A Provisional Biennial Amid Istanbul’s Endless Restoration

The Istanbul Shipyards. Photo: Orhan Pamuk. Courtesy of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.

Everything is always under construction.

In Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, the famed church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, has, over the centuries, seen earthquakes, bloodbaths, and any number of politically motivated renovations. The külliye, architectural complexes of the Ottoman Empire Sultans, were exercises in braggadocio, each one designed to one-up the last. Mid-19th-century construction of a wooden bridge connecting the old city to the Europeanized Pera district ushered forth visitors on the last eastern stop of the so-called Orient Express. The Taksim Gezi Park protests of 2013 began as resistance to large-scale commercial development. In 2019, Hagia Sophia, the Archaeology Museum, Chora Church, and the Blue Mosque are all undergoing tourist-thwarting restorations. (Muslims pray at the last site surrounded by trompe-l’oeil scaffolding.)

The main venue of the 16th Istanbul Biennial is the forthcoming home of the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum of the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. (The building was formerly Antrepo 5, which housed the 2005 and 2011 editions of the Biennial.) It was not supposed to be this way. In early August the organization that facilitates the Biennial, Istanbul Kültür Santa Vakfi (IKSV), discovered asbestos at the centuries-old, now-shuttered Haliç shipyards on the city’s Golden Horn, the intended hub for the event, with several site-specific projects in the making. IKSV moved programming farther south on the Horn to the Galata area and its almost-ready Painting and Sculpture Museum, whose own opening was then delayed to spring 2020 to accommodate the Biennial. You could say that the majority of this year’s Biennial took place in a building that, while technically open, was not open yet.

Claudia Martinez Garay, “The Creator,” 2019. Courtesy the artist and GRIMM
Amsterdam | New York.

The real story of this year’s Biennial is what the venue change made visible – for which the artists and their curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, had little time to prepare. The Painting and Sculpture Museum sits on the grounds of a billion-lira megaproject called Galataport, which aims to bring 25 million cruise-ship visitors per year to the city’s shores, almost a third of them non-Turkish. The project, designed by firms Studio Dror and Gensler, touts a 1.2-km long waterfront that makes the coastline accessible through a state-of-the-art subterranean cruise terminal, obscured underneath a boardwalk. (The terminal’s design originated in Miami.) Unsurprisingly, modern and contemporary art are part of the scheme – not only the Painting and Sculpture Museum, but also Istanbul Modern, whose existing warehouse building on the port is currently being retrofitted to blueprints by Pritzker Award–winning architect Renzo Piano.

Galataport construction was a different kind of chaos than Biennial visitors have experienced in previous years, when police in riot gear, teargas in hand, lined the bustling pedestrian-commercial boulevard İstiklal, whose spaces have been venues for past biennials. (This year, the Pera Museum, just off İstiklal, remained a secondary venue.) The restored calm was eerie. Politically relevant work continues to be a risk for Turkish artists, and the government continues to suppress commentary on the Armenian genocide as well as the Kurdish resistance, though this resistance became international news throughout the Biennial’s duration due to unfolding turmoil at the southern border with Syria. In spring 2019 Istanbul elected Ekrem Imamoglu, a progressive, anti-Erdogan candidate, as mayor, but the city’s noticeable riptide of free-market enterprise (Imamoglu is vocally pro-tourist) is Erdogan 101: a scrim for a halting economy now staring down the threat of increased sanctions (A recent Frieze piece has called for the artworld to follow these sanctions with a full-out boycott.) İstiklal has turned from a continental high street to a late-capitalist shopping mall peddling fast fashion. Six years after Taksim Gezi, the city is (again) open for global business.

The Biennial was relatively quiet about all of this, a likely combination of pre-emptive censoring, damage control, and the organizational maelstrom caused by the asbestos at the Haliç. Berlin-based Irish artist Mariechen Danz made a beautiful installation using 2,455 bricks, replicas of ones from the derelict shipyard, though the venue change was not mentioned in her work’s didactic panel. Still, this Biennial was defined by drilling and scaffolding, which complicated pedestrian traffic and obscured the shoreline. The wide windows of the Painting and Sculpture Museum, designed no doubt for panoramic views, revealed orange-jacketed workers on skeletal concrete high rises for seeming miles. The exhibition’s fifth-floor balcony hammock, a fanciful curatorial intervention, could have been an overlook for a site foreman. If the contemporary artworld has come to demand either full-on, site-responsive curation or the formalist echo-chamber of the white cube, this Biennial offered neither.

Bourriaud is of course best known for his concept of “relational aesthetics,” popular in the 1990s and 2000s, for which artists used audiences and contexts at museums and galleries as material for their work. Bourriaud called his Biennial The Seventh Continent, and it was about the Anthropocene, our current geological age characterized by human impact, including but not limited to climate change. “The Seventh Continent” referred specifically to “the huge island of plastic waste floating in the oceans” (actually an amorphous thing, comprised mostly of micro plastics) – a “moving heap,” said the exhibition’s introductory text, “born of our ways of life,” in which, in the metaphoric understanding of this Biennial, “artists are its explorers.” One of the world’s largest cruise ports was being constructed outside the Biennial’s main building and Bourriaud wanted his viewers to consider the garbage island as a creative concept. (Recent studies have found several individual cruise lines to be worse polluters than all of Europe’s cars put together.)

