ISTANBUL, Turkey—In a country ravaged by political turmoil, it’s difficult to imagine anyone stepping into the limelight, especially in Istanbul, a city which has witnessed a wave of deadly bomb and gun attacks, as well as a failed military coup.
Even so, more than 50 artists from around the globe, from myriad backgrounds and mediums, came together for the prestigious 15th Istanbul Biennial (September 16 – November 12, 2017) to wrestle with the tricky question (and this year’s theme) of what it means to be “a good neighbor.”
Artsy writes while it can be a tired trope, it doesn’t make it any less true.
And it’s precisely this overlapping of micro and macro events, often intricately linked to the notion of “home,” that the biennial effortlessly embraces.
We were particularly excited by the ceramic works of Lungiswa Gqunta, Fred Wilson and Candeğer Furtun, in which each artist creatively delves into and investigates abstractions of exclusion and imperial narratives, as well as the realities, therein.
South African artist Lungiswa Gqunta‘s sculptures investigate the ongoing tense relationships surrounding race, architecture, dispossession and capitalism, the biennial writes. Commonly employing found objects such as glass bottles, they are personal examinations of historical continuities and injustices that persist within post-Apartheid South Africa.
In Lawn 1 (2016/17), she creates a ‘lawn’ out of broken Coca-Cola bottles. In apartheid South Africa, only affluent whites had lawns, which were tied to their prosperity and notions of domesticity, security and racial privilege. Upturned, broken bottles are placed on garden fences to deter outsiders. For Gqunta, who grew up in one of South Africa’s biggest townships, this work symbolises the lawns of her childhood.
The World Architecture Community named Gqunta’s installation one of their top 10 not to miss.
This involves a questioning of the conventions of display within museums, as well as the notions of race that go unexplored within cultural, economic and artistic accounts.
Wilson’s installation Afro Kismet at the Pera Museum includes a number of simulated historical “artifacts”—a chandelier, tiles printed with Arabic calligraphy, black-face miniatures—related to Ottoman culture and the roles of black people within it, exposing a narrative hidden in plain sight.
Black people have a long history in the region – many, if not most, with origins in the Ottoman slave trade – and today refer to themselves as Afro-Turks or Afro-Anatolians.
Artnet writes as part of the exhibition, Wilson painted blown up images of black figures depicted in Pera’s collection of paintings forcing observers to reinvestigate what they are actually seeing, in what he calls “shifting the gaze.”
Wilson first became familiar with the presence of Africans in Turkey—including the bizarre phenomenon of black eunuchs who served sultans in the Ottoman court—through his research into Venice. He has wanted to explore this “other side of the coin” ever since, he says—that is, slavery and the presence of Africans outside of the Americas. “It seems to me that no one really acknowledges or knows much about African slavery in Europe from those early centuries.”
Using traditional ceramic hand forming techniques, Turkish artist Candeğer Furtun examines and depict the human body in her Untitled artwork, which shows nine pairs of bare human legs placed side by side on a tiled bench, much like a men steaming in a bathhouse or resting on a bench, the biennial writes.
Suggesting a number of bodies in a row, the work could reference the hammam culture of Turkey, in which people sit on benches in a space of healing and rest. Yet it might also recall the seating of people on public transport, in waiting rooms, or other public/private spaces. Or perhaps this group of masculine limbs quietly addresses the furtive conditions and exclusionary tactics of male power. Furtun herself has alluded to an allegorical representation of Turkey and its eight neighbours.
This year’s curators have been praised for their work in the biennial as model for future curators. Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset are an artist duo who have worked together since 1995. Their artistic practice spans many genres, including installation, sculpture, performance, and theater.
In fact, when they chose the theme for this year’s biennial, the world was a much different place. We weren’t on the brink of nuclear war, fascists were banished to the dark corners on the internet, Britain was a mainstay of the European Union and Turkey’s 2016 military coup had yet to occur. Artsy writes, despite the obvious difficulties the duo faced, they were able to thoughtfully curate an apt event.
In a highly fraught context, a biennial that is by turns politically charged and poetic, anchored in its local scene yet international in reach. The exhibition might not overtly criticize Erdoğan’s government, but it nonetheless feels topical and attuned to its surroundings; it’s a fantastic achievement.
Then the jewel in the crown, a gift to politicos, civil rights activists, art lovers and ceramophiles (and those who are
all four in one) is Ai Weiwei on Porcelain at the Sabancı University Sakıp Sabancı Museum (Istanbul, September
1- January 28, 2018. It is Ai Weiwei’s first exhibition in Turkey. It showcases an extensive selection from the
artist’s wide-ranging production in the medium of porcelain (and in earthenware Han dynasty “found” objects). The narrative is informed by the artist’s life story and both the tradition of craftsmanship and art history in China. It’s massive, over 100 works, many multiples in themselves, and most of which have already been featured in Cfile. The show is powerful, discomforting, sober, joyous at times and when needs be and outright funny. A an extended review by Garth Clark will be published in Cfile in the last week of December.
Check out Cfile’s previous Ai Weiwei posts.
Organized by The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts since 1987, the biennial strives to create a meeting point in İstanbul in the field of visual arts between artists from diverse cultures and the audience. The biennial was dispersed across six venues at the heart of Istanbul. Istanbul Modern, Galata Greek Primary School, Ark Kültür, Pera Museum, Yoğunluk Atelier, and Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam.
Do you love or loath these finds at the Istanbul Biennial? Let us know in the comments.