My research explores the experience of contemporary art in urban exhibitions and installations. After hearing a talk by the co-curator Vasif Kortun about his 9th Istanbul Biennial and how he teamed with English curator Charles Esche in 2005, it seemed essential to go to the city. There I found not only the surprises that contemporary Turkish art has to offer, but the city itself. No place is like it, and in many respects no art scene deals with contemporary issues like Istanbul artists do. In short, the political complexion of Turkey adds dynamism to the social engagement defining art in the cultural capital.
In the following blog entries I have attempted to highlight what was unique about how artists and curators dealt with the intersection of art and social content at the 10th Istanbul Biennial.
Assuming the biennial to be symptomatic of contemporary art, my original research on the 9th Istanbul Biennial focused on the creative role of curating and a noticeable attention to the creative process from this perspective within the collaborative model of a biennial resides in the following entries.
Support from the haudenschildGarage provided a platform from which to consider these developments firsthand and allowed a way to pose and answer this question: How did the 10th Istanbul Biennial function as a strategy of encounter, within the more collective curatorial realm and the more focused projects of individual artists? My hope is that the blog functions as a document of this.
Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary - Optimism in the Age of Global War
Hou Hanru’s title for the 10th Istanbul Biennial reworks the pre-millennium call to arms uniting the anti-globalization movement (“another world is possible”) that typified radicalism in the 1990s. Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary—Optimism in the Age of Global War confronts twenty-first century uncertainty with pointblank utopianism. Failed utopian aspirations that defined much of the twentieth century would seem to have found new potential in the East. Solutions to the global turmoil brought on by Western expansion are sought in the obdurate niches of Istanbul’s social, cultural, and developmental production cycles. The long arch of Istanbul’s modernization now offers a potentially fresh start because, as the curator writes in the introduction, “It’s a perfect example of successful modernization beyond the Euro-centric perspective.”
In this sense, the 2007 biennial is surprising hopeful. The biennial and its host city combine in loaded terms of “realisible utopia” and “utopian idealism.” In addition to attributing these progressive, modernist preoccupations to Istanbul, the curator also endows the biennial city with postmodern virtues. The city, as he writes, represents “dynamic and different modernities” that “invent new local conditions facing the challenge of globalisation.”
Out of context the writing might appear to be yet another celebration of Istanbul’s enchanting past as a global crossroads between Europe and Asia. By posing an underrated local against a monstrous international, Hou Hanru risks overplaying contemporary art’s hand. Many will remain skeptical of art’s potential to impact the more sudden and wrenching realities facing the twenty first century’s “age of global war.” But the curator knows this and the program’s title becomes all the more provocative.
Rather than a naive investment in aesthetic or urban utopias, idealisms, and modernities, as the case may be, the retro-terminology of the curatorial scheme serves as a prompt, it would seem. Idealism is imported into the design to contrast an understandably pessimistic twenty-first century mindset that invades daily life as well as the realm of art production. The bold question seems to be whether the political conditions enabling modern global malaise will be breached by art work. In the coming decades how will contemporary art—as an international force with the potential of moving beyond traditionalism(s)—respond to an increasingly reactionary world?
In the curator’s view, contemporary art increasingly exposes alternative social structures that often go unnoticed in places like Istanbul. Art fueled by “cultural production” in remarkable global communities avoids the anti-ideal of a coercive globalism that steals life in war and limits artistic production to familiar forms of captialization. This being familiar territory, the exhibition also asks what potential our more hopeful contemporary institutions hold, knowing that art was essential in shaping previous modern eras of urban development.
Istanbul provides a compelling modernity among many, as Hou Hanru would have it, because as a locality it embodies the rawness of global transformation, from antiquity to today. Internally, Turkey’s modern electorate now faces a rising, religious middle-class. Regionally, the country looks at an increasingly imperious and demanding European Union to the west, while trouble brews in neighboring Middle Eastern states. Like other self-reliant countries surrounded by large bodies of water, Turkey is a nation that traditionally prides itself on its unique, non-assimilative character. Yet far from being isolated, a divergent modernization has seen Istanbul become a more interconnected hub.
Optimism is stressed in 10th Istanbul Biennial at the risk of disappointment and more twenty-first century disillusionment. Imperial history and the manifestations of modern globalization have often led curators to see Istanbul as an ideal locality that betrays the homogenization that modern progress demands. This is easy for foreigner or local alike to understand because there is no place like it, but cultivating that experience often leads to rather staged projects. Finding optimism for our global era ultimately will be less pressing than seeing how this biennial manages to be a fresh look at either international or civic issues as contemporary art. One can only be hopeful….
Inside the Ataturk Cultural Center: How to Hang a Building Part 1
Of the two larger installations, Burn it or Not? proves to be the most unusual, and for me, the most memorable in the biennial. Housed in the AKM (Ataturk Cultural Center), one the most iconic buildings in central Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the title refers to long-considered plans that would have the Ataturk Cultural Center demolished to make way for more lucrative development.
A friend mentioned that this was likely the biennial’s most approachable exhibition. It seems anyone off the street could walk into the modernist cathedral and be taken-in by the obsolete décor found inside.
As exhibition strategy, though, the appeal of the AKM presents a predicament: how to privilege art in such an extravagant environment. At points the ornate architecture and the art fuse in a strange ways. But this is perhaps what one hopes to find at a biennial—a testing ground examining whether an exhibition is possible in a chosen historical, if unyielding place. In the end, what is problematic is forgivable in Burn it or Not?—especially if one finds the AKM as fascinating as I did.
Entering the AKM is not a historic experience. It is the sensation of walking between microclimates, and the curating inside makes it obvious that from the beginning this was envisioned as an exhibition rooted in the element of ambiance.
Burn it or Not? asks a question most art-minded people already have an answer for: whether to preserve urban vestiges, like this idle gem, or to allow the city to contemporize in the unconsidered way that has typified civic development since the ‘80s.
Erdem Helvacioglu’s sound installation Memories of Silent Walls explores the powerlessness that confronts residents when buildings, as containers of memory, face expiration. Memories of Silent Walls is the most seamlessly site-specific work in the AKM. By combining reverberations with the elevated view from the second floor’s massive windows overlooking Taksim Square, the AKM becomes an acoustic atmosphere in the most specific and atemporal sense. The installation can be heard at all times on the second floor, yet the work is deceptively unimposing. Erdem Helvacioglu works with sound as an element of imperceptibility to blends entirely with the space. In other words, the piece resonates in an uncanny way that matches the personality of the lofty room.
The installation progresses from a whisper to a crescendo, replacing gentle ambient vibrations with the grating noise of an imploding building. Memories of Silent Walls attempts to situate two spaces of reception: the entirely real space of the AKM, and the imaginary space of urban renovation (destruction).
The intelligence of Helvacioglu’s piece is that it literally weaves the dilemma of gentrification into the personal moments one spends at the exhibition, even while looking at other artworks. The artist’s sound-work reverses a filmic tactic by creating an off-screen montage that replaces what a visual representation could only fail to capture at a particular apex (destruction of the AKM).
Few artworks realize a curatorial theme as well as Helvacioglu does here. The artist captures the canned destruction contemporary global development entails, which most biennials seem to want to “talk” about. Memories of Silent Walls also depicts the hard to relate process of collective memory we all carry, and which a place like the AKM embodies over the course of decades.
Inside the Ataturk Cultural Center: How to Hang a Building Part 2
Many artists attempt to capture political issues in a social form. Architectural photography is one example. In the last post, I considered how Erdem Helvacioglu’s sound installation avoided the tendency to merely capture, and managed to compete with the Ataturk Cultural Center’s (AKM) immersive environment by adding to it. Admittedly, adding to a space is probably easier when the medium is sound, and definitely impossible with certain visual media.
A building steeped in history like the AKM, which Helvacioglu was able to use to his advantage, often overwhelms the separate realities offered by artists when unusual buildings are used for special projects like a biennial. This is particularly evident with most of the photography here, which hangs on geometrically embossed, bronze colored walls that could hardly be more unaccommodating.
