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.

 

Rainer Ganahl * Wallach Art Gallery * New York City

Whether as criticism, praise, or simple observation, the works of Rainer Ganahl are often described as intellectual, in the sense that they focus on the rational and interpretive faculties of his subjects. Among the pieces showcased in Ganahl's retrospective last fall at the Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University, were the ongoing S/L (Seminars/Lectures) series of photographs which depict professional thinkers—ranging from brandname professor-celebrities like Jacques Derrida and Noam Chomsky to more obscure researchers—delivering lectures to bored or rapt audiences; the Basic Language works in which the artist has been creating works relating to his systematic study of various languages; the Reading Seminar series which consists of the artist leading a group of individuals, usually students, through discussions and readings of politically laden texts such as those by Franz Fanon, Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci; and a loosely connected series of dialog works consisting of interviews with individuals such as Antonio Negri and Rudi Gurtin (his Stalinist travel agent), as well as with German/Austrian Holocaust survivors under the title Language of Emigration.

Each of these works manifests Ganahl's commitment to investigating the politics and dialogic dynamics of knowledge and cultural production. Yet, despite his enthusiasm for the methods and institutions of contemporary intellectual discourse and his fascination with the rigours of studying, Ganahl is no professorial wannabe. As the impressively thorough show has presented, Rainer Ganahl's work is inspired by his theoretical insights and an overarching commitment to a radical humanism; he sympathizes with people who are or were marginalized or blatantly victimized by approved, mainstream trends of culture. Through his art, he calls attention to socio-historical issues and minority perspectives that would normally threaten tenures and research grants. His status as an artist legitimizes his ethics and politics so that they are acknowledged by academics.

This retrospective presented how Ganahl’s unique position has enabled him to expose and frame the tensions that arise when different cultural registers and perspectives are juxtaposed. The results range from lyrical to absurd to ironic. Shown together in a single exhibition space, their individual impacts are all the more powerful.

In Homeland Security videos, which are a part of his language study projects, Ganahl puts a fresh spin on stylistic appropriation from subaltern sources by replicating the awkward, poorly lit frontal filming style found in terrorists' video tapes. The artist faces the camera squarely, and slowly, clearly, and insistently repeats phrases such as "I am not a terrorist" and "I don't know how to build bombs" in the eleven languages he has been studying. The deadpan tone betrays no emotion. One might imagine such a nightmarish but controlled scenario unfolding at an interrogation station run by Homeland Security agents. The unsettling nature of the performance is enhanced because the artist makes only negative statements, denying charges directed at him. Furthermore, the artist looks the part of a public menace with his long and stringy hair, a ratty camouflage t-shirt, and his haunted and intense expression. He has managed to attain a universally recognizable aura of suspiciousness. Whether he is an innocent prisoner, or a captured terrorist, he creates a powerful sense of distrust and unease.

The Reading Seminar photographs on the other hand, show fresh-scrubbed youths sitting in circles engaged in a lively discussion about books. Ganahl held these reading circles in locations, and upon occasions, that complicate their academic and idyllic suggestion. For example, he held reading sessions of a passage from Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" in Central Park during the Republican National Convention in New York City (2004), and on a street in Geneva during the anti-G8 protests (2003). There are no laws forbidding people to gather and read together, even if the text is of a radically political nature; the law deems reading safe. Indeed, the photographs do not show the stress level of the greater immediate space, although if one looks closely, a few policemen are visible in Central Park. Understood in full, the images suggest that sharing philosophies is a valid and subversive act of direct social dissent. Still, a cynic might point out that Ganahl's portraits of people in thought ultimately imply that the realm of complex ideas and immediate reality are inherently separate: reading and thinking about revolution is not the same thing as physically starting one. But even this interpretation shows how ideas on the page enliven real individuals—the fluttering of delicate hands, the raising of bushy eyebrows, and the wiry arms folded in concentration indicate how transported these subjects are. Perhaps they will be moved to the point of laying down their books and joining the protests, perhaps not. In either case, viewers are confronted with questions: Where do you stand against the coordinates of thought and action? Can images incite political consequences the way text can? Can the consumption of images stand as an act of rebellion, or is art a realm too gloriously disconnected from reality?

zingmagazine booth at the Armory Art Fair, a week before the Iraq war broke out in 2003, upon which he had asked visitors to write their opinions about US politics. Seen in the gallery space two and a half years later, these writing-filled walls loom with sentiments that have proven prophetic. The disembodied phrases often run over each other, as though they were scrawls on a bathroom wall. The anonymous messages, such as "Save us all from messianic visionaries," are preserved as art. In this instance, the context of art has provided a hallowed, untouchable space for the past's fleeting voices otherwise widely dispersed and mostly forgotten.

