Danish-born Micael Elmgreen and Norwegian-born Ingar Dragset were the curators of the 15th Istanbul Biennial which ended 12 November.
The Istanbul Biennial has in recent years focused on subjects such as the city’s anti-authoritarian protests in Gezi Park in 2013 and Europe’s migration crisis. The biennial’s manifesto has since 2009 stated that the biennial should display “political neutral art as a means of policing the art world”.
The Scandinavian artist-duo and curators, now based in Berlin, suggested therefore “a good neighbor” theme for the 15th Istanbul Biennial, the very question of how to live together as people and countries.
The celebrated duo Elmgreen & Dragset stands for an aptly and consistently use of narrativistic techniques to convey messages that are anti-simplistic in nature that in itself has become a political cause that needs to be celebrated, protected and given ample place to be experienced.
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Controversial art is, however, almost entirely absent in a country having increasingly tense relationship with Europe, even if, on the surface, Turkey is recovering a superficial form of normality.
Was it possible for the curators to carve out space wide enough for the biennial and its artworks to unfold rather than be forced through a narrow filter? The Scandinavian duo vigorously denied they have practiced self-censorship, although they hinted at the difficulties of working in Turkey.
At a press conference prior to the biennial Michael Elmgreen explained that the artworks were presented as an incompetent sentence, and most likely one ending with a question mark. The duo acknowledged an absence of anti-government slogans or artwork incorporating overt activism, but said contemporary politics had been infiltrated in more subtle ways.
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In our opinion the duo delivered a biennial that was politically charged and poetic, anchored in its local scene yet international in reach. The curators’ language around their title “a good neighbor” was without burdens. “It’s a little flat if art gets reduced to being a direct response to very populist politics, and very simple answers on very complicated matters,” said Elmgreen.
“A good neighbor” was also a lesson in curating. The exhibition’s scale with 56 artists spread across six locations, was modest and manageable. Dragset drew a distinction between the art world and geopolitics: “Art is not there to react the same way as politicians or the media, using the same simplified populist language,” he said.
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For art stars of their caliber, Elmgreen & Dragset kept a remarkably low profile at the biennial. Having participated in numerous biennials themselves, the two insisted on a scale that ensured the viewers’ full engagement with every work on view – even the videos.
However, both artists admitted they had been sensitive to the political climate faced by Turkish artists, and the duo’s show stood in stark contrast to the last Istanbul Biennial, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.
Some of the most striking works in the exhibition were installed inside the Galata Greek Primary School. Installed pieces by Dan Stockholm, Pedro Gomez Egana and Kasia Fudakowski, placed on different levels of the building, illustrated the private home, bodies inhabiting domestic places and its physical and personal foundations and what made a home personal, all in stylistically varied ways. A work by Leander Schönweger, displaying a maze of white-washed walls and unusually sized door frames, sent the viewers through a disorienting and potentially claustrophobia-inducing quest.
One of the most political pieces was by the Moroccan-French visual artist Latifa Echakhch, which featured two concrete walls painted with a flaking mural of the protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013.
The number of artists had been kept purposefully low, and 30 of the 56 participants presented new commissions, asking questions around the theme, ranging from “is a good neighbor someone you rarely see?” to “is a good neighbor genderless?”
In fact, many works in the exhibition deal with gender and sexual identities, and one location, a Bauhaus-style villa housing the cultural space Arc Kultur, was entirely dedicated to one work by Mahmoud Khaled, titled “Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man” (2017). Elmgreen & Dragset, who are gay, said the biennial was meant to be a celebration of diversity, exhibiting works in six venues, mainly located in Istanbul’s European city center; Galata Greek Primary School, Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, ARK Kültür, Yoğunluk Atelier, and Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam.
Elmgreen & Dragset suggested that both artists and viewers should think about the role of art, the spaces it fills, and what can be expected of it in politically fraught times. Like almost all cultural events in Turkey, the biennial is run by an independent private foundation, and only about 6% of its funding comes from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
It’s difficult to consider Istanbul and the concept of neighbors without thinking about its border country, Syria. Roughly three million Syrian refugees currently live in Turkey, the overwhelming majority of them without access to basic facilities. No art can truly do justice to the catastrophic enormity of this human tragedy, but Erkan Özgen’s short video Wonderland (2016) was a poignant evocation of the ongoing situation.
Elmgreen & Dragset’s biennial was a generous and relevant platform, fizzling with new energies. It didn’t set out to change the world, but proved that art can offer considered reflections on what it might mean to share it with others.
Scandinavian Artist-Duo Curated Politically Fraught Istanbul Biennial 2017, written by Tor Kjolberg