Salt of the Earth: Locating the 14th Istanbul Biennial

14th Istanbul Biennial
Istanbul, Turkey
September 5—November, 2015
Matthew Schum

In what is one of the world’s largest cities by any measure, Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev presented the 14th Istanbul Biennial in sites scattered on or near the city’s famous waterfront. On that water and under the influence of Istanbul’s immensity, the exhibition and, especially, its concept were dispersed to the point of dissipation.

Artist Pierre Huyghe exemplifies this disappearance. He chose to sink his artwork, Abyssal Plain (2015–ongoing), out of sight, twenty meters beneath the Marmara Sea.1 Upon this submerged pedestal, found objects and “production left over from the history of the Mediterranean region” will be set near the abandoned Sivriada (or Dog Island).2 An artwork only fish are likely to see may seem frivolous.3 It is. Yet suggestive associations reside in this unseen artwork, starting with the so-called Dog Island, a place where thousands of stray dogs from nearby Istanbul were sent to starve and perish over one hundred years ago. Some consider the banishing of the dogs a presage to the rounding up of ethnic minorities, especially Armenians, in a similar fashion a few years after Dog Island gained notoriety. Thus the otherwise insignificant island is time-stamped by grave and formative events that coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the details of which remain shrouded in the murk of denial and obfuscation that both of the World Wars created in every theater.4

Pierre Huyghe, Abyssal Plain, 2015–ongoing. Concrete, marine life, rocks, mixed media, Sivriada. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Elif Kamışlı.

Pierre Huyghe, Abyssal Plain, 2015–ongoing. Concrete, marine life, rocks, mixed media, Sivriada. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Elif Kamışlı.

In the shadow of wasted life, atavism, and genocide, Huyghe inserts his primordial stage of creatures occupying leftover things. Each of the chosen objects represents an era of bygone production, as all commodities do, whether made of plastic, porcelain, or gold. Carbon-dated fossils give every organism its own time signature; the earth’s duration is enfolded in sedimentary layers. Considered as different temporal registers (artistic, industrial, metamorphic, geologic, industrial), Huyghe creates a grid  of intersecting histories on his submerged stage. (Holograms are rumored to be included as well.) The artist refers to these accumulations as “auto generative” artworks. In this, his sentient creative act simply sets in place constraints; the conscripted creatures provide the rest. One sees echoes of Huyghe’s aquarium, Precambrian Explosion (2014); the carboniferous swimmers in his roof garden commission for the Metropolitan Museum, Rite of Passage (2015); and in the masked primate haunting his recent film, Untitled (Human Mask) (2011–12), which is set near Fukushima. These works imbue urban contexts with traces of the primordial world residing in dank subterranean caves, deep ocean rifts and, perhaps, the unconscious mind. In the French tradition of picturesque ruins, à la Salon painter Hubert Robert or De Chirico’s surreal architectures, Abyssal Plain contrasts the accretion of culture to its destruction through tasteful displays of disarray. Again, it does so as an artwork that will only be discussed, never seen firsthand by viewers. This discussion becomes an aspect of Huyghe’s “auto generative” world, including the generation of curatorial discourse that, in the absence of something to look at, becomes its primary function within the exhibition.

Huyghe has made discourse arise not from within the exhibition but from without, in this case a submerged context, similar to how Robert Smithson conceived of his non-sites.5 The work dares to reside in material things that are more real than media or images in visual artworks tend to be. This counterpoint to trends in contemporary art registers as a need to explore elsewhere and to live outside art’s current worlds. This preference for the otherworldly expresses itself when Christov-Bakargiev introduces Huyghe’s piece as a response to a mutual failure of society and art: “Thinking about the systemic order of power constructed by the spectacular art exhibition itself, before which Theodor Adorno would shudder today, and about the failures of modern nation-building models of the ‘public museum’ and the ‘temporary exhibition,’ Huyghe turned to in-hibition, to a lack of immediate visibility in order to initiate a rite of co-emergence.”6 Yet, the work also exemplifies art’s spectacle society, referenced above as “spectacular art.”7 It is cultural capital reified until the requirement of image production subsides. To exhibit an artwork, a celebrated artist need only infer meaning to compel curatorial collaborators to send that message down the PR pipeline, further reifying it and legitimizing its inscrutability.

