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No Place Like Space: A Report From The 13th Istanbul Biennial

By Stephanie Bailey  |  Istanbul, 24 September 2013

It was a miracle the 13th Istanbul Biennial even happened. Months before Mom, Am I a Barbarian? (named after a book by poet Lale Müldür) was set to open, the Gezi Park protests broke out in May 2013. The now well-documented response to proposed redevelopment of Gezi Park, the protests in Taksim Square spread all over Turkey, ignited by the brutal police response towards the Gezi protestors. Before these protests, a movement against the biennial had also begun, which critiqued the biennial as an apparatus that used art and culture as an agent for (often aggressive) urban redevelopment, since the biennial had planned to use a number of public spaces in Istanbul as part of its program: Gezi Park included.

Following Gezi, the 13th Istanbul Biennial’s public program, Public Alchemy, organized by Andrea Phillips, was modified to reflect the situation. Artist Kendall Geers, who participated in the protests, went so far as to tell Hurriyet that the whole biennial should be cancelled. Artist Ahmet Ögüt called for an anonymous biennial, in a statement posted to ArtLeaks in August, titled Another World is Possible. Caught in a crossfire, the 13th Istanbul Biennial retreated into the ‘safe houses’ of Antrepo 3, the warehouse next to the Istanbul Modern that has long been one of the main spaces of the Istanbul Biennial, as well to contemporary art spaces: Arter, SALT, the Galata Greek Primary School and independent space 5533, located in a commercial complex in Istanbul’s old city. The theme of the public domain as a political forum was maintained, and it was decided that the entire biennial would be free and open to the public; the first time in the biennial’s history this has happened.

The most common criticism the 13th Istanbul Biennial faced during its professional preview was that this was a weak biennial, (and in many ways it was), but as the preview kicked off with the death of a 22-year-old protestor in Ankara on 10 September, and protests continued to rock the country, this was also a biennial that connected to its theme. After all, how could an exhibition of public space be ‘strong’ if the very notion of public space in the 21st century is so weak? And besides, that the biennial officially opened its five locations for free, in this sense, turned what was essentially private space into public space. And in each space, questions around public space and the potential for public communities or collectives abound. Stephen Willat’s suite of works in ARTER, for instance, includes a wall painting depicting a swarm of arrows moving into a city space depicted in black blocks, only for the swarm to break up once it begins moving through roads and around buildings, clearly illustrating the city’s ability to break up collective bodies. Through this simple diagram, a question is raised. How does one remain collective, when the urban space is, in many ways, designed to induce social fragmentation? 

As much as we might critique an investigation into public space, we must also come to terms with the fact that we have yet to provide alternative proposals, answers and indeed, solutions. 

Of the works on show in Antrepo 3, the displacement of communities as a result of urban development (a major issue in Istanbul) is foregrounded in a number of pieces, notably Halil Altindere’s Wonderland (2013), a music video featuring Roma hip hop outfit Tahribad-ı isyan leveling sheer vitriol against the urban transformation project in Istanbul’s Sulukule neighbourhood, initiated in 2006 and which displaced a Roma community who had inhabited the area for six centuries. Next to this is a series of works that document other such experiences of urban displacement; from Edi Hirose’s Expansion [Expansion] series (2009-ongoing), which combines two ongoing projects: New Hope [Nueva Esperanza] (2011-ongoing) and Construction II (2009-ongoing), and which depict the shanty communities that exist in and around the Lady of Lourdes Cemetery (considered the second largest graveyard in the world) in Lima, Peru. Then there is Tadashi Kawamata’s sketches for what would have been his public contribution to the Istanbul Biennial. The project had been titled Gecekondu – Turkish for slum.

In all, the arguments against urban development are clear: also in Antrepo 3 is Cinthia Marcelle’s and Tiago Mata Machado’s The Century (2011), a video depicting items such as hardhats, tires, oil barrels, brick, to fans, chairs and crates falling from what one might infer to be a kind of Babellian skyscraper just out of view. This is modernity’s detritus. And there is a sense of chaos in the discarding of materials so as to produce forms that define city skylines; a kind of crude "progressive" surplus. There is also a tragedy when viewing the messy roots of such high ideals: modernization, urbanization, progress, which, in the case of this biennial, have been intertwined with the construct of the biennial exhibition itself. That Antrepo 3 opens with a long, brick wall by Jorge Mendez Blake’s The Castle (El Castillo) (2007), at the very centre of which lies Franz Kafka’s The Castle, is message enough. Since Kafka’s novel ends with no conclusion, this work presents both the point and the premise of IB13. As much as we might critique an investigation into public space, we must also come to terms with the fact that we have yet to provide alternative proposals, answers and indeed, solutions. 

