The 9th International Istanbul Biennial * Istanbul

Born to a Turkish family in Istanbul, but having spent the majority of my life in the United States, I am both a native and a tourist of the city. When I return I understand what has changed and what has remained the same. As I experienced the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, the dichotomy of insider/outsider allowed me undertake the exhibition as a tourist, someone on a quest to learn more about its site, and as a native, someone curious to learn how contemporary art imported from other parts of the globe will impact Istanbul.

18 years after its inauguration, the Istanbul Biennial came back to its roots. The rather self-referential theme of “Istanbul” was chosen as a focus: Istanbul as a specific point on a map, a crowded metropolis busting at the seams, and, as the curators Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun describe it, “Istanbul as a metaphor, as a prediction, as a lived reality, and as an inspiration.” Esche, a European, saw Istanbul from the cultural tourist’s point of view; he wanted the exhibition to shed light on the complexities of life in this city and the values and aspirations of its residents, for the benefit of those not living there. Kortun, a Turkish man who resides in Istanbul, was more concerned with what outsiders (Europeans in particular) would envision as future possibilities and predictions for his city, the cultural capital of a country that is desperately seeking EU membership. This year’s exhibition also made a more concerted effort to merge the insider/outsider perspectives. The curators turned over a floor of one of the exhibition venues to guest curators from Istanbul who organized exhibitions of work by local artists. Their work illuminated some of the relevant issues Istanbul artists grapple with in their lives and careers.

The exhibition venues (seven total) complemented the theme. Most were situated in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, within walking distance from Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, a street called Istiklal Caddesi. The curators said they consciously chose not to utilize venues in parts of the city that centered on tourism, and instead chose sections of town that were, or once had been, centers of commerce and industry. Extending out from the main artery of Istiklal Caddesi are historic, winding little streets that are anything but easy to navigate. Gruppo A12, an artist collective based in Milan and Genoa, painted architectural details of the venue buildings with a signature pink that stood out against the surrounding cityscape.

Equipped with a map (the exhibition catalog doubled as a map), visitors walked through this labyrinth of back streets in search of the Biennial’s venues. If visitors lost their way, they made unexpected discoveries and the walks became a process of getting to know the streets and neighborhoods of Istanbul, not just a treasure hunt for contemporary art. Still, walking a long way, getting lost, managing to ask directions, and finally locating the building with the pink paint, left some visitors exasperated from the whole experience, parched and fanning themselves, seeking shade from the bright September sun. By then, you not only wanted, but expected to be rewarded for your efforts.

Yet, the curatorial theme that pervaded the exhibition imposed a utopian promise that seemed to constrain the creative process. Artists from other countries were brought to Istanbul for residencies and asked to create an artwork about their findings or experiences. This predictable prescription to yield favorable results failed because many of the pieces came across as hastened attempts to comprehend and comment on the trials and rewards of life in Instanbul. For example, Italian artist Mario Rizzi’s film “Murat ve Ismail” documented the life of two men, a father and son, who ran a shoe repair shop. Viewers saw their daily rituals and the entrepreneurial struggles attached to business in a city with a steadily rising cost of living. It also documented a dying trade in a world of disposable commodities. The film was quite long, eighty minutes in total, and took place mostly in and around the shop. After ten minutes, I realized that rather than watching people in mundane conversation, I should be out in the streets engaging the people themselves.

The tobacco depot contained one of the most outstanding pieces in the Biennial, a video by Stockholm-based artist Johanna Billing. Billing started with a very simple concept, filming a group of children in a music school in Zagreb rehearsing the song “Magical World”. The video piece, also titled Magical World (2005), reached far beyond itself in metaphoric significance. The song was written by African-American composer Sidney Barnes at the height of the civil rights movement, and the words, sung in somewhat hesitant English by these Croatian children, tell the story of a man who lives in a magical dream world, who begrudgingly pulls himself out of his dreams to face difficult realities around him. The song itself is tinged with melancholy, but the faltering voices and doubtful expressions of the children lent it a more poignant tenor. The video was masterfully looped and edited, starting with shuffling feet and musicians tuning instruments as everyone prepared for the rehearsal, and ending just as subtly, the children’s voices slowly giving way to rustling sheet music and the sound of chairs moving across the floor.

The video, much like the song, symbolizes a period of transition. As the Croatians recover from their war ravaged past and prepare to abide by the demands of EU membership, it remains to be seen what aspects of their history, their culture, and their ethnic identity will remain, and what will be traded in order to compete in a globalized economy. If the dreams that Barnes writes about represent Croatia’s difficult history, what realities will its children wake up to in the near future? The video is also poignant as part of the Instanbul Biennial because Turkey is another country vying for EU membership. Its people keep asking, “Membership at what cost?” Whether or not Turkey becomes a part of the EU, the race to stay economically competitive is having a tremendous impact on the country. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Istanbul, which is booming with new shops, restaurants, bars, museums, and art galleries.

The New York-based artist Daniel Bozhkov clued in on and utilized the merchant culture in his project for the Biennial. He used Ernest Hemingway, who had lived in Istanbul as a young man, as a symbol of manhood, one that merged both American and Turkish ideals of machismo. He created a men’s fragrance out of Hemingway’s aura titled “Eau D’Ernest,” which smelled heavily of musk. To promote the cologne, Bozhkov filmed a mock commercial at the Victorian hotel where Hemingway was rumored to have stayed. At the launch party, held at the hotel, leggy ladies sprayed guests with the cologne as they entered. Produced as a limited edition, the scent was to be sold at various perfume shops around town.

Bozhkov’s project may have engaged the theme of the Biennial better than any other project in the exhibition. It commented on Istanbul as a place and engaged the city directly. Istanbul has always been a merchant city. Go to the covered bazaar and you’ll meet carpet sellers who have elevated their sales pitch to a fine art. Haggling with these guys is a losing battle. No matter what your resolve, they will break you down and you will something. By sending the fragrance out to Istanbul merchants and letting them distribute it, Bozhkov slowly doused its inhabitants, native and not, with the essence of his work. The artist took the city’s pulse and realized it has a slew of alternative economies offering creative fodder. The project holds the potential to create a ripple effect and give birth to new reincarnations of itself. This is often what happens here—new products, even new cultural forms—merge and emerge. As a city with an undeterred appetite for the new, the fashionable, and the affordable, it will consume imported styles and trends and produce new hybrids that reference its own tastes, traditions and values.