A similar process enlivens the conception of a biennial. Another “rite” on display in Abyssal Plain’s deluge of coded signification and co-habitation is the ritual of interpretation. Tidal waves of meaning sent ashore by curators have recently become par for the biennial course. Yet, these long lists of meaningful explanations tend to hide much more beneath their surface than they expose to the reader: namely, how funding and privilege, like language and discourse, circulate esoterically. Anxious curatorial torrents obscure and risk overwhelming artworks. They are like the famous Bosphorus Strait running through Istanbul, which Orhan Pamuk saw as a repository of the city’s many eras, catastrophes, repressed materials, and searching creatures—everything from crabs to Cadillacs and cuckoo clocks vie for space in the mud below.8 This is all to say, overloading artworks with significance while ignoring the material conditions that foster exhibitions presents a defining feature of biennials. Grand pronouncements go hand in hand with the huge ambitions behind international exhibitions, which have steadily grown over the last twenty years since the rise of the curator. Unrestrained by the confines of institutional decorum, the biennial texts of independent organizers occasionally read not as curatorial but rather as demiurgical.9 Take the formidable proportions that guided Okwui Enwezor’s explanation of the recent Venice Biennale. All the World’s Futures, according to the curator, signaled a general “field of vision” in three “filters” (Garden of Disorder; Liveness: On Epic Duration; and Reading Capital) that “delve into the contemporary global reality as one of constant realignment, adjustment, recalibration, motility, and shape-shifting,” while “play[ing] host to what could be described as a Parliament of Forms whose orchestration and episodic unfolding will be broadly global in scope.”10 Rather than a “global reality,” the scope registers as broadly cosmic. Yet, when scanning the list of participating artists, many of the names are familiar from previous such exhibitions.11

Under the firmament of leading curators’ increasingly grand narratives, which embroil visual artists in trans-historical plots and anti-global ploys, it seems that many biennials would be best reviewed from the basket of a hot air balloon, where a Nadar-like tastemaker stares down upon civilization. Such a scenario would begin to give shape to the many cubic meters of hot air uplifting the 14th Istanbul Biennial’s thematic birds-eye-view of the Bosphorus—the primary object of SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.12 In a speculative realist twist, Christov-Bakargiev compounds and capitalizes saltwater (as an adjective) to lend agency to all things briny, including the line joining the Marmara and Black Seas. Her writings for the exhibition shuttle from the lunar vantage of satellite maps of the oceans to cellular communication: “Sodium makes our neurological system, and all our vital systems, work; it literally keeps us alive.”13 For the curator, salt/ water is alpha/omega—both organic substrate and corrosive material: “Two systems—the organic and the digital—are divided by salt. Sodium makes our neurological system, and thus all our vital systems, work; it literally keeps us alive. It causes the neural cell to open their membranes so that information can be carried electronically through a switch in polarization.”14 In Hydrodynamica Applied (2015), Liam Gillick fused digital and organic realms with a painted message on the façade of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. This central waterside biennial venue facing the Bosphorus presented mega-graphic letters and figures of a salt-inspired chemistry equation, which appeared to be cut and pasted from Wikipedia.15 The curatorial endeavor presented many such grains of history, science, art, and Istanbul’s urban setting as a “theory” of thought-as-form and that which informs/forms it (chemically and culturally). Ultimately, these theories as forms were never quite synthesized.

Ferry ride to the Princes’ Islands during the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Matthew Schum.

Ferry ride to the Princes’ Islands during the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Matthew Schum.

Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition could be intuited as the circuitry of the human body joining the physical world: mind diffusing through digitized networks on the one hand and artistic journeys across political boundaries on the other. SALTWATER used the urban terrain and continental rift of the Bosphorus as an organizing principle and orienting feature of the cityscape. This was a sensible approach. The waterway provides an essential link to Istanbul’s rich past and that history’s extant geopolitics today, dividing Eastern Europe from the Near East. Turkey as a Eurasian borderland is a cliché and the stuff of many previous Istanbul Biennial concepts. But using the strait as a primary site and structure was a novel approach.

Christov-Bakargiev infuses the Bosphorus with a sodium concoction of metaphors and analogies. Thus, she regards “waves” as curatorial easements:

[SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms] considers different frequencies and patterns of waves, the currents and densities of water, both visible and invisible that poetically and politically shape and transform the world. There are arrested movements that suspend time (the knots of human transport across seas and oceans, the knots of war, of labour, of ethnic cleansing) and there are repetitive and dispersive movements like waves (waves of uprisings, waves of jouissance, electro-magnetic waves). There are literal waves of water, but also waves of people, of emotion and memory. It is through the identification of waves that we acknowledge patterns— underwater patterns of water, or patterns of wind. Perhaps a wave is simply time—the feeling of a difference between its high and low points able to mark the experience of time, and thus of space, and thus of life.

