Istanbul Biennial is a show of many parts
The 12th edition, which opened this past weekend, offers small, tightly-curated, cabinet-style exhibitions
By Gareth Harris. Web only
Published online: 19 September 2011
istanbul. Istanbul’s standing as an important emerging art centre—from its nascent artists to its lively commercial gallery scene and boom in privately run spaces—was reflected in the scrum that descended on the opening on 17 September of the 12th Istanbul Biennial (the exhibition runs until 13 November). Luminaries attending the preview from 15-16 September included Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Tate curators Jessica Morgan and Frances Morris, Salzburg-based dealer Thaddaeus Ropac and Francis Outred, head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s.
Visitors to the biennial site, the Antrepo complex of former warehouses on the banks of the Bosphorus, were also keen to discover which artists would appear in the show following a publicity blackout on participating practitioners. The move appeared part of a deliberate strategy to subvert the typical 21st-century biennial model, which is usually characterised by abstruse titles and indigestible thematic concerns.
This was indeed envisaged as a new type of exhibition, more contained and less sprawling than other biennials, by its co-curators: Rio de Janeiro-born Adriano Pedrosa, co-curator of the 27th Bienal de São Paulo (2006), and Jens Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. The duo are presenting works by over 110 artists in five group shows surrounded by clusters of solo exhibitions, over 50 in total, in a series of display spaces fashioned from corrugated steel sheets. These distinct, strikingly simple, white-cube style boxes are designed by Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa (the biennial budget was €2m).
The art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the Cuban-US artist who died of an Aids-related illness in 1996, is the stimulus for the exhibition. The group shows are organised under the theme titles “Untitled (Abstraction)”; “Untitled (History)”; “Untitled (Passport)”; “Untitled (Ross)” and “Untitled (Death by Gun)”, with the latter three sections specifically referring to works by Gonzalez-Torres.
“Gonzalez-Torres’s use of the established and accepted visual vocabulary of post-minimal and perhaps conceptual art was a way for the work to enter mainstream art institutions and, once there, to spread its radical ideas. It was, if you will, a Trojan Horse strategy. I think the biennial will be very political, but it will also be very open regarding what is actually political,” Hoffmann told The Art Newspaper last month, stressing both the political and personal aspects of the late artist’s work.
The issue of whether both elements successfully dovetailed at the biennial proved to be a talking point. The exhibition demonstrated that “the aesthetic [aspect] is political and also that the private [dimension] is political as it is about societal conditions and implications”, said Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle Zurich.
But is Gonzalez-Torres’s art a strong enough basis for the show? “Gonzalez-Torres in his life and work was exemplary for the experience of living in the late 20th century. Most of us, one way or another, feel that we are living in a gap, an in-between space, that we trespass borders of different kind while pursuing our desires,” said Achim Borchardt-Hume, chief curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. “The biennial opens a space to think about this—and thinking in a seeing, feeling way—which is as valid for somebody from Istanbul as it is for me flying in from London.”
Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery in London, pointed out that Gonzalez-Torres’s work has been “enormously influential” but felt that structuring the biennial around particular works, rather than his overall artistic approach, ended up “feeling a bit constricted, narrowing down the range of possible ways in which artists might have responded to his example”.
But a French curator fresh from the vast, multi-site Lyons biennale, who wished to remain anonymous, welcomed the “curatorial precision” of the Istanbul show, with a consensus forming that the thematic threads were clearly in evidence throughout. Pedrosa even stated that he hoped the group shows, though extensive, would remain “intimate”, an almost impossible aim for a modern-day biennial.
“It is very precisely and thoughtfully curated,” added Rugoff. “It has a degree of intimacy because there are families of works organised in relation to particular works by Gonzalez-Torres and also because of the small presentations devoted to single artists that allow a chance for a more sustained encounter. At the same time there is almost nothing that could be considered spectacular.”
The cabinet-style group shows did indeed feel contained and tightly curated with, for instance, intriguing juxtapositions in “Untitled (Abstraction)”. Juan Capistran’s White Minority (2005-7) references both Frank Stella’s modernist paintings of the late 1950s and the logo of the 1970s US punk band Black Flag. “The title… is a reference to the racial content of the band’s song of the same title,” say the co-curators. Such implicit messages may take time to glean, however. Alongside is Wilfredo Prieto’s Politically Correct (2009), a watermelon cube which reflects the rigidity of today’s prevalent PC culture. Both works reflect the biennial’s overriding thesis: to focus on “works that are both formally innovative and politically outspoken”, say Hoffmann and Pedrosa. Or as one onlooker suggested: “This is politics with a big and small P.”
In “Untitled (Ross)”, a series of self-indulgent black-and-white photographs framed in white synthetic leather by Elmgreen & Dragset (The Black and White Diary, Fig. 5, 2009) sits uneasily alongside works such as Collier Schorr’s bleak Spring Break photographic series, 1997, and Ira Sachs’s Last Address, 2009, which shows the buildings where artists such as Mapplethorpe, Haring and Gonzalez-Torres died. “Untitled (History)” includes one of the few videos in the show, Ali Kazma’s O.K., 2010, which presents the manic, surreal stamping of documents by government officials.
Opinions were especially divided over the merits of the group exhibitions. Louisa Buck, contemporary art correspondent of this newspaper, said: “The most successful sections are ‘Untitled (History)’ and especially ‘Untitled (Abstraction)’ as the choice of works and their relationships to the subject and each other allow for different layers and levels of interpretation. ‘Untitled Ross’ and ‘Untitled (Death by Gun)’ feel more literal and laboured, however.” In “Untitled (Death by Gun)”, Borchardt-Hume commended the triangulation of Roy Lichtenstein’s cover for a 1968 Time magazine, Eddie Adams’ photographs of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon in 1968, and documentation of Chris Burden’s Shoot performance of 1971.
“To me, the show worked best where it was most open, such as in the sections exploring abstraction and desire [‘Untitled (Ross)’], more so than in, for instance, ‘Untitled (Passport)’ which, while very valid, also at times ran the risk of fitting too easily into the mould of what we expect from artists working in certain parts of the world such as the Middle East,” he added.
One aspect of the biennial that garnered a significant amount of critical attention was the inclusion of several Turkish and South American artists whose work is, as yet, largely unknown. Certain artists tend to dominate the international biennial circuit so it is refreshing to see names such as Yildiz Moran (Turkey, 1932-95) and Brazil-born Rosangela Renno in the mix in Istanbul. Beatrix Ruf, meanwhile, singled out artists Füsun Onur (Turkey), Dora Maurer (Hungary) and Leonilson (Brazil, 1957-93) while a series of gory, gripping mafia scene photographs by Letizia Battaglia, the “Italian Weegee”, caused comment.
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