What Keeps Mankind Alive?: 11th International Istanbul Biennial

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What keeps mankind alive?: 11th International Istanbul Biennial

various venues 12 September to 8 November

What, How and for Whom (WHW), the curatorial collective from Zagreb which is responsible for the 11th Istanbul Biennial, has taken a line from Brecht's 'The Threepenny Opera', 1928, as the title for this edition. One has only to read the chorus from which this quotation comes to get a sense of the urgency and engagement with which the group has approached its task.

   What keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions
   Are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed.
   Mankind can keep alive, thanks to its brilliance
   In keeping humanity repressed.
   For once, you must not try to shirk the facts:
   Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.

A biennale can have many functions. It can provide a periodic report on emerging art practices, expose domestic audiences to ideas from elsewhere in the world, draw in foreign visitors, promote a city's international profile and generate economic activity. But WHW makes it immediately evident that its programme goes well beyond these conventional goals: 'Is it not possible to think of art the way Brecht understood theatre--that is, as a mode of collective historical elucidation, an apparatus for constructing truth, rather than what amounts to a viewing feast for the bourgeoisie?' The exhibition is unashamedly pedagogical and activist--'geared towards political will formation'.

Staged in three venues, two of which--the vast warehouse Antrepo No 3 and the smaller Tobacco Warehouse--are familiar from previous Biennials, this 11th edition is again located in central areas on the European side of Istanbul. WHW has added one new venue, Ferikoy Greek School, which recently closed due to dwindling intake. The curators make it clear that they had hoped for more ambitious new spaces; the catalogue illustrates a wish list of locations that proved inaccessible 'for bureaucratic, financial and security reasons'. But the Greek school is a sympathetic building, with classrooms that easily translate into spaces for individual artists. Moreover, the history of the school and its inherited decor (including wall texts describing the life of Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) are instantly suggestive, inviting artists to play with ideas of education and ideological instruction. Here we find an extraordinary work from the early 1970s by Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek (collaborating as an artist duo, KwieKulik), featuring their baby son, apparently a willing actor in a long sequence of surrealist and sometimes even Viennese Actionist scenarios, shot in their Soviet-era apartment and in local parks.

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Narrating the backstory of the search for venues is just one example of WHW's insistence on revealing the means of production. The curators also provide a statistical analysis of all aspects of the exhibition--numbers of artists and groups broken down by gender (30 women, 32 men, 5 collectives, 3 collaborative projects), by age (youngest 27, oldest 76, 5 deceased, average age 43.1), by country of origin (28% West, 72% rest), by country of residence (45% West, 55% rest), by region of origin (27 Middle East, 18 Eastern Europe, 5 Central Asia, 3 Caucasus, 10 Western Europe, 4 North America) and so on. Even the budget of the Biennial is analysed and codified.

Many of the artists are represented by more than one work, so that one gains some sense of the range of their practice. …