This sounds less like “a theory of thought forms” than a theory of everything. Are we still talking about art situated within a massive city in a contentious country that is staving off a reactionary revolution on the eastern border and a failing Eurozone economy on the other? That jouissance and the Armenian genocide should be paired here exemplifies the spurious dualisms that occasionally structure this type of curatorial verbiage. These writings tend to uncouple key terms from their original contexts rather than explain how artworks may be activating them. Here an unthinkable event—the Armenian genocide—and a complicated idea made famous by Derrida—which is easy to repeat but untranslatable—combine and swish in foamy swells at the reader’s feet. We are left to wonder what these “waves” might be: are they artworks or earthquakes, the audible squeak of Theaster Gate’s turntable stylus or the Northern Lights blanketing polar landscapes in Carl Størmer’s scientific photographs? Allusions knot-up with few tight, commonsense linkages. It is anyone’s guess how these thoughts become aligned forms. I can’t help but hear an echo of Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form in the biennial’s subtitle A Theory of Thought Forms. Surely Szeemann’s indelible influence on biennials can be blamed for the curatorial élan asserted by Christov-Bakargiev in SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.16

Liam Gillick, Hydrodynamica Applied, 2015. Bernoulli Equation painting on wall. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Liam Gillick, Hydrodynamica Applied, 2015. Bernoulli Equation painting on wall. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Anna Boghiguian clarified things somewhat in a work that seemed to be made specifically for the curator’s loose theme. Entitled The Salt Traders (2015), this central piece in the Greek Primary School exhibition venue used painted sails, broken boat hulls, rocks, sand, and salt, along with a suite of nautical grids and cartographic drawings, to assemble the saline exhibition’s past, present, and future tenses. The Salt Traders’ guiding anecdote tells of a salt-laden ship lost in ancient times that reemerges in the year 2300 AD from polar ice and from which “the world rediscovers its past.” For Christov-Bakargiev, The Salt Traders provides yet another formulaic curator’s list that overburdens the work with a history textbook’s worth of meaning:

Boghiguian makes both direct and oblique references to power and injustice, as they repeat over and again throughout history, from the ancient Romans on the Via Salaria, to the travels of Alexander the Great to Siwa and Christopher Columbus, to Ghandi’s salt marches and the current financial crisis of Greece, which she calls a crisis of ‘bread and salt’ since it is an attack on the basic sustenance of people. With further written and painted references to the relations between the salt trade and slavery, to the tragedies in the seas of our times, Boguighian’s installation is a treatise on drawing and form-making.17

Anna Boghiguian, The Salt Traders, 2015. Textiles, wax, watercolor, gouache, wood, Cankiri salt, salts, sand, voice, and sound of waves and seagulls. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Matthew Schum.

Anna Boghiguian, The Salt Traders, 2015. Textiles, wax, watercolor, gouache, wood, Cankiri salt, salts, sand, voice, and sound of waves and seagulls. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Matthew Schum.

Themes the curator lists for The Salt Traders may in fact refer to any number of conversations Boghiguian and Christov-Bakargiev had in private. Intimate knowledge of artistic process is a hallmark of curatorial work, and it is in line with Christov-Bakargiev’s acknowledgement that rather than curating preexisting artworks, her exhibitions emerge out of dialog. As she explains in an interview with art historian Terry Smith: “I believe instead in the journey that you go on with artists to create the works, fresh works, for your exhibition. The last thing I talk about with artists is art. We talk about food. We talk about love. We talk about death. We talk about trauma. We talk about politics. We talk about the world. And, then, while I write something for the catalogue, he or she makes the work. Then we walk ‘together with’ the work, and then we welcome the visitors…”18

This ethos was manifested in Istanbul. Boghiguian’s piece was the only one (with the possible exception of Huyghe’s) that realized the saltwater theme. For me, this disconnect underlies how biennials ought to be critiqued. Too often we fall into a familiar routine of viewing them à la carte, as we would any group show, favoring this artist, critiquing that installation. Unlike other art exhibitions, biennials are, to a large extent, social products; they work beyond the wall of a museum to find their own territory. For this reason, biennials need to be put in context with other types of social objects taken from everyday life. One example might be Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, a public institution in Istanbul that Pamuk created as an outgrowth of his novel of the same title. This narrow red building in Beyoğlu is filled with dioramas and assemblages collected from the city’s bountiful junk shops. This repository of former lives lived out in Istanbul situates the viewer in the milieu of démodé and time-stamped things. On the top floor of the museum were two paintings by Arshile Gorky, a progenitor of Abstract Expressionism who, along with émigrés such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, redefined midcentury American painting. While Gorky’s Armenian heritage was presented as key to his inclusion in Museum of Innocence, this insertion of high modernism distracted from Pamuk’s idiosyncratic artwork and decontextualized Gorky’s paintings.

