A Stroll Through the Istanbul Biennial

9th International Istanbul Biennial
September 16 – October 30, 2005
Istanbul, Turkey
Michel Oren


Michael Blum, <em>A Tribute to Safiye Behar</em>, 2005.

A Turkish proverb warns that you can’t fit two watermelons under one arm, and yet I propose to fit three competing perspectives on the Istanbul Biennial into the space of one short review.

But first, a word about biennials. The
one in Istanbul, as you might guess, is associated with an upsurge of “Third World” art biennials (Kwangju, Cairo, Dakar, and Havana are some others) that in the late ‘80s and in the ‘90s brought numerous interesting non-Western artists to world prominence. “By forcing the art world to change its traditional trajectories, these biennials brought about a new critical pressure on [older] institutions like Venice and Documenta to renovate,” says Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of the Second Johannesburg Biennial and of Documenta 11 in Kassel. Most biennials “are the true sites of enlightened debate on what contemporary art means today.”1

Hala Elkoussy, <em>Peripheral Stories</em>, 2005.

The Istanbul Biennial has slowly propelled Turkish artists into Western European museum and gallery shows and helped find them scholarships and residencies there. Over the years it has oscillated between a preference for “spiritual,” decorative work versus art that is more sociologically oriented. The 8th Biennial (2003) tried to balance the two. Both intimate and festive, that Biennial allowed one to coil up in a series of shells to watch videos or to view work installed within Byzantine cisterns, the Ayasofya (Haghia Sophia) Museum, an Ottoman bathhouse, and an armory.

By contrast, this year’s 9th Biennial was more sociologically attuned. Focused, didactic, and slightly ascetic, its theme was the urban complex of Istanbul. Eschewing historical monuments as suitable only for tourists (and wishing to attract Istanbul residents as well), the curators exhibited in seven run- down apartment, commercial, or warehouse buildings scattered around Beyog ̆lu (Pera), the old West European quarter. These venues made “reference to the everyday, the physical legacy of modernity and the shift to a consumer economy,” according to press materials. The curators invited emerging artists mostly from the Balkan, Black Sea and Middle East regions to create works onsite during two to three month residencies. They also solicited art relating to other cities within that region.

Hüseyin Alptekin, <em>H-fact: Horses & Heroes</em>, no date.

The curatorial team produced a small black- and-white catalog with installation shots
of each work. Generated with extraordinary dispatch in the days before the opening, it was included in the price of admission. The team also prepared a critical reader with essays in Turkish and English (a sort of graduate course in contemporary urbanism) along with a weekly insert in Turkish about the Biennial for a local newspaper.
 As it happens, Istanbul is a particularly fascinating city, not only for those aspects attractive to tourists but in the variety of contemporary urban problems it exhibits. Under 1980s neo-liberalist policies, Istanbul aspired to become a “global city,” attracting a vast sum of foreign capital and the communications infrastructure to make it
a regional financial center. New boulevards were driven through historic districts; small manufacturers were relocated; office towers, five-star hotels, and urban malls sprang up; and international festivals of film, opera, classical music, jazz, and theater were organized. The Biennial fit neatly into this picture.

Not everything worked out as planned, however. In late 20th century, the city’s population swelled from one to fifteen million. Barely literate peasants displaced by mechanization, Iranian refugees, and Kurds evacuated from their villages by the Turkish army all poured into Istanbul at a rate of 200,000 or 300,000 a year. Mostly unemployed, they set up shantytowns with others from the same villages. Meanwhile, those who had made a killing in the ‘80s economy moved to gated suburban communities. This situation—and similar ones in neighboring countries—was directly addressed not only in some of the exhibited art work but in a conference called “Istanbul Fragmented” held at the architecture school of Istanbul Technical University.

There was much to see and do at and around the Biennial. In fact, it was a bit difficult to keep up with all the activities happening simultaneously including the “Hospitality Suite,” a space within the Biennial organized by freelance curators that included Free Kick (where some political pieces referred to torture or the unresolved Kurdish situation) and Hafriyat (“Excavation,” with paintings by a group of urban artists); an opening at the new Istanbul Modern museum; the second Pedestrian Exhibition in which a series of outdoor installations appeared on the banks of the Golden Horn; several pieces of sound art; as well as a proliferation of activities such as gallery openings and various events that took place in apartments or streets at specified times at night (and perhaps when no one was looking).

But let me get on now with the three perspectives promised earlier.

Pilvi Takala, <em>Women in Kahves</em>, 2005.

The 9th Biennial was not the first geographically based show about the city. Projected European Union expansion has encouraged exhibitions on Eastern European Art, Balkan art, and most recently, Istanbul art. One show of the latter kind, organized in Karlsruhe, had annoyed participating Turkish artists who found it to be full of romantic Orientalist stereotypes. Another show, organized in Berlin, provoked Turkish artists for the same reason. Because they also felt that their participation was being taken for granted and that they were being pigeonholed by Western European identity politics, some chose to withdraw from the Berlin exhibit.2

The 9th Biennial was determined to present Istanbul in all its raw reality, bereft of
the hazy Romantic veils with which 19th century Europe had swathed it.3 One can
see in this approach a legitimate desire for “recognition,” as philosopher Charles Taylor describes it, but it can also be situated in the ambivalent dialogue between Turkish and Western European cultures over at least the last 150 years.4

Nedko Solakov, <em>Art & Life (in my part of the world)</em>, 2005.

