17th Istanbul Biennale: truth to power and food for thought

Istanbul is a city like no other. Straddling two continents, it has been the capital of two empires and home to two distinct identities – one young and liberal, the other conservative and traditional – simmering against the backdrop of a turbulent eco-political climate. Add to this the lasting impact of Covid-19 on the art community, and the stage is set for a fascinating moment of public contemporary art at the opening of the 17th Istanbul Biennale (until November 20, 2022).

“We began working on the biennale in the midst of a spiraling health crisis and were keenly aware that many artists were focused on addressing the economic, political, social and ecological issues plaguing our planet, many of which have been exacerbated. by the pandemic,” said David Teh, one of the exhibition’s three curators at the press conference. “It seemed natural to us that the biennial should support and amplify these efforts.

Taloi Havini, at the Çinili Hamam for the 17th Istanbul Biennial. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren

Scattering the 50+ projects from more than 500 contributors, including artists, researchers, architects, fishermen and environmentalists, across the city was one way to achieve this. There are 12 exhibition venues as well as a host of satellite spaces ranging from second-hand bookstores to cafes and metro stations, which reflect all the different aspects of city life.

The dispersed layout also encourages visitors to experience the city and its tiered stories in new ways. The freshly restored 16th-century Çinili Hamam, for example, opened to the public for the first time in 12 years, ahead of its inauguration as a hammam-museum complex in 2023. Other famous newcomers include the Botanical Garden medicinal plants of Zeytinburnu and Barin Han, the former workshop of the main Turkish calligrapher and bookbinder Emin Barin.

Dr John Bell at Barin Han for the 17th Istanbul Biennale. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren

“After periods of prolonged isolation, we wanted to bring people from different communities together to connect and think about how art can help us do things differently in the future,” explains Bige Örer, director of the Istanbul Biennial. “We hope to stimulate conversations that will last beyond the Biennale and positively transform those who have it.”

This spirit of collaboration is underscored by the large number of long-term research projects by artist collectives carrying out transformative work in their local communities, as well as the extensive public program of events, workshops, guided tours and poetry readings courtesy of Poetry Channel. . The Radyo Bienal, meanwhile, celebrates the diversity of biennial attendees through its 25-episode weekly program and its English-language podcast series.

Carlos Casas at Yaklasim Tüneli for the 17th Istanbul Biennial. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren

While there is no single title this year – a nod to the fractured artistic response to the pandemic – the focus is clearly on process rather than production, with curators describing the biennale as a form of compost, primed for the dissemination of all kinds of ideas and conversations. Örer uses the metaphor of a newspaper when we speak: “Biennial participants bring us news from all over the world,” she says. “It can be hard to tell the truth, so we wanted to find new ways to spread it for those who do.”

This seems particularly relevant in Turkey right now, with its autocratic government and recent history of artistic censorship. When asked how the current political climate has shaped the biennial’s programming, Örer replied, “Artists find inspiring ways to express themselves so they don’t become victims of the system.

Alice Miceli at Pera Müzesi for the 17th Istanbul Biennial. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren

The dumpling message is a case in point. Istanbul’s Hrant Dink Foundation (HDF) free biennial publication was conceived following the government’s ban on the foundation’s 2019 conference in Kayseri exploring the social, economic, political and cultural changes of the town. Instead of capitulating, the HDF organized a festival around the region’s most famous dish: dumplings. More than 500 people were present not only to eat and make dumplings but also to show solidarity against the restrictions imposed. Scattered around the biennale, the dumpling message continues HDF’s fight against censorship, bans and the shrinking of civic space.

Without a unifying theme, however, this sprawling showcase can sometimes seem somewhat disparate, especially in historic places like the Pera Museum, which is full of archival projects that oscillate between topics as diverse as the women’s movement in Nepal and the anti-colonial guerrilla warfare in British Malaya. The avalanche of information displayed in web-like networks on two of the three floors seems overwhelming and the visual impact disappointing. Still, there are a few marvels to behold on the top floor, including the photographic work of Alice Miceli documenting the ongoing and traumatic impact of deadly mine-contaminated sites in Cambodia and Bosnia.

Wallowland by Cooking Sections at Büyükdere35 at the 17th Istanbul Biennial. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren (top) David Levene (above)

Also note Wallowland, a collaborative research project designed by artist duo Cooking Sections that aims to raise awareness of water buffalo farming practices as well as water buffaloes and wetlands around Istanbul threatened by urbanization . Their biennial presentation at Büyükdere35 takes the form of a shop, serving tasty Turkish buffalo milk puddings, punctuated by traditional buffalo songs.

Inside the cavernous main hall of the Küçük Mustafa Pasa Hammam, is the whispering playground, an assemblage of found objects that conduct and amplify sound, including compositions from the working ports of Istanbul. Designed in collaboration with instrument makers and sound engineers, it reveals how sound can be manipulated and accessed in multi-sensory ways, including sight and touch.

Tarek Atoui at the Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamamı for the 17th Istanbul Biennial. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren

On the Asian side, at Müze Gazahane is the latest iteration of Arahmaiani’s ongoing program flag project. During performances, brightly colored flags emblazoned with community-identified Turkish words such as Sevgui (love) are waved by the participants in choreographed processions. Another notable highlight is a presentation from The Silent University, a knowledge exchange platform by and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, documenting ongoing work on a new branch of the platform in Turkey. Nearby in Arthereistanbul, three captivating video works by Lida Abdul explore the consequences of war, destruction and displacement in her home country of Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot to digest, which is why curators urge you to take your time, think, and talk about it. “These projects are the result of a huge, sometimes risky decision to make sense of a particular moment and to do something,” says curator Amar Kanwar. “Skip the need for a specific ‘ah-ha’ moment and connect with them as stimulators of change.” And it is then that it sinks in that this most disparate Istanbul Biennale comes together in reverse. §

Lida Abdul at Pera Müzesi Tarek Atoui for the 17th Istanbul Biennial. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren

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