Ganahl also experiments with more controlled and channeled forms of collaborative art-making in his Dialogs series. For the Afghan Dialog series, inspired by Alighiero Boetti's tapestries of unsolicited political commentaries by Afghan artisans, Ganahl commissioned silk embroideries featuring American news network logos, headlines, or names of conflicts to be woven in traditional Afghani style by artisans in war zones. He then instructed them to embroider their personal reactions to these symbols of American power. The artist has never personally met the artisans with whom he “dialogs”. The Iraq Dialogs function in the same fashion, with traditional style Iraqi mosaic tiles that feature paintings of American logos, and comments about them in calligraphy by Iraqis. Besides the timeless beauty of these foreign cultures' handiworks, viewers of the Dialog pieces see familiar American slogans and logos in a new context, interpreted purely as form and color. Unlike the Armory wall, the added commentaries are placed thoughtfully in relation to the American logo that they are reacting to, creating the effect of a single, unified and planned surface. Despite the layers of tension, the product of the dialog—one between the American media machine that sells the idea of a “War On Terror” and the people native to countries where the "Terror" is said to arise—are superficially and significantly beautiful. Their decorative appeal contrasts the complex and often bitter nature of relationships between mainstream ideologies and the subaltern, exposing the relationship between handiwork and artwork, collectivity and singularity, and political and artistic discourse.

Ganahl considers language and the study of it central to navigating, and eventually bridging, the various cultural spheres and registers that he traverses. In addition to the Homeland Security performance tapes, the exhibit included Ganahl's Basic Language photo and video projects, and the "Please Teach Me Arabic, 160 Famous Americans" postcard series, in which he explores linguistic variability between cultures. In the Basic Language photo series, Ganahl juxtaposes an image of a foreign country with a phrase from a textbook of that country’s language and its English translation. With an image of a condom dispenser in a barren hotel room in Korea, he includes the sentence, written in Hangul and English, "We won't be late if we get up early.”

Another example is a shot of two African women conversing in front of a bar in Italy. There are several phrases written in both English and Italian in two columns over the image, enclosing the women between them. The phrases read, "To travel around", "Money has no import", etc. The captions printed over such quotidian images transform ordinary moments into scenes that deserve not only commentary but also subtitles. This juxtaposition attests to how language differences make even unremarkable everyday realities mysterious to an outsider; the unknown is seen as open for reinterpretation. Ganahl claims he added sentences from his textbooks to his travel photos as a practical way to make art while he studied. Indeed, most of the images depict anonymous places and people and have a spontaneous quality, as though each frame was shot in random and impersonal circumstances that only the photographer will fully appreciate. Yet adding the impersonal sentences accentuates the objective (and thus systematically learnable) quality of language, and in turn implies that through effort and diligence, real cross-cultural understanding is possible.

This hopeful message is tempered against the stack of videotapes piled neatly at the center of one of the exhibit's rooms. These videotapes comprise the "My First 500 Hours Basic Chinese", "My Second 500 Hours Basic Chinese", "My First 500 Hours Basic Arabic", and "My Second 500 Hours Basic Arabic" series, that are a part of Ganahl's ongoing Basic Language Videos series, in which the artist videotapes himself studying a chosen language in increments of five hundred hours each. The sheer physical volume of the tapes evinces the sobering fact that a politically correct and open attitude is not enough to ensure real global communication. Although globalization has made the same commodities and mass cultural references available in most parts of the world, a true lingua franca has yet to arise. At the immediate and interpersonal level, linguistic variability remains a fact of life. As Ganahl's awkward attempts at mastering foreign scripts attest, it requires a mindset of humility and patience that stand at odds with the immediate gratification and access promised by the "Anytime, Anywhere" reach of global marketing schemes.

Ganahl further explores instances of cultural crossing in the "Please, teach me Arabic, 160 Famous Americans" project. The series consists of 160 postcards that depict either a statue of the Persian hero Saladin, or the Damascus Martyrs Plaza, and are emblazoned with the message "Please teach me Arabic", which Ganahl had sent from Syria in 2004 to 160 famous Americans in care of the Wallach Gallery. The cards are addressed to figures as disparate as 50 Cent, Walt Disney, and Condolezza Rice. The mechanically serial nature of the identical postcards contrasts strongly with how every card is addressed to a different public personality, each of whom is widely renowned or notorious in his or her own rite. The postcard, sent through the postal system, serves everyone, from the anonymously average to the legendarily unique. Whether or not the intangible nuances, references, and signification manage to traverse the cultural walls between Damascus and New York, the cards themselves have spatially crossed these borders of culture and language, and politics and agendas.

