Istanbul Biennial

The 12th Istanbul Biennial contemplates a world of abstraction, inviting sober reflection when it is needed most.

To name a biennial Untitled is a bold move. What’s even bolder is to keep the exact details of the biennial under strict lock and key. But that is exactly what Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa decided to do for the 12th Istanbul Biennial (17 September – 13 November). In an interview with the New York Times published prior to the opening Hoffmann noted: “We are avoiding the traditional marketing strategies of biennials, with their obsession with numbers and the use of names as brands. Thus we decided not to compile or release a list of the artists in the exhibition … we honestly don’t know how many artists we have.”

Housed within two warehouse buildings, Antrepo 3 and 5, Hoffmann and Pedrosa curate 500 works in five thematic sections with 50 solo exhibitions interspersed around each main grouping, named after untitled works by Cuban artist Felix González-Torres, followed in parenthesis by either (Abstraction), (Ross), (Passport), (History) and (Death by Gun). With artists spanning generations and continents, including two 19th century photographers, Untitled unashamedly adheres to the tradition of the Great Exhibition, prompting many to observe that this biennial is conservative and outdated: anything but bold.

But why should it be bold? Hoffmann and Pedrosa profess their affiliation with traditional curation, which values art objects and the dialogues that take place between artists, and inevitably, the viewer. The result is a subtle exploration of concept and form, balanced by personal expression in a very public and political context. In this sense, the decision to base the curatorial premise on González-Torres works well. As a whole, the references contemplate dematerialisation, keeping in mind the formalistic approach to art and curation, further visualised in the broken down exhibition design by Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa, whose design model is presented in Antrepo 3 as an art object in its own right.

Eschewing the choice to spread the Biennial out over eclectic locations for a more straightforward setting, the vast warehouse spaces are divided into a collection of rooms of varying sizes and heights, complete with dividing corridors, evoking the clustered nature of Istanbul itself, or a shanty town, taking into account the corrugated iron exteriors. Arranged in the style of cabinet presentations with no fixed route, this is one biennial where art production, presentation, form, material, history, politics and the depiction – or perception – of self, are all open to interpretation.

Entering the first floor of Antrepo 5, Nazgol Ansarinia’s solo presentation of statistics as minimal, decorative works in Non-flammable, Non-stick, Non-stain (2009-10) leads to Untitled (Abstraction). This is a series where the artist translates statistics as geometric patterns, which appear on Iranian tablecloths derived from fractal geometry, while social, political and economic patterns seep into the domestic realm. Following on, Renata Lucas’ playful foldable floor, Failure (Falha) (2003), complements the deconstructive work of Dora Maurer and Lygia Clark who are featured in the main grouping of (Abstraction), in which structures, forms, and even abstractions, are revealed as constructs following an inherent logic.

Within (Abstraction), works employ appropriation to challenge the cold artistic language of abstraction with the physicality of life. Based on Untitled (Bloodwork-Steady Decline) (1994), in which a person’s declining immune system is charted on a grid, the presence of the physical body contained within the minimalist grid is extended in Adriana Varejão’s tongue-in-cheek appropriation of Fontana’s characteristic slash paintings Wall With Incisions A la Fontana Istanbul (2011). In a grid painted onto white canvas, fleshy, red oil paint interiors burst forth from the slits like fresh wounds. Nearby, Annette Kelm’s photograph Untitled (White Target) (2006), a pierced target, riffs on Jasper Johns’ quintessential motif.

The human presence in abstract and minimal forms is further explored in Untitled (Ross), referencing González-Torres’ best known series made in 1991, when his partner, Ross Laycock, died of AIDS, five years before the artist succumbed to the disease. Mounds of sweets wrapped in different-coloured wrappers are piled into a heap and offered to the audience. The stack is constantly replenished to remain at 175 lbs, the weight of an adult man. The works play on the physical and symbolic dissemination of the body – either as it decomposes or, as it transforms into something else, the same way as bread and wine came to symbolise the body of Christ.

For many, (Ross) is too literal. Carlos Herrera’s sculptures made from sports shoes, balls and other objects, coupled with Elmgreen and Dragset’s documentation of gay sub-culture framed in white synthetic leather in The Black and White Diary (2009), Tammy Rae Carland’s Lesbian Beds (2002), and Tom Burr’s minimalist disco-structure Endlessly Repeated Gesture (2009), feel decidedly retro, as does Group Material’s solo installation The Aids Timeline (1989), reconstructing the history of Aids using a combination of art objects and cultural artefacts.

Yet within (Ross), George Awde’s photographs of Lebanese men in a hair salon and pink living room respectively (presented with great discomfort in this context by the artist), complement Kutluğ Ataman’s army medical results in which he is diagnosed as homosexual and unfit to serve. This is a reminder: though the West may be comparatively more comfortable with homosexuality, it is still taboo throughout the Arab world. Here, cultural differences in a globalised context, where local and international currents co-exist, make Untitled (Passport) the ideal grouping to share the second floor with (Ross).

