The Istanbul Biennial looks east (Eastern Europe, that is)

The Turkish capital has curators, collectors and galleries⁠—if the government pitches in, it could become the leading destination for contemporary art in the Middle and Near East


In the months that preceded the launch of the current edition of the Istanbul Biennial (until 8 November), the contemporary art market was, by turns, mystified and intrigued by the curatorial appointment for the event and by the list of artists, selected to illustrate the exhibition’s theme. The biennial board had looked beyond the familiar roster of Western European or North American museum officials and had, instead, engaged the apparently unproven talent of four Zagreb University graduates who joined forces in 1999 and describe themselves as “What, How and For Whom?” (the title, incidentally, of their inaugural project).

Reckless though the gamble might have seemed, WHW partners Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic, Sabina Sabolovic and Ivet Curlin have delivered a tightly measured exhibition of visual and intellectual pleasure which, at once, promotes their pedigree, restores faith in the tired formula of international biennials, and enhances the status of Istanbul as a city which is poised to become a major force in the new landscape of contemporary art. In fact, the 11th chapter of an event which was invented in 1987 is, to date, its outstanding achievement and, in its tidy and coherent presentation, stands in direct rebuke of the loud and chaotic demonstration which former commissioner Hou Hanru staged in 2007.

Social concerns

In keeping with previous editions of the Istanbul Biennial, WHW has selected three venues across which its exhibition is spread: Antrepo No.3, a former customs storage house where one half of the participating artists are displayed; Tütün Deposu, the city’s former tobacco warehouse, which had been used as a venue in 2005; and the Feriköy Greek school which, at the peak of its popularity in 1961-62, enrolled 440 students but which, in a grim comment on the changing demographics of a city which once would have been regarded as the planet’s most cosmopolitan society, closed for shortage of pupils in 2002. There, among framed portraits of the Sultans and faded timelines of Atatürk, works of art were displayed on blackboards and across abandoned desks in the exhibition’s most rewarding segment. To watch, for instance, Igor Grubic’s East Side Story, an extended video portrait of the violence and antagonism surrounding gay pride marches in Belgrade and Zagreb, in a classroom environment is a new kind of (art) history lesson.

Intriguingly, the unusual catalogue, which is bursting with maps and charts and statistics, identifies five further venues which WHW had hoped to obtain, including the former American consulate and the Haydarpasa Train Station, but which were not available for bureaucratic or security reasons.

The theme of the exhibition is encapsulated in the source of its title. “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” is the closing song of the second act of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” (1928) and the curators have sought to involve artists who are concerned with Brecht’s topics of moral ambiguity and social conflict, and to relate their works to the anniversary events of 1989 (including the fall of the Berlin Wall) and 2009. Above all other issues, this exhibition is concerned with the vast upheavals which have followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

To achieve their purpose, the curators have looked far beyond the familiar matrix of western galleries and have excavated a long and fascinating list of names drawn from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, many of whom have no dealer representation and will, therefore, be wholly unknown even to a specialist audience. In a battle between “the West and the Rest”, as the publication describes it, just 15 of the 70 participating artists claim a Western status. To bring so many new identities to the art market’s notice is a bold achievement and the Biennial board must take its share of credit by making an early curatorial appointment (at the end of the previous edition in 2007) and by supplying the necessary funds for the team’s research. The Koç family, the leading industrialists in the country, became the biennial’s main sponsor in 2007 and, in a relationship which every competing biennial will envy, has agreed to finance the event for ten years.

Besides the roster of current practices, the curators have performed a valuable act of rehabilitation for KP Brehmer (Germany, 1938-97), Michel Journiac (France, 1935-95) and Margaret Harrison (England, b.1940), all of whom had slipped from view but whose work looks, in retrospect, remarkably prescient for the political issues being explored in the exhibition.

Turkish collectors

Inevitably, the Istanbul Biennial attracts comparison with the concurrent event staged in Venice, its old rival for sea power and territories (the two cities share an intertwined history which includes the four bronze horses formerly decorating the Hippodrome in Constantinople but taken as war booty for display in the Basilica di San Marco). However, Istanbul is a thriving modern city with, by some calculations, a population of 20 million and a core of art collectors who make their mark on the gallery circuit during the Biennial’s preview days.

The most remarkable demonstration of their combined spending power concerns an exhibition of 20 new abstract paintings by Haluk Akakçe (until 10 October), one of the fashionable names in Turkish contemporary art, which Galerist proprietor Murat Pilevneli exhibited in an apartment on the third floor of the Passage Petits Champs building close to the Pera Museum in Tepebasi. Each of the canvases was priced at e70,000 and the entire exhibition had been sold to local collectors before or during the preview on 10 September.

Another dealer mounted an attractive group exhibition on the first floor of the same building. “In the Between” (until 10 October) has been conceived by former Yvon Lambert director Suzanne Egeran as a first step to launching an office in the city. Her roster of 11 international artists, showing in the evocative context of a suite of rooms with carved plaster ceilings and faded wall decorations, included three local participants, Hüseyin Alptekin (who represented Turkey at the Venice Biennale in 2007), Ahmet Ogüt (Venice Biennale 2009) and Ali Kazma, and their contributions looked well in the company of Martin Creed, Tom Friedman, Iván Navarro and Cerith Wyn Evans whose Murano glass chandelier flickering with poetry in Morse code created a fascinating visual juxtaposition with Turkcell’s flashing G3 mobile telephone advertisements illuminating the street in front of the building. Egeran comments: “Here there is a great tradition of collecting historical artworks as well as contemporary Turkish art. Recently the Turkish collecting community has begun to look beyond their borders; there is a great curiosity about what is happening in the international art world and how that relates to local issues and traditions. People are now open to new ideas and different perspectives, which I find very exciting.”

