Istanbul is one of the world’s amazing cities. A simmering mix of cultures, history, topography and food, it has its own buzz based on a curious balance of tradition and reformation.
The city’s footprint is huge and the density of living is high. Notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ are complex in a city of this scale. Space is precious and the city’s squares are heavily utilised by locals as sites of recreation, commerce and conversation. Behind the scenes the relationship between government and business is often less transparent. Without public consultation, deals are done that have massive ramifications on the city and its people.
Istanbul feels like a city under developer attack: public space is being earmarked for commercial development, private waterways are being introduced through farming land, substantial infrastructure projects are being realised only to be quickly abandoned. It’s a familiar story – a modern day David and Goliath – and it’s one at the centre of this year’s Istanbul Biennale, curated by Fulya Erdemci.
Erdemci’s handling of a contemporary art event set amongst Istanbul current state of turmoil is thoughtful. Turkish born, she takes neither side, instead presenting a number of threads that unpack the structures of resistance, the implications of scale, and the rhythms of a city.
The work of Australian artist Angelica Mesiti (Citizens Band, 2012), Lebanese artist Maxime Hourani (A Book of Songs and Places, 2013) and French artist Bertille Bak (Safeguard Emergency Light System, 2010) were stand outs amongst a compelling list that addressed the power of music in relation to protest and displacement.
Violent Green (2013), a curious film portrait of the iconic Turkish poet Lâle Müldür (whose book Mom, Am I Barbarian? inspired the Biennial’s title) was also strong. Made by two local experimental filmmakers, Kaan Karacehennem and Franz Von Bodelschwingh, the work was humorous and affectionate, and celebrated the need for iconic figures in changing times.
Santiago Sierra collaborated with fellow Spaniard Jorge Galindo to make an excellent black & white film (Los Ancargados, 2012) that filtered the movement of a government motorcade through the aesthetics of fascist propaganda material.
Early conceptual works by Jiri Kovanda and Mierle Laderman Ukeles also provided modest yet potent comments on the impact of the individual gesture within public space, as did Yto Barrada’s Beau Geste (2009) which documented the futile efforts of locals to save a palm tree occupying a soon to be developed block of land in Tangiers. Cinthia Marcelle’s Confront, 2009 was an equally charming work. In this 9-minute video a number of participants occupy the crossing at a busy intersection, entering and exiting the frame as the lights change. Swinging flaming batons through the night air in rehearsed movements, the group grows in size until it creates a human barrier across the street. Tensions rise as the performance continues and the cars start getting impatient, honking and nudging forward. It’s not Tiananmen Square but the work does quietly evoke the tension of confrontation.
Erdemci does not skirt around the issues currently consuming Istanbul, in fact a number of works directly address the displacement of the Roma population from Sulukule (Halil Altinder’s Wonderland, 2013) and others chart the obfuscated flow of money between corporate, governmental and ‘non-profit’ bodies (the group Mülksüzleştirme Ağları/Networks of Dispossession).
But what Erdemci has done, and what sets her biennale as a strong counterpoint to Artur Żmijewski’s Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Politics, is that here the art is first and foremost understood as art. Works have been chosen with a confidence in their ability to distil something of conceptual and aesthetic resonance without being demonstrative or didactic. Agency is apparent without being activist. In this way Erdemci relies on art’s ability to say something in its own way. It’s a refreshing and affirming position.