SALTWATER wished to reduce art to something as essential and approachable as the Bosphorus, but its curatorial framework did not manage to bridge the esotericism of contemporary art discourse with exoteric concepts. Off-site installations matched the grandiosity of the biennial concept, with many participants presenting industrial-sized products concocted as vague artistic applications. Their applied aspect felt further removed by a curatorial narrative that was itself off-site or impossible to locate. Rather than subject matter, the larger works often presented a subjective idealism that lends an artist’s name intellectual property and market value. Take, for an example, Walid Raad’s sculptures in Another Letter to the Reader (2015), which are inspired by Iznik pottery. Raad’s laser-cut wooden and cardboard crates, set in a former bank vault, illustrate a fable of traditional Iznik floral motifs escaping from the crates in search of color. The magical realism of the tale almost saves the hollow abstractions from the gimmickry of pottery decorations escaping from a bank during wartime. In the end, the colorful backstory seems more imaginative than the art installation.

Walid Raad, Another Letter to the Reader, 2015. Laser-cut boxes and wooden shipping crates. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Walid Raad, Another Letter to the Reader, 2015. Laser-cut boxes and wooden shipping crates. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Raad’s work also illustrates how, since the 1990s, biennials have sought to cultivate alternatives to the avant-gardism of the 1960s. Such endeavors push the discourse outside Western art history, yet rely on familiar artist narratives that drive conceptual art and legitimate the unremarkable object as both market friendly and critically astute. This approach of creating surplus financial or intellectual value—invented by the iconoclast Marcel Duchamp and made into an arts industry by PR firms—has become its own conservative ideology.

As Enwezor’s consistent yet ever-expanding planetary precepts exemplify, biennials are integrated arrays of art sewn together by curatorial ideas, packaged as whole product lines made by curatorial teams. Ultimately, the viewer’s tolerance for pretense is the deciding issue. Perhaps the viewer of SALTWATER can hope that some day visual art will return to this modest world. Despite many pronouncements of a salt-of-the-earth biennial, SALTWATER shares little in substance with the breadcrumbs of life that Christov-Bakargiev shares with her collaborators/dinner guests.

SALTWATER traded in its own extravagances to create a framework unchecked by the inconvenient strictures of academic disciplines, referenced but not relatable. The unchallengeably unified field presented in the curator’s framework makes art secondary.19 This establishment of command is Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial brand, which was solidified through her helming of dOCUMENTA (13), from which there are many holdover collaborators in SALTWATER.20

Lawrence Weiner, On the Verge, 2015. Language and the materials referred to. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Lawrence Weiner, On the Verge, 2015. Language and the materials referred to. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Behind the smokescreen, the biennial functions as a set menu, predictable in large measure with variations of newness drawn from the host city. Despite the effort put into developing a germane framework, neither “saltwater” nor “thought forms” presented a salient exhibition concept. Rather, a useful analogy that became apparent during the procession of this 14th Istanbul Biennial is a prix fixe meal.21 Here, we have a biennial curator presenting main courses with a variety of side dishes. These predilections establish the menu’s theme, and a staff gives input on how close each course stays to traditions guiding execution and presentation.22

The 14th Istanbul Biennial was at times a reminder of how fervently tastes follow the market these days. Christov-Bakargiev’s exhibition was at its heart a reminder that biennials are from another era of accommodation,23 one that predates art’s current service-industry orientation. For somewhat paradoxical reasons, biennials offend our democratic sensibilities because fine art, like fine dining, invites contradictory arrangements designed to lure the public and satisfy dabblers while, at the same time, servicing transactions for epicureans who casually outspend the rest of the crowd. SALTWATER contained many gaps in terms of artistic purchasing power on public relations and viewer attention. This is consistent with the economic stratification of our time, and this is evidenced in the selection and subsequent promotion of this year’s Istanbul Biennial artists.