From Baha Boukhari’s My Father’s Palestinian Nationality (2007), a collection of her father’s passports, to Sue Williamson’s For Thirty Years Next to his Heart (1990), a work that chronicles the importance of identification for black South Africans under Apartheid, (Passport)’s literal curation seems intentional. From Claire Fontaine’s neon lights “Foreigners Everywhere” in German, Turkish, Albanian, Armenian and Kurdish (2010-11), and Kirsten Pieroth’s Weltkarte (Map of the World) (2003), a dictionary-style depiction of countries isolated and presented in alphabetical order, to Meriç Algün Ringborg’s The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms (2009-2011), classification, identification and the concept of nationality is presented as a paradox.

Based on González-Torres’ Untitled (Passport #11) (1993), an unlimited stack of passport-sized booklets with a flying bird printed on the front, the dissolution of populations within the globalised context is formally explored in Mona Hatoum’s Baluchi (multicolored) (2008) and Afghan (black and red) (2009), rendering the world map de-woven into the surface of Oriental rugs. Hatoum’s rugs visualise the dematerialisation of borders, nationalities and identities within the context of history, colonialism and immigration.

Upon entering Antrepo 3, Yazbeck and Farzin’s R.S.V.P 1939 (2007-09) is juxtaposed against a Time cover featuring the portrait of Nelson Rockefeller and the works are subtitled “From a center to a citadel. (Art)”. R.S.V.P 1939 is a reproduction of a prank invitation created in 1939 by MoMA’s Director of Publications at the time, Frances Collins. The invitation requested the presence of guests at the opening of a new “Museum of Standard Oil” and was a sarcastic aside to Rockefeller, who was president of MoMA at the time and notorious for merging private and government interests. Setting this work against the Time cover invites new interpretations of history and politics in the context of art; an accompanying text provides a quotation from Rockefeller on the subject: “I learned all about politics from the Museum of Modern Art.”

Indeed, history is a continuum of abstraction and appropriation. In Yazbeck and Farzin’s Chronoscope (2011), a collection of archive footage from the 1940s about British and American oil interests, Eleanor Roosevelt replies to a question about the obligations of other nations to America: “There is gratitude swamped by the sense of ‘Why was this done?’ Was it done to be free of political domination but instead to be dominated by economics?” The same question is still being raised more than half a century later. Yazbeck and Farzin present a reality that is static and unchanged, touching on the overwhelming complexity and repetitive nature of history.

In Untitled (History), Glenn Ligon’s FOIA drawings (2011), Johanna Calle’s Version Official (2008) and Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi’s Letters That Go Folded Into Shredder (2008-11) all touch upon the deletion of historical information from the public. However, it is Julieta Aranda’s There Has Been A Miscalculation (Flattened Ammunition) (2007-11), a Plexiglas cube containing pulverised remnants of 20th century history books and Cevdet Erek’s ongoing series of Plexiglas rulers containing years in both Latin and Arabic, which best describes how information is often superficial and lacking in real content.

Based on Gonzáles-Torres’ Untitled (1988), a black canvas painted with the names and dates: “Patty Hearst 1975 Jaws 1975 Vietnam 1975 Watergate 1973 Bruce Lee 1973 Munich 1972 Waterbeds 1971 Jackie O 1968”, is a collection of vacant key words and dates that are embedded in an ever-expanding global historical narrative. Touching on history as non-history, Voluspa Jarpa’s Library of Non-history (2010) reflects this idea in that black books containing declassified information on the Chilean dictatorship are given away to the first 20 viewers daily. The dematerialisation of historical events into abstract information remains true to the González-Torres referenced work.

The pairing of (History) with (Death by Gun) is apt. In William E. Jones’ Killed (2009), black and white archival images from the American Farm Security Administration are “killed” in the context that they were essentially removed from the public archive. Jones expands upon this by gradually blocking out the images with a black spot in the middle of the screen. The idea of a historical void, the whitewashing of the past and the deletion of experience adds weight to the representation of news photographers depicting real life deaths by gun shot, from Letizia Battaglia’s solo collection of mafia murders in Sicily, to the main group show where Matthew Brady’s 1860s photos of fallen soldiers during the American Civil War, Weegee’s crime scene images from 1930s and 1940s New York, and Eddie Adam’s iconic Street Execution of Viet cong Prisoner (Saigon, 1968) are presented.

There is little room for abstract readings in (Death by Gun). A key work comprises stacks of paper with the images of everyone killed in America by gunshot from 1 – 7 May 1989. Here, death is monumentalised, rather than abstracted. Indeed, anything but realism would only serve to undermine the lives of those directly affected by conflict and violence. Bisan Abu Eisheh’s installation of artefacts taken from demolished homes in the West Bank, Playing House (2008-11) presents the abstraction of the real, from fragments of bed posts to tattered shoes left behind not by choice, but by force; a real meeting between the personal, the political, and the object as art or artefact.

This raises the merits of the biennial as a whole; a vast treatise that reflects on the decentralised contemporary zeitgeist, in which post-colonial identities are commonplace. This might explain the need to contextualise the political histories of the regions best represented: the Middle East and South America. As Martha Rosler’s powerful collage series created during the Vietnam War, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72) suggests, there is a need to somehow meet in the middle when it comes to how we approach our personal and collective histories in a world seemingly split down the middle.

In some cases, works stand alone, while others require the conversation that takes place around them. In this sense, Untitled is brave in that it demands readings incorporating the group as a collection of individual expressions, from the solemnest of lamentations, to the cruel one liners, so that the abstract might become more tangible in the real world.

The 12th Istanbul Biennial continued until 13 November 2011.

Stephanie Bailey