In fact, that Halil Altindere’s Wonderland proved to be one of the standout works of the whole exhibition raises but another uncomfortable issue when contemplating the idea of the public domain within the context of the Istanbul Biennial. It is something which Hito Steyerl’s video lecture, Is a Museum a Battlefield? (2013) confronts directly. Produced especially for the 13th Istanbul Biennial, Steyerl traces a bullet that killed her friend Andrea Wolf (a member of the PKK in Kurdistan) and follows it through to the major museums and art events of the world, implicating the arms dealers that fund such cultural extravaganzas in the process – including Koç Holding, Istanbul Biennial’s main sponsor, which also produces armored vehicles through its subsidiary, Otokar.

Yet, Koç Holding’s controversial presence as a biennial supporter has long been criticized. It is what adds a certain irony to the 13th Istanbul Biennial as a whole. The fact that Koç Holding is a major property developer in Turkey as well as a major supporter not only of the Istanbul Biennial but of the arts in general (ARTER was founded in 2007 by Omer Koç), makes the focus on urban redevelopment and community displacement a strange statement given the visible hand that feeds this biennial. But there is but another dimension to this story, still.

Many people describe the art scene in Istanbul as “complicated.” As Ozkan Golpinar notes, this is a country where art and secularism have gone hand in hand since the establishment of the modern state.

Days after the biennial opening, it was announced that two of Turkey’s corporate dynasties (and there are a few), Koç Holding and Dogan Holding, were being charged with inciting the ‘postmodern coup’ of 1997 – a military overthrow of Turkey’s first Islamist-led government. Whispers around this development observed a growing vendetta against Turkey’s business elite, many of whom are major supporters of the arts (IKSV, the foundation that runs the Istanbul Biennial, for instance, was established by the Eczacıbaşı family, who also founded Istanbul Modern, essentially a ‘public-private’ institution). In the case of Koç Holding, another reason for the indictment, some say, could also have to do with the fact that the Divan Hotel on Taksim Square, which opened its doors to provide sanctuary for Gezi’s protestors, belongs to Koç.

Perhaps this is why so many people describe the art scene in Istanbul as “complicated.” As Ozkan Golpinar notes, this is a country where art and secularism have gone hand in hand since the establishment of the modern state. Thinking about how the nation’s elites are active and enthusiastic investors in the arts, and how the government is cracking down on these elites while also putting forth a more conservative, authoritarian agenda, only adds to the complexity of the situation post-Gezi. Thus, with all of this in mind, it must be said again: it was a miracle the 13th Istanbul Biennial even happened.

Talking to artist Gülsün Karamustafa (who has a retrospective at SALT Beyoğlu concurrent to the biennial) about the criticisms of the biennial thus far, she notes: “The fact that there was much discussion about what to do, and much negotiation about how to do it, was extremely positive.” We discussed how the Gezi movement reminds Karamustafa of the 1968 movement and her experiences of that time, though she sees a major difference in then and now. “This generation,” she says – those who came out on the streets in June and the months after that – “will not run away.” Rather, “They will keep pushing.”

But then the question is: where can such negotiations take place today? Considering this, at least the 13th Istanbul Biennial will, for a short time, provide such a "public" space, as weak as it may be, given the current context. But what is obvious not only in Turkey but in countries all over the world, is that when it comes to public space, the survival of such zones hangs in the balance, and this is the fundamental issue. Ayşe Erkmen’s site-specific installation, bangbangbang (2013), highlights this: a mock demolition ball attached to a crane outside of Antrepo 3 is timed to hit the building (gently) every hour. The work attests to the changes destined for the warehouse complex around the Istanbul Modern (apparent plans for redevelopment are on the table) - up to now, a focal point of the Istanbul Biennial in general.

Nevertheless, speaking with Turkish artist and past biennial participant Cevdet Erek about the biennial and its myriad issues, he responds without hesitation. “Look,” he says. “This was a modest biennial, sure. But this is exactly what we needed at this time.” We should take his word for it.

Stephanie will also be reviewing the 13th Istanbul Biennial for LEAP magazine, due to be published in December 2013.

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