Taken together, these and the other works that were featured in Ganahl's retrospective reveal that throughout his career, the artist has been examining absurd dominant political ideologies and the voices they try to override and the individual ideals and realities of human communication converging or colliding. Through his personal experiences in linguistically and culturally discrete spheres, Ganahl has arrived at an insistent faith in cultural subjectivity and relativity. Using art, a framework bracketed off from the baggage of politics, he crosses borders of countries, political affiliations, and cultural contexts with an almost schizophrenic drive. Self-conscious compulsion to define one's artistic mission is a characteristic of modernist artwork, but Ganahl's focus on local aesthetics and values seems, if not a direct reaction against viewing art as a reserve for elite consumers with specific tastes, then an inquiry into other modes of art-making and viewing. Ganahl's way of immersing himself in the different communities he examines shows more than an intellectual or moral desire to excavate and categorize. The work doesn’t require further justification because his more politically fraught projects leave him dangerously exposed and the time and energy taken shows pure and organic passion for these pursuits. The lyrical and pithy sensibilities manifest in the conjoining of verbal phrases with visual imagery, and the quotidian but quietly absurd nature of the images used, offer a testament to Ganahl's whimsical aesthetic, as characteristic of his oeuvre as its gravity.

The One * New General Catalog (NGC) 224 * Brooklyn, NY

Two ones side by side make eleven, and eleven sets of two equal The One, or the basic structure of the inaugural exhibition at New General Catalog (NGC) 224, a new gallery in Greenpoint. For this show, eleven guest curators were asked to select The One artwork that embodies some notion of “prophetic balance.”

Choice, which becomes one with what’s chosen, also functions as a dual statement: the idea of The Onecan be approached personally and subjectively and is dependent upon time and context. The curators’ diverse interpretations of The One are connected, partly overlapping, and pervasive, yet distinguished from one another. They are not commensurable definitions, but temporal assertions that constantly change and shift with new contextual circumstances.

The One also focused on a fundamental element of the curatorial practice: the prerogative of choice. Choice is an amalgamation of conscience and instinct, cognitive guides that define what we remember and forget. It often depends on so little, but holds the power to greatly effect and change lives. The One then, is the “burden of choice,” an active social, cultural, and psychological “proof” that holds each curator accountable to his or her selection.

Walzing Matilda, an installation by Canadian artist Maria Hlady, consists of three mechanized spinning brunette wigs situated in the storefront window of the gallery. Each wig moves in varying clockwise and counterclockwise rotations. Each wig dances to one of three versions of an Australian chorus called “Dancing.” They are absurd, lyrical, and hypnotic. Despite their anonymous and solitary character (there is no face/person to mask or cover-up), they possess a refined beauty that we cannot help but notice. As they seemingly ask us, “shall we dance?” we become one with their harmony and imperfection. Chosen by the curator (and gallery director) Trong G. Nguyen, Hlady’s bizarre trinity is a perpetual dance-a-thon that is uncanny, moving and reassuring in its perpetuity.

Symmetry, geometry, and the thwarting nature of visual perception mark the installation of German artist Monika Goetz, selected by Erin Donnelly and Susanna Cole. Goetz placed two mirrors side by side at eye level, one convex, one concave. Standing several steps away, we see ourselves as an upside-down reflection. Standing tête-à-tête, the mirror image flips right side-up and exaggerates our features. By contrast, the convex mirror reflects the viewer as the tiny epicenter of an extremely wide-angle view. We see two parallel visual realms that contradict regular perception. It is virtually impossible to concentrate on both at once.

Similar to Goetz, John Noestheden’s (chosen by Jayne H. Baum) contribution is characterized by harmonized geometry and minimalist aesthetic, though his “Diamond drawing” additionally references pop culture and fashion. He glued hundreds of tiny, same-sized Swarovski silver crystals on to Rives paper. The elegant composition it is controlled and disciplined, while the crystal shimmer suggests a night sky or snapshots of haute couture.

