Months before its opening, 13th Istanbul Biennial titled ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’ raised much criticism about its various aspects such as the event’s sponsors, subject, graphic design, etc. But why so much criticism?
Istanbul Biennial is organized by İKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts), a foundation created and funded by a family corporation called Eczacıbaşı Holding. Internationally the biennial is Turkey’s most esteemed and famous art event. Various contemporary artists around the world are invited to participate in the event and it is a very significant occasion for the Turkish art scene which does not have collections of world famous modern and contemporary artists. Besides, the biennial is highly anticipated by art enthusiasts in İstanbul, a city with scarce amount of art museums and exhibitions compared to other big cities like New York, London and Paris.
This being the case, those who are interested in art try to convey their ideas to İKSV through comments and criticism in order to improve the biennial each year. Although the biennial is under the monopoly of İKSV and receives funding by private companies like Eczacıbaşı and Koç in addition to the public funding by the Promotion Fund of the Prime Ministry and by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the event should be accountable to the Istanbul public as it bears the title ‘Istanbul Biennial.’ An event that does not take this responsibility can be just as well named something like Koç-Eczacıbaşı Contemporary Art Exhibition. Thus, criticism and comments made about the Istanbul Biennial and its organizers are very important and should definitely be taken into account by İKSV.
Although there are many critiques and reviews of the 13th Istanbul Biennial, it is not possible to find these in main stream media. Most of the time there aren’t any comments or reviews on these channels other than the press release issued by the organizer of the event. Even the protests that happened during the preliminary activities about the biennial which ended up in a police station, barely received any news coverage. I’m not sure whether it is because of the lack of biennial review and criticism in main stream media but clearly, there are some serious issues about the biennial.
Curator’s Attempt to Make Art?
First issue we encounter is the biennial’s title and its graphic design. At first glance the title ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’ does not relate to the main subject of the biennial, the public space. It is necessary to read curator Fulya Erdemci’s introductory text in the biennial guide in order to understand why the organization is titled as such. In this text we are being told that the word barbarian originated in the ancient Greek civilization and this word is used to describe the other, the foreigner and the oppressed. However the title ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’ continues to be vague since the fact that being barbarian, other, foreigner or oppressed does not have a direct relation to the main subject of the biennial. This title seems to be one of those ‘complex and puzzling’ texts that is usually observed in contemporary art exhibitions. It simply does not appeal to the ordinary visitor. Choosing a phrase that can only be explained through paragraphs of historical, philosophical and academic knowledge does not help but to confuse the visitor. Besides, does the biennial really need a title?
Another oddity that we see is the graphic design that is chosen for the visual identity of this year’s biennial. Considering the idea of the public space, the graphic design resembles Istanbul’s haphazard and ugly cityscape. But should the visual material of the biennial convey a message like this by sacrificing a proper graphic identity? The point of exhibiting works in a biennial about a specific subject already aims to convey a message. The fact that the biennial tries to give a message through an untidy and disorganized graphic design seems to be curator’s attempt to make art through ‘curating’ which is also a phenomenon usually observed in contemporary art exhibitions. Although İKSV has an outstanding record for its previous graphic designs for various events in the past years, the graphic design for the 13th Istanbul Biennial fails to visualize a strong and appealing identity.
Being Depended on the Biennial Guide
This year’s biennial was free of charge which was a very positive development. However in order to understand the works exhibited in the biennial, the visitor is expected to spend some money. İKSV prepared a guide for the biennial with the dimensions of a mid-sized book which was sold for 5 liras. This guide is essential for the visitor to get some sense from the biennial since no information is given about any of the works exhibited in the biennial locations besides basic information about works like the name of the artist, name of the work and its medium. Only other option was to take the 20 lira guided biennial tour. Basically if you vouched for the guide and ignored the tour, you were entitled to read 350 pages (luckily, half of the book has photos). Considering the number of works exhibited, if the visitor tries to understand what is going on in the biennial and starts reading the guide, the innocent biennial visit turns into a small scale torture.
Including Salt Beyoğlu and Arter –both based on İstiklal Street– to the biennial was a very successful choice. Starting from İstiklal to visit Salt and Arter, and then moving to Galata to see the works in Galata Greek Primary School and continuing to Tophane for Antrepo 3 is perhaps one of the most enjoyable routes in İstanbul. However since there are no maps of the biennial route in the galleries, tourists were supposed to buy a biennial guide to find their way (because of a printing and design error, it is highly possible that many tourists did not see Antrepo 3 in the guide’s map). Having a map in the biennial locations would make the life much easier for tourists who can’t navigate in the city.
Choosing 5533, a gallery in Süleymaniye which is quite distant from the previously mentioned galleries that are on the Taksim – Karaköy axis, as one of the biennial locations was an interesting choice. Although the possibility that the biennial could move to these parts of the city in the years ahead is very exciting, for this biennial, 5533 seems to be quite distant and alienated from rest of the galleries.
Director of the biennial Bige Örer told in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Radikal that the İstanbul biennial, because of the lack of adequate government support, has the smallest funding compared to other international events on similar scale.1
However there is some negligence in the biennial which cannot be disregarded and justified by financial inadequacy. First problem that caught my eye was the modem that dangled from first floor which could be observed from the ground floor entrance of the Galata Greek Primary School. The modem was dangling as it was during my second visit to the biennial one week later. The carelessness of this spectacle is quite ironic when considering the banner below which proudly advertises the guided tours provided by the sponsor company Koç.
