Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial)

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The 12th Istanbul Biennial came in much secrecy but it was totally worth the anxious wait. In the press opening, curators Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa stated that the reason for the secrecy was to prevent pre-consumption of the artists and their works. This year, it was not only the secrecy that was new but also the decision in limiting the exhibition spaces. The show used to be scattered around the city, taking advantage of its intricate urban structure; however, this time around the curators chose to house the exhibitions in two large warehouses in Tophane, famously known as Antrepo 3 and Antrepo 5.


When: September 17–November 13


The Venue

Having cut down on the exhibition spaces, the curators commissioned the Office of Ryue Nishizawa to design the interior. The unique architecture clearly reflects some aspects of Istanbul. Rooms of different sizes leading one into passageways, shortcuts, and multiple rooms create distinct interior-exterior relationships. The architecture, thus, manages to create the city structure that it borrows from Istanbul, while adding a touch of Gonzales-Torres’s minimal and elegant approach to art.


The Concept

The Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996) is the point of departure of the 12th Istanbul Biennial. Gonzalez-Torres was one of those artists who constantly demonstrated that the personal is political. As in previous years, the twelfth edition of the Biennial delves into the relationship between art and politics. There are both politically outspoken works, and formally innovative and curious art pieces. One of the refreshing aspects of the Biennial is its balanced use of diverse artistic mediums.


The Sections

The venue houses 5 group exhibitions and 50 solo shows. Each of the group exhibitions are marked by gray walls, occupying a room for each subdivision: Untitled (Death by Gun), Untitled (Ross), Untitled (History), Untitled (Passport), and Untitled (Abstraction). Marked by white walls, the solo shows are situated around the group exhibitions. All continents are represented in the show but there is a special focus on Latin America and the Middle East.


The Works

There are many historically crucial artworks at the Biennial. For instance, in the section Untitled (Death by Gun), there is Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner taken in three frames by the American photojournalist Eddie Adams in 1968. As shocking and gruesome as they were, these photographs brought a much-needed discussion around the Vietnam War. 


In the same section, Mat Collishaw’s Bullet Hole depicts a bullet hole in what appears to be the back of a head. In this extreme close-up, the photograph is divided over 15 panels that appear like stained glass pieces taken from a public building or perhaps a church.


In the section Untitled (History) Voluspa Jarpa’s work Library of No History draws attention with its simple presentation of books that contain declassified CIA documents about the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. The viewers are welcome to take a book on the condition that they write down on a form why they’re taking one. The title of the piece makes one think about what makes history, and the question goes beyond a simple “official versus alternative” take on historical accounts. The unquestionable objectivity and power of documents are also being explored through this piece. The dominance of the color gray suggests that these documents, which are supposedly holding the truth about a certain era, are far from conveying the complex socio-political effects of the dictatorship.


In the solo shows Marwa Arsanios’s installation All About Acapulco dives into her own family history in order to tell the story of Acapulco, a coastal site in south of Lebanon. Formerly a nice beach town, Acapulco changed its face after 1976 with the arrival of refugees who appropriated the beach clubs as their homes. Arsanios tries to trace the story of this urban transformation through her own family’s relationship to the beach town.


The third leg of the Biennial is Untitled (Abstraction), in which Theo Craveiro’s ant farm entitled Visible Idea presents a playful yet thought-provoking piece on systems of communicating an idea. The artist asks what kind of structures we need in order to communicate, or if we need any systems at all. Based on the grid structure of a well-known painting by Waldemar Cordeiro of the same title, the piece not only shows multiple systems working within each other but also brings up the question of whether we can exist beyond systems.  


Linked to the same section, a solo exhibition by Adrian Esparza, Far and Wide, attract much attention with its visual simplicity and complex web of questions regarding, color, form, origin, and universality. In this piece, Esparza unravels a serape, a Mexican blanket, thus deconstructing it to its founding geometric shapes and colors. This way, the artist takes the blanket out of its traditional context, and turns into a universal human experience.


Untitled (Passport) explores the theme of borders as well as state control and oppression. It also draws attention to ideological constructions of natural phenomena. One such example is Kutluğ Ataman’s two-channel video piece Water. In this piece, a short section of the free flowing water of the Bosphorus is recorded at different times of the day and then edited into 5 different sections in both channels, creating horizontal grids on the screens. The piece makes reference to water politics, putting water within the limits of a screen to reflect upon state ideology.


Claire Fontaine, on the other hand, approaches the issue of borders from another perspective. The neon lights in Albanian, Turkish, Armenian, German, and Kurdish declare that there are “Foreigners Everywhere.” This references the issue of the xenophobia that has been heightened especially after the 9/11 attack, while also drawing attention to the fact that we are all foreigners at one point or another.  


The last section of the Biennial is Untitled (Ross), which directly refers to Gonzales-Torres’s work about his partner Ross Laycock who died of AIDS in 1991, five years before the artist himself died of the same disease.  This section mainly explores queer love and the notion of family, as well as problems regarding AIDS. In Jonathas de Andrades 2 in 1, two handsome Brazilian men wearing identical clothes are photographed in a series as they assemble two single beds into a double bed. The piece acts as a humorous manual encouraging and smoothing the union of two persons of the same sex. Many of the works in the group exhibition have erotic undertones and the materials used are from daily life, allowing the audience to access the works easily.


On the contrary, works on AIDS are dense and heavy, such as the one by the Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio, which uses ceramics as a tool to express the frustration and fear about AIDS both for patients and the people around them.


The Verdict

The biennial reaches far and wide in terms of time and geographies, and questions our most fundamental experiences as well as socio-political issues like state control, racism, and violence. This groundbreaking audiovisual world will draw you in with its ability to provoke, educate, and humor. You only need to pay attention as the works speak in various languages directly to your senses.