Biennials of art are peculiar beasts, coming in many shapes and sizes and driven by a multitude of agendas. The Istanbul Biennial was initiated in 1987, at the time, only the sixth biennial in the entire world (how times have changed – it’s estimated that there is now somewhere around 200). It was an era before digital communications, when international travelling curators and critics were an elite group, and a new biennial of art was a Big Thing. As such, the Istanbul Biennial quickly garnered praise and status, enhanced by its exotic location on the frontier between Europe and Asia, in what was then still a modernising country.
Privately financed by global corporations then and now, September saw the opening of its fourteenth edition, called “Saltwater”, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. It’s a disappointing and even bizarre manifestation of excess and ego.
At Istanbul Modern, its main venue, there is what appears to be a large number of random artworks by a bewildering number of artists, alive and dead, with the odd anthropological artefact, document or contribution from the likes of Charles Leadbetter and Darwin thrown in. Displayed in a warehouse-like space with few effective juxtapositions, most works are conceptual in nature and generally difficult to decipher. Each is accompanied by a dense label explaining who the artist is and what a particular artwork is intended to mean, although the reason for their inclusion was rarely clear. There seemed to be a desire to hit buzzwords and artists intended to suggest some form of political awareness and right on diversity (bark paintings from Djambawa Marawili for example), but it is all facile and incoherent, or simply painfully literal. Tacita Dean’s “Salt” is exactly that, a lump of salt with two found postcards. Rechmaoui has blocked access to library books using sheets of plexiglass, in an attempt to show “restricted access to knowledge”. Despite the presence of artists of the stature of Pistoletto, for example, and the compelling interest in viewing an original Trotsky pamphlet revealing “the real situation in Russia” (from Bakargiev’s own collection), the show failed to give any sense of continuity, narrative or thematic engagement. What were the admittedly gorgeous art nouveau glassworks by Emile Galle doing there, for example? Such a jumble of artists and works did a disservice to those being exhibited.
Saltwater continues the character of the previous three biennial editions in being aloof from the city inhabitants, intellectual, desperately dry and, in my opinion, suffering from all the problems of the biennial form. It is baggy in format, overly self-important in its rhetoric, and supercilious in any meaningful engagement with contemporary issues and politics. Not least of the contemporary issues it shies away from is any acknowledgement that Turkey was teetering on the brink of dictatorship following when it opened, following a general election in June. In this election, President Erdogan lost his majority but did not form a coalition government, and only belatedly called a new election for November.
As in 2013, the Istanbul Biennial is entirely overshadowed by Turkey’s political situation, unable or unwilling to comment, acknowledge or engage. I was left with the question that has plagued me for the last three biennial editions, and which I explored in my MPhil thesis: what exactly is the point of the Istanbul Biennial?
Given that contemporary high-art deals largely in conceptual ideas, and is therefore positioned within the realm of intellectual discourse, how credible is it for a high profile art exhibition of this nature to ignore the context in which it is made and shown? What possible relevance can it have to anyone outside the rarefied world of the international art market? And if it doesn’t have genuine contemporary relevance, or at least make some attempt towards it, then doesn’t this undermine the intellectual foundations – the source of its prestige – on which high-art is largely built and ultimately has to rely on?
The protests in 2013 started in Taksim Square but spread to other Turkish cities. They involved millions of citizens and were symptomatic of an ideological stand-off between the symbolism of the modernising progressive Attaturk and the forces of conservatism represented by the Ottoman Empire. As the current political situation shows, this remains the greatest fault-line in Turkish society and one that remains unresolved. In 2013, social media was the core of the movement, driving it forward, uniting millions of citizens of all ages, and enabling immediate communications. Importantly it provided a voice and distribution network for satire, graffiti, caricatures and political cartoons, many of which went viral. At least one Turkish magazine has been shut-down subsequently as a result of its political sympathies, and author Abdurrahman Erol Ozkoray was given a twelve month prison sentence, for “insulting the President” in his book about the protests.
This is compelling and even urgent material for any international curator to get stuck into, as well as some form of modelling of what contemporary art practice could look like. There are long-standing questions about why art is important to society and politics; how it can best be deployed; and about the liberal potential of art to influence the world.
With its international networks and profile, and the privileges of protection and publicity that come with that, along with a two year planning process, here was a perfect opportunity for the Istanbul Biennial to actually demonstrate its relevance, sincerity and worth. It has failed on all three measures.
A version of this article first appeared on the a-n Art News site