David Hedengren
Last updated: 6 October, 2013

The Istanbul Biennial – a missed opportunity?

The 13th Istanbul Biennial has received mixed reactions, described by some as missing a fantastic opportunity for critical art.

Under the title “Mom, am I Barbarian?” this year’s Istanbul Biennial is a particularly interesting one in light of the protests that was sparked again last month. Open free of charge at a number of locations throughout the city from September 14-October 20, the event has been significantly affected by the Gezi protests. The plan was originally to showcase the different exhibitions in public urban spaces, including Gezi Park.

“However, when we questioned what it meant to realize art projects with the permission of the same authorities that do not allow the free expression of its citizens, we understood that the concept was going through a radical shift that would sideline the raison d’être of realising these projects,” said Fulya Erdemci, the curator, in a statement.

“In Istanbul this year, it feels bloodier than ever”

Erdemci and her colleagues claim to take side with the protesters, but as Financial Times’ Rachel Spence points out, their attempt to side with the people against those in power is not unproblematic:

“Artists are now sheltered in the privately financed, non-profit cocoons of Arter and Salt, which are owned by the Vehbi Koç Foundation and banking dynasty Garanti respectively.”

The Biennial’s main sponsor is the Vehbi Koç Foundation of the secular Koç family, owners of one of Turkey’s largest conglomerates, who are on a collision course with the Erdogan government. A number of the artists have protested against this connection and some believe that the Biennial’s independence and integrity has been compromised. As Catrin Lorch points out in Süddeutsche Zeitung: “In the critical display panels put together by the activists invited to exhibit, the name Koç does not appear beside those of the other powerful clans.”

So what about the actual exhibitions? This is what some of the commentators say:

“Many of the works included in the biennial were produced and selected before the protests. And no matter how much the organizers talked about engaging with Gezi’s ‘transformative experience,’ the few topical pieces stood as testament to Erdemci’s finger-on-the-pulse curatorial vision rather than as an articulate response to Turkey’s situation,” notes BlouinArtInfo’s Coline Milliard.

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“The Biennial’s main venue, the waterfront warehouse Antrepo, was particularly disappointing… An uneasy cavern, Antrepo drowned the majority of work… Fortunately, the ratio of artists capable of conjuring poetry out of socio-politics increased at the show held in the Galata Greek Primary School,” writes Rachel Spence.

“Amongst the 88 artists and artists groups at the Biennial, there are about half a dozen that are strong enough to respond to the visual idiom of the street…The video ‘Wonderland’ by Halil Altindere is one such work… Of all those participating in the biennial…(it was)…the only one to really take a risk – after all, state power is burned symbolically here – but they were denied a prominent placement for their work,” writes Catrin Lorch.

“The exhibition meanders between sentimental references to the utopias of the 1960s and 70s and the current discourse, but misses the chance to really capture the public’s imagination. The fact that now of all times there is nothing much more to be read on the labels for the works than the title, artist’s name and gallery is inexcusable,” she continues.

The works Rachel Spence found captivating included “Intensive Care” by Rietveld Landscape,  “Wonderland”, “I am the dog that was always here” by Annika Eriksson, and “Networks of Dispossession” by a collective of Istanbul artists led by Burak Arikan.

”Art’s battle to speak truth to power yet put bread on her makers’ tables is as old as civilisation. In Istanbul this year, it feels bloodier than ever,” she concludes.

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