across the world, the waves of history and trauma in the world, and in the history of the ancient city of Istanbul. Saltwater both heals and corrodes, Christov-Bakargiev told the press, describing how water flows, creates knots and eddies, passage and barriers.

“The one reason I am not in politics but in art is because I feel that art has a possibility of shaping the souls of people, and transforming the opinions of opinion-leaders who are also then in a trickle-down effect shaping what will be the policies of government,” emphasized Christov-Bakargiev in her opening speech. “I am skeptical and I am a skeptic,” she added, quoting from the Bible.

Theaster Gates and Adrian Villar Rojas opened the event with musical performances. Gates sang Walk With Me a cappella, and Rojas performed an acoustic version of Erasure’s A Little Respect, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist and drummer.

As soon as the applause echoed across the Italian School and Embassy where the press conference took place, everyone present, including Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nicholas Serota, scattered through the nearby twisting streets of Istanbul to see what the biennial had in waiting.

There was Un/fit for Feeling (2015) by British artist and poet Heather Phillipson, whose work is a letter to the human heart comprised of sculpture, film, and installation. The core of the piece was what it means to be “heartfelt,” as the heart as an organ cannot feel. We drown in a sea of love, in a sea of red.

An Armenian theme emerged in the biennial, marking a century since the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turkish government of the time. Among sites open to visitors is the building of Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who founded bilingual paper Agos, and who was assassinated in 2007. Further, the Museum of Innocence author and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk is hosting two paintings by Abstract Expressionist artist Arshile Gorky, who survived the massacre in 1915.

Theaster Gates’s work, to be found in the narrow streets that surround the Italian Embassy, comprises different elements, all linking back to the city. “I built a workspace that allows me to learn and care for these fragments of Turkish history that in some ways, when I was asked to be a part of the biennial of Istanbul, I really struggled to imagine my connection to,” Gates reflected. “But the more I considered its history and the more I started to mine the objects that I had, the more I realized that there were all these connections that were not on the surface. So I started to mine my collections and found a Turk who had started Atlantic Records.” Gates realized that he had over 200 soul and jazz records from the legendary label started by Ahmet Ertegun. The work also shows slides of Mohammedan sculpture and an intricate 17th-century Iznik bowl. Gates will make and re-make versions of the ceramic. “The bowl is really the heartbeat of the space,” Gates explains.” Over the next few weeks I will ponder this bowl as a way of pondering Turkey, and that maybe through the recreation of this bowl I might learn something.”

At Istanbul Modern, Liam Gillick’s formula used to create a pulse or flow is unmissable on the waterside of the museum, visible to all who look at the city from the other side of the Bosphorus.

Then off to an amazing performance surrounding works exploring Aboriginal maps and the reading of their artworks as messages – messages that in some cases saw the restoration of land rights in Australia. The theme of migration, currently a humanitarian and political crisis reaching devastating effects in the region, is on people’s minds, in the artworks and the media.

One of the most striking images in the biennial is by Egyptian painter Anna Boghiguian at the Galata Greek Primary School. The installation site was chosen in keeping with the theme, as it’s no longer a school due to longstanding conflicts between Greece and Turkey (there are no Greeks left to attend it). The main hall of the impressive space is filled with painted Egyptian sails which hang from the ceiling, signaling the nature, history, and science of salt, from the scientific formulas and maps of the world that decorate the draped sails to the piles of salt from Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Turkey.

As the heat intensified, we crossed the city to Kucuk, Mustufa Pasa Hammam, and Wael Shawky. Shawky’s piece, displayed on a huge screen bathed in blue light, is installed in a fourteenth-century hammam, one of the oldest buildings in Istanbul. It’s the final installment of his film trilogy the Cabaret Crusades. “I’m totally interested in societies in transition,” Shawky explained. “And in the idea, or the dream of development, so I’m always running after this topic, really.” He went on, “The history of the crusades is like a dream for Pope Urban II, who launched the crusades in 1095, a religious dream. I’ve worked on this series since 2010 and I finished this year with the third film, which I am showing here.”

The third installment is the longest and the most complex of the trilogy. It tells the story of the crusades from 1146 to 1204 and begins with a flashback to the battle of Karbala (in present-day Iraq) which caused the split creating Sunni and Shia Muslims. “[The film] ends with the fourth crusades that is mainly political rather than religious.” Shawky’s conclusion is among the most powerful and successful works in the biennial.

The second day we took to the islands in the Bosphorus. Christov-Bakargiev’s saltwater theme takes in everything from the Black Sea to the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea surrounding Istanbul. The island of Büyükada has an otherworldly quality to it. Stepping off the sea bus, you enter into a world of horse-drawn carriages and French colonial-style mansions. It’s behind these whitewashed shutters and floral hedges that the rest of the biennial is installed.

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