Curbed Spin-off: İstanbul Biennial under aesthetic surgery

Akram Zaatari, Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright, 2010

The 12th İstanbul Biennial is under close scrutiny. Curious expectations about this edition of the biennial have been rampant; the exhibition takes its cue from artist Felix Gonzales-Torres instead of committing to an overarching theme. This is also the first time that the curators presented the commission of the exhibition design as an essential part of the conceptual framework—this time around, restricted to a single building. Amid passionate celebrations and piquant criticism, curator Mayssa Fattouh argues that the 12th İstanbul Biennial betrays its experimental and engaged history. —Özge Ersoy

View of the History section

It is no surprise that İstanbul Biennial’s main focus is to explore the boundaries between art and politics, or so it claims this year again, under the curatorial direction of Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann for “Untitled (12th İstanbul Biennial)”. September 15 marked the opening of the professional preview signalling the shift in strategy, from what its founding organism İKSV called it a celebration of the arts engaged with the fabric and history of the city, to a strictly localized and formal exhibition inside stark former customs warehouses, Antrepo 3 and 5, next door to İstanbul Modern of the same family behind İKSV.

In its 24 years of existence, this is only the second time that the biennial is organised in a single venue (the first being the third edition under the directorship of Vasıf Kortun).

This decontextualization is merely one aspect of the change brought in for this edition. Felix Gonzalez-Torres was selected as the curatorial point of departure; the acclaimed Cuban-American artist who subversively deals with the reality of death and civil liberties is here embodied in five thematic group show sections: “Untitled (Abstraction)”, “Untitled (History)”, “Untitled (Passport)”, “Untitled (Ross)” and “Untitled (Death by Gun)”, with the latter three specifically referring to works by the muse artist. In a reverse manner to the praise that Hoffman overtly states about Gonzalez-Torres: “his works don’t punch you in the face and they aren’t spoon-feeding you messages,” the curators went on mapping out social and political overtones present in the muse oeuvre, in an apparent attempt to treat pressing universal subjects. What remained from the concealed works is a sort of a hallow spectre used as a justification to gel a wobbly curatorial framework.


There is more to say about the over-exposed themes of the group shows, but in some instances one could escape the over-guided track that the curators set for the audiences. A more stimulating section than the overall gloss approach is “Untitled (History)”; whether intentionally or not, the loose selection allowed for some freedom of interpretation. Here Cevdet Erek’s ongoing collection of rulers, Ruler Coup—one of the few works commissioned for this biennial—subtly articulates rhythm and space around the modern political history of Turkey. A number of those rulers were distributed to some 4000 international guests during the opening day, an idea by the curators that echoes the infiltrative nature of Gonzalez-Torres’s works.

Around the group shows, over fifty solo exhibitions coexist in independent adjacently placed pavilions resembling sophisticated favelas, designed by Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa. The negative space between the rooms effectively serves as an interval of absorption and reflection, it doesn’t however minimize the effect of the heavy handed display, which again was a crucial part of the curators’ proposition, their way to bring aesthetical concerns back on the table. Interestingly it was the modernist and institutional route which was favoured in order to decipher this issue. The suggested remedy was to make everything look beautiful and domestic, no matter the context or subject, everything was infused by a pretty layer.

The type of works represented were dominated by post minimalist and conceptual art highlighted by an old generation of artists subdued from the international institutional circles such as the example of Dora Maurer, whose rigorous etchings and drawings on movement through geometry were present in “Untitled (Abstraction)” and a dedicated solo show.


Dora Maurer, Hidden Structures Series I, 1977

On the other hand, it wasn’t all about resuscitating the exhibition methodology and forgotten artists; there are striking works by the current generation such as Akram Zaatari’s (Canvas 6.1) judicious  video Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010)– a dialogue between two lovers longing to reunite, where the artist uses close and steady shots of a typewriter to inscribe these feelings in time and space. Camilo Yanez’s video, National Stadium (2010), narrates the recent history of Chile through long unsettling scenes of a bare and dilapidating oversized sports stadium, while playing a song originating from Victor Jara – singer, theatre director and political activist brutally killed during Pinochet’s rule. Irena Lagator Pejovic’s After Memory (2007-8) book of valid banknotes bearing the image of the Balkan artist painter Nadezda Petrovic works as a bald reminder of the continual use of culture for economic and political purposes. A newly welcomed artist to the establishment is Georges Awde with two unnamed eerily constructed photographs of young Lebanese men in a hair salon while the other is set in a pink living room.


Akram Zaatari, Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright, 2010

In “Untitled (Death By Gun)”, the title length of Daniel Joseph Martinez’s discreet white marble silhouette sculpture explains the perplexity of his endeavour – A Meditation On The Possibility Of Romantic Love Or Where You Goin’ With That Gun In Your Hand, Bobby Seale And Huey Newton Discuss The Relationships Between Expressionism And Social Reality Present In Hitler’s Paintings. The 2005 work, in short, is a calling to question the utopian notion in art. Interestingly, this sculpture was shown in 2005 together with the actual work “Untitled” (Ross) of Gonzales-Torres’s in an exhibition which explored the transitory nature of life from varied sociological and cultural perspectives, entitled Indelible Images (trafficking between life and death).

The major concern in this biennial, here afore mentioned is the direction it has taken; allowing for a sort of erasure of its experimental and engaged history that allowed for the thriving of a thought-provoking generation of artists—by looking like the Museum of Non Conformist Art, the ancestor of the Guggenheim, doesn’t make it novel.

What differentiates this biennial from others these days is that it was focused at the time of the opening on the exhibitions, moving the side activities as pre and post preps. It is notable though to raise questions about the sphere of mushrooming private galleries, which initiated most of the side events on the opening week. The growing circle of powerful collectors and businessmen, sends out indications of a desire to reclaim their place in the İstanbul art scene, which they have for long sponsored, groomed and now are harvesting the fruit of its international exposure. The question now is what will be the ramifications of such an active interest and what role the İstanbul biennial will play on a local level.
— Mayssa Fattouh


Mayssa Fattouh is an independent curator based in Doha, Qatar. Her practice has been mainly shaped in Beirut and Bahrain where she was Curatorial and Program Manager of Al Riwaq Gallery. Some of her recent projects are focused on contemporary art in the Arab world, such as in the online audio archive Receptive Ground, as well as initiating several research based projects in the same region. Her writings appeared in various platforms and magazines such as Art Territories, Ibraaz, Universes in Universe and Canvas Magazine. Fattouh obtained her BA in Fine Arts from the Lebanese University in Beirut and is now a candidate for Masters in Arts in Communication at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.