ISTANBUL: Whoever took the job of curating the 12th Istanbul Biennial was guaranteed to have a hard time pulling off an exhibition as powerful or memorable as the 11th.
Two years ago, the Croatian collective WHW used the biennial as an occasion to propose – and then try to prove – that art could redress the gross inequities of late capitalism, retrieve the lost promises of communism, expose exploitation, resist occupation and find some measure of personal and collective fulfillment in 21st-century life.
WHW’s exhibition, named “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” after a lyric from Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” was conceived as a full-fledged, left-leaning political program. It was brash, stubborn and heavy-handed. It was as if the curators thought they could change the world.
Much of the work was didactic, but WHW’s biennial was a complicated beast. It crashed around the stuff of propaganda, but it also took delicate and nimble turns. One of the most enduring facets of the exhibition was its attention to the labor of art – for those who make it and those who engage it – as both a solitary struggle and a potentially regenerative act.
Now the curators Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann have stepped into WHW’s formidable shoes. Their exhibition, titled “Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial),” opened to the public Saturday as a literal and willful return to form.
“Istanbul has become important as a critical, experimental, research-based biennial,” says Pedrosa, an independent curator based in Sao Paulo. “From looking at the last few editions, there seemed to be an emphasis on art and politics, but there also seemed to be a certain disregard for aesthetic form,” not only in Istanbul, he explained, but in a rash of other politically minded exhibitions taking place over the last twenty years.
“The way curatorial practice has developed, curators are bringing in other things to look at political issues through art,” says Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. While others have turned to literature, philosophy, critical theory or an activist agenda, Pedrosa and Hoffmann have hinged their biennial on the sensibility of a single artist.
Felix Gonzales-Torres, who died in1996, was known (and almost unconditionally adored) for his eloquent and ephemeral gestures. He made piles of candy and stacks of paper for people to take and keep. He put a photograph of an empty, unmade bed on a public billboard, strung up light bulbs, hung diaphanous curtains and placed two synchronized clocks side by side.
Gonzalez-Torres left almost all of his works untitled, followed by parenthetical words or phrases that conveyed undercurrents of violence and sorrow. Some of the pieces were inconsolable, dealing with the illness, death and absence of his lover. Others pointedly critiqued guns in America, the Reagan Administration’s criminal neglect of the AIDS crisis and the ravaging physical effects of the disease.
None of Gonzalez-Torres’ works are in the biennial itself – Pedrosa and Hoffmann argue that he constitutes “a disembodied presence” – but the show is named for him and structured around five actual or approximate examples of his work: “Untitled (Abstraction),” “Untitled (Ross),” “Untitled (Passport),” “Untitled (History)” and “Untitled (Death by Gun).” He has become, here, something of a fixed curatorial framework.
“His works have a certain sensibility and elegance,” says Hoffmann. “They don’t punch you in the face and they aren’t spoon-feeding you messages.”
The Istanbul Biennial has long been the most serious and professional event of its kind in the region. With the Sharjah Biennial looking a little unsteady, the Marrakech Biennale still untested and the Cairo and Alexandria Biennials in terminal decline (with or without a revolution), Istanbul may soon become the only one that counts.
Fitfully, since 2005, it has also become a solid platform for artists from the Middle East. For this edition, the Ford Foundation gave the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, which organizes the biennial, a grant of $50,000 to support the participation of Arab artists – the argument being that no one else will.
The greatest strength of “Untitled” is that it does not corral the usual suspects, and that applies equally to artists from the region. Mona Hatoum, Akram Zaatari, Wael Shawky, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige are there, but so too are Bisan Abu-Eisheh, Marwa Arsanios, Ala Younis, Charbel-Joseph H. Boutros, George Awde, Rula Halawani and Shuruq Harb.
Palestine is as ubiquitous a disembodied presence as Gonzalez-Torres.
With five group shows and more than fifty solo presentations spread across three floors in two old customs warehouses, the biennial is remarkably self-contained. It feels institutional, refined, museum-like and controlled.
Each of the solo artists is installed in his or her own room. Jonathas de Andrade’s “Tropical Hangover,” 101 photographs of Recife in Brazil coupled with 140 pages from a manic found diary that swings from sexual adventure to God and despair, fills a long and spacious hallway, giving the works room to breathe. Thirteen gorgeous photographs by Tina Modotti are pulled together in an intimate chamber. But overall, the layout feels uniform and systematic.
The group shows are also incredibly literal with their themes. Walk into “Untitled (History)” and you find books and timelines and documents redacted to a decorative extreme. Walk into “Untitled (Passport)” and you find luggage, maps, visa application forms and, of course, passports.
“Untitled (Abstraction)” is lined with modernist grids, whether made out of Mona Hatoum’s hair or cut up stills from the film “Lasting Images” by Hadjithomas and Joreige. The latter is problematic in that “Lasting Images,” as a film, is haunting and visceral. “180 Seconds from Lasting Images” reworks the piece into wall décor.
Not every selection in the exhibition feels equally astute.
Pedrosa and Hoffmann’s structure is certainly crisp and clever but it does not necessarily justify its own existence. It may be a beautifully made exhibition, but does it need to be a biennial? You could move it anywhere in the world, tour it like an enormous museum show, or break it down into a year’s worth of programming.
WHW may have been strident, but they took risks and staked out positions and courted the dangers of being naïve, hopeful, furious, of claiming an urgency for art and failing to meet its challenges, of reviving a tired ideology instead of coming up with something new or unknown.
“Untitled” is, by contrast, smooth, steady and heavily scripted. The show ends with bang in “Untitled (Death by Gun),” but it feels like a one liner.
You’re in a room with Mathew Brady’s photographs of dead bodies in the American Civil War, Weegee’s photographs of dead bodies in New York, Eddie Adams’ sequence of a street assassination in Vietnam.
There are guns and bullets everywhere, along with Mat Collishaw’s knife-wound as vagina-like bullet hole.
Goya’s “The Third of May” is replicated in clay figurines on the floor, a chalked-in toy train track looping figure eights around them.
On a screen in the corner, a little girl walks down a wooded path, playing hide and seek with two little twerps. One of them shoots her in the shoulder and she slumps to the ground. The video loops and you hear the shot over and over. Maybe the first time you wince. After that, nothing. It’s just a cheeky, anodyne detail.
“Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial)” runs through November 13. For more information, please see www.iksv.org