Issue #43, 2013

Didem Yazıcı

The 13th Istanbul Biennial, 14 September – 10 November, 2013

Curator: Fulya Erdemci

“From now on, it is time to ask questions as hard as diamond. I invite everybody to bare their souls, to join a collective psychotherapy: Mom, am I barbarian? I wouldn’t want my traces to be found in archives. If you don’t understand the light of Orient and high salons, yes!“ (Lale Müldür)

The title of the 13th International Istanbul Biennial,Mom, Am I Barbarian? comes from Turkish poet and writer Lale Müldür’s book that carries the same title. There is a common mistake in exhibitions inspired by poems, literary texts, songs, and unrealized projects. Quotes are often read independently from their original source, even though they do not operate well when they are considered completely apart from their initial context. Rethinking the title of the 13th Istanbul Biennial in this sense would allow an alternative reading of the exhibition instead of an obvious one. Lale Müldür’s question “Mom, am I barbarian?“, referred to as hard as diamond, is a self-reflexive space including the author’s correspondences and essays. The biennial builds its context through this rhetorical question and understands public realm as a space for social manifestation. During these post-Gezi days, when we are in need of redefining the lexical meaning of “barbarian“, this question is indeed as hard as a stone rather than a diamond.

When the preparation process of the biennial coincided with the biggest civil resistance in Turkey’s history, the exhibition plan has shifted and moved away from the public space. Now, what is our expectation from the biennial? Following the alternative resistance methods such as reading books right in front of riot shields of police, hugging trees that are under threat of being cut, standing-man protests, living in tents in the park despite the danger of death, in other words, when life is art enough, how sincere and efficient would it be to make an artistic statement in public spaces as part of the biennial? Never before artistic gestures and methods were not involved in everyday life practices and resistance tactics as much as they did during Gezi. If we were to rethink the critique of the biennial’s withdrawal from the public space, we need to remember that it is also possible to read the biennial without fetishizing it as a political tool.

In terms of the relation to the language of protestation, one of the most disappointing works was the big-scale installation Market or Die (2013) of Diego Bianchi. Installed at the entrance of Salt Beyog˘lu, the installation consisting of objects collected from the local flea market presents a chaotic trash-installation already familiar from the streets of Istanbul. Posters that were installed slapdash, texts and commodities are repetitions of Gezi Park. There are pens and markers to write on the walls as part of the work, however, I was warned by the exhibition guard that Salt does not allow people to write on the wall. This repetitive, contradictory and non-reflexive work and its display make a meaningless presentation.

As one of the main venues, Antrepo was quite packed. While the center areas of the exhibition were installed neatly, towards the surrounding area, the works were interfering with each other. Presenting the reflection of the moonlight on the water of dams on the Euphrates River, Murat Akagündüz’s video installation Stream (2013) has made a difference with its austere language among the exhibition crowd. However, the sound of the surrounding works was so loud that one could not realize whether Stream has a sound or not. Doubting if one had the right perception of the work, one leaves the room with a feeling of uneasiness. Similarly, Nicholas Mangan’s A World Undone (2012) does not seem to be presented as it deserves and seems to be lost a little. Another problematic presentation was Thomas Hirschhorn’s, who usually works in public spaces. As a documentation of his previous works, instead of a collage-work on its own, Timeline: Work in Public Space (2012) is more of an archival work. Including not only works done today, but also challenging conceptual works from the 1970’s that deal with standing issues, it strengthened the historic references of the exhibition and did not fetishize contemporary art in the context of the biennial. The works that were made in collaboration with maintenance workers were one of the key works that carried the conceptual framework of the exhibition. Exhibiting protest poster designs of Provo, a short-term artistic and activist movement (1965–1967), as saluting the spirit of 1968, highlighted the importance of reconsidering historic materials in a contemporary context.

How visible was the biennial’s relation to poetry? Shahzia Sikander’s animation and sound piece at Antrepo, which worked as a visual poetry as a whole was one of the sensual works in which this relation was felt most. Reading and singing poems of Lale Müldür, Efe Murad, Nazım Hikmet and Ahmet Güntan intertwined and generated music where the meaning of words lost importance. Consisting of her self-portrait and her poem, I.pek Duben’s Manuscript (1994) – as an introvert self-portrait – detaches itself from the rest of the exhibited works through its approach and references. The work cannot be associated with the concept of urban issues that dominates Antrepo as it is isolated in its own conceptual frame. One cannot speak of the right choice of work for I.pek Duben, which is also the case for Nil Yalter. Ínci Eviner’s series of drawings, Taxonomies of Malaise (2013), exhibited at Antrepo and dealing with Gezi in a subtle and abstract way, interrogated the issue of oppression and uneasiness. The work is evidence that modest materials such as ink and paper may result in the strongest and most meaningful works. While Eviner’s piece at Antrepo was plain, her piece at the Greek School, on the other hand, was highly complex and problematic. Welcoming the audience, as a first piece at the Greek School, logically operates well at first glance: an experimental space resembles an alternative school inside of a school space. Relating experimental education and art production, including students from different disciplines, Co-action Device: A Study (2013) was a living piece that ran throughout the biennial. Creating a possibility to encounter a different project each time, it was a brave and exciting project. However, there seems to be three logical mistakes in terms of representation. Firstly, this work was a collective project in real terms, how ethical and right is it to be presented merely as Ínci Eviner’s work? Even though the idea of the work belongs to Eviner, if it is claimed to be a collaborative work with students, then it should have been highlighted that it operates in collaboration. If the students did not participate, the project would not function at all. Secondly, the project is defined as a “multimedia „ piece in the guidebook, however, this term fails to describe it well enough. Referring to multiple materials and media, “multi-media“ highlights the objects of the installation and does not speak of the performative side of the work, which was, indeed, the basic motive of the project. Last but not the least, the biggest problem of the project was its installation politics and display method. Even though the basic intention was to highlight the experience and the process controversially, it was quite problematic for the audience to experience the work. The barriers set around the installation and the performance area made it impossible to read and experience the work from the entrance floor, where it has been installed and turned it into a closed-machinery. The project can be seen from the balcony area from upstairs. However, looking at the piece from the balcony evokes a zoo or a circus situation instead of creating a theatrical atmosphere, and this breaks the logic of the work. Including the terrace and stairs area, the Greek School was the most well conceived venue. Sulukule Platform, Networks of Dispossession Project, and Serkan Taycan make the terrace part a legible space of information exchange. The fictional and endless search in Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s video The Incidental Insurgents (2012–2013) shown at Arter (art institution used as a biennial venue) is in a close dialogue with the installation by the same artist duo. On the other side of the same floor, Angelica Mesiti’s Citizens Band (2012) consisting of four short films is a genuine and sincere piece.

Even though the 13th Istanbul Biennial has built a modest line, suggesting discoveries and compatible works, some choice of the works and installation methods were overwhelming the show and rendering problematic its relation to Gezi and the exhibition context.