The 15th Istanbul Biennial Gets Political and Personal

“a good neighbour” takes a biographical approach in dealing with the state of things in Turkey and the Middle East

Adel Abdessemed, Cri, 2013, Ivory – 138 x 111 x 60 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.
Photograph: Sahir Ugur Eren

In 1994, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset met for the first time in the only local gay club of a leftist area of Copenhagen, called After Dark. That night, they realised that they not only lived in the same neighborhood, but on the same street, and even in the same four-storey building. Twenty three years later, this is the love story that opens their introductory essay as artistic directors of the 15th Istanbul Biennial. The Biennial places itself as one of 69 stories told in one of the catalogues of the Biennial, devoted to personal definitions of a good neighbour and the home by the artists and other contributors.

But how does “a good neighbour” fit into the current repressive reality for intellectuals in Turkey? When trying to make sense in a totalitarian country, the symbolic turns into kitsch. Take for instance,  Burçak Bingöls surveillance cameras made of porcelain, covered in flowers and placed next to real cameras surveilling the public sphere. Also, the public program is not really public, and its organiser, artist Zeyno Pekünlü, focus on ecological issues and homeless dogs of the city rather than on the social atmosphere of humans.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Photograph: Elmur Vestner

Elmgreen & Dragset released questions as the curatorial statement, elucidating their reflections with a reduced selection of 54 artists. They refer to this reduction, also notably in comparison the Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s expansive edition of the Istanbul Biennial in 2015, as a closer collaboration between curators and artists. Intimacy functions thus as the last source of resistance, and that means to remain firmly individual.

Home, belonging and neighborhood do not come out as universal ideas of well-being, but private solutions. Klara Lidén built an installation of a dormitory out of construction fences at Istanbul Modern, taking the developing site surrounding the museum as resource for her conglomerate of trash and architectural structures. Lidén’s piece remains, just like the rest of commissions at the museum, a somehow sad depiction of public spaces today. Disappointment, abandon and worry also surround the atmospheres of the “Anonymous Crying Man Museum”, Mohammed Khaled’s house-museum for a the imagined life of a single gay man who was forced to leave Egypt. The Yogunluk collective (founded in 2013 in Istanbul) turned its atelier situated on the 4th floor of a building on a busy and popular restaurant street into a gloomy site-specific installation for a spatial experience of kitsch and nostalgia entitled “The House”. First lethargic, then poetically striking, the 3-channel video by the Turkish artist Volkan Aslan is a quite therapeutical explanation of how neighbours may feel in Istanbul, trapped in a boat going nowhere.

Klara Liden, 2017, Istanbul Modern, 15th Istanbul Biennial Photograph: Sahir Ugur Eren

Fortunately, there are some artworks that escape the lament seen throughout the exhibition. Take for example the sometimes violent, erotic and weird narrative paintings of the self-taught Andrea Joyce Heimer. The paintings are rare hybrids of cartoons, ancient greek iconicity and medieval pornographic storytelling that narrate domestic realities as fables. Also Kasia Fudakowski’s panels in the middle of a hall at the Galata Greek School presents a dysfunctional organic union of details and aesthetics. The panels adopt the decorative style of fences in rural suburbs, referring to the chaos of self-organised villages with subtleness, while the communal structure she has put together is also hold by the roughness of survival measures.

The longing for normality and safety is pervasive in the different venues dispersed in walking distance mostly within the Beyoglu neighborhood.

Volkan Aslan,’ Home Sweet Home’, 2017. Produced with the support of SAHA – Supporting Contemporary Art from Turkey, Emin Hitay and Elgiz Museum Friends of Lesvos. 15.Istanbul Bienali Photograph: Sahir Ugur Eren

And even if the exhibitions here veer more towards the personal, rather than the political, this Biennial is more needed than ever. However, the local art scene has never stopped working. And while in more stable cities a Biennial may be a stand alone event, the 15th Istanbul Biennial is the fertiliser that brings spaces and private initiatives to flourish, at least until the winter.

“a good neighbor” is organised by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) and takes place in various venues in Istanbul, Turkey, from 16 September until 12 November 2017. Entrance is free

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