In total, a dozen gallery events were timed to coincide with the biennial’s launch and they included two international artists creating new works in response to the city’s historic or current situation. In the largest commercial exhibition of his career, Michael Craig-Martin is showing 20 new word and image paintings at Galerist’s Beyoglu headquarters (until 10 October). The group includes Paradise, a valid aspiration for Ottoman faith (its pendant, Utopia, will be exhibited in Berlin) and Istanbul Istanbul, a monumental two-part wall drawing.

For Dirimart, Ghada Amer has created a series of new embroidery paintings packaged as “Failing Shahrazad” (until 25 October), an exhibition title which references the legendary “One Thousand and One Nights” story-telling powers of Scheherazade but questions just how far women’s issues have progressed in modern Turkey. A series of sexually explicit watercolours of young models engaged in the pursuit of pleasure, or lesbian experimentation, is the exhibition’s most provocative feature, and might have been expected to cause controversy in this city, but the fact that they can be shown at all suggests that old repressions and censorships are dormant or retreating.

But the most intriguing event to be seen in Istanbul, at present, may be Serge Spitzer’s carpet of glass beads which fills the floor of the old prayer hall of the former Mayor Synagogue in Hasköy. Molecular Istanbul (until 8 November), as the installation is entitled, is a hidden discovery. It is buried in an almost invisible seam in the archaeology of Jewish cultural life in the city and, as an unofficial intervention which is not listed in the catalogue of off-site projects, happens beneath the radar of the biennial. As a consequence, it is known only through the web of recommendations that the professional community exchanges, and from a tent pitched on a lawn beside the Golden Horn (within short walking distance of Koç Müzesi and the popular Halat restaurant). Over many years, the synagogue has been subsumed into a labyrinth of small workshops which Spitzer has incorporated into his project. Through his prism, a bench for rubber production assumes a haunting association with Joseph Beuys and a foundry casting aluminium lamp stands and shelf brackets in black sand becomes an artist’s laboratory. The prayer hall itself, where Spitzer’s glass beads glisten like shallow water in an underground cistern, was an impenetrable storage chamber until the artist excavated it and revealed its wooden pillars and dome. Sadly, there is a plan to develop this block for a new cultural centre but a visionary benefactor should acquire it as it remains and preserve Spitzer’s work as Istanbul’s “New York Earth Room”.

No future without government support

With the city’s commercial map coming to look really substantial and sustainable, the debate moves to the public sector where, to date, the state has been disappointingly absent. Yet it is widely agreed that governmental support, preferably in partnership with the city’s leading families, is absolutely necessary for Istanbul to become, as it may, the leading art centre for a region that would include Iran and the Middle Eastern markets. There is no doubt that the potential, in terms of commercial and curatorial experience, exists. Sotheby’s has opened an office and has already staged an inaugural auction of Turkish contemporary art (in London on 4 March 2009). Will the momentum be harnessed or will it be allowed to slip away?

At the centre of this discussion is the complex of customs warehouses, including Antrepo No.3, in one of which the Eczacibasi family opened Istanbul Modern in 2004. In essence a private museum for a collection of mostly Turkish historic, modern and contemporary art, it is staging a survey of the career of leading Armenian artist Sarkis (until 10 January 2010) who has been living in Paris since 1961. But what will be the future of this institution and, indeed, of the entire complex which has a fine Bosphorus location close to Galata Bridge and the entrance to the Golden Horn? Surely an opportunity exists to develop this substantial piece of real estate as a really significant cultural centre, but the fear remains that commercial interests will prevail and fashionable condominiums will come to occupy the empty warehouse shells.

Until a clear cultural policy emerges, private initiatives will continue to fill the gap. The big banner event, widely trailed around the city in flags and posters, is an exhibition of drawings and other works on paper by Joseph Beuys and a selection of his leading Düsseldorf pupils extracted from Deutsche Bank’s collection and displayed to advantage in the handsome galleries of the Sakip Sabanci Museum (until 1 November). Coincidental the choice of the exhibition may have been (at short notice it replaced a proposed display of Henry Moore sculptures that has been postponed until 2010), but Beuys as a teacher and political activist neatly chimes with the Brechtian theme of the biennial.

The most intriguing component in the city’s institutional puzzle is Santralistanbul, a former power plant, situated in Eyüp at the tip of the Golden Horn, which opened for two purposes in 2007. The original electricity station, with its boilers and control panels surviving intact, has become a museum of technology beside which the state constructed a superb temporary exhibition facility. Management has been entrusted to Bilgi University which, in turn, engages guest curators for a programme of temporary exhibitions. There is no permanent collection. At present, it is staging a comprehensive survey of Turkish surrealist draughtsman Yüksel Arslan (until 21 March 2010) who was born in 1933 and whose career has progressed in Paris where one would expect a student of André Breton to put down his roots. Does this superb facility hold a key to the city’s urgent cultural ambitions?