Sunday, June 18, 2006

9B [ENG]

[Geçtiğimiz İstanbul Bienali üzerine yazdığım ve Frieze dergisinin Kasım 2005 sayısında yayınlanan metin]

Much has been said about the way biennials began to spring up in ‘peripheral’ places in the 1980s, serving to whitewash the politically problematic recent pasts of the respective host countries. The Istanbul Biennial, established in 1987, was certainly a case in point; yet a genuine willingness to reform and enliven a cultural atmosphere burdened with the legacy of the merciless coup d’état of 1980 was clearly present in the early stages. The Istanbul Biennial is part of the occasional activities organized by IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts), set up by the Eczacibasis, a bourgeois family with social democratic leanings, whose desire to bolster the image of ‘the bright face of Turkey’ has intermittently overlapped with the interests of a new intelligentsia seeking to break free from 100 years of solitude, localism and introversion and to integrate with contemporary global culture.

The third biennial, in 1992, curated by Vasif Kortun and the fourth one, in 1995, curated by René Block, strove to relate the event directly to its geographical and historical context, trying to reflect on the newly emerging creativity in the surrounding countries after the collapse of state communism. Both exhibitions were in keeping with the trend in the 1990s for politicized art content, and both were highly beneficial in introducing this part of the world to the global art circuit in more detail.

The biennial of 1997, curated by Rosa Martinez, marked a visible shift in the agenda of the event. With the emphasis on the curators’ personal preferences and choices came a certain detachment from the local context. As a result, Istanbul began to be portrayed in an isolated, even narcissistic way, romanticized and aestheticized as a site of passion, beauty and otherness. This perspective chimed in with the local desire to promote the city as a major tourist attraction. The rapid growth of the Turkish economy between 1994 and 1997, and the increased self-confidence that went with it, meant the city needed to be marketed in a new way, and a new ideology sprang up that emphasized the city’s exoticism. At that point IKSV also abandoned any sense of criticality and started to operate virtually as an alternative ministry of tourism and culture, seeking above all to send a positive image of Turkey to Europe. Instead of the social, cultural and urban problems of an exploding megalopolis, it was the city’s historical profile, and the physical silhouettes of the domes and minarets, the melancholic seascape of the Bosporus and all the accompanying clichés, that were brought centre-stage.

Two years ago curator Dan Cameron tried to correct this romanticized image by injecting a set of documentary-style video works that dealt directly with political issues – the title of the show, ‘Poetic Justice’, was indicative of a more balanced approach. Yet the remarkably poor use of the majestic interior of Hagia Sophia as one of the exhibition venues clearly indicated that there was a need for self-criticism within the biennial structure itself. Inviting Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun to curate the ninth biennial was seen as heralding a more sober approach. Esche has been a leading figure in the re-politicization of contemporary art practice in Europe, and Kortun had already produced a wide-ranging criticism of the previous biennials. Their programme included major structural changes: instead of using historical sites that appealed only to tourists, the biennial would put itself right at the heart of the urban flux. The project would extend beyond the two months of actual exhibitions and be supported by a series of talks and other events. Also the number of invited artists would be decreased, in order to keep to a budget that would allow them to spend more time in the city and to relate to the intricacies of the urban texture rather than relying on surface impressions. Guided tours, weekly supplements in a local newspaper and other media would be used to reach a larger audience. Moreover, the biennial would concentrate on the city itself, striving for alternatives to the dominant, competing ideologies of rampant neo-liberal gentrification on the one hand and suicidal nationalist isolation on the other.

Two different types of city-related exhibitions held last year were seen as models to avoid. The first was exemplified by the two scandalous exhibitions held in Germany, ‘Call Me Istanbul Is My Name’, at ZKM in Karlsruhe, and ‘Urban Realities, Focus Istanbul’, at the Walther Gropius-Bau in Berlin, both of which inherited the representational approach typical of other exhibitions about the Balkans that toured Europe in 2003, and pushed neo-Orientalism to the limit. The other show to have a cautionary effect on this year’s Istanbul Biennial seemed to be the last Berlin Biennial, which was heavily criticized for its over-literal, over-intellectual view of the city of Berlin itself. Trying to distance themselves from representational and over-analytical takes on the city of Istanbul, Esche and Kortun successfully combined restraint with a genuinely artistic sensibility.

Nevertheless, to my surprise, humour and emotion were privileged over direct political references: confrontational and activist positions were pushed into the side-projects in the ‘Hospitality Zone’; analytical urban approaches were confined to the seminars preceding the exhibition; hope for social change was articulated in the biennial reader and the critical debates took place in the weekly newspaper inserts. The main exhibition itself was somewhat muted and lacked bite; it didn’t challenge the centrality of Istiklal culture (the city’s axis for shopping and night life, between the Karaköy and Taksim districts), and, while distancing itself from the imperial Golden Age, it partially subscribed to the melancholy romance of another historical period which has been eclipsed by nationalist ideology of the last century: the rich, cosmopolitan and decadent age of Istanbul at the fin de siècle and early 20th century.

Considering the way the city’s newly founded museums and institutions are tending to create an aestheticized, sterile and banal local art scene, one suspects that the reforms offered by Esche and Kortun will prove to be only temporary. Perhaps this show is about as political as it is possible for the Istanbul Biennial to get. It’s certainly time to ponder daring alternative structures.


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