Magazine article Artforum International

14th Istanbul Biennial: Various Venues

Magazine article Artforum International

14th Istanbul Biennial: Various Venues

Article excerpt

14th Istanbul Biennial


AS WE RODE a crowded midnight ferry across the Bosphorus strait, forty-eight hours into our frenetic marathon of biennial viewing, one of my most patient and scholarly colleagues cried out in exasperation, "Is there anyone who can tell me what 'Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms' means?!" This koan, equal parts Toni Morrison and MIT Press, is the title of the Fourteenth Istanbul Biennial, presented by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

Part of the answer is a simple matter of historical definition. "Thought-forms" is a concept associated with the British theosophist Annie Besant, and the title of a 1901 book she authored with C. W. Leadbeater. The notion refers to a kind of synesthetic materialization of thinking, through which colors are linked to emotional states, shapes to real and imagined vibrations, and so on; these connections are postulated as universal, transcending all religions, cultures, and ethnicities. Though Besant and Leadbeater's text has long languished in relative obscurity--particularly in art history, where it is overshadowed by the more famous synesthetic theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Frantisek Kupka--Christov-Bakargiev sees the volume as "one of the first examples of modern abstract art theory," and took it as an inspiration for her biennial.

In Christov-Bakargiev's approach, salt water, too, is taken as a medium for linking visual abstraction and symbolic and psychological content. Indeed, the interconnections between the two themes of her title are neatly established by the drawings of thought-forms created by several of Besant's friends, hung in a handful of rooms in Istanbul Modern. Their visual vocabulary suggests both knots and waves, the two motifs the curator repeatedly cites to encapsulate the manifold tensions and movements symbolized by salt water, a conceptual investigation extended throughout the 550-page catalogue, which includes curatorial essays and a range of literature selected by participating artists.

The works most harmoniously connected to these curatorial conceits were all contained within the exhibition's largest and most conventional venue, Istanbul Modern, the city's contemporary art museum. Several of these were historical and many, too, were serial. Like the ocean waves repeatedly referenced in Christov-Bakargiev's texts, series can hint at enormousness while delivering succinct individual moments that register on a human scale. And thankfully so, because this show needed all the concision it could get: As Christov-Bakargiev's follow-up to Documenta 13, it was enormous--the nearest thing the art world has to a box-office-obliterating summer sequel.

Of course, abstraction and fluidity come in many forms, as the works spread throughout Istanbul Modern's galleries reminded us. It was a welcome detour to be momentarily lost in Armenian painter Paul Guiragossian's canvases of huddling crowds or families abstracted into vertical streaks and splashes. Several 1947 crayon drawings by the Australian aboriginal artist Wonggu Mununggurr depicted coastal floodplains from a bird's-eye vantage point, transforming the earth's undulating topography into slanted grids of demarcated space--an allusion to salt water's geopolitical weightiness that was no less pointed for seeming to come out of art history's left field. Another Armenian, the Iranian-born Sonia Balassanian, contributed an aptly executed new work, Silence of Stones, 2015: a room of coarse boulders honed into the configuration of featureless heads, shaped just enough to maintain a taut formal ambiguity between abstraction and figuration. Such a solid material so fluidly wrought resonated with Christov-Bakargiev's ideas about thought-forms and water alike. There were other highlights here as well: a coy Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags), 1967; a typically spare and affecting Etel Adnan, Family Memoirs on the End of the Ottoman Empire, 2015; Temporary Actors I and II, both 2015, the paintings Liu Ding commissioned from a trained Soviet realist; and a playful panoply of handmade three-dimensional assemblages of sticks and plastic cutouts representing vectors from the finance world made by the Canadian duo Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens, The Prophets, 2013--. …

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