I seriously debated making the trip to see the waning 13th Istanbul Biennial. Wrestling with the shoulder-hovering duo who crop up for such existential dead-ends  (yes, the scrupulous angel vs the far sexier yet shifty devil), I ultimately gave in to temptation: ignoring a looming deadline, I flew out of Dubai like hellfire. Sole concession to my suspended conscience: to write this post before I left Istanbul.

Which I did.

Sort of.

titleWhile the rest of the art world was nursing hangovers at Frieze, I was lapping up the brisk Bosporus air and haunting the many venues that housed curator Fulya Erdemci‘s 88-artist show, intriguingly titled “Mom, Am I Barbarian?” Coming hot on the heels of the Gezi Resistance showdown (when the brisk Bosporus air was laden with tear gas) between Turkey’s I’m-not-gonna-take-this-anymore youth and its outmoded government, this Biennial was the subject of some concern, not the least of which was its own curatorial survival. Did the Gezi Resistance somehow dismantle the Biennial’s stated theme of “public domain as political forum” in its very planning stages? Istanbul-based artist Elmas Deniz sensitively analyzed the politics of Erdemci’s move to migrate the Biennial into primarily white cube spaces, but couldn’t help concluding (and I can’t help agreeing) that it was nonetheless a missed opportunity to foreground the “power of the public space.”

Yes, SB11asepticized white cube prevailed over being smack in the urban thick of it. But the 13th Istanbul Biennial benefited from a curatorial theme that was balanced and coherently threaded throughout –neither heavy-handed statement nor meek marketing pandering. I thought instantly of this year’s Sharjah Biennial, which also spotlit a space of public exchange: the courtyard. While there was much to love at the 11th Sharjah Biennial (like its integration into the urban thick of it), the convoluted curatorial platform was not part of the lovefest. (See my review in the Writings section of this blog.)


Yto Barrada, Beau Geste (2009)

At IB 13 (shorthand from here on out), the public space is a realm of subversion. While some artists revel in this tripping-up of the established order, others underscore the frustrations of how it is expressed. Yto Barada‘s widely shown Beau Geste (2009) is the story of how she foiled devious developers by propping up a palm tree that they had devilishly plotted to topple (thus giving them a green light to develop that newly palm-less spot of land).  It is Barada at her most wryly activist.

With perhaps fiercer sting, Jorge Galindo and Santiago Sierra take a swipe at Spain’s leadership in their video, a self-described work of “counter-propaganda,” Los Encargados (2012). A Soviet march, mere hums at first but slowly climaxing, is the musical backdrop for the visual procession, down Madrid’s Gran Via, of an official cavalcade-cum-funerary procession. Each car carries an inverted portrait (on a black background) of a post-Franco leader. A clear indictment of the leadership line-up for the current state of economic affairs, but also a blow to the hollow, self-congratulatory nature of public political ceremony. The opening shot of the backwards Schweppes billboard (cue to the inversions to follow) somehow implies that this ruling class has managed to capsize consumerism as well (no small feat).

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Jiri Kovanda, Untitled (1977)

But subversion is not just for grand occasions. 1970s Czech conceptual artist Jiri Kovanda’s “interventions” in Soviet-era Prague disrupted everyday social conditioning in the public space. Kontakt (1977) has him purposely bumping into people he passes on the street. In Untitled (Escalator) (1977), he would explosively turn and stare at the person behind him on an ascending escalator. I was unfamiliar with Kovanek’s work. But I left the pieces (merely photos in IB 13) with a clear sense of their poetry and politically charged immediacy. Somehow it made sense in the post-Gezi vibe.

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Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents (2012-13)

If you asked me for my favorite work at IB 13, I think Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s installation The Incidental Insurgents (2012-13) would be the answer. I had been curious to see The Incidental Insurgents ever since reading Guy Mannes-Abbott’s review of the ICA’s Points of Departure show this summer. Entering the installation is a bit like walking into someone’s cerebral cortex: strewn with taped-up images, piled-up books, a revolving turntable, littered Farid al-Atrash vinyls, Godard outtakes galore, it is the flotsam and jetsam of unbridled research. The messy expanse quickly articulates itself into four separate stories of bandits, including Abu Jildeh, a precocious Palestinian revolutionary under the British mandate. The work warrants a deeper review than I can muster here, but its interest, for me, lies in how it foregrounds the inadequacy (or incompleteness) of the language and imagery of oppositional movements. Again, Gezi is not far away.


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Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

Amal Kenawy‘s Silence of Sheep (2009) always makes me laugh. It is essentially footage of a performance she orchestrated in which day laborers crawled on their hands and knees through bustling Cairo streets. As she follows the procession through this public sphere, she ultimately comes nose-to-nose with indignant Egyptians (all male) who scold and berate her for her “scandalous” treatment of “poor laborers.”  Some great lines are exchanged (“They told you that making people walk like animals is art?”) as the artist pointedly explains her intent to the outraged crowd. Recalling Santiago Sierra’s use of laborers in his work, Silence of Sheep is a complex tangle of issues, not least of which is the very nature of the public space as a platform for art.

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Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

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Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

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Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep (2009)

Kenawy’s piece was among many works featured back in the spring of 2013 in an IB 13 preview show entitled Agoraphobia in Berlin’s excellent but now sadly closed Tanas experimental space. Run by maverick René Block thanks to whom many Turkish artists have been introduced to a wider (read Western) audience, the gallery shut its doors on 3 November 2013.

Speaking of Berlin, über interesting writer/theorist/photographer/filmmaker Hito Steyerl had a commissioned video at the IB 13. The lecture/performance asks the question if a museum could be a battlefield. With flourishes of wry humor (look for the part on Angelina Jolie), Steyerl raises the curtain on some awkward questions regarding the uneasy bedfellows of art and weapons.



Ayse Erkmen, bangbangbang (2013)

Since I only managed to get to the IB 13 in its closing days, I missed many of the performances programmed as part of the Biennial opening (including Ahmet Ögüt’s stinging The muscles behind my eyes ache from the strain).  I managed to catch Ayse Erkmen’s bangbangbang (2013): a green buoy-cum-wrecking ball tapped hourly against the soon-to-be-demolished Antrepo 3 building which housed the bulk of the IB 13. The building will be replaced by a hotel/tourism development (sound familiar?)


Elmgreen and Dragset, Istanbul Diaries (2013)


Elmgreen and Dragset did a repeat performance of their Paris Diaries (2003) in Paris’ Galérie Emmanuel Perrotin with an added post-Gezi twist: in a room filled with lamp-lit desks, seven men came daily to write their Gezi Resistance experiences in diaries which were on public view between writing sessions. It showcased, very cleverly, the simmering voices of Turkey’s young generation.











IB 13 Catalogue


Ultimately, I believe my trip to IB 13 was worth the initial struggle with the forces of good and evil. Memories of the experience will certainly come to enliven the sleepless nights I will now spend scrambling to meet my deadline.

Oh well…