Istanbul — Following the precipitous decline of freedom of speech and expression in Turkey in the wake of an attempted coup in July 2016, the 15th edition of Turkey’s most important contemporary art event, the Istanbul Biennial, opened this past September curated by the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset, taking as its theme what makes “a good neighbor.” As the event draws to a close on November 12th, there has so far been a very tepid response to the Biennial’s subtly political format.
In a country that accounts for one-third of all journalists imprisoned worldwide, critical response to the Biennial has so far been quite predictable, praised by the press within Turkey, criticized by those working from abroad. Writing for The Guardian, Hannah Ellis-Petersen accused Elmgreen & Dragset of exercising “self-censorship,” an assessment not entirely comprehensive of the complexity of the exhibition’s political content, much less the reality of working within the country today.
Over the past 12 years, the AK Parti (AKP) under President Tayyip Erdoğan has consolidated its control over the media. Erdoğan’s overly broad use of emergency powers and the suspension of habeas corpus in the wake of last year’s attempted coup has allowed him to leverage his government’s unprecedented power including the supra-judicial ability to silence dissent. According to Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Turkey’s crackdown on journalists has had a dire impact on freedom of speech and expression:
“Keeping 148 journalists and media workers in jail […] and closing down 169 media and publishing outlets under the state of emergency shows how Turkey is deliberately flouting basic principles of human rights and rule of law central to democracy.”
In addition, Istanbul has become ground-zero for Erdoğan’s gentrification policies, most of which are left over from his tenure as mayor more than a decade ago. Outside Istanbul Modern, one of the main Biennial venues, cranes dot the skyline and a construction zone greets visitors as they enter, an irony likely not lost on most visitors.
A mural at the Istanbul Modern Museum by Latifa Echakhch highlights this tension perfectly. The work consists of two long concrete walls scraped of paint revealing only barely visible figures. It symbolized, at least for me, how the crackdown on protesters following Istanbul’s Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013 could still be seen and addressed today.
In Erkan Özgen’s “Wonderland” (2016), a work the curators had discovered earlier this year at the Artists at Risk Pavilion in Athens, the heart-wrenching story told by a deaf-mute boy, Mohammed, from a small Syrian village is presented entirely through gestures. The dissimilitude of his experiences with mine felt shockingly destabilizing. In the film, he uses his hands and body to recount the assassination of his family at the hands of Islamic terrorists.
In Victor Leguy’s “Structures for Invisible Borders” (2017), objects the artist exchanged with Syrian refugees — journals, books, and everyday domestic objects — were hung on a wall, evenly at eye level, and partially painted white. I saw the work as a commentary on the public’s tendency to “whitewash” political crises, but in a way that felt personal, rather than contrived. Accompanying these were written materials sourced from a cafe in Istanbul Leguy frequented with many Syrians he had befriended, materials he printed then offered for free to visitors.
The subject of displacement formed another crucial pillar in building up the theme of neighborliness and was concretized in Volkan Aslan’s newly commissioned video “Home Sweet Home” (2017), which depicts two female protagonists living on a dilapidated boat along the Bosphorus. The video was co-presented and staged at a house belonging to the Elgiz Museum on the Greek Island of Lesvos (also installed in three-channel form at the Istanbul Modern), on an island formerly occupied by the Turks during the Ottoman era. As one of the main points of entry for people attempting to enter Europe through the continent’s southern border, Lesvos has been in the media as of late for playing host to thousands of refugees fleeing global wars and conflicts. Many of the refugees who arrive in Lesvos settle in one of two camps located on the island — Moria or Kara Tepe — both of which I visited. Additionally, Lesvos is also the island where last year residents were nominated for a Nobel peace prize for their empathy towards those who ended up there. While speaking to several families and individuals living in the camps, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that few opportunities existed on the island for the refugees, and most, therefore, expressed a desire to move north onto more prosperous European countries like Germany or England. As the setting for Aslan’s work — a film showing the psychological dimensions of housing precarity for two women in Istanbul — I started to think about the difference between city centers and peripheries, about the refugee crisis as a multidimensional one between two geographical extremes.
The issue of settler histories and the erasure of black narratives unfolded in Fred Wilson’s fascinating intervention into the Pera Museum entitled “Afro Kismet” (2017). Wilson’s project for the Biennial examined the omission of blackness in the Pera Museum’s collection by deconstructing the museological narratives formed within it. Wilson’s investigation began by him asking the Pera Museum’s curators whether they were aware of any black figures in their collection, after which he found nearly double the African figures that curators initially thought present. This method, what the artist calls “mining the museum,” was also employed by the artist as US representative at the 2003 Venice Biennale, where he sourced Renaissance paintings and similarly drew out latent African narratives within Venetian art history.
Despite the censorship that exists within Turkey today — or perhaps because of it — a number of interesting underground initiatives popped up during my visit. The spaces that emerged in anticipation of the Biennial were among the most inspiring discoveries of my trip, mostly thanks to OJ, an art space that doubles as a hub of trap music in Beyoğlu, and where I spent the entire two-weeks of my trip. The space is run by a trio of emerging young voices in the Istanbul art scene: Mithat Marul, an advertising executive by day, vibes magnet by night, curator Erdem Cetrez and artist Burkut Kum. OJ’s show during the Biennial featured an international assembly of works by Adam Stamp, Andrew Birk, Berk Cakmakci, Bora Akinciturk, Emma Stern, Huey Crowley, and Lara Joy Evans, which, according to Certez, explored the “politically stuck and contradictory state of present-day Earth.”
Reflecting on the latent contradictions of working within Turkey today, Elmgreen & Dragset said they hoped to use art as a means of curtailing the obvious difficulties of working there. “We have been following the ups and downs of developments in Istanbul and have taken all these ongoing complexities into account when curating the Biennial,” said Michael Elmgreen in an interview with D/Railed. “This is not to underestimate the realities of this political climate, where a gathering is increasingly difficult,” Elmgreen continued, “but to show that it’s a big lie that the Turkish art scene is dead just because of the political situation here.” In the absence of the ability to gather, art seems to carry this collective power forward, in defiance to the reality of Istanbul itself. An idea that can be found in Fred Wilson’s masterful uncovering of latent black narratives, or through the gritty reality of Özgen’s film documenting the trauma of terrorism, the accumulating gestures of the exhibition enstate the hope that a political, public sphere is still possible even in the most difficult of states.
By Dorian Batycka