Magazine article Artforum International

10th International Istanbul Biennial: Various Venues

Magazine article Artforum International

10th International Istanbul Biennial: Various Venues

Article excerpt

THE NINTH INTERNATIONAL ISTANBUL BIENNIAL was always going to be a tough act to follow. That edition, organized by Vasif Kortun and Charles Esche in 2005, was exemplary: Clustered in the Beyoglu area, it engendered a productive dialogue with the city, using found buildings (including a tobacco warehouse, former offices, and an apartment block), all within walking distance of one another, encouraging a seamless interaction between the urban milieu and the works of art being exhibited. It showcased a generation of emerging artists, many of whom had produced their projects in the Balkan region, some during long residencies in Istanbul (itself half in the Balkans). The exhibition was accompanied by a reader of critical essays and a Kurzfuhrer with intelligently written captions and--amazingly--installation shots of the works in situ. Titled simply "Istanbul," the ninth installment of the biennial was refreshingly modest in its ambitions (no grand narratives or portentous themes) yet positioned the eponymous metropolis as a thriving regional center for contemporary art in the Balkans and the Middle East. It was rare proof that biennials can be self-reflexive and constructive gestures rather than merely tools of the tourism industry, urban regeneration, and cultural globalization.

Hou Hanru, curator of the Tenth International Istanbul Biennial, offered no such poignant interruption to the smooth flow of festivalism. His puzzling and prolix title--"Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War"--seemed to signal a fatigue with "criticality" and a desire to replace it with a more upbeat view of the world. To make his case, he spread four exhibitions across three venues: "Entre-Polis" and "Dream House" in Antrepo No. 3, a dockside warehouse adjacent to the Istanbul Modern; "World Factory" at the IMC, a sprawling 1950s manufacturing complex selling traditional women's clothing, textiles, and carpets; and, finally, a show with the wincingly blunt title "Burn It or Not?" at the Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM), a wonderful polished slab of '70s modernism apparently slated for demolition.

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Added to these core exhibitions were assorted off-site projects: an education and film space way up the Golden Horn in the Santrallstanbul museum, the touring show "Emergency Biennale in Chechnya" at KAHEM on the Asian side of town--both impossible to reach except by taxi--and "Nightcomers," an open-call video program assembled by Hou with five young curators, spread across twenty-five far-flung public spaces in the city.

The overriding theme of the overlapping shows at Antrepo No. 3 was utopia and the construction of new realities through architecture, a trope arguably more in tune with the late '90s than with the present decade's concern with community and citizenship. The style of installation--chaotic, overbearing, cacophonous--was typical Hou and harked back to "Cities on the Move," his peripatetic magnum opus cocurated with Hans-Ulrich Obrist in 1997. One's first impression upon walking into the warehouse was of great hulking installations and an onslaught of overspilling sound tracks: Fikret Atay's amped-up video of a teenage boy drumming on the outskirts of the Turkish city of Batman (Tinica, 2004); Wong Hoy Cheong's installation of Roma kids in Istanbul (Oh Sulukule, Darling Sulukule, 2007); and, inescapably, Yan Lei's blaring video of his collaboration with Beijing punk band Brain Failure (A Gift From Beijing to Istanbul, 2007). After a few hours in this sonic Hades, "brain failure" could not have been a more apt description of my condition.

The survivors of this conflagration were few and far between: Allora & Calzadilla's There Is More than One Way to Skin a Sheep, 2007 (an evocative video portrait of the city, based around the inflation of a bicycle tire by means of a regional bagpipe); Ivan Grubanov's slide show of drawings made during the Milosevic trial (Visitor, 2002-2003); and Michael Rakowitz's miniature reconstructions of Iraqi treasures looted from the National Museum in Baghdad (The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007). …

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