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Salcedo, Untitled, 2003. Mixed media, dimensions variable.
Eighty Artists from
40 countries participated in the 8th International Istanbul Biennial under
the conceptual frame "Poetic Justice." Curated by Dan Cameron,
the exhibition related to current global developments in art and politics
while claiming territory for the artist. Cameron explains that at
this stage of globalization, not only are hybrid and transitional identities
increasingly becoming the rule rather than exception, but also interchanges
between artists from different cultural backgrounds are significant.
The main exhibition
space, The Antreppo, is a former customs warehouse along the Bosporus.
The darkened first floor contained mixed-media works, well placed among
the circular, draped viewing areas that housed videos. Most, complex or
mundane, political or not, were personal narratives.
A metal staircase/sculpture
with chains as banister and balustrades connected the darkened theater
of the first floor to a lighted second floor: Stairway to Hell, by Monica
Bonvicini, was quite dramatic and introduced a pervasive architectural
theme. A facsimile staircase by Do-Ho Suh was smaller than life size.
Made of red transparent nylon and stitched together in three dimensions,
no small detail (for instance, a light fixture and plumbing pipes) was
omitted. While continuing its journey to an imagined upper floor, the
ethereal staircase floated as if in apprehension of an unknown journey.
narrow hallway served as an influence for two artists. Monika Sosnowska's
Untitled Corridor brought viewers through a narrow hallway then around
a corner to another much narrower passage complete with doors and ambient
sounds, near but unreachable, as in the perspectival maladjustments of
Swift or Carroll. Tanya Brugheras Poetic Justice lined a hallway
with scented tea bags and small videos. This work referenced colonialism
and a kind of perverted Minimalism.
Appeals, a new work
by Ann Hamilton, appeared as a series of floor-to-ceiling blue reversed
to white curtains that opened and closed to divide the space, a metaphor
of inclusion/exclusion. Jorge Macchis Buenos Aires Tour, although
modeled on a subway map and plans of the city, resembled a Borgesian garden
of forked paths. Texts and sound added another layer of intrigue to the
work, mirroring confused directions in a new city.
Esposito, Public Composting Toilet, 2003.
Mixed media, installation view.
photo credit: Muammer Yanmaz
Cultural Center built in 1451, once a cannon foundry and barracks, was
another venue. Some of the works here were too seductive in their spirituality
for my taste, but two works caught my fancy. Where We Come From, by Palestinian
artist Emily Jacir, consisted of 32 mounted photos of variable sizes,
framed texts, and a DVD. The artist asked displaced Palestinians, "If
I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?"
Jacir documented both the desires and her fulfillment of the requests;
some were impossible, referencing the seemingly impossible destiny and
legal status of the Palestinians as a people. (Jacir used the freedom
of movement status provided by her American passport.) The other work
was by Pascale Marthine Tayou, born in Cameroon and now living in
Brussels. Devise/Untitled was a game of darts in which the target was
marked with names of countries and their dates of entry into the UN; national
flags were attached to the darts.
While Hagia Sophia
proved too imposing a venue for almost all of the artists exhibiting thereincluding
Tony Feher whose sensitive piece referenced the stained glass windowsthe
Yerebatan Cistern, a 6th-century water reservoir often used by the biennial
curators seemed to inspire. The artists who engaged with this leaky architectural
phenomenon rarely disappointed. Jennifer Steinkamps work, a projection
of a tree upside down in the water, was a poetic presence. Two more trees
projected nearby referenced the famous upside-down Medusa columns of the
As if on a treasure
hunt in Istanbul, various site works led visitors through colorful streets,
armed with only vague directions or an address. Colombian artist Doris
Salcedo filled a gap between a row of buildings with 1,600 wooden chairs.
Londons Mike Nelson sited his work in an ancient garment district
given to narrow streets and aggressive pushcarts. We found his piece in
an old factory building with stone walls, dirt floor, and arched entrances
with thick wooden doors: a claustrophobic den, it was a metaphor of the
artists mind, glowing red like a photographers studio. Across
the hall, in an arched doorway with small streams of light, a man beckoned
us to take tea. This piece worked on the level of discovery, poetics,
enigma, and participation.
Nelson, Installation, 2003. Mixed media, installation view.
site-specific work was based on the possible threat of a dwindling supply
of fresh water. Inside the Istanbul Science Center, Bruna Esposito, with
Italian Modernist flair and Greenpeace activism, designed an enclosed
area with mosaic tiles, four sinks at different heights for children),
and a fish tank that sat atop an ancient squatting toilet. Up a few stairs,
a tall round translucent glass arena with a central toilet introduced
a time-honored and natural treatment of human wastethe compost toilet.
No need for expensive sewer and purification plants, Esposito
says, as micro organisms will do the job. This application
of an ancient solution to a present problem was stunning.
The abundance of
international biennials could suggest that the arts are a vehicle
for change. But to lead to change, biennials must be a forum for experimentation,
engaging more complex or destabilizing motifs that embrace the mutations
of institutional critiques. The venerable Istanbul Foundation For Culture
and Arts could certainly consider this for its next chapter.
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