ISTANBUL: An archetype of socialist-modernist architecture with its transparent facade of single-glazed glass and aluminum fretwork, the Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM) is one of the few buildings strung around Istanbul's Taksim Square that actually works in terms of size and scale. It doesn't impose or tower over the space before it. Built like a stout, utilitarian rectangle, it breathes easily due to its aerated front.
It is considered an emblem of Turkey's modernist, democratic drive and a unique repository for both cultural and political memory. But as the country's economy dovetails with neoliberalism and the movements of global capital, and as gentrification outpaces the preservation urge is Istanbul, many people seem to want the AKM gone - replaced by some postmodern pastiche that would generate better revenue or scrapped entirely for a more corporate-style commercial complex.
The site was originally meant for an opera house, to be designed in a neoclassical style in 1930s by French architect Auguste Perret. But the project stalled, shifted in function from opera house to multi-purpose cultural center and in form from fey neoclassicism to austere modernism. The commission passed into different architects' hands until Hayati Tabanlioglu picked it. When the AKM finally opened in 1969, it was called the Istanbul Palace of Culture.
A year later it burned to the ground after a fire broke out during a performance. It was dutifully rebuilt. The AKM reopened as such in the late 1970s, and while it hasn't been particularly well managed or maintained, it continues to host state-sponsored operas, ballets, orchestras and more.
To walk into "Burn It or Not," one of the six primary nodes in the extensive tissue that is the 10th International Istanbul Biennial, is to stumble into the middle of a heated debate over whether the AKM should be demolished or not.
The biennial's curator, Hou Hanru, seized the building as the epitome of his theme and invited 16 artists to install new or existing work there. The result is a concentrated dose of art revisiting modernist architecture to investigate its seeming obsolescence and revive its utopian promise.
Utopian promise is, after all, at the heart of this edition of Istanbul's biennial, entitled: "Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War." An independent curator and critic who was born in Guangzhou, China, and is now based in Paris, Hanru has enlisted 96 artists and collectives from 35 countries to rake through the wreckage of modernism and reclaim its facility to critically assess and creatively respond, and moreover to rejuvenate its ability to dream and invent.
Hanru's emphasis falls not on the historical project of modernity in the developed world, which is basically done and dusted, but rather on the processes of modernization in the developing world, the Third World - those places in the world where modernizing was and is fraught by associations with Westernizing, thrust upon newly independent states, left to rot or transformed into something else entirely.
The underlying question posed by the biennial is, more or less, how can contemporary art pry open the potential - once lodged in the heart of modernism but since hardened by neoconservative cynicism, conflict zones and capitalism in its crudest form - to imagine a world better, more just and more fulfilling, and then will that world into existence through the creation of works that stoke the same potential in the spaces of cities and in the minds of citizens?
The artists of the biennial have produced and/or presented more than 150 artworks, using the urban fabric of Istanbul - so relevant with its rich, labyrinthine history and its geographic straddling of Europe and Asia - as a laboratory. Their projects are sifted into six sections: "Burn It or Not" at the AKM; "World Factory," sliced brilliantly into the blocs and spaces of the Istanbul Textile Traders' Market; "Entre-Polis" and "Dream House," both installed in an old customs warehouse next to the Istanbul Modern museum in Karakoy; "Nightcomers," a series of video projections in 25 locations in the city (based on the concept of the dazibao, when the lower classes during China's Cultural Revolution were encouraged to post critiques as bold-lettered posters in the public realm); and a final section devoted to a myriad set of special projects.
"Burn It or Not" coheres around art projects about modernist architecture, such as Armenian artist Vahram Aghasyan's eerie photographs for the "Ghost City" series, documenting an abandoned, half-built housing project called Mush, "a dreadful wilderness of dead buildings." New Yorker Daniel Faust offers equally chilling photographs of the United Nations headquarters, a building designed by Le Corbusier and compromised by city politics involving powerbroker Robert Moses, the Rockefeller family and more.
Permeating the entire building is an exquisitely executed installation by Turkish artist Erdem Helvacioglu, who has rendered the history of the AKM in sound samples - processed and unprocessed recordings of performances that took place there, scraps of ambient sound from the empty building and the surrounding noise of Taksim Square, and interviews with people about the structure. The result is a space haunted by invisible ghosts, and emotionally moved by orchestra crescendos that rise and fall between melancholy and autocratic terror.
"Entre-Polis" is more of a free-for-all, with more than 40 artists and artists' groups given free reign with the theme. At times, the boundaries between "Entre-Polis" and "Dream House," another section meant to be open only at night, are fluid to non-existent, which feels right - the busting of barriers, political and otherwise, being a key strategy here. More politically pointed work is presented is the cavernous warehouse than in the AKM, along with projects that are more lusciously, unabashedly beautiful.
Humor also courses through the venue, thanks especially to Taiyo Kimura's outrageous television screen crammed into a corner and wrapped with toilet paper, projecting "Video as Drawing," which takes already extreme body art performances even further.
Works to stop viewers in their tracks include Damascus-born and -based artist Buthayna Ali's striking yet strangely familiar "We," a room full of sand and countless swings in black canvas and rope, each adorned with a noun written in white Arabic script: love, war, nation, etc. Paul Chan's video installation from the "7 Lights" series is like a painting set in motion, splayed on the floor, toying with light and shadow and an undercurrent of apocalyptic dread.
"Entre-Polis" proper includes a terrific video by up-and-coming Turkish star Fikret Atay of a young man transforming buckets and sticks into hot beats over the Istanbul skyline. Jonathan Barnbrook's "Friendly Fire" takes hold of urban guerrilla-style fly postings to comment on the inanity, horror and stubbornly cyclical nature of contemporary warfare. Hamra Abbas, born in Kuwait and based in Lahore, sounds one of the weirdest and most wonderful notes with "Lessons in Love," taking the erotic poses of miniature paintings (depicting positions of copulation and presumably for a pedagogical rather than pornographic purpose) and transforming them into enormous sculptures made from cheap materialism, conflating sexual intimacy and bland consumer culture.
But perhaps most striking is a triumvirate on the subject of Armenians in Turkey circa 1915 and the touchy issue of minorities in the country more generally. The filmmaker Atom Egoyan's long horizontal video installation "Auroras" is paired with Kutlug Ataman's single-channel video "Testimony."
In the former, Egoyan excavates the story of Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian exiled in 1915 who landed on New York's Ellis Island in search of her brother. Her story was appropriated by Hollywood and turned into a film with commercial weight behind it in 1918. She herself starred in the movie, "Auction of Souls," but was so doubly traumatized by the experience that she threatened suicide and ditched the film's promotional tour. Seven replacements were hired, thus the seven heads that convey her story in Egoyan's video, which probes trenchant questions about mediated history, the authenticity of testimony, and tragedy conveyed as entertainment.
Ataman's piece consists of interview footage with Kevser Abla, his 105-year-old former nanny, whom he learned was Armenian when he was young, was told never to mention it, and pries open her story through a long and affectionate talk.
Lastly is the group Extrastruggle's terrifically street-wise poster project "What?" featuring caricatures of minorities in Turkey on posters that viewers are meant to interact with by scrawling all over them. A plea for the critical as opposed to commercial intent of graphic design, Extrastruggle's piece is a clear attempt at wrenching change and realizing a city, and a country, where all are equal.
The 10th International Istanbul Biennial runs through November 4 at various venues throughout the city. For more information, please call +90 212 334 0763