In both cases, the work of Armenian artist Vahram Aghasyan and Japanese artist Tomoko Yoneda explore comparable themes of failed ‘modernities’, and, in particular, the urban residues left in post-soviet countries. These fail to resonate in the AKM due to how the interior intensifies the medium’s two-dimensionality. In this sense, some projects presenting serious and compelling issues are only supplemental to the curatorial thematics envisioned for the space. But this points to what I find most alluring about the exhibition: it confronts the impossibility of curating the AKM. One can feel a tension as the building stubbornly refuses to recede into the background and the retrograde interiors come back to life.
The AKM also represents an important directorial decision related to Biennial’s history. Burn It or Not? inadvertently maintains a biennial tradition of curating inside obdurate architecture. The difference is that this exhibition rejects using ancient landmarks. The Hagia Sophia in the touristic Sultanahmet, exemplifies past approaches to citywide curating in Istanbul. (The last Istanbul Biennial, curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, was widely praised for an urban renegotiation that rejected tourist-friendly zones.) Despite its inflexibility, the anomalous space contained in the AKM opposes both the white cube and the historical containers used previously (see curator Dan Cameron’s 2003, 8th Istanbul Biennial, Poetic Justice). Perhaps this converted gallery makes for the most populist show in the 10th Istanbul Biennial because it is neither an antiseptic white box, nor an anachronistic art-prison.
What makes the AKM an oddly sumptuous exhibition due to the choice of building is that when viewing the art the only work that blends in seems to be more contemplative and meditative pieces. In this regard, video has an edge because it takes a magnetic and mesmerizing work to really transport the viewer beyond the AKM’s interior. As Erdem Helvacioglu’s piece exemplifies, the meditative aspect of the exhibition makes for a potentially deep visit, as you swing between the especially strong proposals that manage to deal with the AKM’s strange anatomy—local artists seemed to have an advantage in this regard.
In the AKM’s confines an inversion occurs, which reverses the illusion borne out of modern exhibition practices. Approaching the art feels quite incidental to being physically apprehended building. The exhibition is negated in light of what would otherwise be demanding artwork on display. But this is surely the downside for some visitors, because it overwhelms the installations in ways that most artist’s projects couldn’t possibly mount a response to.
As an experiment, Burn it or Not? finds the sublime side of its modern edifice at the risk of subjecting the artwork in the exhibition to a insidious, albeit temporary brut force, which contends with the fate facing the AKM by forces larger than it outside of its walls. Again, this ‘failure’ is what makes the somewhat uninventive curatorial theme novel in practice.
Inside the Ataturk Cultural Center: How to Hang a Building Part 3
From the perspective of modern decadence and urban renewal, interesting connections emerge on all three of the AKM’s floors in what is consistently the most uncluttered exhibition included in the biennial. Since the curators stuck almost entirely to urban themes, the subject matter that relishes modernism as dystopia is most at home in the (very post-utopian) AKM.
Istanbul native Emre Huner’s Boumont exemplifies this. His video is projected in a wide third floor stairway. Boumont succeeds where many soundtrack driven video pieces fail, by quickly enveloping the viewer in a straightforward, if brooding, cinematic landscape. In a move away from previous video work in animation, Huner creates a haunted city reminiscent of some of Istanbul’s eerie industrial parks. Scenes are populated by a sole castaway, who does little more than survive throughout the piece. Contrasting the unedited feel and talk-heavy content that fills many of the biennials other videos, Boumont communicates without producing dialogue, capturing a boundless world wrapped in one individual’s isolation. Human scarcity and self-reliance carryover into the accompanying string arrangement. Yet it is the efficient use of complimentary sound and lighting that drives the artist’s deeply apocalyptic impressions, which are indulgent without being contrived. The scenery is undemanding and has the added power of the musical score, which enhances Huner’s somber netherworld—and the AKM.
The photography most at home in the AKM comes from Canadian Nancy Davenport, who offers some of the political emphasis the biennial promised. As a treasure of the state, the Ataturk Cultural Center possesses all the requisite signs of deference to the State that the building’s namesake would suggest. That is, an imposing and decadent governmentality decorates the interior (such as a tasseled six-meter flag hanging in one of the lounges. Strangely this interiority is never really addressed in the exhibition—it is just there.) Thus, Davenport’s serene photographs serve to exorcise any dissident feelings that might have accumulated during the trek to the top floor and provide a needed counterbalance to the inescapable air of authority artificially beeming forth from the interiors.
In five photographs, The Apartments depict hijackers militantly occupying a high-rise. Masked guerillas rappel down the unassuming buildings, bomb flats, and fire pistols at airliners overhead. In digitally enhanced scenarios, the vaguely journalistic photos capture an imaginary war happening outside the New York City-esque dwellings. Combined here by Davenport is, on the one hand, a figment of a long-lost social imaginary of safety that predated 9/11. On the other hand, these revolutionaries populate a revamped techno-realism in a style somewhere between fantasy and Photoshop.
These works are beguiling in that they frame resistance in the unthinkable urban montage that digital technology permits. Politically motivated hand-to-hand violence of this sort has been virtually unseen in places like Manhattan since the turbulent ‘60s. These scenes, then, depict the outer fringes of anti-capitalism as an ideology advanced by technological innovations.
Their representation of non-realization also acts as a measure of how comically bombastic such militant aspirations look in an everyday setting. These big, unmovable high-rise condos can be conquered in a parallel universe. These anonymous extremists mount resistance only to ponder how leftism could possible be more than a symbolic substance in the near future, as it has come to be since the end of the Cold War. In the midst of a biennial, these photos wonder how universal any anti-capital message could be in practice, considering the praxis confronting these giants in site-specific terms.
Davenport explores the media-genic potential of a latter-day revolution, by processing leftist rhetoric through digital mediation. The Apartments captures the sad but comical state of things familiar to an anti-global audience: smashing capitalism seems real only in a fantasyland. I thought the stinging uncontrollable laughter that came from one young viewer as I sat nearby measured the strength of Davenport’s work, which is to say it captures the repressed state of things. This reminded me of something curator Hou Hanru mentioned at the opening press conference about how he imagines contemporary art countering global war with optimism to the extent that it maintains the possibility of dreaming. Davenport’s The Apartments is more humorous than optimistic about twenty first-century dreaming—a world where previously impossible transferals of power occur—where big white monoliths represent the victories of puppet-like insurgents instead of the property of invisible landlords.
Xu Zhen also questions the triumphal energies of the modern era. In this case the artist mounts a spurious expedition to the peak of Mount Everest. Denoting the famous mountain’s height, the installation, 8848-1.86, consists of a video of the make-believe climb, cargo crates, climbing gear, and a huge white sign hung at chest height. Most prominently, Xu Zhen has enclosed a replica of Everest’s peak—supposedly removed and confiscated by his expedition team. By transforming the modernist impulse to conquer nature into a quest to make the tip of the highest peak in the world a readymade, 8848-1.86mobilizes some the most conceptually vivid proposals in the show.
But the artist’s cleverly deceptive video might have done better on its own here. The installation of tents and camping supplies clashes harshly in the ornate AKM. What is an interesting project looks needlessly amateurish here. The unresolved multi-media installation fails by its own unmanaged aesthetic, and by leaving too little to the imagination. The strewn gear at first looks like a retail outlet, and the tawdry peak of Everest recalls the Styrofoam dioramas found in natural history museums. The staid utilitarian look of the outdoor gear kills the illusion of the kitschy diarama, and neither ingredient in 8848-1.86 finds balance in this particularly fussy portion of the AKM.
At times, it is hard to know whether the artist, the curators, or the AKM is to blame where the exhibition feels off. On the whole, it is the unforgiving nature of the building. But, again, taking on the challenge of curating inside the AKM makes for one of the most admirable and rewarding experiences for the viewer in this biennial.