Max Hooper Schneider. “To Become a Melon Head,” 2019. Co-produced by the 16th Istanbul Biennial
and MO.CO. Montpellier Contemporain.

Where does the tourism industry end and the artworld begin? In an Art Newspaper interview, Bourriaud absolved the artworld from the implications of his thematic, focusing on emissions (which, curiously, are not the direct cause of the garbage island): “The real issue is mass tourism,” he said. “It’s not the people who come to biennials. Let’s not assume the role of the guilty ones. The real fight is [against] mass tourism. If we stopped all of these exhibitions, it would be like a drop in the bucket.” Where does collusion end and viewership begin? Many of the Biennial’s visitors, myself included, arrived at the new Istanbul Airport, IST, which has caused deforestation and subsequent habitat destruction. This was in fact a topic of a Biennial work: Istanbul- and Izmir-based artist Ozan Atalan’s Monochrome, which looked at the displacement of nonhuman species due to human land-development projects, among them IST, which triggered the migration of water buffalo. Atalan’s video showed animals moving through a torn landscape, its screen placed beside a concrete platform with a sculpture of a water-buffalo skeleton on it.

Elsewhere in the Biennial’s main space, a large installation by Feral Atlas Collective, an international group of over 100 researchers, thinkers, and artists, acted as an animated pamphlet on climate change. Videos, images, and texts spread over several rooms – the tragic proliferation of scientific, not cultural, archives. Other artists imagined aftermaths, past and future. Amsterdam-based Claudia Martinez Garay presented a mound of dirt populated with paper-cut-out plants and replicas of dead animals and looted ceramic pieces from the now-collapsed Moche civilization of ancient Peru. Los Angeles–based artist Max Hooper Schneider worked with an Istanbul puppet maker to produce a shadow play based on regional forms of satire, in which various figures argue ineffectually. Schneider installed an audience in front of this play, also situated in dirt: 25 watermelons that appeared genetically modified – “incarnations of future neomporphic brain-bodies,” according to the didactic. Identifying or not identifying with this audience felt markedly unfunny.

Jonathas de Andrade, “O Peixe (The Fish),” 2016. Courtesy the artist, Galeria Vermelho,
Galleria Continua and Alexander & Bonin.

Interludes of fantasy broke the inertia. Canadian-born Ambera Wellmann’s paintings represented the psychic aftermath of human and nonhuman bodies colliding. Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade’s 2006 video O Peixe (The Fish) showed fisherman from Piaçabuçu and Coruripe in Northeast Brazil caressing large, dying fish in their muscled, bronzed arms. New York–based Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai’s hallucinatory video conflated Donald Trump’s election, the death of the King of Thailand, and moments with Korakrit’s grandmother, who has dementia. (“A decaying body can sometimes be turned into poetry,” said the video’s narrator, in hushed tones.) New Yorker Glenn Ligon’s installation at a former British-owned mansion on Büyükada Island, a 40-minute ferry ride south from the Painting and Sculpture Museum into the Marmara Sea, was a chance to see Turkish filmmaker Sedat Pakay’s rare 1970 documentary short about the late writer James Baldwin’s time in Istanbul. It included a shot of the ferry for Büyükada departing the mainland, now nostalgic: the shoreline in the film is visibly free of today’s bumptious commercial development.

Rebecca Belmore, who is a member of Lac Seul First Nation and currently based in Toronto, exhibited Body of Water (2019), an inconspicuous sculpture made from a canoe draped in a cast-aluminum tarp. An opening-weekend talk for the launch of a book on her performance works took place at Gallery Evliyagil Dolapdere, across the street the first museum to host a permanent collection of contemporary Turkish art: Arter, an imposing space designed by London’s Grimshaw Architects and supported by Koç Holdings, whose cultural philanthropy also supports the Biennial, and whose investments include fossil fuels, the automotive industry, and the Turkish military.

Rebecca Belmore, “Body of Water,” 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Belmore was in a relaxed, frank mood. The inspiration for her sculpture was, she related, a tarp-draped canoe she saw in Vancouver last winter, a form that, for her, came to resemble “a marine mammal.” She addressed the increasing inclusion of Indigenous artists in exhibitions in Canada and internationally. “Finally we can be involved in this,” she said, referring to the international artworld in general and specifically to 2017’s Documenta 14, to which she contributed a significant sculpture, and which was co-curated by Candice Hopkins, from Carcross/Tagish First Nation. Belmore went on to speak of the importance of access to clean drinking water for Indigenous communities, and then of her performance works: “I prefer to work outside the institution in performance mode,” she said. “I think it’s safer outside.”

“This is where we live,” Belmore added, referring again to the artworld, whose residents were certainly present at her launch. “This is our house,” she said. “But at the same time, there’s a whole world outside the house that’s really charged. It’s really interesting, too.”

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