To explain this another way, SALTWATER’s essential thought form appeared to this author as I traipsed among fellow flâneurs forming crowds milling between venues on Büyükada, the largest of the city’s Princes’ Islands. Amidst the many displays of the preview, the Biennial organizers allowed a rather bold assertion of aesthetic partiality and the image of a prix fixe meal actually came to life. Installed briefly around midday on Thursday, September 3, on a street-side patio, a well-known New York gallery hosted a lavish prix fixe luncheon, for the well-heeled and astutely connected, in plain sight of the viewers arriving to see the art inside the Hotel Splendid Palace venue. The luncheon celebrated the gallery’s artists (Lawrence Weiner, Pierre Huyghe, and Adrian Villar Rojas among them) who were commissioned for some of the Istanbul Biennial’s most highly produced installations.24 Bankrolled by the gallery, the enhanced scale of these artworks (Rojas’s The Most Beautiful of All Mothers [2015] in particular) matched considerably greater visibility in public relations: a large plaque listing the project’s sponsors at the entrance of the dilapidated Trotsky House,25 an anomalous insert about Huyghe’s Abyssal Plain in the press packet, and even playful temporary tattoos of Weiner’s North Bosphorus On the Verge (2015) text work. The buzz these artists created in the preview crowd was tangible throughout the opening week.

Adrian Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, 2015. Site-specific installation, organic and inorganic materials. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Adrian Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, 2015. Site-specific installation, organic and inorganic materials. Installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.

Like any restaurateur with known industry alliances and niche specialties, these artistic anchors came as no surprise on the biennial menu. Practically speaking, the inclusion of these high-profile artists solved the problem of Istanbul’s modest budget, by European standards. These are the notional contours of the ceremonial prix fixe running through the production of international exhibitions, from artists’ studios to the paper cards awaiting us on linen tablecloths. The celebratory lunch became a primary thought form as the biennial unfolded and rebounded as an illusive concept.

From that moment forward, the contrast between established and emerging artists and between New York- and Istanbul-funded projects signaled the exhibition’s binary structure. Bifurcations could be found in the Biennial’s locational astrology and in the curator’s texts, catalog, and directorial persona. Having admired Christov-Bakargiev’s unorthodox work in previous exhibitions, the brine of misgivings set in especially early for me in this Istanbul Biennial. These complaints are, of course, a proverbial teardrop in an ocean.

Wandering through the city and perusing a rather biblical-looking biennial catalog, the Bosphorus was there, but the location of a curator’s text was no more apparent than the sunken stage off Sivriada. What if the grandiloquent narrative of SALTWATER had constraints comparable to those Huyghe imposes on his “autogenerative” creaturely theaters?

As conceptual waves buffeted the art crowd, varying in length from ripple to rogue, I sought land. SALTWATER inspired a desire to return to Istanbul’s contraflow of hectic crowds upon rutty streets. It was a craving for the proverbial salt of the earth. For, as the Gospel cautions the devoted: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”26


Matthew Schum is a writer currently based in New York. He has written extensively on the subject of the Istanbul Biennial over several years, including his PhD in art history from the University of California, San Diego.