Unlike some previous Istanbul Biennials, failures in relation to the venue occur at a material level—artistic and curatorial vision can only be so commensurate—and this show was by no means doomed by the AKM, even if it is totally overshadowed by it. Burn it or Not? proves to be a consistently insightful investigation of the biennial’s stated curatorial query—what global realities will follow a modern era dominated by western designs and influence, that fostered such beautifully ornate and oppressive buildings as this one.
World of Images: Entering Entre-polis
"Ming’s preoccupation with the construction of identity through portraiture has led him to subjects as varied as anonymous children, pensioners from an old age home, prisoners and on to portraits of Buddha, Mao, and Bruce Lee.” Taken from the biennial guide, this quote describes Yan Pei Ming’s kaleidoscopic installation of black and white portraits spanning a large surface on the wall as one enters Entre-polis. The exhibition is at an old dockyard warehouse, next to the Istanbul Modern in Tophane. Yan Pei Ming’s delicate portraits immediately relate an artist’s concern with identity that matches the curator’s own. Obviously care was given to framing the exhibition with a humanistic face.
It reminded me of an unlikely contrast to this opening-shot of curatorial strategy. When the Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2005 after completing a renovation (more expensive than any prior), a long deliberated decision about what painting to have head the modern art collection led to considering replacing Cézanne’s The Bather with Paul Signac’s portrait of Parisian dealer and dandy Félix Fénéon. In a moment of feigned criticality, the big establishment had self-consciously picked a fitting piece for what amounted to a $900,000,000 loss of innocence—the body of awkward perfection that defines youth had come-of-age, and come to prominence in a corrupting world of appearances.
At Entre-polis we glimpse the world in the global fashion Hou Hanru promised, but also in a conscientious manner, epitomized by Yan Pei Ming’s appropriately titled From Worldwide to International. These stirring portraits seem stained in ink as much as possessed by the contrast of the last eight personages of the UN’s secretary-general post alongside ‘lesser’ anonymous persons—familiar children’s faces that typify world plight. With few exceptions—like the super didactic OMA’s literal view of the globe as a map with important graphic information about what’s really happening—we do not see the world from a privileged position where power is unwittingly relayed through the pretense of criticality.
Instead, chosen artists veer clear of being either too earnest or systematic about the realities that shape people. Politics and aesthetics find balance, largely because many of the videos are painterly, instead of simply documentary, and even the most militant installations are compelling multi-media projects. Turkish issues are included as relations in a family of circumstances that the curator wants to breach—not as an obligatory preponderance accompanying national sponsorship. And like Ming’s portraits, the tight positioning of things next to each other makes room for reflection without encroaching on the identity of each subject.
Huang Yong Ping’s ZIL 135K
A recent article by Michelle McCoy noted that Huang Yong Ping relinquishes authorial control by turning art against itself, “This introduces what is perhaps one of his prime motivations—to create paradox.” Tracking the Bat Project, Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art (2006)
Considering this motivation, Istanbul would be fertile grounds for such work. Huang’s Construction Site touches on the historical city’s paradoxical relationship to Islam. If the history of religion proves anything, it might be that it too has the potential power to turn against itself, though not always with the self-awareness modern art has enjoyed.
The artist’s work in Istanbul is thus broadly site-specific, and imposingly large scale. As part of the Entre-polis exhibition at Antrepo 3, Construction Siteenvisions a cocked, half-cloaked minaret poking out from a veil of sorts. The title suggests an imaginary jobsite where a half-erect tower has yet to find firm footing. In it’s precarious position, the appendage resembles a missile more than a mosque.
A member in the colossal family of obelisks and pillars, minarets project power phallically. Seen here in a state of near realization, the tilted and obscured installation references many things at once. Above all, the semblance of veiled weaponry insinuates religion’s violent and repressive side. But Huang’s “secret weapon” displaces radical Islam’s present-day radioactivity by also referencing Cold War pastiche, calling to mind the images of poised warheads and boxy Soviet missile trucks that drove the paranoid imagination of a previous generation.
For his part, Huang self-effacingly calls upon his position as a tourist. Recalling a trip to the Hagia Sophia, the artist describes his fascination with historical alterations of the fifteen-hundred-year old building. It was the largest domed church for a thousand years before transforming into a mosque in the mid-fifteenth century. In the wall text he writes, “The history of the Hagia Sophia has shown an example of how a site of archi-tecture of one kind of spirituality can be trans-formed to host another one. Certainly, there is not a single spirit-uality which remains unchanged in any given site.”
As the artist sees it, religious institutions are works-in-progress—construction sites. A living metaphor, the physical transformation of the Hagia Sophia undermines the prerogatives of orthodoxy. Belief systems for Huang Yong Ping represent matricies of mutation in their visual vernacular. Like a word with multiple meanings, Huang’s sculpture works in the visual language of ideogram, living out a formal singularity while symbolizing multiple things. Religious structures in this light behold the violent or erotic as stagnant shapes living in a cultural (paradoxical) state of transformation.
A more close-up view of the sculpture reveals that the minaret was constructed in a heavy metal resembling cast iron. Unlike Huang’s impermanent materials used to ensure a deterioration of substance along with significance, this piece seems indestructible. Proving again his subtle political flair when it comes to materials, the sculpture’s heaviness touches on the unconscious burden of asymmetrical war: faith-based conflict is contingent on the durability of customary beliefs and xenophobic angst. The unbreakable minaret realizes modernism’s worst fears.
The lasting importance of religion though, seems wrapped not only in conflict, but its paradoxical allowances—always fermenting what it subdues. Mutability is art’s starting point for Huang Yong Ping. And here he exposes it in the contemporary nature of a sacred thing, which, regardless of history, deceives what it is on the face of it (an evolving sign).
Tourist or not, Huang Yong Ping ‘reads’ architecture. The Hagia Sophia is apprehended as a Dadaist assesses a readymade, and as a philologist surveys a text—as a series of epochal symptoms written on the outside of things, in society’s margins. His sculptural language maintains modern art’s legacy of detective work, exposing moral dilemmas in the slow but astonishing cultural overhaul ‘advancing’ each new age. To his end, Construction Site presents a minaret as a solid form overburdened by its own weight and a fluid symbol ebbing simultaneously towards competing interests.
Huang Yong Ping conflates many of the inter-cultural concerns one would expect at a biennial addressing global war. Standing beneath Huang’s visual obelus, one feels the leaden weight hovering above like a precarious tree felled in a storm. Surely this sensation isn’t so distant to those who actually face war. I have to admit processing global war didn’t happen much for me with the art in the biennial, but imagining being crushed by the minaret seemed about as close as it came. Our chance connection to violence is always there though, isn’t it—as the shared threat defining our age and that defense and war is built upon?
Huang Yong Ping’s connection of war and religion is ultimately a more lighthearted approach to these brooding questions. With Construction Site he touches on the theme of chance that has guided his work in the past, visualizing the element of uncertainty that plagues spiritual growth, and urban growth for that matter. Considering how vulnerability and religion connect in our era, it is worth considering what a critic of religion said over a hundred years ago, dispelling the idea of free will, “our body is but a social structure composed of many souls.”
NIGHTCOMERS ‘Dazibao’: an Interview with Curator Pelin Uran
MS: Can you describe the project you worked on for the 10 th Istanbul Biennial?
PU: Five curators; Borga Kanturk, Ovul Durmusoglu, Adnan Yildiz, Marcus Graf and myself were invited by Hou Hanru to curate the night program of the biennial. The concept was inspired by Dazibao, which was anonymous, low-cost, low-profile, counter-official street posters hung illegally within the public space during the Cultural Revolution in China. With the nightcomers project, we appropriated these initial premises of this political act into the sphere of arts while at the same time transforming it. The decision was to work with the format of video. We had an open call and wanted amateurs and professionals to send us videos that they think are relevant in today’s political situation. The program aimed to promote the fusion between art and social activism and our biggest concern was to find a ‘language’ that would favor and advance participation
The aim of the project was to integrate art more directly into the realm of the social. During the process we collaborated with the artist duo, bik van der pol and they have chosen the specific locations of the nightcomersscreenings. Initially, they chose 59 sites for each night of the biennial another location within Istanbul. Then the number decreased to 25 due to logistical reasons. They also chose how this mobile project should function. They proposed working with a technical team who would take all the necessary belongings with a van and stop at the location, paste a white cartoon on the wall and do the screening for 2 hours and leave. Since the project takes place at public sites in Istanbul that are outside the traditional confines of art, we aimed to find a place between mobilization and specificity—meaning that it does not essentially belong to one particular location and is not determined by its environmental context, which is really important.