Two large signboards for the biennial at the entrance of the Galata Greek Primary School partially block the pavement in front of the school. The placement and size of the signboards, along with the cavity in the pavement for a tree, obstruct the way for people with wheelchairs. It is nice to make the biennial location known to passersby but this could be done by placing banners on the building rather than blocking the pavement with large signboards.
Public Space, Biennial and Contemporary Art
As Bige Örer explains in the foreword of the guide, “13th Istanbul Biennial focuses on the power of public space in terms of social struggles, art and politics.”2 But what exactly is the result of this focus and how does this reflect on the visitor?
My opinion is that the biennial was overshadowed by the Gezi protests and it cannot make a statement about the importance of public space in terms of social struggles, art and politics. First reason for this is that, this statement was already done in a spectacular way with graffiti, street art, photography and other visual media during the Gezi Resistance. Second reason is that the works exhibited at the biennial are not really related with public space and they generally don’t convey a message to the visitor other than making them ask ‘is this art?’ Diego Bianchi’s weird ‘installation’ which occupies almost the whole ground floor of Salt Beyoglu is one of those works that cannot really convey a message about public space. As there was no information about the installation in Salt, we had to look at the biennial guide to find out what it was about. Unfortunately, the explanation of this work in the guide does not tell us its relation to public space in terms of social struggles, art and politics. Moreover, it presents complex, hard and sometimes grammatically improper sentences such as, “Employing the structure of shop windows and street stalls, the artist composes surrealistic connections that shelter found objects or detritus that could be called ‘underclass’: commodities that have lost value or functionality and were removed from circulation.”3
The fact that there were almost no works related to state oppression in public spaces of İstanbul itself was another disappointing aspect of the biennial. Protesters in Turkey and especially in İstanbul, the host city of the biennial, met with state brutality in public spaces and have been either beaten or tear gassed most of the time, as they tried to protest about social or political reasons. And this was very well the case when the ‘conceptual framework’ of the biennial was announced, well before the Gezi Resistance.
In the introductory section of the biennial guide Fulya Erdemci talks about the Gezi Resistance at length and emphasizes its importance. This is quite ironic since it is the Gezi Resistance that exposes the reality that the works in the 13th İstanbul Biennial and their narrative does not relate to the ordinary visitor. It became obvious that conceptual art trapped behind the doors of sterile galleries does not have the power to impress anyone but a group of artists and curators.
Gezi was not an art event and it is definitely unwise to compare it to a biennial but it is equally unwise to ignore it as it was the largest civil disobedience in the history of Turkey, which had only taken place 3 months before the biennial. Various performances and artistic works created during the Gezi events have unequivocally showed the influence of public art over the society. From the epic performance of Erdem Gündüz, dubbed ‘The Standing Man’ by the people, to painting public stairs in the Fındıklı neighborhood of İstanbul in rainbow colors, we witnessed the transformative power of public art.
If public art projects included in the biennial program before the Gezi Resistance were not cancelled, we would be able to experience them and make our comments. It is not clear whether these projects were abandoned by the biennial team as a show of respect to Gezi or because the sponsor companies did not want the biennial to clash with the government as it was highly probably that the government would not allow any public shows after the events of Gezi. I did not find Fulya Erdemci’s explanation in the biennial guide very convincing: “Accomplishing these projects that articulate the question of public domain in urban public spaces under these circumstances might have contradicted their essence and purpose; we were thus convinced that ‘not realizing’ them is a more powerful political statement than having them materialize under such conditions.”4
It seems to me that the idea to abandon public spaces was due to state oppression in Istanbul’s public spaces rather than a noble decision of ‘not realizing’ public projects. Whatever the reason is, it was obvious from the Gezi Resistance that ‘not realized’ events are not more powerful political statements. In fact, they are rather non-existent statements if left invisible to the public as was the case in the biennial. Moving conceptual art indoors prevents a discussion that could be raised about power of public spaces on politics, society and art before starting one.
It is possible to say that it has been a huge misfortune for the 13th İstanbul Biennial to start only 3 months after the greatest civil protests in the history of Turkey. It was clear that a biennial staged indoors would not raise a serious discussion about public space after the Gezi Resistance. Nevertheless, there were some successful works in the biennial that could attract visitors’ attention such as Halil Altındere’s impressive, funky and provocative work Wonderland and, Networks of Dispossession by a collective group, that exposed the relationship of capital-media-urban transformation, which was displayed in Galata Greek Primary School’s top floor.
We are looking forward to the 2nd İstanbul Design Biennial which will also be organized by İKSV. Hopefully İKSV will improve itself after this year’s feedback and will present a better performance in the design biennial which will be opened in the last quarter of 2014.
1Cem Erciyes, ‘Bu sergi için izin isteyemezdik’, Radikal, [last accessed on October 8 2013].
2Bige Örer, ‘Making Ways’, 13th İstanbul Biennial Guide (İstanbul: İKSV; Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2013), p. 16.
3Javier Villa, ‘Diego Bianchi’, 13th İstanbul Biennial Guide (İstanbul: İKSV; Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2013), p. 393.
4Fulya Erdemci, ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’, 13th İstanbul Biennial Guide (İstanbul: İKSV; Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2013), p. 27.