The opportunity to travel to Istanbul around the opening dates of the 14th Istanbul Biennial organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) came just a month before. I knew the four days there would just not be enough to see 30 venues with works of more than 80 artists given that the city is huge and one’s day is planned according to rush hour traffic; but I was happy to go back to my city of birth. When many are out of the city because of the summer, and one can sit outside along the Bosphorus and travel by sea, Istanbul is just adorable.
Therefore the 14th Istanbul Biennial Salt Water, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, can easily fool one that this is all about Istanbul, where locals pride themselves in the beauty of the sea, the Bosphorus –the strait from the Black Sea that eventually leads to the Mediterranean and runs from the middle of the city-- and the city divided between Europe and Asia.
I did the same as I prefer to do for each exhibition: Know as little as possible, the title and some minimal information, and then connect the dots and figure out the story as if putting the pieces of the puzzle together. And after all I saw, I figured, while going to venues required travel by sea, and that the Channel in Istanbul Modern is a reference to the Bosphorus, I felt that the Salt Water that bound all exhibitions together were in fact “tears”. From Cavusoglu’sRed/Red which uses extinct techniques by Armenian artisans long gone at Istanbul Modern,
and Sonia Balassanian’s Silence of the Stones; using the building of Centre for Parrhesia (where the Agos Newspaper published in both Armenian and Turkish was located as well as the Hrant Dink Foundation, bearing the name of the newspaper’s founding editor and champion of civil rights and reconciliation movement was assassinated just outside); the Italian High School reminding of the once prominent Genoese community in Istanbul with Esra Ersen’s films A Possible History I: When Thinking Some Play with the Mustache, Others Cross Arms, and A Possible History II: Turkish Heroes, Chinese Knick-knacks, exploring Turkish identity building; as well as the Galata Greek Primary School with Anna Boghiguian’s Salt Traders, and Hera Büyüktasciyan’s island of notebooks of the absent Greek community’s children From the Island of the Day Before, and mostly Michael Rakowitz’ The Flesh is Yours, The Bones are Ours of plaster molds and casts from former homes of Armenians of Anatolia are blended with bones of dogs once transported and left to their death in Sivriada Island; and the house Trotsky lived in when in exile with Adrian Villar Rojas’ sculptures by the sea depicting animals carrying other animals to the shore. Even Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades viewed at Küçük Mustafa Pasa Hammam a 15th Century structure using Murano crystal puppets and telling the Crusades from an Arab point of view and deals with death, all I felt dealt with issues of displacement, separate cultures and the loss of them, trauma, massacre, ethnic-cleansing, together with differences of cultures, war and fight.
When I read Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s essay in the Biennial catalog I realized this was her intention. I was thinking that maybe the connecting theme, namely Salt Water was not evident from this standpoint before and that maybe it should have been explained, but then as Christov-Bakargiev states in her essay “in authoritarian regimes, artists often speak through abstraction, or in coded and veiled languages, although their works are critiques of their society, forms of emancipation, and they can be used, like tools, because they become the transformative agency that is activated through their usages.”*
I think any exhibition/biennial is successful if it gets you to think about it and has a profound effect that forces a change in you. If you provide everything to the visitor isn’t she just a passive observer? Biennials are not only about art completely divorced from politics, but expose visitors to art, develop an appreciation in a way so that one tries to understand, becomes curious, starts to question and ultimately think. About everything.
So while the 14th Istanbul Biennial is about Istanbul and its past and present civilizations, it reminds us of the loss of past civilizations through questioning the departure, displacement, exile, massacre and annihilation of cultures, races and civilizations, and reminds us of the danger of loss of civility and contemporary civilization in absolute terms and that at the end of the day, just like Adrian Villar Rojas’ work The Most Beautiful of all Mothers depicts each animal carrying a different species of an animal other than their own to shore, we, and civilization, are all saved if we care for and carry one another.
A shorter version of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s essay can be read here: