Istanbul is a city like no other. Spanning two continents, it is the capital of two empires and is home to two distinct identities – one youthful and liberal, the other conservative and traditional – simmering against the backdrop of a turbulent eco-political climate. Throw in the lasting impact of Covid-19 on the artistic community and the stage is set for a fascinating moment of public contemporary art as the 17th Istanbul Biennale opens (until November 20, 2022).
“We began work on the Biennale amid a spiral of health crisis and were well aware that many artists were focused on solving the economic, political, social and environmental problems plaguing our planet, many of which were exacerbated by the pandemic,” said David Teh, one of the three curators of the exhibition at the press conference. “It seemed obvious to us that the biennale would support and amplify those efforts.”
Taloi Havini, at the Çinili Hamam for the 17th Istanbul Biennale. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren
Spreading the approximately 50 projects of the more than 500 contributors, including artists, researchers, architects, fishermen and ecologists, across the city was one way of doing that. There are 12 exhibition sites and a wealth of satellite spaces ranging from second-hand bookstores to cafes and metro stops, all reflecting different aspects of city life.
The scattered layout also encourages visitors to discover the city and its multi-layered stories in new ways. The newly restored 16th-century Çinili Hamam, for example, opened its doors to the public for the first time in 12 years, ahead of its inauguration as a hammam museum complex in 2023. Other legendary newcomers include the Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plants Garden and Barin Han, the former studio of Turkey’s leading calligrapher and bookbinder Emin Barin.
Dr John Bell in Barin Han for the 17th Istanbul Biennale. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren
“After periods of prolonged isolation, we wanted to bring people from different communities together to connect and think about how art can help us do things differently in the future,” said Bige Örer, director of the Istanbul Biennale. “We hope to stimulate conversations that will continue beyond the Biennale and positively transform those who have them.”
This collaborative spirit is underlined by the large number of long-term research projects by artist collectives performing transformative work in their local communities, as well as the extensive public program of events, workshops, tours and poetry readings courtesy of the Poetry Channel. Radyo Bienal, meanwhile, celebrates the diversity of biennial contestants through a weekly 25-episode program and English podcast series.
Carlos Casas at Approach Tunnel for the 17th Istanbul Biennale. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren
While there is no title this year – a nod to the fractured artistic response to the pandemic – there is a clear focus on process rather than production, with the curators describing the biennale as a form of compost primed for the dissemination of all sorts of things. of ideas and conversations. Örer uses the metaphor of a newspaper when we speak: ‘Biennial participants bring us news from all over the world,’ she says. “It can be hard to tell the truth, so we wanted to find new ways to spread it for those who do.”
This feels especially relevant in Turkey at the moment, with its autocratic government and recent history of artistic censorship. When asked how the current political climate has shaped the biennale’s programming, Örer replied: “Artists find inspiring ways to express themselves so that they don’t fall victim to the system.”
Alice Miceli at the Pera Müzesi for the 17th Istanbul Biennale. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren
The dumpling post is an example. The free biennial publication of the Hrant Dink Foundation (HDF) in Istanbul has come about following the government’s ban on the foundation’s 2019 conference in Kayseri, which examines the social, economic, political and cultural changes in the city . Rather than capitulate, the HDF organized a festival around the region’s most famous dish: dumplings. More than 500 people attended not only to eat and make dumplings, but also to show solidarity against the restrictions imposed. Spread throughout the biennale is the dumpling post continues HDF’s fight against censorship, prohibition and the shrinkage of public space.
With no unifying theme, however, this sprawling storefront can feel somewhat disparate at times, especially in historic sites like the Pera Museum, which is packed with archival projects that swing between subjects as diverse as the feminist movement in Nepal and the anti-colonial guerrilla war in British Malaya. The avalanche of information displayed in web-like networks on two of the three floors feels overwhelming and the visual impact disappointing. Still, there are some wonders to behold on the top floor, most notably Alice Miceli’s photographic works documenting the lingering and traumatic impact of deadly mine-infested sites in Cambodia and Bosnia.
Wallowland by Cooking Sections at Büyükdere35 at the 17th Istanbul Biennial. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren (above) David Levene (above)
Also noteworthy is Wallowland, a joint research project conceived by the artist duo Cooking Sections that aims to raise awareness around water buffalo herding, as well as the water buffalo and wetlands around Istanbul that are threatened by urbanization. Their biennial presentation at Büyükdere35 takes the form of a shop, serving tasty Turkish puddings made with buffalo milk, accompanied by traditional buffalo songs.
Meanwhile, in the cavernous main chamber of the Küçük Mustafa Pasa Hammam is Tarek Atoui’s Whispering Playground, a collection of found objects that conduct and amplify sounds, including compositions from Istanbul’s working ports. Conceived in collaboration with instrument makers and sound recordists, it demonstrates how sound can be manipulated and accessed in multisensory ways, including through sight and touch.
Tarek Atoui at Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamam for the 17th Istanbul Biennale. Photography: Sahir Ugur Eren
On the Asian side at the Müze Gazahane is the latest version of Arahmaiani’s ongoing Highlight project. During performances, brightly colored flags with commonly identified Turkish words such as love (love) are waved by participants in choreographed processions. Another notable highlight is a presentation from The Silent University, a knowledge-sharing platform by and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, documenting ongoing work on a new branch of the platform in Turkey. Nearby in Artthereistanbul are three captivating video works by Lida Abdul examining the consequences of war, destruction and displacement in her home country of Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, there is a lot to process, which is why the curators urge you to take your time, think about it and talk about it. “These projects are the result of a huge, sometimes risky decision to understand a particular moment and do something about it,” says curator Amar Kanwar. “Skip the need for a precise ‘ah-ha’ moment and connect with it as an incentive for change.” And it’s like this that you realize that this most diverse Istanbul Biennale comes together in reverse. I