One of the most vital issues of nightcomers for me was the de-centralization of authorship, which is really important everywhere especially in Istanbul. One of the ways to challenge authorship seems to me the collaborative aspect. However, working with four other people was challenging, I have to say. Another point is that nightcomers was primarily about anonymity. Although most contemporary art is produced collectively, we have a tendency to believe in the individual creators. In contrast, nightcomers aimed to play up the aspect of anonymity rather than promoting individual works and artists.
MS: You are a good example of a international curator from Turkey: your graduate studies were done in New York, you have worked in both Italy and Berlin over the last two years, and now you are back as a curator in the 10th Istanbul Biennial. Is it essential to travel like this to survive as a curator today?
PU: On top of meeting different artists, curators, critics and therefore widening your perspective, I think it is essential to travel if you do not want to be trapped in the local and provincial politics. If you are moving constantly, there are ways that you can escape and be apart of the local scene and I think this is very liberating. And also if you are free-lancing I cannot see another way. I do not want to be tagged as a Turkish curator who works solely within some limitations. Up to this point, I have tried to work and do shows in non-profit spaces abroad. Hou Hanru’s invitation to co-curate the night program for the Istanbul Biennial is actually the first thing I have curated in Istanbul. I liked the experience because it was a collaborative project and it added direction to my upcoming projects.
MS: Do you ever feel unanchored? How is moving constantly a good or bad thing for you and your curatorial practice?
PU: I think it works in both ways because the more that I travel the more that I meet very interesting artists, but sometimes I feel like I am overloaded with information. Sometimes it becomes hard to process it all. Since 2003 I have not had a base. I was constantly here and there, and it became difficult to concentrate. At this point, I realized that I wanted to be based in Istanbul and continue traveling from there. When I tell my artist friends of mine who are traveling constantly, they tell me that this is a good decision. I also feel that to keep the network going on, people need to know where you are based. So, it is a transition period for me. I will see what happens.
MS: Is there one city you have been to recently that seems to be the most happening in terms of contemporary art? Why?
PU: I was in New York for two years, then I did an internship in Utrecht for two months, then I moved to Torino to work at Fondazione Sandretto, then to Berlin, and now I just moved back to Istanbul. Even though I spent some time in Pristina, Yerevan and Tirana, they were short-term stays. I think I can only compare the cities where I spent more time. I did my MA in Upstate New York and I am more than happy to have spent time in academia in the States. I had the chance not only to meet artists and critics but also many other people from many disciplines that helped me to cultivate my own perspective. Even though New York is so market oriented, I had the chance to meet amazing people with whom in the long run, I am collaborating on projects with. I think New York still has many surprises. However, Berlin is great because people are not crazy about networking and not pressured to do ten different things at a time. It is more relaxed so the situation seems more humane to me. I think this situation affects the one-to-one relationship of a curator and an artist. I do not know if I am answering your question, but this kind of opportunity is more important to me than finding the best contemporary art scene. Istanbul, on the other hand, I think has ups and downs. Since I moved back recently, I will try to find my own way in Istanbul.
MS: How has Istanbul changed in regard to offering something unique to the field of contemporary art and how important is the biennial?
PU: I am not sure if Istanbul offers something unique. If it does, it is in the form of concentrated power, I guess: even though it is everywhere quite the same, because of the smallness of the art scene here, you see it more directly. But what I can say is that the biennial, no matter how contested the biennials are in general, is the most important thing for Istanbul. Even if in every biennial people complain about this and that—there is still no event that is comparable to the Biennial. And I think to reflect on the history of the Istanbul biennials in retrospect is very crucial. For me, the only Biennial that inspired and excited me was the 9th Istanbul Biennial, most of all because of its radical curatorial statement. And I am definitely sure that the structure of the Biennial is changing as well. However, I am not only speaking of the Biennial per se, but also how it activates and motivates the art scene around it.
MS: Contemporary artist here often deal with the complexity of Turkish national identity. What do think is unique about the Turkish approach to politics through art?
PU: I can only answer this question in relation to what I understand or do not understand about the national identity. I did my first exhibition on the critique of reading any kind of work but especially non-Western works through national, ethnic or cultural origins. I do not think that it is specific to Turkish artists to deal with identity. I think it was the interest of the art world in the “other” in the last twenty years, which caused artists from non-Western cultures, therefore also Turkish artists, to highlight their identity and cultural origins and to locate themselves within that arena. However, according to me, attributing a different social and historical space to non-Western artists has marked them as “others.”
I think that if these concerns can be seen in an expanded field it would encourage the understanding of the relationships between the universal and the particular. The issues of national identity, immigration, exile and repressed minorities should be interpreted from a wider perspective than one defined by geography or ethnicity. Moreover, making connections and associations between different situations and to interpret disconnected and fragmented contents as inter-relational and applicable to a variety of contexts, seems more apt. And I tend to appreciate works which can open themselves to a variety of interpretations as opposed to dealing solely with specific national identity.
IMÇ Part 1: Checking-Out
Curator Hou Hanru describes the IMÇ as, “a microcosmic condensation of the structure of Istanbul, a mega-city in permanent expansion and mutation,” indicative of the city’s “integration into the global economic system.” World Factory is an exhibition about working conditions. For all intents and purposes, the Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market (IMÇ) is a mix between open-air shopping mall and factory.
Storefronts here house workshops and showrooms. Many of the merchants are Muslims providing garments to a like-minded clientele. A family-owned spirit pervades the nondescript campus. Art tourists draw attention, and navigating the six identical blocks of retail space is disorienting. Residents are helpful and treat outsiders with curiosity, not suspicion, typical of Istanbul.
The exhibition site is well chosen because it points to the ways in which Istanbul has long been more global than most cities. A textile working-class connects cottage industries with big business. The trade is both traditional and contemporary; whether designer or conservative couture, clothing represents a unique economic connection to European and Asian markets.
World Factory is, then, a situational exhibition where manufacturing informs art production. Artworks predictably focus on the economic vagaries of globalism. International artists picture workers, their plight, and their creative tenacity from an array of regions, including Anatolia, Turkey’s vast agricultural and industrial territory east of the Bosphorus. These representations are bracketed physically in the unusual mall / work space. Most of what is unpredictable comes out of this contrast between real and representational space within the complex.
In terms of artist projects, many issues concerning the disempowered are rendered intelligently. Biennial or populist pomp was kept to a minimum. The mix of subjects is concise and broadly global. Socially minded connoisseurs will leave feeling more in-touch and aware, especially if they have the patience to watch the various competing videos that vied for space and attention much like the storefront shops outside. Those preferring the less socially-grounded, less documentarian and more transporting aesthetics will walk away feeling irked by the show’s worldly attentions. As one artist colleague I know did, wondering, “Why so much blah-blah? Are artists today afraid to make art?” (She is a formalist.) Video remains the primary means of abstracting social issues, yet it would be unfair to say the exhibition succumbs to universalism (either in humanist terms or video-materialist terms). World Factoryclearly strives to include as many media forms as possible around its populist core. This factor is a real strength, and I found some of the most hard-hitting social projects the most blatantly aesthetic. (Is it wrong to want the formal in the social?)
Only Julio César Morales presented a site-specific, if decorative piece. His Mexican-inspired silhouette wall display fit so well onto the mall’s white plaster foil that it wasn’t initially clear if it was part of the mall or not. For the first millisecond I dreamed it could have been a really unintentionally street-savvy, energetic exception to the slightly depressing exhibit. Given this piece was the sole activation of exterior walls it was indication to me of a missed chance for the curators, who chose to work almost entirely within the IMÇ complex. Engaging the decorative side of the IMÇ might have created a sense of communication between the cellular spaces of the locals and the stalls the biennial occupied. The biennial proposed a neighborly vibe at the IMÇ that was noticeably missing here. It could have tried to be inviting or convivial, or could have been memetic and antagonistic. Instead there was simply a gulf between the temporary and permanent worlds existing during the biennial that an artistic and curatorial intervention could have bridged, however imperfectly.
