The 14th Istanbul Biennial: a Call to Discussion Amid Turmoil

Adrian Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, 2015, site-specific installation. Courtesy of Istanbul Biennal. Photo: Kubra Karacizmeli
Adrian Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, 2015, site-specific installation. Courtesy of the Istanbul Biennal. Photo: Kubra Karacizmeli

Running under the title “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms”, the 14th Istanbul Biennial has finally opened to the public. Highly anticipated and drafted by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (who prefers the term “draftsperson” rather than “curator”), the event tackles recent and historical events subtly and freely.

The venues are spread across this immense city but the distance between them also offers a much-needed pause for digesting impressions, while slowing down Istanbul’s fast pace. In the city centre, Beyoglu, Christine Taylor Patten shows one of the biennial’s main concepts – time – with “micro/macro drawings 1001”, trapping you in contemplation. In her series of drawings the unity of time cannot fit into space and even representation is hopeless against infinity. Movement is trapped in frames of moments – snapshots of the geometric, cosmic and spatial formations. “macro” for instance, a large drawing on the wall, denotes that time is directionless, contradicting only the 1x1in “micro” drawings, each of which represents a year period in the quotidian calendar.

Francis Alÿs, Silence of Ani, 2015. Courtesy of the artist
Francis Alÿs, Silence of Ani, 2015. Courtesy of the artist

Throughout human history, salt has been important not only for practical reasons but also for its ritualistic character: it is believed to cleanse a space or soul from negative energies and curses. SALTWATER, therefore investigates how to heal humanity and nature’s wounds.

At DEPO Istanbul, Francis Alÿs’ “Silence of Ani” comprises a display of Armenian duduks (ancient double-reed woodwind flutes) and videos. The story takes place in Ani, an ancient Armenian city near the border with Turkey, a fitting setting, not least in this biennial, which takes place during the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. The video shows the breathtaking and uncanny scenery of the valley of Ani, while the wind whistles through like a birdcall. Then children playing duduks in a game of hide and seek, slowly turn into a ballad about the future and an elegy of the past. But as the children approach one another the mood can induce an emotional discharge, exposing some viewers’ traumas. But Redemption is not easily given, as the children tire and fall asleep on what is left of Ani, as though it’s a call for us to wake them up, wake ourselves up, and rejoice in the spirit of togetherness and peace.

Francis Alÿs, Silence of Ani, 2015. Courtesy of the artist
Francis Alÿs, Silence of Ani, 2015. Courtesy of the artist

Further south, on Büyükada, the largest of the Prince Islands, is the house where Leon Trotsky once lived in exile, and where Adrián Villar Rojas is exhibiting. Walking through the gates, past the garden and the barely standing walls of the house is a pleasant experience; only to be heightened by a glimpse of the sea and the “zoo” awaiting you. “The Most Beautiful Mother of All” is Rojas’ majestic piece consisting of animal statues emerging from sea, which, unwittingly or not, also evokes other tragic events happening in nearby coasts.

Adrian Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, 2015, site-specific installation. Courtesy of Istanbul Biennal. Photo: Kubra Karacizmeli
Adrian Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, 2015, site-specific installation. Courtesy of the Istanbul Biennal. Photo: Kubra Karacizmeli

Elsewhere, the biennial also serves as a passage between concepts and actions, especially local ones. Cansu Çakar’s women’s atelier of illumination at the FLO building in Istiklal Street is one of them. Here you could see works by women from different backgrounds, expressing their perspective on patriarchal oppression. And perhaps this is part of the reason why Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev chose the term “drafting” rather than “curating”. Resulting in a more inclusive event that allows all participants to develop their own projects in collaboration with the city and its visitors.

Cansu Cakar, Women's Atelier of Illumination, Courtesy of Istanbul Biennal. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren
Cansu Cakar, Women’s Atelier of Illumination, Courtesy of the Istanbul Biennal. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren

Turkey has been through a lot lately: from the Tekel worker’s strike, to the Gezi protests, to the country’s role in the refugee crisis; and fortunately the works presented in this biennial, in some way or another, address this problematic of hope and oppression, with a call to discussion.

Text by Selen Ezgi

The 14th Istanbul Biennial is on across various venues until 1 November 2015

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