Controversies Venice Biennale Turkey

Venice Biennale responds to trouble in Turkey

Artists, curators and collectors join the protest

On the eve of the Venice Biennale’s public opening, the gallerist Haldun Dostoğlu hosted an intimate dinner in honour of Ali Kazma’s solo presentation in the Turkish pavilion but the mood was far from celebratory. Instead of cheerfully toasting Kazma for his film installation Resistance, 2013, (and the artist’s 42nd birthday), Füsun Eczacıbaşı, Orhan Pamuk, Emre Baykal and some of the most influential collectors, patrons and curators in Turkey passed around mobile phones to share Facebook images and recount stories of the weekend's tragic events in Istanbul and around the country. International guests including Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Achim Borchardt-Hume, Adriano Pedrosa and myself listened to their tearful stories and sympathised with their feelings of paralysis being in Venice while Istanbul descended into chaos.

Although the current situation in Turkey has been building up for years, it was an extremely violent police response against a small peaceful protest camp in Gezi Park, on 28 May, that compelled tens of thousands of Turks to join the demonstration to not only save central Istanbul's main public park from becoming a shopping mall but to also uphold every citizen's freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. What started as a simple act of saving trees from demolition has become a mass anti-government movement in response to Turkey’s increasingly conservative and heavy-handed policies.

Despite the growing unrest from Istanbul to Ankara—and now reportedly 67 other cities, the Turkish media barely flinched. For this reason, Turkish curators, artists and cultural workers visiting Venice for the Biennale organised a public demonstration to bring awareness to escalating situation in Turkey. At 10am on Saturday, approximately 30 people gathered in Piazza San Marco carrying handwritten signs, banners and leaflets produced overnight. Ahmet Ögüt, the Turkish-Kurdish artist who co-represented Turkey at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and is featured in the Future Generation Art Prize exhibition at Palazzo Contarini Polignac, met this group on his way to the airport to join those in Gezi Park that afternoon. He reported back, "Coming from southeast of Turkey I am used to mass protests, but I have never witnessed one like this before. Thousands of peaceful demonstrators from all kinds of political backgrounds are protesting side by side. Together, we have all faced extreme police violence with tear gas and high-pressure water hoses, which in turn has caused more and more people to come together."

The group in Venice also continued that afternoon and by their next gathering at the Arsenale, their numbers had doubled. With rhythmic claps and chants of "Resist Istanbul!", "Stop the Violence in Istanbul!" and even "Resign Erdoğan!", the march greeted visitors to the Biennale’s first public day and made its way to the gardens of the Guardini.

During the march, I walked alongside Bige Örer, director of Istanbul Biennial, and Fulya Erdemci, the curator of the forthcoming Istanbul Biennial "Mom, Am I a Barbarian?". Opening in three months time, the biennial plans to explore ‘the public domain as a political forum’ and the current events in Turkey will arguably bring a new dimension to the exhibition and events. Erdemci was reluctant to comment on the biennial and the rapidly changing situation but she later sent me an email reiterating how Gezi Park has become "the focus and symbol of resistance against violent urban transformation" and how the police forces have triggered an ‘exponentially growing resistance movement’. She continued, "As the violence exercised by the police is getting wilder, the masses are pouring down the streets against the repressive governance of the State. I wholeheartedly support the resistance where hundreds of protesters were seriously injured and condemn the violence exercise by the police. Against the barbarians altogether!"

Aaron Cezar is the director of the Delfina Foundation

From left to right: Ali Kazma (Turkish Pavilion), curator Emre Baykal (Turkish Pavilion), the independent curator Fatos Ustek, gallerist Haldun Dostoğlu and Fulya Erdemci, the curator of the forthcoming 13th Istanbul Biennial
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17 Jun 13
16:31 CET


I've just been in Taksim square, inspired by the wide range of people protesting peacefully against this govt's violent repression of social & cultural freedom in Turkey, of which the environmental destruction of Gezi Park & Istanbul's major public space is such a powerful symbol.

4 Jun 13
16:26 CET


Although Fulya Erdemci's reaction can only draw my full sympathy at this point, I do hope that she won't cast the barbarians as the 'uncivilized other' in the upcoming Istanbul Biennale - her wording does suggest that.

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