Preview to the Istanbul Biennial


Organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), the 9th and 10th Istanbul Biennials, 2005’s “Istanbul” and 2007’s gigantic “Not only possible but also necessary: optimism in the age of global war,”-or NOPBAN:OITAOGW, as the snappier among us have called it-made a significant move from the city’s “historic” venues (Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern) into a series of old factories, crumbling apartment buildings, and former shops and offices. 2005 and 2007’s manifestations sought to free the Biennial once and for all from the country’s historic burden of defining itself through its ancient past, and redefine Istanbul as a(n EU-ready) site of “alternative modernities” with political potential.

Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic of What, How, and for Whom? (WHW). Courtesy of the Istanbul Biennial.

Curated by the Zagreb-based curatorial collective What, How, and for Whom? (WHW, comprising Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic), the upcoming 11th Istanbul Biennial is called “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” The title is drawn from a line in Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 musical The Threepenny Opera and delivers the Biennial’s requisite titular precociousness, albeit this time in a relatively sober voice. In the wake of 2007’s effusion of roseate declarations, among them that the Biennial “is an non-stop machine for production of new urban life” [sic], and that “artistic actions, including the Biennial itself, can find their roles in prompting cultural and social changes through innovative forces of intervention – a form of the urban guerrilla,” WHW promises a tighter set of actions and meditations on contemporary political realities, with a scaled-down array of artists (sixty-nine from ninety-six) and venues (three from five). Exhibitions will take place in a former customs warehouse on the waterfront, an empty tobacco warehouse, and a Greek school that closed in 2003 for lack of students. As sites once central to city commerce, and a sustaining structure of a local ethnic minority, the Biennial venues are themselves manifestations of the type of political and historical circumstances under scrutiny.

“Red Thread,” a four-part prologue of talks and exhibitions which took place in Istanbul and Berlin, mapped some of their primary areas of inquiry under a series of opaque thematic headings: geographically and theoretically non-central zones of the European modernist project; artistic practice and exhibition-making in the city; state secrecy and the limits of the visible. (It’s worth noting that these are particularly contested questions in Turkey today). Three talks held at Istanbul Technical University’s faculty of architecture and Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, were complemented by a related exhibition at TANAS gallery in Berlin (TANAS is “sanat,” Turkish for “art,” backwards: the gallery, run by former Istanbul Biennial curator Rene Block, primarily features Turkish artists).

The political realities at stake are largely those seen within, and from the vantage of, places that all too often play “periphery” to an Anglo-European (art) world. “What keeps mankind alive?” will gather a sizeable number of up-and-coming Turkish artists, a significant crowd from the curators’ immediate region (Croatia, Serbia, Belarus, Lithuania, Slovenia, Romania), a body of artists working on or out of the Middle East and Central Asia, and a one-off grab bag of other nationalities. A cross-section of established artists—Yüksel Arslan, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Michel Journiac, Nam June Paik—reflects a turn to the past made explicit in WHW’s curatorial statement. Though the majority of artists selected to represent an older generation pull from a Western center, the “typical” artist here cuts a very different figure than the European-American who has statistically dominated exhibitions of this magnitude and type. The question is what particular body of knowledge this closely cropped selection of perspectives will add up to.

The 11th International Istanbul Biennial opens September 12.