The 14th Istanbul Biennial: “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms"
By ELGA WIMMER, DEC. 2015
The 14th Istanbul Biennial, curated by Carolyn Christoph-Bakargiev, is held under the title of “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms” (September 5th to November 26, 2015). The thirty venues on the European and Asian sides of the Bosporus, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, cover all parts of the City of Istanbul, from the old city to modern Beyoglu, showcasing works by 50 international visual artists, and other practitioners, including oceanographers, neuroscientists, writers and philosophers. It is not surprising that salt water would be a theme used for a city located on the Bosphorus, for its multi-layered history and metaphor as a meeting place of East and West is well established.
This year however, Christov-Bakargiev adds an inflection that is raw and real, touching on the flow of refugees from Syria (Istanbul is said to be struggling with more than two million) and a city plagued with ethnic tensions, political division, and protests.
“The one reason I am not in politics but in art is because I feel that art has a possibility of shaping the souls of people and transforming the opinions of opinion leaders who are also then in a trickle-down effect shaping what will be the policies of government," emphasized Christov-Bakargiev in her opening speech.
Saltwater surrounds Istanbul and is a metaphor that heals, corrodes, preserves, and carries objects and people from one continent to another. It sparkles, menaces, builds waves of history and trauma, laps around beaches - is never calm, and always in transition. A summary of the above is poetically expressed in Adrián Villar Rojas' installation on Buyukada, part of Istanbul’s Prince’s Islands, placed in the Sea of Marmara, one hour’s boat ride from the center of Istanbul. Villar Rojas installed a series of animal sculptures on platforms rising above the water (“The Most Beautiful of all Mothers,” 2015). They seem to carry whatever they found in the sea: plants, crevasses of other animals, treasure chests…The stark white sculptures build a dramatic contrast to the dark ruins of the house behind them, which Trotsky used for his exile in Istanbul (1929 – 1933). The dark history of the place adds to the somewhat melancholic atmosphere. Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk pointed out Trotsky’s house to the curator of the Biennial, as one of her artistic advisors.
Also on the island of Buyukada, in the picturesque early 20th Century Splendid Hotel, William Kentridge, in his video “O Sentimental Machine,” 2015, alludes to Trotsky and his muse/secretary. It’s a satire on Trotsky’s research and writing, with his secretary throwing paper like birds in the air, and transforming from a dull looking typist to a dancer dressed in the costume of the jazz era.
Back to Salt Galata, a hilly site near Galata Tower, Walid Raad’s “Another Letter to the Reader,” 2015, recounts a fictional episode in 1914, when the young Turkish Minister of War, Enver Pasha, ordered the motifs of Iznik to be hidden away to protect them from wartime damage. Raad explains that the motifs had actually “left” the containers, looking for the blue, red, and green colors that had long disappeared. In wartime many precious works of art disperse, and Walid Raad made a poetic and poignant installation with crates, which bear only the cutouts of the Iznik patterns they formerly contained.
Theaster Gates' work, also to be found in the narrow streets that surround the Italian Embassy, is comprised of different elements, all linking back to the city. The artist refers to Turkish history of the distant, as well as recent, past, showing slides of Mohammedan sculpture and an intricate 17th-century Iznik bowl. Gates will make and re-make versions of the ceramic himself as well as with assistants, collaborating mostly with other artists.
At one point Gates realized that he had collected over 200 soul and jazz records from the legendary label started by Turkish entrepreneur Ahmet Ertegun – his more contemporary connection to Turkey and Istanbul. The collection was displayed and the music played for the installation during the Biennial.
“The bowl is really the heartbeat of the space," Gates explains." Over the next few weeks I will ponder this bowl as a way of pondering Turkey, and that maybe through the recreation of this bowl I might learn something."
What also captures our interest in the Istanbul Biennial this year is the inclusion of two Australian Indigenous artists with new commissions, and a suite of culturally provocative support works – the Maw and Dhangatji Mununggurr Maak Message Sticks (1935); the Yirrkala Drawings (1947); the Yirrkala Bark Petitions and Thumb Print Petitions (1963); and Saltwater Paintings (1998-2000) – which provided a context for the artistic vision of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s biennial.
Vernon Ah-Kee and Djambawa Marawili were invited by the curator to create new works. The former’s work is placed at one of the major venues, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, and is comprised of a video work and five large semi-abstract portraits in black, red and white that stare piercingly from the canvas. During the opening ceremony the artists played on ancient horns, and explained that their painting depicted symbolically the departure from Australia and the arrival in Istanbul. It was a very moving and meaningful gesture to invite indigenous artists from the other side of the world to this Biennial. That should really be the true meaning of a Biennial: To overcome nationalities, racism, differences, and political and religious issues, and to enjoy our common interest in humanity and culture! WM