“COMPOST IS SOMETHING where you collect things; but it is also something to be left alone, something has to take its time and its place,” said David Teh, seated next to his co-curators Ute Meta Bauer and Amar Kanwar during the press briefing of the seventeenth Istanbul Biennale. The compost, Teh continued, “is what gives this year’s biennial its character.” Their September 12 conference brought collectives, critics, curators and “contributors” to this edition (instead of artists) into the Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden, a first venue for the exhibition. Then a sun-drenched path in the garden led me to the house of Laura Anderson Barbata. Our-story-is-not-found-in-a-book, 2009. Red hammocks, made by indigenous Yucatán weavers, hung between the trees, sleeping friends who savored the serene moment. Amid the musical babbling of the fountains, with the breeze stirring the leaves, I felt a pang of doubt. Was this call for gentleness and relaxation just another touristic exploitation of the remaining beauties of a city endangered by ecological collapse?
My doubt was misplaced. This subtly devastating profusion of artistic questions marks a return to form for the Istanbul Biennale. While Nicolas Bourriaud’s apathetic “Le Septième Continent” largely ignored the burning issues of its terroir in its exegesis on climate change, this latest iteration is organically grown fruit. Curators described the preparation of this edition as a “perfect storm”, citing the conversion of Hagia Sophia in 2020 from a museum to a mosque, the withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, the “judicial farce” behind the arrests of Osman Kavala and other activists, and growing insecurity for minorities, women, refugees and queer communities. ‘For most Istanbulites, those were tough years,’ the curators told me. “Yet we were fortunate to have dozens of them as informants – artists, researchers, activists, editors, historians, curators, journalists, poets and the biennale team – who love this place and love the to share.”
Indeed, Turkey’s rotting civic institutions have unwittingly cultivated a host of beneficial organisms here in Istanbul, creating fertile ground for cultural flourishing independent of state patronage or big business. This year’s critical compost will gradually nurture visitors, inspiring dialogues between Istanbul’s disparate communities and even producing antibodies against autocracy. At Büyükdere35, a gallery on Boğazkesen Street, London-based kitchen sections sell kayak (cream) and sütlac (rice pudding), produced from the milk of mandates. On site, the Collective’s Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe recounted the displacement of these buffaloes after government cronies built an environmentally disastrous airport in Istanbul’s vital wetlands. Their Wallowland, 2022, as part of a four-year research project, mourned the seventeen swamps and ponds destroyed by the elegant airport. Transform the gallery into a traditional place Muhallebici (dessert shop), Cooking Sections hung mirrors on the walls and installed a work — a co-production with ethnomusicologists, biologists and ecologists — that fills the room with the sounds and songs of the Istanbul buffalo. Their celebration overlaps with Turkey’s first buffalo festival, which reflects on how to retain pastoral practices.
A few hundred meters upstream, in Beyoğlu, the Central Greek High School for Girls housed the school of Marco Scotini Disobedience Archives, 2005–, an evolving video platform dedicated to global resistance movements. When Turkish artist Can Altay entered this 170-year-old space, he found it as it was in 1999, when the school ceased to operate; even the same desks and blackboards were still there. Among the components of the work is Boğaziçi’s Resistance, a social media project (@budirenisi on Twitter) that compiles information about the ongoing siege of Boğaziçi University by the Turkish government, historicizing our oppressive present in times real.
Elsewhere in Istanbul’s Şişli district was the Hrant Dink Foundation, where Rakel Dink, the widow of the murdered Armenian journalist, joined visitors in eating dumplings. Even this is a subversive act in Turkey: Nayat Karaköse, the foundation’s program coordinator, spoke about their banned lecture on the social, cultural and economic history of Armenians in the Anatolian city of Kayseri. In a moment of inspiration, they launched something else: a festival for mantis, Kayseri’s signature dish. The biennial will host this event, an opportunity for renewal and unity, on October 28. The Foundation has also published three issues of a gazette, Mantı Postası (The Dumpling Post), on solidarity, multiculturalism and resistance. “It’s become clear that no one can put them down, no matter what you do,” Amar Kanwar said of the Foundation’s resilience. If you silence someone, he added, “they will learn a different way of speaking.”
On the Asian side of Istanbul, Gazhane, the city’s 130-year-old former gasworks turned cultural complex, hosted the flag project, 2006–, by Indonesian artist Arahmaiani. Combine installation and performance, flag project had previous iterations in Australia, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. In Istanbul, it was striking to see artists waving massive brightly colored flags stitched with words like “environment”, “work”, “justice”, “equality”, “memory” and “struggle”. In Turkey, a gathering like this is a dangerous move: if they had come to Taksim Square, the artists would have been beaten and detained. Such a contrast added poignancy to Cem Karaca’s socialist song “Gülhane Parkında”, about hiding from the police in a park, which blasted loudspeakers, linking the present to Turkey’s leftist histories.
The next day, I strolled, unseen, through Yaklaşım, a massive tunnel beneath Gezi Park, the site of the 2013 Occupy protests in Istanbul. The 843-foot-long, 13-foot-wide, and 14-foot-high tunnel gate leads to the Gezi Trees. Inside was installed the audiovisual composition of Carlos Casas Cyclops, 2022, inspired by a military aircraft complex in Mussolini-era Italy that produced one of the world’s longest pipes for researching turbulence and friction. Although described as a sonic invocation of “mass control and torture,” Casas’ reverberation chamber sounded oddly liberating; walking through it, I felt enveloped in the echoes and ghosts of this city’s resistance movements, and of the struggles for dignity and autonomy beyond national borders. Another visitor from Yaklaşım, Istanbul-based curator Mari Spirito, stressed the importance of staying globally interconnected with our friends and comrades, supporting each other, not feeling alone and sharing knowledge. on how to survive. Indeed, those of us who will continue to weather the autocratic hurricane of Turkey beyond this biennium cannot survive without the nourishment of a precarious and courageous community.
Kaya Genç is a novelist, art critic and historian living in Istanbul. His latest book, about the Turkish government’s assault on the country’s artistic communities, is The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey (IB Tauris, 2019).