The Avant-Garde5
A certain one-upmanship may be observed among biennial organizers, as they, in their efforts to claim legitimacy, have appeared to bite the art world hand that feeds them. Charles Esche, co-curator of the 9th Istanbul Biennial, favored artist-run spaces while ignoring museums and galleries when he co-curated the Kwangju Biennial in 2002. Vasif Kortun, the 9th Istanbul Biennial’s Turkish co-curator, similarly reduced the representation of international artists in favor of building a Balkan and Black Sea regional network during his curatorship
of the 3rd Istanbul Biennial in 1992. In the present instance, the two courageously organized an intellectual, austere show with emerging artists when art stars the world over were expecting invitations to present their most spectacular new works, while the sponsoring organization must have hoped for a large draw of foreign tourists.

Just as the 2002 Documenta 11 established five “platforms” in different parts of the world, each with its own catalog, so the 9th Istanbul Biennial set up a sister exhibition (a retrospective of all eight previous Biennials with its own separate catalog) at Esche’s home institution, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland.6 Further, the notion of using apartment and office buildings
as exhibition venues and of interactively marching viewers through them and along the streets between them belongs to the avant-garde strategy of making art overflow and dissolve its borders until it merges with life.

Khalil Rabah, <em>The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind</em>, 2005.

Analysis of Turkish artists’ groups within
the 9th Biennial, such as Oda Projesi or Xurban, would turn up additional avant- garde parallels. Art critic and historian Erden Kosova has written about a group of young artists who grew up together in the Kadiköy area on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and who first became interested in contemporary art around 1995 as an apparently untrammeled field for political expression.7 Their work slowly matured in isolation (echoes of the Blue Rose painters’ group 
in provincial Saratov).8 With scholarship assistance, they went abroad from 1999- 2001, where their success allowed them local art world attention on their return to Istanbul (echoes of the Italian Futurists in Milan 
after their Paris show of 1912). Three artists from this group—one a member of Oda Projesi—participated in the 9th Biennial.9

Ahmet Ög ̆üt, <em>Somebody Else’s Car</em>, 2005.

Theoretical Articulations of Urban Space
Although the writings of Henri Lefèbvre,
Guy Debord, Michel de Certeau, and Walter Benjamin on the production, exploration and reordering of urban space were mentioned at “Istanbul Fragmented,” none appeared in the Biennial’s critical reader, which may be taken as an index of the curators’ theoretical stance. Nor did the curators seem interested in the history of site-specific art projects where the site had been an urban complex.10 Their orientation appeared to have been mostly sociological and phenomenological, although the reader concluded with selections from Georgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, an almost theological work that seeks to delineate a space between the particular and the universal.11

That happily redemptive space, if it could be found, would be located neither in Turkey (which might be the particular in this case) nor Western Europe (with its universal claims). That space would be the watermelon (a fruit of the anti-Orientalist perspective mentioned above), which could not fit under an arm carrying the other two.

In a previous incarnation, Michel Oren lived four years in Turkey and produced a guidebook to Ankara and Central Anatolia.


  1. “Global Tendencies: Globalism and the Large-Scale Exhibition,” Artforum, November 2003, pp. 162-63.
  2. The first exhibition, Call me ISTANBUL ist mein Name, took place at the ZKM Center in Karlsruhe in 2004. The second show, Urban Realities: Focus on Istanbul (2005), was organized in Berlin by Künstlerhaus Bethanien.
  3. Beral Madra, a Turkish art critic who directed the first 5. two Istanbul Biennials, laments that “Istanbul is not
easy to absorb and grasp” and faults some of the images—even those by Turkish artists—for being 
“short circuit” and unequivocal—a result, she feels, of 
trying to compete for attention with advertising imagery.
  4. “ . . . Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people of society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.” Charles Taylor, Multicultural- ism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 25.
  5. The term “avant-garde,” which strictly speaking refers to certain innovative artists’ groups in Western Europe, with their manifestos, organs of publication, and critiques of bourgeois society in the period of, say, 1890-1930, may be considered to have lost its cultural and temporal specificity.
  6. IstanbulEindhoven, a short guide: 40 international artists selected from 18 years of the Istanbul Biennial (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2005).
  7. Erden Kosova, “E: ‘The Avenue.’ V: ‘Which one?’” in Becoming a Place (Istanbul: Proje4L, 2001), pp. 82-91, 114-23 (Turkish and English texts); Kosova, “Contempo- rary Art in Turkey,” In the Gorges of the Balkans, a Report (Kassel: Kunsthalle Fridericianum, 2003), pp. 38-40 (German and English texts).
  8. See Robert C. Williams, Artists in Revolution: Portraits o ̧f the R ̧ussian Avant-garde, 1905-1925 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), pp. 114, 182.
  9. These were Halil Altindere, Serkan Özkaya, and Günes Savas (Oda Projesi).
  10. See for example, Mary Jane Jacob, Places With a Past: New Site-Specific Art at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival (New York: Rizzoli, 1991).
  11. Selections from “The Coming Community,” in Art, City, and Politics in an Expanding World: Writings from the 9th International Istanbul Biennial (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts/IKSV, 2005), pp. 323-35 (Turkish and English texts). The full text of Georgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated into English by Michael Hardt, was published by University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Further Reading