Library of
Design, Art and Idea

After the Biennial

21.02.2015
Vol. 5

“We gasped for breath when we reached Taksim: thousands of people, the youth, the elderly, women, men, and children had filled the square to the brim! Intoxicated by the sight of hundreds of slogans, posters and banners, the smoke of burning barricades and the pepper gas that still hung over the square, but most importantly, by the now the tangible embodiment of freedom,. We, too, joined this feeling of incredible solidarity and joy. None of us were afraid anymore.”

The 13th Istanbul Biennial entitled 'Mom, Am I Barbarian?' has taken its title from the same named book written by Lale Müldür who is defined as a poet (1) speaking in a world in which signs have lost their meanings and lines of mutual communication are broken. The biennial opened its doors for free, at the end of the boycotts, interview texts and conversation panels which had begun long before the opening, and closed them again on November 20, 2013. By then, a total number three hundred thousand visitors had viewed the exhibition. Even if it was the enticement of it being free (next Biennials may also be free!) it had broken the record for being the most frequently visited biennial so far. On the other hand the 13th Biennial lived up to the greatest misfortune in its own history as it coincided with the demonstrations and resistance in Gezi Park. The 'spirit of Gezi' was as if it had captured the aura of biennial and made contemporary art at a loss for words. Before and during the biennial arguments became so commonplace that, perhaps for the first time in Turkish contemporary art scene ‘public space', 'art - life' and 'art - capital' relations had been argued extensively. The biennial was ridiculed and heavily bombarded with criticism for its theme, organization and curatorial strategy. It faced such a directly aggressive manner for the first time. So much so that it came to the point of saying , ‘the biennial won't be held from now on' and ‘the biennial is not necessary after the Gezi issues’. The disturbance that the art - capital relationship has created through the theme of the biennial has even, after a while, given birth to a phenomenon such as the 'Anti Istanbul Biennial’. (2) Some commentators brought up an alternative position that the spirit of Gezi was fed by contemporary art. According to these alternative opinions, it was implied that directly harsh, anonymous expressions, graffities, cartoons, performances combined with a high doze of irony and rhetoric aimed at the power may belong to the artists and the language of criticism might have been inherited from the art and taken into the street. (3) Answering the opposite reactions by saying ‘I am not a curator of a revolution’, (4) and emphasising the sensitivity of the Gezi protest, Fulya Erdemci decided to cancel the public projects of the biennial. As a result the catalogue slogan ‘None of us were afraid anymore’ remained at this point only as a textual discourse. After all, one cannot help asking: If Gezi events had not happened would the Istanbul Biennale have been exposed to the same dose of criticism this year? In fact contemporary art, which is in a symbiosis relationship with the capital in the global age, seems to be heading via the biennials towards a configuration of what people think, how they feel and how they behave and evolving into a 'symbols economy'. To this end, art seems to have been ripped from its own historical enigmas, esoterisms and mysteries, which elucidate art, and in the end it has been concretized and converted into a pile of semantically consumable and translatable images.(5) This might be valid for all other major exhibitions and biennials today. As seen in this biennnial, via the artists' profile texts, all works seem as though they must be conditioned by translatability. It was like the 'Open Work' premise of Umberto Eco turned to the 'Closed Work' dictated by the limits the pre-reading given via the texts in the biennial guide and thus the audience interpretation or, in a broader sense, the right of the audience to 'understand and then interpret wrongly' is being taken away. Here, it is necessary to highly emphasize a sensitive point: Because the texts of the guide turned into interpretations instead of summarizing the main story or message underlying the works audience interpretations have been put into a second position. Otherwise one must submit the right of every single one of the texts that contained strong analysis. About the Biennal As an audience and artist it is our responsiblity to consider some of the works and their impact on the biennial. Fortunately I was able to find the energy and time to put aside a full day to watch all the videos at length. Unfortunately most of them were not displayed in succesful design spaces! Bertille Bak’s video named ‘Safeguard Emergency Light System’ (2010), (shown at the Galata Greek School) in which she has visualized the protest strategy of residents in Din Daeng neighborhood of Bangkok, and the ethnographic documentary 'Mad Masters', by Jean Rouch (shot with a 16mm camera in colour in 1955), were the works nailed to my memory. It was difficult to understand why only three square metres of space and a small sitting unit had been reserved for the latter documentary, which is stunning and over half an hour in length. Shot by Rouch in Ghana, it leaves a mark to our memories by presenting a ceremony for those possessed by the spirits within the Hauku tribe on a Sunday. Members of this tribe seem to be barbarians having found a way to get rid of the problems in their lives with their repellent, bizzare and shocking moods within their purification rituals. 'But what about the civilized people?'