This points to what is peculiar about World Factory. Walking out of installations into the air of the tedious mall-scape, seeing the sad shops and awkward storefront displays was totally unnerving. But discomfort was an appropriate comedown after the alienating effect of rotating between videos. The obvious reality was that the people working day after day in the IMÇ are much closer to the global problems artists and art-goers find fascinating. One thing that the venue conveys is that globalism is not a state of transformation, but of unchanging self-preservation. The transporting aspect of World Factory is not as observable in the transient installation as in the felt disjuncture with preexisting (global) conditions.
World Factory consists of exiting the commotion of Eminonu’s hectic traffic, and entering the hushed and unchanging insular world of the IMÇ. Almost like walking into a church, this is refreshing because it allows you to feel genuinely out-of-touch with the reality outside first, then with the reality of global industry always being quietly produced inside. So that it is not simply a mater of ‘globalization’ as represented (yet often missing) in artworks.
IMÇ Part 2: The Work of Art and Its Discontents
Unlike a video, an architect’s graph, or a photo, there was something unusually honest about showing contemporary art in these circumstances. Though subtle, this kind of curatorial shock value, which would be impossible in a museum, is precisely what keeps curating on par with individual artist’s attempts to envision a better politics.
Like the Ataturk Cultural Center, the IMÇ reflects the challenging part of the 10th Istanbul Biennial’s strategy: to enjoy art in an environment that clearly seeks to distract you with everyday realities. Identifying my political leanings wasn’t difficult here. Finding the headspace to be comfortably distracted and still art curious was the more rewarding part of World Factory.
This politics of space as the setting for artwork versus the setting of an exhibition, World Factory represents the politics of collaboration and site-specificity today. Current politico-ethical tendencies have led some artists to call this an era of “post-autonomy” (see this biennial’s Santralistanbul Special Projects K2 participants Post-autonomy).
The 2006 Artforum article, “The Social Turn and Its Discontents,” by British critic Claire Bishop is relative to art making in Istanbul and much of the biennial world, particularly at the IMÇ. Voicing a frustration felt by many, Bishop crudely defined the current look of politically minded art—which translates old site-specific tactics into animated relations, such as traditional community activities as aesthetic process—as a dichotomy between contemporary art’s strictly aesthetic versus strictly ethical preoccupations. To her, the collective projects favored in biennials are problematic as a form of social conscious to the point of being pseudo-Christian. Bleeding heart humanism has eroded artists’ aesthetic impulses it seems. Presumably the global and ecumenical blur in Bishop’s indictment is how unworldly some lightweights in the art world have become.
Initially, some found it ironic that there was a critic named Bishop calling others Christian. Needless to say, there is a dominant, indispensable organizational structure that in fact pervades the entire public sector, not just art. It is a recognizable genetic trait passed-on from the twentieth century and Bishop calling social art projects “Christian” is at once naive and cynical. This is particularly noticeable in an art world governed by themed exhibitions in which less-established artists are subjected to a selection process that complicates the notion of artistic agency, just as it did in bygone eras of patronage. Amateur directors commission projects without specifically acknowledging their intervention in the creative process. I’m not sure contemporary art is capable of a New Wave moment of introspection, but one cannot miss that fact that a more aggressive top-down organizational model redolent of corporate compromise has perennially institutionalized art as a political enterprise. Naturally contemporary artists, like famous agitators of the nineteenth-century suffering through the extinction of academic art ministries, want to break out of the current system of support—but in our age this is what often makes them immediately marketable. In other words, patronage is the light casting a ‘Christian’ shadow and the collective impulse is a lasting liberal residue still justifying contemporary art’s critical existence.
For this reason, exhibition culture clearly entails addressing a poor prognosis—aesthetically and socially—by finding a agreeable, if compromised, sense of balance between soft agendas—activist and capitalist. This is of course where a good curator or artist can be a true life-giver. The activist-minded exhibition World Factory did not resolve these familiar problems. How could it when art’s civic role beyond civic exhibitions is so unclear and its marketplace so crystallized? But some of the strongest works in the biennial are (healthily) motivated towards the political, anti-capitalist, collaborative projects disdained for the sake of polemics in leading trade magazines. One can see the whole biennial as collaborative project in this ‘relational’ vein. We can expect that biennials and their chosen collectives will continue to show these kinds of projects—those that Bishop says have robbed us of our aesthetic heritage. (The critic seems to have backed away from her Adorno-esque argument since writing the 2006 Artforum article in which she constructed an argument through a rhetorical attack on the Istanbul artist collective, Oda Projesi.)
World Factory provides proof of the obvious but unspoken awareness that curating is the core of contemporary art’s collaborative nature. Exhibitions of this kind adhere to an ethical message, coordinated like a director on a film set. And the potentially gimmicky theme of artwork in a workplace transcends both realms of objects and voyeurs to make for a truly unusual viewing experience that arguably necessitates the ‘collaboration’ of biennial-goers as dislocated entities in their own right. At World Factory, the best projects prove that artists can still deal intelligently with the intellectual burden of labor. Though quite different from the last Istanbul Biennial, this exhibition also finds its own way to update the tradition of Realism, which I find to be the enduring historical controversy alive in the aesthetic politics of biennials and what Claire Bishop once called “relational antagonism.” Viewers, along with the primary agents of display, shopkeepers and artists, were enmeshed in what Bishop once described as “a sense of dislocation in which we perform ourselves performing” (Verksted, no. 7, 2006, Art of Welfare, “Live Installations and Constructed Situations: The Use of ‘Real People’ in Art,” pp.82).
Interview with Sergio de la Torre
MS: Sergio, can you start by describing the work you contributed to the 10th Istanbul Biennial?
SDLT: My work at the Biennial consists of four large photographs titled Paisajes and a documentary film titled MAQUILAPOLIS. Paisajes is a series of large digital black and white photographs. The photographs are of landscapes of some of the 900 assembly plants in the city of Tijuana. MAQUILAPOLIS is an hour-long documentary that narrates the lives of factory workers in Tijuana.
MS: Your work was exhibited at the World Factory housed in the IMC (Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market) and therefore loosely correlates to subject matter found in your work, such as laborers in Tijuana. The IMC is an anomalous building: it is not so much a structure than a series of blocks housing hundreds of interconnected, family-run, mostly textile businesses which are then served by other restaurants and suppliers. The way the stark concrete architecture houses an operational and entrepreneurial ecosystem gives it a very universal feel comparable to other manufacturing complexes around the world. The implicit curatorial process of the space was to produce connections between a manufacturing center and work such as yours that deals with the subject of labor. Can you say more about how your work was potentially enhanced by the IMC?
SDLT: I am not sure I spent that much time at IMC to give you an answer. However I can tell you that IMC looks nothing like an industrial park (a manufacturing complex) in Tijuana. IMC looks more like a mini mall out of LA—an abandoned one.
In terms of the installation/display of the works and their reception, the works were installed up in the last floor. Half of IMC is abandoned. During my short visit to Istanbul I spent a few days at IMC, before the opening, the opening day and the day after the opening. People that came to the Biennial did not seem interested in other activities at IMC. I can say the same about people working at IMC, they had no business with the Biennial. Again this is just a mere observation, I was not there long enough.
MS: One huge difference between this and other cities in developing countries is how expensive Istanbul is. Did the street environment surprise you by how it manifested its particular (global) economy?
SDLT: There were no surprises at all, it was like being at home and I still do not understand how locals do it. I understand the minimum wage in Istanbul is $75 US dollar a week, in Tijuana is around the same.
