Evidenced by newsfeeds everywhere, the 15th Istanbul Biennial takes place at a pertinent moment in time. Entitled “a good neighbour”, its premise problematises the concepts of home and neighbour. These concepts are not static; they are ambivalent and ever-changing. The lack of punctuation and all lowercase style of the title also hints at this idea in a subtle manner typical of the work of artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset, who have curated this biennial.
Given Istanbul’s geopolitical position, the theme fits perfectly. However, because history has proved that nothing happens in a vacuum, it can easily be applied to any other place today. This is probably one of the reasons why the selection of artists is so varied, though it doesn’t neglect the local scene. In addition, many of the international artists chose to explore themes specifically relevant to Turkey, such as Latifa Echakhch and her work which refers to the city’s Taksim Square protests.
Elmgreen and Dragset are known for making art with a queer and socio-political edge using subversive humour. And the anticipation ahead of the biennial begged the question: would this seep into their role in Turkey? In response their curatorial choices have been well-rounded and considerate to the local reality, as the political landscape of mass incarcerations following an attempted coup is no laughing matter. The size of the biennial reflects that, with 54 participating artists across six venues reachable by foot.
Despite that sensibility and sensitivity, there are many strong, fascinating and critical works on show. These include Fred Wilson’s mining into the history of Black people in the Ottoman empire; or Candeger Furtun’s visually stimulating installation of naked legs that simultaneously evokes hammam homeliness, sensuality, manspreading, or power posing. Yet, there are two works that require mandatory viewing for very different reasons — they are the best and worst pieces at the 15th Istanbul Biennial.
Taking the theme literally, conceptually and poetically, Mahmoud Khaled created the best work with a “home museum” entirely dedicated to a fictive immigrant from Egypt, where the artist is also from. “Proposal for a Museum of an Unknown Crying Man” takes inspiration from the weeping man covering his face pictured in a photograph, taken after he was was arrested in 2001 for being gay. Housed in the modernist ARK Kultur, the former home of a gay antiques dealer, Khaled fictionalised the life of such individual with furniture, art and artefacts spread across three floors. The fictional museum also includes an audio tour narrated from the perspective of a neighbour.
Room by room we are guided through the belongings in the house, which tell intimate stories about the subject that related to society as a whole. There’s an exhilarating sense of voyeurism while inspecting supposedly personal items such as bedside books about love, sex and existentialism, or the amount of melatonin sleeping pills the subject took. What’s so powerful and effective about the work is that it creates a bond between listener and the subject, despite him being a complete “stranger”. The artist makes use of the ambivalence between the richly decorated house and the anguish embedded in the narrative to create tension and wonder while retaining the mystery. It’s an impressive feat that culminates with a visit to the the cellar which is pitch black only lit by a red light, reminiscent of a darkroom in a sex club. From the other parts of the house it’s possible to hear squeals from people in the basement who blindly bump into each other. And despite the house being charged with intimacy and enigma it still manages to create empathy towards the unknown subject.
On the other hand, and the other side of the stream in Fatih, sits Stephen G. Rhodes’s immersive installation in a former female section of a hammam. “Willkommen Assumption: Or the Private Propertylessness and Pals” takes as starting point natural catastrophe and poor government response to poverty and prejudice against race and class in Louisiana where the artist has spent time. But that happens in a very literal manner almost as a 1:1 representation of the news. The work has a dilapidated amusement-park aesthetic with toys, videos, and pop cultural objects assembled into a roller coaster of sorts. But it doesn’t end there.
The work also attempts to expose humans as beings capable of causing destruction such as fracking, the rise of neo-Nazism, and — of course — the refugee crisis, exemplified by “breathing” dinghies. However, the work fails to engage with subject matter and relate it to the wider ecosystem of things, or find a common denominator. In 2017, it’s already been made clear that aestheticising crisis is a shortsighted move.
Amplifying what everyone refuses to see can be a relevant tactic, but ultimately, the best art will instead reveal what most of us can’t see. Nonetheless, this work does add to the commitment of the curatorial team to offering different approaches and voices to tackling the theme, and as such the 15th Istanbul Bienali is already an event that will inspire other art practitioners to come.
“a good neighbor” is organised by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) and takes place in various venues in Istanbul, Turkey, until 12 November 2017. Entrance is free.