The video installation by Mika Rottenberg in Antrepo was also poorly displayed. I wanted to watch Rottenberg’s extraordinarily breathtaking twenty minute video named 'Compress' (2010) several times over a period of time but because of the clustered audience contained in a narrow corridor and small inside sitting area, I could only complete it in short sections. Considering the image in the biennial catalogue it would appear that the video had previously shown in a similar situation . So, on this occasion, let’s attribute the failure of the site installation to Rottenberg. The video installation by Mika Rottenberg in Antrepo was also poorly displayed. I wanted to watch Rottenberg’s extraordinarily breathtaking twenty minute video named 'Compress' (2010) several times over a period of time but because of the clustered audience contained in a narrow corridor and small inside sitting area, I could only complete it in short sections. Considering the image in the biennial catalogue it would appear that the video had previously shown in a similar situation . So, on this occasion, let’s attribute the failure of the site installation to Rottenberg. Also the half an hour video conference produced by Hito Steyerl especially for the biennial has failed in a similar manner, being sited in the noisy outdoor area of Antrepo and with only a four people siting unit. The video conference showing the anologies established between a museum and a battlefield, how companies and capitals infiltrated into museums and exhibition places posing as art and legalized themselves through the aesthetic designs, considering the relationship between war industry and contemporary art, came to the fore with Adnan Yildiz’s evaluation which has parenthesized the art-armour couple that is instrumentalized depending on a global traffic; (6) although the artist's speech indicated that she is hung up on conspiracy theories. Jean Genet's only film in his life named 'Love Is A Song' which is extraordinarily good was displayed at IMC space 5533 and because the IMC is far away Bertille Bak, ‘Safeguard Emegrency Light System,’ 2010, video and does not have an organic relationship with other venues of the biennial, unfortunately it only had a few visitors. The map projects of initiative of Dispossessing Networks and the fictional video named ‘Residence’ (2012) by Vermeir and Heiremans displayed in Galata Greek School are impressive works which made strong associations with each other linking with global processes of gentrification. Both works made us think about the phenomenon named as ‘New Urbanity In The Old Town' by Robert Kloosterman which is about the production services increasing since 1985 and the points that multi-storey office blocks intensified in the landscapes. Based on Zutkin, Kloosterman observed that working-class neighbourhoods dating from 19th and the early 20th century had been turned into expensive urban areas including vegetarian restaurants, galleries, designer shops and boutiques. In this repect the gentrification was not restricted by the residential areas from the industrial period. Also the large-scale central urban industrial enterprises have been turned into factories, warehouses, breweries, gasworks, railways, ports, office areas, apartment buildings, antique shops, restaurants, cafes, theaters, museums and other exhibition venues. (7) With these beliefs we should not have withdrawn and been afraid of public projects. Jose Ortega y Gasset said that domination means the authority of an idea and therefore is the authority of a spirit; domination is nothing more than a spiritual power. There are three typical areas in all non- tribal communities: casual living area, area of economic and political institutions and area of cultural ideas and practices. If the 13th Biennial had not compromised public projects, the relationships between social action and political action could have been established and the spirit of Gezi, which strengthened the spirit of solidarity and collectivism, could have continued, private and individual issues could have become public issues, social problems, personal or public issues could have become more pronounced by referring to general or universal political rights, ideas and democratic norms. Thus we could have established our own authority against that of the government and said, “None of us were afraid anymore!" References (1) Osman Cakmakci, 'Barbarism of the Spirit' (From the preface he has written for Lale Muldur’s book named 'Mom, Am I Barbarian?). Literary Guide, Istanbul, 2013 (2) For further information see: http://antiIstanbul2013bienal.blogspot.com/ ( 3)Vasıf Kortun, in his conversation with the artist Nil Yalter in her book launch at Salt- Beyoglu, put forward this issue. Hou Hanru also implied this in his e-mail that he sent to a group of artists and curators during Gezi events . (4) From Fulya Erdemci’s speech in the discussion panel entitled ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?' in the 13th Istanbul Biennial carried out under 150th Year Activities of Bogazici University. (5) For enlightening comments on this, see Ali Artun's Contemporary Art and Culturalism, (Contemporary Art and Culturalism: Identity and Aesthetics), Communication Publications, Arts- Life series, Istanbul, 2013 (6) Adnan Yıldız, 13th Istanbul Biennial, from artist profile page text of Hito Steyerl. (7) Robert Kloosterman 'New Urbanity In The Old Town: The Case Of Amsterdam', Cultural Policy and Management, Year Book 2009, Bilgi Istanbul University Press, 2009. (8) Jose Ortega y Gasset, 'Revolt of the Masses' (Translated by: Neyyire Gul Isik), Is Bank Cultural Publications, 2010
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