MS: You and I talked a little about this idea of ‘multiple modernities’ proposed in Hou Hanru’s exhibition concept. Did you see any striking similarities between Istanbul and Tijuana—regarding either your experience as an artist in the IMC workers’ community, or as a newcomer to the city itself?
SDLT: Istanbul feels a lot like a Mexican urban city: big, chaotic, and anxious to be modern (I was thinking more like Mexico City or Guadalajara, Tijuana is still a young city). I agree with Hanru when he says that the third world is a global project, one designed elsewhere by institutions like the IMF, WTO, The World Bank and of course Washington. There is no surprise that citizens are deploying strategies to come in and out of this modernity in order to survive. The project we brought to Istanbul, MAQUILAPOLIS, documents the lives of factory workers in Tijuana that invent different strategies to cope with a globalized city that completely ignores them. Istanbul wants to be modern without a concomitant process of modernization (to borrow from Urbanist Nestor Garcia Canclini).
MS: You mentioned that it helped you rethink some of the strengths of inSite between San Diego and Tijuana, especially in terms of navigating chaotic cities. Can you say more about that connection, including the differences between an exhibition like inSite and a biennial like Istanbul?
SDLT: I was surprised that no one in the first conference on the history of the Istanbul Biennial mentioned inSite as a viable project. There are/were not many biennials doing what inSite is/was trying to do (Documenta 11 and the Venice Biennale 50th edition are the first ones that were trying to expand and/or question the notion of the public). So there we had 6 or 7 curators Charles Esche, Dan Cameron, Rene Block, etc. talking about possible ways to intervene the so-called public space without mentioning inSite. I am not saying inSite is the ideal exhibition, however some of the strategies they deployed around both cities involved not only local communities but also transient communities, something that I did not see in Istanbul.
MS: How was that 15ytl martini at the famous Hotel Londra where Hemmingway stayed in the ‘20s and you just stayed at for the biennial?
SDLT: I only drank beers that I bought at the local market!
3 Artists: Lu Chunsheng, Xu Zhen, and Zhu Jia
A strong link between the haudenschildGarage and the 10th Istanbul Biennial are artists that the organization has supported with its collection and the curator Hou Hanru has worked with over the years from his native country. Lu Chunsheng, Xu Zhen, and Zhu Jia exemplify artists’ whose projects have in turn defined Hou Hanru’s creative career as a curator. Hou Hanru can be credited with exposing many of the most influential Chinese artists in contemporary art today. At the biennial these three artists exhibit works entirely different in form and content. Yet, one could find a curatorial theme uniting them: individuals grappling with modernization.
Zhu Jia approaches modernization from the perspective of interviews from Beijing natives shown on a video monitor in a room plastered with anonymous photos of workers’ faces. In Chrysalis Exuviations — the Heart-burnt Carrot, individual testimonies contrast a random multitude. Inside the cramped quarters of the backroom installation, one senses the toll a bloated society has on people. The artist contemplates the two most basic categories of people that define urbanity: the nameless versus the personal. The artist contrasts these two in this space. Photo versus video portraits create interchanging realities as urban pressures. Zhu Jia’s interviews capture the humbling tact of those who manage to make-do in a constricted environment. While in the sometimes-dreamy faces of the snapshot photos on the wall, one senses the dignity “just getting-by” entails in a fierce place like China’s capital.
By contrast takes a much more lyrical approach to effects of modernization in his work. In The History of Chemistry I & II, movement itself is Chunsheng’s proper medium, picturing a world in constant transformation. Forces that overwhelm human subjects become primary figures in these pulsating videos. Thus, there are no actors, only actions and counteractions as the embodiment of modern humanity. Individuals do not occupy landscapes so much as watch as it moves through them. The industrial settings of Lu Chunsheng’s video are identified as the new territories of physical communication. In the artist’s visual poetry, a semaphoric language (such as the use of smoke signals) becomes a means for isolated entities to commune between their lonely trajectories. Rhythm instead of order defines an instantaneous world in which progression has no purpose only an irrepressible velocity.
Xu Zhen presents one of the most powerful conceptual strategies in the biennial. His work treats the tip of Mount Everest as a readymade, and thus the influence of modern art as a kind of impossible object. The unattainable is captured in a strategic expedition recounted in video with a display of the confiscated mountaintop. The artist not only reaches the world’s highest peak, he captures it like Egyptian booty stole for the British Museum. In a sense, this is what the legacy of Duchamp has become for artists in the East or West. Modern heroic drives, even the most subversively creative, are mitigated by the raison d’être of its history—the necessity of attainment—spiritual and economical. Xu Zhen parodies this anxiety of influence and the machismo that connects the intellectual impulses of pioneering artist with imperial drive of territorial explorers.
In all, these three artists find novel ways to reconsider the influence of modern development. New angles and diverse tactics reconsider the entire history of modernism from outside the confines of Westernism. Clearly in China a notion of progress, creative or otherwise, is being rethought.
The Best Offense is a Good Defense: Burak Delier’s PARKALYNCH Part 1
The figure was vaguely Middle Eastern though possessing a ‘global feeling’ of any protester anywhere. I first encountered PARKALYNCH on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main street. Artist Burak Delier’s poster stood out as a kind of advertisement for rebellion, depicting a protester in a black and white checkered mask and a blood-red overcoat, holding an archer’s pose—slingshot drawn. A threatening look askance drew the viewer in to the theater of a generic struggle. The makeshift soldier’s body was poised and taut in a way that crystallized something more iconic than real. A sharp and edgy typeface complimented the tableau vivant over a black background.
The complete concentration of the figure relayed something familiar, as though staring into the abyss of injustice itself. Yet, the protester’s earnestness was dissipated by the professional lighting and staged look of the print. It could have been an ironic ad—like Benetton’s infamously savvy campaign capturing third-world turmoil to sell first-world comfort. A facetious and catchy sales pitch announces, There are certain things you can do within the system, for everything else there’s PARKALYNCH. The poster combined graphic alertness and wry humor—something as serious as it was sarcastic.
PARKALYNCH is an ongoing multi-media project with a jacket as it centerpiece. Though designed by Istanbul native Delier, PARKALYNCH is a collaborative in the form of a company (ReverseDirection: Counter-Services) catering to a politically engaged clientèle. As the name suggests, the jacket is meant to protect against mob violence such as lynching and anti-march police raids. A limited number of parkas were made for the 10th Istanbul Biennial and hung in a storefront at the World Factory exhibition. This makes it one of the most seamlessly site-specific projects at the IMC venue.
In fact, Delier began PARKALYNCHwith the poster series. Since then it has morphed into a clothing line that the artists sees as a protective as well as commemorative. Lynching is a part of the political past of various countries—the racial violence in America’s South is a modern-era icon of intolerance and barbarity—and a history of regional lynching attacks has inspired the artist. By treating mob violence as an international and inter-regional trope, Delier addresses a ‘marginalized’ history that draws attention to the experience of minorities. The artist sees the jacket for all users, but especially the disenfranchised to the extent that it acknowledges how violence coupled with impunity is the parchment of modern history, as nations transformed into nation-states. When asked, the artist refers to incidences of lynching in his country, where protesters or minorities were attacked that date from the 1920’s to the 1990’s (see interview found in pt. 2 of this post).
The PARKALYNCH ‘costumer’ is thus a figure rooted in historical risks still alive today. More than a protective suit, the garment puts the wearer in a memorial role as well, much like traditional forms of armor. Delier’s art stresses sensitivity toward political history. His brand is a collaborative in the form of an outfitter in which ownership and production merge with consumption. Promotional material, such as an infomercial at his installation for the biennial, is a pilot screening of what other product-lines could bring. He has plans for a fireproof jacket commemorating the infamous 1993 Madimak Hotel attack where a group of religious minorities were burned to death in a mob attack.
With PARKALYNCH Delier proves a verve often missing from the glut of political imagery in contemporary art. His 2005 Guard inclusion in the 9th Istanbul Biennial’s Free Kick exhibition was another example of his command when it comes of political material. His showing in the 2007 biennial establishes him as one of the most promising artists emerging out of Istanbul. Delier avoids the opportunistically social side of contemporary art condoned by biennials with mordant humor. And the Warholian mockery incorporated into the posters inadvertently critiques the predictable political schlock other artists cook up.
