THE GREAT THING about the Istanbul Biennial is that it doesn’t knock the city’s nose out of joint. With a population of some fifteen million people, incredible urban density, hectic day-to-day rhythms, and some two thousand years of tough and messy history, Istanbul easily absorbed the four thousand–plus guests who dropped in for the opening of the exhibition’s twelfth edition last week. For four days straight, a mob of artists, dealers, collectors, and curators joined the general melee, dragging themselves up and down the city’s insanely steep hills, zipping across the Bosphorous, and mostly getting stuck in seemingly endless snarls of traffic. What would elsewhere be an inundation barely registered in Istanbul’s complex phenomenological matrix.
On Thursday, the first night of the preview, there was a thumping party for the biennial on a dolled-up patch of parking lot outside of the exhibition, which takes up three floors in two old customs warehouses. The football team Beşiktaş—known for the fierce loyalty, occasional violence, and creative profanity of its fans—was playing a match at its home stadium nearby, and a string of upscale neighborhoods were hosting street parties for the second annual running of Vogue’s Fashion’s Night Out in Istanbul. Biennial guests who imagined they were the cause of all that traffic were probably overestimating themselves.
What’s more, under the curatorial direction of Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann, this biennial has effectively withdrawn from the city and folded in on itself. Gone are the excursions of past years to scour the city for cisterns, bathhouses, billboard projects, open-air video screenings, a textile traders’ market, or an eerily abandoned school. This time around, the biennial is safely couched inside Antrepo 3 and Antrepo 5, located just off the Bosphorus next door to another former customs warehouse, Istanbul Modern.
Left: Artists Jonathas de Andrade with Săo Paulo collector Pedro Barbosa, board member of the Pinacoteca do Estado. Right: Artist Akram Zaatari.
“This is the first time in the history of the biennial that the exhibition is concentrated in a single venue,” Pedrosa said on Thursday morning, while most people hoping to see the show, from lowly hacks with DIY “press cards” to Hans Ulrich Obrist and the Tate’s Frances Morris, were getting crushed in the crowd around the accreditation counter. (Obrist, the consummate multitasker, was conducting an interview in the hour-long line.) “It signals our interest in the exhibition itself.”
On paper and in press conference patter, “Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial)” hinges on the work of a single artist, the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who inspired the name, and ostensibly the structure, of the exhibition overall—a tidy, color-coded arrangement of five thematic group shows, surrounded by more than fifty presentations of individual artists’ work, all of which are installed in a regimented grid of antiseptic rooms that look like a high modernist proposal for cleaning up a shantytown or reorganizing a refugee camp.
The curators rather notoriously refused to release an artist list before the biennial opened, claiming a desire to have visitors arrive without preconceptions about the show. “If they were really worried about expectations, the curators would have kept their own names off the list,” one wag ranted. “But if you notice, in all three versions of the e-flux announcement, we withdrew our own names too,” said Pedrosa, which laid bare more about e-flux’s quick and stunning accumulation of power than anything else.
“The exhibition is untitled because meaning is changing in time and place,” Pedrosa said, several times over, paraphrasing what is ultimately little more than a Gonzalez-Torres platitude. “Gonzalez-Torres is not the central figure of the exhibition but a point of departure. It’s not necessary to know the work to access the exhibition. He isn’t mandatory reading. He’s an example of an artist who can articulate the personal and the political.”
“He’s a really central artist for how I think of art,” Hoffmann added later, in a corner of dead space passing for a lounge in between the exhibition architecture and a warehouse wall. “His works don’t punch you in the face and they aren’t spoon-feeding you messages.”
None of Gonzalez-Torres’s works are actually included in the biennial. He constitutes “a disembodied presence,” Hoffmann argued. “The whole exhibition is breathing his sentiment.”
True? False? Does it matter? Take away the crisp curatorial armature of the show’s five sections—“Untitled (Abstraction),” “Untitled (Ross),” “Untitled (Passport),” “Untitled (History),” and “Untitled (Death by Gun)”—and you’re left with an exhibition about language, violence, desire, vulnerability and marginality, documents and archives, national identity, self-styled community, and the political upheavals of occupations, coups, covert intelligence, and organized crime. What is lacking from that boilerplate mix of familiar themes is conviction, and a bit of risk.