  1. The Marmara Sea lies entirely within Turkey, south of the Black Sea. The Marmara Sea is connected to the Black Sea by the Bosphorus Strait. The larger Aegean Sea, which Turkey shares with Greece, lies to the west.
  2. Email from Pierre Huyghe to the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, July 30, 2015. Quoted in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Introduction,” SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms (Istanbul, Turkey: IKSV, 2015), xlv.
  3. One must take the curator’s and artist’s word that the artwork-in-process will indeed be made. Only buoys marked the intended site.
  4. Christov-Bakargiev notes the dogs were sent to Sivriada in 1910. The Armenian Genocide occurred in 1915. The last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI, left the country in 1922, as the Turkish War of Independence came to a close. “Theater” here relates to the military terminology of a strategic location or key battlefront of likely consequence.
  5. For Smithson, non-sites were metaphors for real places constrained by media (a mirror containing gravel) as well as the logic imposed by selecting outside materials from given sites imported into the gallery or exhibition context. Robert Smithson, “Unpublished Writings,” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. JackFlam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  6. Christov-Bakargiev, “Introduction,” xliv–xlv.
  7. Guy Debord’s influential Society of the Spectacle (1967) theorizes that modern life can be experienced primarily through representations of existence provided by entertainment industries and related spectacles. In this scenario, social exchange occurs through the mediation, discussion, and retransmission of images conducive to a sociality defined by prevalent economic conditions.
  8. See chapter two of Orhan Pamuk’s Black Book (New York:Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994).
  9. The ancient figure of the demiurge connoted an artisan of sorts, both fashioner and steward of the extant physical world rather than omnipotent creator.
  10. Okwui Enwezor, “All the World’s Futures,” introduction to the 56th exhibition of the Venice Biennale, La Biennale, accessed December 9, 2015,
  11. Isaac Julien did break out of his usual media (film and video) to stage daily performative readings of Karl Marx’s Capital. It was one of the most referenced but also most derided pieces of the 2015 Venice Biennale, for reducing theory to thrum.
  12. Venue sites for the 14th Istanbul Biennial included shows just beyond the strait in the Northern Bosphorus, the districts of Şişli, Beyoğlu, Tarihi Yarımada, and Kadıköy, as well as the Princes’ Islands, located an hour’s ferry ride from central terminals on the European side. As the curator writes in the biennial guidebook, “SALTWATER takes place in museums and also in temporary spaces of habitation on land and on sea, such as boats, hotel rooms, former banks, garages, gardens, schools, shops and private homes.” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “How to Navigate SALTWATER: A Theory of Salt Forms,” SALTWATER Guidebook (Istanbul:IKSV, 2015).
  13. Christov-Bakargiev, “How to Navigate SALTWATER: A Theory of Salt Forms,” xxv.
  14. On the topic of survival, I am reminded here of the words of the doomed seaman, “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink,” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, in 1798).
  15. The equation for relative humidity or some other meteorological expression of hot air might have been more appropriate.
  16. The official explanation of the biennial’s subtitle relates to the abstract Thought Forms, published by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater (1901–5).
  17. Christov-Bakargiev, “Introduction,” LIII.
  18. Terry Smith, “Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev on Not Having an Idea: dOCUMENTA (13),” Talking Contemporary Curating, ed. Leigh Markopoulos (New York: Independent Curators International, 2015), 51.
  19. Some critics may object, holding on to the idea of art’s primacy, but the curatorial and artistic proposals must nowadays be approached on equal footing, especially in this case, given this curator’s special talent for trucking exhibitory authorship in the carriage of the curator.
  20. This would be hard to ascertain without seeing the show, considering that artists were packaged in the promotional materials alongside other curators and advisors involved in planning, plus some foisted “participants” who are no longer among the living. What would Charles Darwin, Leon Trotsky, or T. S. Eliot reply to our era and its decadent art speak? For some reason Eliot was included in the exhibition catalog “list of participants”; but many of the artists who appeared elsewhere were not.
  21. Thanks to Jason Forago, who pointed out that Christov-Bakargiev rejected this very idea in 2012, as curator of dOCUMENTA (13), when she told Artforum’s Linda Yablonsky that she’s not a curator: “You curate pork to make prosciutto.” See Jason Farago, “Review: Making Connections at Istanbul’s Biennial,” The New York Times, September 15, 2015, accessed November 30, 2015, See also Linda Yablonsky, “Making History,” Scene and Heard blog,, September 28, 2012, accessed November 30, 2015,
  22. Biennials resemble the prix fixe because they shift art’s formats. In this arrangement, the guest surrenders the autonomy of individual choice for the privilege of pairings, the value of which depends equally upon what the chef delivers and the consumer brings to the table. It is a ritual of shared taste. For this reason, and though biennials are often maligned as a category, they are all dissimilar, highly individuated multi-course productions with unlimited variations available to the purveyor—even if they are occasionally as homely as the age-old table d’hôte.
  23. The initial Venice Biennale, in 1895, stands as the progenitor. Contemporary art biennials changed markedly during the 1990s, especially as Europe reintegrated in the wake of the Cold War. For more, see Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø, eds., The Biennial Reader (Bergen, Norway: Bergen Kunsthall, and Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2010).
  24. Tacita Dean is also represented by this gallery but her work was not a major commission in the biennial. Instead, she contributed an artwork consisting of “one salinated ball, two found postcards, and gouache,” according to SALTWATER Guidebook.
  25. In 2015, few installations anywhere better epitomized contemporary arts’ conflicted mindset than Rojas’ biennial installation at the Trotsky House. The derelict yellow ruin that was once home to Leon Trotsky—exiled anti-Stalinist, organizer of the Fourth International, and some say truest of Marxists leaders— served as a prop leading to a private seaside, where a major gallery flexed its fiduciary muscle.
  26. Matthew 5:13, New International Version.
Further Reading