PARKALYNCH is also the most direct realization of the biennial’s desire to address war and offer a new (business) strategy—which I assume would be essential to rekindling optimism. It is a collaborative strategy that reappropriates an iconic value that once corresponded to political struggle. It is as much historical as it is contemporary, as much capitalist as it is communist, as much Turkey as it is Palestine.
The Best Offense is a Good Defense: Interview with Burak Delier Part 2
MS: Is art the best way to deal with the political situation in Turkey for you?
BD: Yes. Art has the power, the capacity to deal with rough things—political things. I deal with political things with art. That is the best way for me to do it because sometimes I think, when I am at a demonstration or in a political debate, that if you think about politics politically, you are very limited. If you deal with these things with an artistic vision it becomes more powerful. If you do a work about the political history of Turkey, you have to be aware of all that history, or a hundred years—not just this moment. That makes you more aware of life, if you look to history.
If you demonstrate against the government, against Bush, maybe, you are very limited. You live only in this moment. If you take an artistic approach to this history you can find knowledge about humanity and life.
MS: A lot of people in the US, for example, see art as irrelevant within political debate because it is removed.
BD: In Turkey too, there are too many artists that think this way: that art and politics are different—that they don’t work together. But, I think every artwork is political. If you make a painting of a tree…on the Bosphorus, that’s political because in doing this painting of this tree maybe you don’t see what is going on around you. You devote yourself completely to this tree. Maybe, you are completely with God, with the Being…you look to this tree with some existentialism, whatever. The danger is that you don’t see the social, political, economic field, and that’s like censorship. You don’t see it. And that’s political, because at that point you approve of what’s going-on in the social political field.
MS: Art can’t escape politics.
BD: No. It can’t escape.
MS: Even if you see art as separate, that’s a political decision.
MS: PARKALYNCH is protest gear.
MS: But I also think it’s a sarcastic comment on the futility of protesting, on the ineffective nature of protest in the 21st century. Is there a bit of sarcasm built into PARKALYNCH?
BD: (Laughs) No…maybe. But, I think this garment underlines the violence against protesters, against demonstrators, against people…who are against. No, I don’t think of it as ineffective. I think it is effective. I think there must be people who protest who think something is going wrong.
MS: But there is a bit of humor built into PARKALYNCH.
BD: Yeah, yeah.
MS: Can you say more?
BD: The humor is that there is violence in the world—violence in the being of humanity. Very bad things are happening in the world. Violence is everywhere. People are beaten in the streets. There are armies, policemen everywhere. There are bad things. But let’s make a garment to solve these problems; make a thing—something that’s lynch-proof—that’s truncheon-proof—and everything will be all right.
MS: So, there’s clearly an economic demand for this kind of garment.
BD: (Laughs) Yes. We’ll sell this product to the people. We’ll make as many copies as possible. But, you know, this company won’t succeed. That idea that we’ll make money to make more copies, this is the humorous thing.
MS: But I find it humorous because it also reminds me of Karl Marx and Capital - the theory of how a commodity becomes an abstract thing. He uses the example of the petticoat as the article to analyze how raw materials are turned into capital. There are these kinds of layers to it.
BD: (Laughs) Yes. There is also this Marxist theory that when a thing becomes a commodity it loses its political content. In doing this PARKALYNCH project, I want to make something that is like an ironic commodity. It is important to make something that is on sale, available in this shop. In this content, it is very political, because underlying its necessity is the violence in our society.
MS: You see this jacket saying something specific about the political situation in Turkey?
BD: Yes. There is violence everywhere, but in the political history of Turkey there are too many lynch attacks—in the ‘20, ’30s, ’50s. And in the last two or three years there has been twenty or thirty lynch attacks on the street. Usually, they are on people who had out political pamphlets, or who want to make press declarations. People come together and lynch them—want to beat them—want to kill them.
BD: Nationalists, and others. Especially nationalists because they believe the guys who distribute handouts are leftists or Kurds. If somebody on the streets says, “This man is a Kurd, and he is distributing something for Kurdish freedom,” or something, then a group of people can come together and lynch him. There have been twenty or thirty lynch attacks like this.
Some information about Turkey: In 1921, the founder of the Turkish Communist Party is killed. On his way to Ankara there were three lynch attacks on the road and he survived. Afterward he is killed in Trabzon in a lynch attack. There is Ali Kemal “the traitor” who was criticizing the nationalist movement and wanted the protection of western countries for Turkey. He was killed in a lynch attack. These are political murders organized by the state.
In ‘55, there was the “6th and 7th of September incidents,” the state brought people in trucks from Anatolia to Istanbul—to Beyoglu. This is where all the minorities lived—the Jewish people, the Greek people, the Armenian people—and they had shops, and at that time in Turkey trade was in their hands and they controlled the money. The state brought Anatolian people in trucks to destroy their shops and kill people. That is also a lynching.
My work directly refers to these historical events. This is related to Turkey, but it’s also related to political things in the Middle East. In the Middle East lynching has a very psychological effect. In lynching people, you don’t control yourself. Who killed this man? It is not known. No one is guilty. In this way you lose your control; you lose your consciousness in doing this.
MS: Now, your art object really fits quite perfectly in the IMC. Can you describe how and when you started this project? I assume it was before the biennial chose its venues.
BS: Yes. Initially the project was just the posters in a show that dealt with the European Union. But with this phase of the project I wanted to make something more than just what people saw on the walls, to reach people—something that is not simply an artwork. You see it on the wall, say, “it’s a clever photograph,” “it makes a good point,” you say these things, then walk away. With these parkas, I wanted to make something that really enters life. Something that really intervenes, something that people will take and use.
When I decided to make an anti-lynch parka, I wanted to make many—thousands—for everyone. I didn’t want people to think Burak Delier made PARKALYNCH. Instead, there is a company and anyone is invited to make things under this company. If somebody wants to make something, we can work together. If someone wants to give money, we are completely open (laughs).
MS: Are you using a capitalist model against itself?
BD: Yes, but it’s not a capitalist model. I call it a ‘company’, but its not like a bureaucratic, working company. Everyone can say I am the owner of this company. Everyone can say I am doing the PR, or that I am CEO, and so on.
MS: It’s a collaborative.
BD: Yes, it’s a collaborative—anyone who wants to make something can work under it. And it is not an actual company, but it is a company.
MS: What you are saying is interesting, because I was initially drawn to the posters. Perhaps because it is a really striking image. But what you are saying is that before you made the jacket, when it was still just street posters, this collaborative was impossible.
BD: Yes. I think the posters are important because they were shown in the streets. Not for only an art audience in a gallery. They are for people. And if this idea of making parkas, or some other garments really works, they will become the customers of what they are making. The “company” is the occasion for organization. To bring together and produce things to empower “them” or “us.”
MS: Like a guild, or workshop of sorts, where you produce what you need?
BD: Yes. But the real idea is to make copies of them—endless copies. It is not only one thing…
MS: Right, it’s stickers. It’s posters. There’s the jacket—the video. But why is it essential to make many?
BD: Because, with artwork—paintings for example—they are handmade and that is special to me in that they are original and not reproducible. But this kind of artwork is a commodity too. It’s the most luxurious kind of commodity. The artwork is not something democratic. Artwork is obviously not for poor people. Artwork is for rich people.
What I am doing is trying to break this. I want to make a very normal thing. It’s not original, but it has a function. It’s like life. Something for people—for everyone. It’s not simply for people who have reach, who can reach to buy from galleries.
MS: It is for the people on the street.
MS: Sounds very populist.
BD: Yes, it sounds very populist, but I think PARKALYNCH is for people on the street, and specifically minorities, oppressed people who feel insecure in society.
MS: But it is in many ways a symbolic object—not simply utilitarian.
BS: Yes. It is symbolic, but it also has a function.
MS: It is a symbol, and it is functional—that’s rich. Now, has there been any reaction by authorities?