That said, people loved it. The Guardian already named this biennial the best in Istanbul to date. You could breeze through the show in two hours—looping around each room to scan so many book covers and bits of paper hung at eye level—and still free yourself up for lunch. So refined, so elegant—so much like a museum show. (Perhaps Istanbul Modern, which just opened two clumsy shows of modern and contemporary art by Turkish women, could recruit Pedrosa and Hoffmann to show the staff how a conservative, airtight, institutional exhibition is done.)
Yongwoo Lee, founding director of the Gwangju Biennale gave a more measured assessment. “It’s much more refined than the exhibitions of the past fifteen years. It’s an institutional, museum-like show. It’s good for the audience and the general public, but I think it left the professionals a bit hungry.”
With the exception of an all-too-brief interlude that brought a sun-kissed Adonis on stage to mesmerize us with a melancholic pole dance, energy lagged at the biennial party on Thursday night. I jumped in a cab with Adrián Villar Rojas, who is representing Argentina with massive sculptures at the Venice Biennale but brought a very different installation of books to Istanbul, and Nicolás Bacal, whose two clocks without hands are among the more charming works on display. (“People always say biennials are stressful,” said Bacal, “but all I had to do was hang those two clocks, so I’ve been fine.”)
Our taxi driver elucidated the life-and-death differences between the Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe football teams (the latter has been effectively shut down by a match-fixing scandal) on our way to the Marmara Pera, where Rodeo Gallery and Yama were celebrating their latest in a long, ongoing series of rooftop video projections; this time it was Claire Fontaine’s total destruction of a smartphone, presented by the bear-size, big-brained curator Juan Gaitán.
However much the biennial extracted itself from Istanbul’s urban fabric, the city’s increasingly robust network of galleries, museums, foundations, new projects, and nonprofits stepped in to fill (and explore) the gaps. On Tuesday, the multidisciplinary research center Salt kicked off a marathon program of talks, screenings, and performances that are scheduled to take place once a day, every day, for the next three months, while the next evening Arter opened a handsome Kutluğ Ataman exhibition. And on Thursday, Galeri Non launched a four-day performance festival with “Steam Society,” for which the artist Asli Çavuşoğlu and Defne Ayas, newly appointed director of the Witte de With in Rotterdam, enlisted a dozen artists to lead a biennial purification rite in the historic Galatasaray Hamman (an event that distinguished itself for allowing men and women to steam in the same space).
The comically indefatigable Jérôme Sans curated a pop-up show for Galerist, exhibiting the decadent, design-savvy artist duo :mentalKLINIK in a disused yarn factory, and Mari Spirito, of New York’s 303 Gallery, launched protocinema, a new nonprofit near Taksim Square dedicated to producing temporary exhibitions in New York and Istanbul, with a show of Dan Graham. Several US dealers began to put out feelers as well, with both Gagosian and Lehmann Maupin hosting dinners on Thursday.
Out in the metropolis, there seemed to be more at stake. “The city is moving faster than the biennial,” curator Vasif Kortun noted some years back. Maybe next time, it will try to catch up.
Left: Artist Ergin Çavuşoğlu at the after-party for his show at Rampa. Right: Curator Jérôme Sans with Yasemin Baydar and Birol Demir of :mentalKLINIK.
Left: Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer. Right: Artist Ali Kazma with Alia Fattouh of Lombard Freid Projects.
Left: Artists Bisan Abu-Eisheh and Ala Younis. Right: Bartomeu Marí, director of MACBA, and Juan A. Gaitán, curator of the Witte de With.
Left: Artist Johanna Calle. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Dan Byers, cocurator of the next Carnegie International, with MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey.
Left: Özge Ersoy and Haro Cumbusyan of collectorspace. Right: Zeynep Oz and Laura Carderera of Spot.