Elena Bajo’s installation seems a counterpoint to the restrained work of Noestheden. Her incidental and gawky ensemble of found objects (broken umbrellas, unrecognizable old photographs, used mirror and glass panels) paint a life-like “portrait” that is fleeting and intimate. Bajo’s installation is reminiscent of the personal, variable, and incomprehensible aspects that define The One. The artist was chosen by the art collective PRAXIS (Brainard Carey and Delia Bajo).

We can recall the social utopias of modernism in Katerina Seda’s conceptual mass-performance “There Is Nothing There,” chosen by Marketa Uhlirova. On March 24, 2003 in Ponetovice, a small village in the Czech Republic, the artist “staged” a day in the life of an entire community. She asked the local people (all 300 of them) to do routine things—sweep the sidewalk, open a window, cook lunch, or go shopping—but do them on an exact schedule: everyone at the same time, all as one, one day, one village, one artwork. The power of Seda’s project, heightened by witnessing each individual partake in the collective whole, resides in its subtle humor. We can’t believe our eyes as synchronicity replaces chaos (and thereby achieves “prophetic balance”?).

In addition to the curators’ chosen “points of light” that make up The One, it is appropriate that the gallery’s name references the scientific designation for the Andromeda Galaxy, generally considered the farthest point visible to the naked eye.

Zaha Hadid Retrospective, Guggenheim, New York City

Architecturally illiterate, I entered the Zaha Hadid retrospective at the Guggenheim with no knowledge of the architect or her impressive body of work. The exhibit is vast and provides a glimpse into the many facets of Hadid’s work, from painting to flatware design. However, there isn’t a great deal of guidance for people like me, who are unfamiliar with Hadid’s vision and interdisciplinary approach. I was overwhelmed.

The exhibit focuses chiefly and reverently on Hadid’s precise, gleaming models and vibrant drawings. My friend and I regarded the abstracted drawings with some bafflement: “This is supposed to guide someone in building a structure?” “What do those green spirals represent, exactly?” Interestingly, Hadid’s drawings are complemented by Jackson Pollock’s works in the concurrent “Paintings on Paper” exhibit—figurative early Pollocks as revelatory as non-figurative architectural sketches.

Under-represented and divorced from the rest of the exhibit are the buildings themselves, present mainly in a few large-scale photographs. Hadid’s own website attests eloquently to the importance of her buildings in context—how they reflect and shape the natural and urban landscape, as well as the unalienable human activity of the space. Yet the viewer is not really allowed to see the finished buildings in context. Rather, they appear here as an encroachment on the pristine museum space. For me, the photos didn’t represent the triumphant end results of the models, which emanate pure potential; they seemed distant, somewhat sullied by the intrusion of human life. I could already feel the paint chipping, the bathroom door latches breaking.

Moving through this exhibit, I was left with no inclination to visit Hadid’s actual buildings, to be among the grimy trespassers in those far-off, looming structures. But I felt that I would love to be Hadid herself, or at least my romanticized conception of her, luxuriating in my beautiful studio (in this vision, it rather resembles the Guggenheim rotunda), god-like among the tiny, idealized worlds of chipboard, balsa, and styrene.

Superman Returns: Loews Lincoln Square * New York City

I watched the 1976 Superman movie and its sequels, and I enjoyed them. Since then, I’ve cheered through years of Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, and more, always at the edge of my seat, always pumped at the end, never a thought of blue suits, red capes. But minutes into Superman Returns, Warner Bros’ 2006 version, directed by Bryan Singer (the crowd, packed like sardines, cheering from the first note of the theme song), I was bouncing in my chair, gasping, covering my eyes, and yelling at the screen. No superhero beats Superman and my euphoria lasted all the way to the end.

Brandon Routh plays the title role humbly, the way I remember Christopher Reeve playing it. I even noticed a resemblance in his profile. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, just unrecognizable enough under a mop of brown hair—a character, not a star—kept me from missing Margot Kidder. Kevin Spacey makes a great Lex Luther: acting chops and the landscaped face that brings Gene Hackman to mind. And Parker Posey, as Luther’s lady friend, Kitty Kowalski, only left me wishing she would show up more often in Hollywood blockbusters.

A few purists exited the theater disappointed, but that’s no surprise. To them I say, maybe the science of Krypton doesn’t follow this fiction, but it’s a pro-human, pro-earth story, after all. Superman’s empathy—a relavent reminder—crosses all borders. I pumped my fist and hummed the theme song all the way home, happy to have a good ol’ all American hero back in my life.