ISTANBUL: The International Istanbul Biennial, considered the first non-Western contemporary art event of its kind when it debuted under a slightly different name in 1987, has been around for two decades now. To celebrate its 20th birthday, Istanbul Modern is hosting a retrospective of sorts to coincide with the biennial's 10th edition. The exhibition "Time Present Time Past: Highlights from 20 Years of the International Istanbul Biennial," which opened last week and runs through December 2, revisits each of the past nine outings by asking eight curators to select three works each and arranging them all in chronological order.
When the Istanbul biennial began, Turkey was grappling with internal urban migration on a massive scale and its economy was only just beginning to open up after 60 years of state control. The idea of cultural programming as a bankable asset and a tourist attraction was only barely believable. And the place of Istanbul then was rather less fixed on the international art world's map than it is now.
The art world itself was a different beast in the late 1980s. International biennials were not yet the global juggernaut they have since become (in 2005, there were more than 50, meaning that a biennial was opening somehow, somewhere in the world every two weeks, and though increasingly outpaced by the rapacious proliferation of commercial art fairs, the biennial roster hasn't stopped growing yet).
The biennial in Istanbul succeeded the biennial in Havana (1984) and preceded the biennial in Johannesburg (1995). Each was considered "peripheral" at the time, though all three also represented efforts to overcome isolation of one sort or another (a stubborn US embargo, cultural boycott of the apartheid regime, bolstering the republic). True, Cairo's biennial debuted in 1984, but its organization and presentation have been historically so shambolic that it has never really registered. In Istanbul's case, the biennial has always been inextricably linked to Turkey's work on solidifying a democratic, secular state (and Istanbul Modern, as a museum, is likewise directly tethered to the country's bid for membership in European Union).
But the biennial's 10th edition - and the museum's review of the first through the ninth - bears terrific witness to the power of contemporary art to subvert. Over the years, the biennial's artists and curators have delved bravely into contradiction and conflict and at the same time they have done so with great sensitivity.
Jointly curated by David Elliott and Rosa Martinez, Istanbul Modern's director and chief curator, respectively, "Time Present Time Past" is much more than a selection of greatest hits. It is a review of curatorial practice over two highly pivotal decades, a reconsideration of the biennial model and a reassessment of Istanbul's growth as an art center (viable, critical and no longer passing for peripheral, thanks). It is also - like a delicate string of blinking lights - a long sequence of strong works that signal dazzling experiments in various and competing moments in very recent art history. The show hits upon fluctuating definitions of beauty, the deskilling of art and the return to obsessive formal intricacy, the rigor of social practice and the depth of works based on extensive documentary and archival research.
Despite being chronological, the exhibition is also laid out spatially with horizontal and vertical axes that are both capped with tight curatorial gestures. One descends into the show by way of Monica Bonavinci's cracked glass "Stairway to Hell" and lands in close proximity to Richard Wentworth's "False Ceiling" of hanging, bird-like books next to the museum's library. Though both works are technically outside the parameters of "Time Present Time Past," they were both acquired from the biennial for the museum and as such nail the connection between the two institutions squarely.
The length of the lower flower is bracketed on one side by the second part of Phil Collins' hilarious and seemingly endless video "The World Won't Listen," which belongs to the artist's "The Smiths' Karaoke Trilogy" (chosen by 2005 curators Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun), and on the other side by a segment from Pipilotti Rist's "Shooting Divas" project, featuring the Turkish singer Saadet Turkoz emoting a love poem, the lyrics of which translate: "My horse, my dog, my boy, my man, my diva, my swan" (chosen by 1997 curator Rosa Martinez). So as you walk through the exhibition, you have Istanbul's "shy, dissatisfied, narcissistic" kids channeling Morrissey (and wailing their guts out) cross-faded with a crack diva who sounds like a female version of Tom Waits growling lusty phrases at a register that rattles your sternum. The result is an aural mix that rumbles - really - with strange, gritty beauty.
Solmaz Shahbazi's study of gated communities in Istanbul - the two-channel video installation "Perfectly Suited for You" accompanied by four haunting light boxes (also selected by Esche and Kortun) - and the Xurban Collective's multifaceted photography and mixed-media project "The Containment Contained" - charting the stealth transport of diesel fuel in hidden tanks built into trucks traveling between Turkey and Iraq (selected by 2003 curator Dan Cameron) - are among the most brilliant examples of research-based artworks around and are both a pleasure and a challenge to engage here.
Other highlights include hanging sculptures by Lee Bul, Margherita Manzelli's terrifying paintings of teenage nymphets, an enervating animation with record player by Francis Alys, a striking wall mural by Haluk Akakce (the latter three all selected by 1999 curator Paolo Colombo, who is, incidentally enough, an associate producer on German-Turkish director Fatih Akin's latest film).
Plasma screens introducing each edition of the biennial, along with the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, flesh out the story over the past 20 years with background on how the event was affected by the Gulf War of 1991, economic crisis in 1994, the massive Izmit earthquake in 1999 and the events of September 11, 2001. Buttressing research also sheds light on how the biennial's use of venues and relationship with the city have changed, how the balance between "local" and "international" artists has shifted and how, when Turkish art critic Beral Madra kicked off the whole thing by organizing the first two editions, the term "curator" wasn't even used in Turkey yet.
One may wonder why the first video ever made by Kutlug Ataman, one of Turkey's bona fide art stars who made his international debut at the biennial with "semiha b. unplugged," hasn't been included here. One may forgive 1995 curator Rene Block for noting, in the course of organizing a biennial around the theme "Orient/ation: The Image of Art in a Paradoxical World," that "we can agree that trips to Iran, Iraq, Syria or Lebanon are senseless, insofar as one is not interested in visiting historical sites, but studios for contemporary art. The artists from these lands who are important ... live in exile ... in the West" (poor things, they're persecuted) and then identifying Shirin Neshat as Iraqi (Iran, Iraq, whatever). To be fair, Block's print portfolio is a triumph and his curatorship predictably top-notch. All told the glitches only amplify the value of "Time Present Time Past" as a chronicle of change, and a motivator for more.
"Time Present Time Past: Highlights from 20 Years of the International Istanbul Biennial" runs through December 2 at Istanbul Modern, Antrepo 4, on Meclis-i Mebusan Avenue in Karakoy. For more information, please call +90 212 334 7300