The 17th Istanbul Biennale finds new ways to have difficult conversations

As expected, Covid-19 dominated the preparations for the 17th Istanbul Biennale (September 17-November 20), ensuring it was postponed and then scheduled online via Zoom, WhatsApp and email. The three curators – Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar and David Teh – were also barred from meeting in person as a trio or traveling to Turkey for two years as part of the preparation. This presented challenges.

“The suspension of life as we knew it is a rare license to do things differently,” Bauer writes in the program notes. “What is needed above all else in this uncertain window is the confidence to try unfamiliar ways, old and new, of interacting with each other and with the world.” However, based on a dominant – but surprisingly muffled – dialogue at the biennial preview, one could argue that the “uncertain window” and the desire to communicate in “unknown ways” do not only refer to the global health crisis, but to another repressive force – a climate of self-censorship fueled by Turkey’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, or AK Party.

“This issue of being able to say what you want to say, and saying it openly and publicly, is not just a problem in Turkey,” Kanwar said. The arts journal. “It’s a problem in a lot of places. Several Istanbul artists are from Indonesia, Singapore and Pakistan. They lived under such regimes, sometimes excessive and quick to repress, sometimes slow and forcing people to self-censor. Wherever we operate, work, manufacture or exhibit in any form as artists, curators or writers, there is a constant threat. Despite this, people find different ways to talk to different people with different intensities, causing various conversations to occur without necessarily being so direct. It is reality.”

Works by Dr. John Bell exhibited at Barın Han as part of the 17th Istanbul Biennale Courtesy of the artist and Istanbul Biennale

Kanwar adds that Istanbul is a city with “a deep, rich and complicated history – people here have witnessed a lot of things. They have seen many regimes, even military regimes, so they will always find a way. It’s not about not having hope.

Dozens of artists, journalists and musicians have been imprisoned during the 20-year rule of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Since the failed military coup of 2016, the number of cultural figures under investigation by the authorities has increased considerably. Earlier this year, after famous Turkish singer Sezen Aksu performed lyrics calling Adam and Eve “ignorant”, Erdoğan threatened to “cut the tongue” of anyone attacking holy figures. His remarks come amid efforts by the Islamist-rooted AK Party to make constitutionally secular Turkey more religious, efforts that have included turning former places of worship functioning as museums into religious sites.

“When we planned this edition of the biennale, we were always looking for different ways to speak the truth to the world,” explains the director of the biennale, Bige Örer. “When traditional news sources struggle to communicate freely, how can formats like poetry and a dumpling festival, for example, be used to say the things we want to say? There are so many new and subtle ways to speak freely.

Örer adds that the Turkish Ministry of Culture provides around 5% of the biennale’s funding.

An installation by Carlos Casas at Yaklaşım Tüneli as part of the 17th Istanbul Biennale Courtesy of the artist and Istanbul Biennale

The dumpling festival she cites is one of the biennale’s projects—dumpling message—a three-part publication addressing “a wide range of social, historical and political phenomena” and distributed online and in print at the biennial exhibition venues. The newspaper is inspired by the Kayseri Dumpling Festival organized by the Hrank Dink Foundation (HDF) in Istanbul on October 26, 2019 “in response to the repeated banning of its lecture on the social, cultural and economic history of Kayseri and the region between 1850 -1950′ by the Government of Kayseri [central Turkey]“, as noted in the biennial program. One of dumpling messageThe curators of , who worked for the HDF, Neslihan Koyuncu Sahin, recounts The arts journal that “even if the event was canceled by the authorities, the festival allowed us to meet and communicate”.

Turkish artist Merve Ünsal, who participated in the post, says she is increasingly working in the United States to escape repression by the Turkish government. “What’s happening in Turkey is you start censoring yourself – you don’t even start imagining that certain things are possible,” she says. “I’ve been in situations where I do or create something and a friend warns me against making it public. This fear is so ingrained that you don’t wait for the government to intervene, you do it yourself first.

Works from a project by Preecha Phinthong and Chairat Polmuk presented at the 17th Istanbul Biennale Courtesy of the artists and the Istanbul Biennale

Despite Turkey’s political assertiveness and Covid-interrupted staging of the biennale, the event offers a diverse range of site-specific, educational exhibits scattered across Istanbul’s distinctive neighborhoods. Italian artist Renato Leottait is CONCERTINO for the sea (2022) The sound and multimedia installation in the newly renovated 500-year-old Çinili Hamam is particularly moving and inspired by the artist’s long-term pursuit of an aquatic plant. Meanwhile, Bangkok-based artist Pratchaya Phinthongit is The glossary of ancient Isan proverbs (2022), printed in evanescent ink in Barın Hanasks questions about “the ethical or spiritual embrace of impermanence”.

“The Biennale makes Istanbul’s independent art spaces more visible and permanent, and enables us to be stronger,” says Barin Han director Emir Barin.

Kanwar recommends visitors to the biennale spend at least a week exploring the exhibits and locations to get a real sense of what’s going on. “There are many projects here that say a lot of things, and if you take a little time and go into them, you can find connections that they make with people in this city, in Turkey, in many other places,” he said. “It’s a pretty fluid shape, it’s not necessarily what you see.”

Works by Renato Leotta exhibited at the Çinili Hamam as part of the 17th Istanbul Biennial Photo by Sahi Ugur Eren

  • The 17th Istanbul Biennialin various places in the city, from September 17 to November 20.
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