BD: No. There are people here reacting.
MS: In IMC?
BD: Yes, but they are coming to inspect the quality (laughs). They say it’s too expensive. They say, ‘If the quality is this, we can make some many for 800 lira’.
MS: Where did you have it manufactured?
BD: There is a neighborhood with many textile ateliers, Merter. We had it produced with an ateliers that makes motorcycle gear.
MS: What will you work on next?
BD: Madimak ‘93: Madimak is a village where they had a music festival in 1993. In Islam there is Alevism, and this sect organized a festival. They invited important people, writers and performers to a hotel, the Madimak Hotel. I want to make a fire-resistant suit pertaining to this hotel burning which occurred when a Sunni group ganged up on the people inside who were of this different Muslim sect. Many were saved but 26 people burned to death. It pertains to this historical moment, and it is functional. I will make endless copies. I think the parka, as well as this suit has a monumental value. Because if you refer to the history and the people killed there, it’s both monumental and functional.
MS: How dangerous is the political situation in Turkey? It has intensified recently with Gul being named president.
BD: Well, it began in the ’90s. I think Turkey is in the middle of a transformation. Unfortunately, the people who want to transform Turkey are Islamists; the other side, the republicans, they are conservative now. Today, people who want to connect to the world, who want to trade, who to change something, who want progress, they are, culturally, conservatives. We used to call them “conservatives” only because they are religious people.
It’s weird in a way. I think this republican elite group of people may lose their power. The transformation will continue with this European Union thing, and I think it will be a good thing. I prefer to deal with an Islamist party, rather than deal with the army, because at least you can talk with them. I mean they are Islamists, but they are liberal (interesting), but the other side—the republicans, you cannot talk with them. They know what’s best. They know everything. They treat you like a child. You don’t know the strategy, geopolitical position of Turkey. You know nothing of these things. We know it. We’ll handle it. This is their attitude. They are the power. They have guns. They have the army.
MS: To me it sounds like the left-wing has been…
BD: It has completely disappeared.
MS: That it’s been pushed out of politics on one side by the army, maintaining Kemalism, and the rising religious middleclass on the other. And that there is really no space in the political spectrum for true left-wing reforms. Do you feel that way?
BD: Yes. But I think the leftist people will become more involved in things. With the coup d’état of the ’80s—the 12th of September—on this day the army took over the government and destroyed all leftist organizations. The only organized people left were the Islamists. Kenan Evren was the president of the army, and he became the President from ‘80 to ‘87. He made it obligatory to study Islam in primary schools.
Back then they said, leftism is growing; these leftists are traitors. The Muslims and the nationalists, they will bring everyone together—religion will unite Turkey. They wanted it this way: for Turkey to become more religious, rather than leftist. And they destroyed the leftist movement.
‘Global Warming’: Interview with Curator Hou Hanru
By Matthew Schum
When I interviewed Hou Hanru at the San Francisco Art Institute I started by mentioning the obvious—that globalization has been the primary theme in his work. He laughed as though this were a gross understatement. The curator has built his reputation on interpreting and displaying globalization as contemporary art. These exhibitions around the world typify an era of stylized globalism that has been also referred to as “biennialism.”
What I hoped to capture in the following interview is how Hou Hanru embodies his patent subject matter. How his unique, sometimes peculiar approach to representing “the global” entails more than a tired biennial theme, but an attitude conditioned by larger forces. Like some of his colleagues, Hou Hanru is a student as much as a subject of politics…
His experience goes beyond sensitive shifts in discourse, or art expanding into more untraditional and lucrative markets. Rather, one senses revised instincts that changed the established art world’s purview irrevocably. It is a story of new conditions engulfing art and exhibition practices in the 90s as biennials organized by a new professional class. These are curators who erupted like other art movements of the past, in key cities, on key projects. His story describes curatorial instincts that have been shaped by changes in the political terrain of the last two decades. As the curator states below, “The artistic event,” that gave so-called “biennial art” prominence, “becomes a platform to talk about social issues or the transformation of the world—all from a particular perspective, using particular languages.”
On the importance of his directorship of the 10th Istanbul Biennial, Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War of 2007, Hou Hanru said, “Basically the Istanbul Biennial, personally for me, is a summary of my work, for the last ten years or so.” Thus we see this moment’s political shifts presenting fresh challenges and opportunities in a contemporary art and exhibition culture that began some years back…
Matthew Schum: Globalization is an important theme in your work as a curator.
Hou Hanru: (Laughs)
MS: In December 2006 I interviewed the curator of the 2005 9th Istanbul Biennial, Vasif Kortun, during which he said something that has since helped me understand the global position that emerged in the 90s. Kortun pointed out that the so-called rise of the curator was directly linked to the end of Cold War. Curators connected emerging institutions with the broader art world: Europe for example became more integrated, east and west. I was wondering if you could reflect on your story. How did you become a curator, or a ‘link’ between China and France? Were there major political shifts that led to your transient practice as an independent curator? Perhaps the 'China/Avant-Garde' exhibition at the National Gallery in Bejing? Or the political and artistic climate in China prior to the events at Tiananmen Square in June 1989?
HH: Clearly I think we belong to a generation that really grew up with the transition from the Cultural Revolution to the Opening of the 80s, and then the end of the Cold War. And then I moved to Europe. We valued and faced new kinds of social and political questions. When you look back at this it actually also shows a very interesting process from the Cold War period and the end of the Cold War: the transition to a different but equally intense discussion on globalization.
I started working with art when I was very young. I was in art school and all those things. In the early and middle eighties, we were looking for a way to break through all the constraints of the established academic or official arts by looking to modernist and contemporary art. I belong to a group of artists and critics who work on the kind of self-organizing first avant-garde art movement in China. From the late 70s to the 80s you have ten years of really very intense… let’s say, struggle of artists looking to claim freedom of expression, self-expression, and then of course, new languages.
So, I was very much involved with that. If I remember the first period that I was involved in curating, it was already starting in the years ‘84-85 or so. During that period I was writing and also somehow working as an artist. The driving force at the time was the Chinese Opening—the so-called Reform [and?] Opening, when everyone was looking for liberation from the Cultural Revolution and previous periods of one official ideology’s dominance.
Of course, the ‘89 China/Avant-Garde exhibition was a very important event. It is an event that was maybe less important for the art world and more important for society. Meaning that the avant-garde movement had reached the point were it would have an inevitable presence in the society — and society started reacting to it. So, it was much more like a social event, or even a political event, than an art event. The whole preparation of ten years [of art had] arrived at that point [and meant that art] needed to go and embrace society directly. Being involved with that event as one of the curators has been important for me to [be able to] really understand how we should work, and how contemporary art makes sense in society.
Then, of course, we lived through the Tiananmen event. A year later I went to live in France. If you look at that time, it’s very interesting in terms of the globalization process. The Chinese avant-garde movement has always been about relating itself to the world. They were inspired by western whatever — experimental art, modern art, contemporary art; on the other hand, going outside the boundaries of one society to allow others to be individuals who explore, who deal with issues common to everyone in the world. That is a very central concern.
So going to live in France, like many others from Huang Yongping to Chen Zhen; and we had in the United States Gu Wenda — for all these people, I think the personal ambition was to be a part of the global situation, rather than simply representing China. That actually shows contemporary art moving from a more national kind of perspective to a much more global one.
It was also the moment after the Cold War that people [began] to look at the relationship between the western world and the non-western world through a different perspective. People started looking into post-colonial issues: issues of migration, identity, and modernization, esp. modernization outside the western world. When you look at that, it is important to understand that globalization is not simply a prevailing American or Euro-American model. It is also a lot of other possibilities that have been circulating the world—coming back to influence even the western world.
This is the reason why we were looking for new significance, new meanings of contemporary arts in different parts of the world. And that is why we’ve seen so many biennials and events happening outside of the West. It’s just crucial. It also allows or creates a demand for people we call independent curators to work on [these issues].
MS: Do you have a tangible sense for how globalization has changed from when you moved away from China to today?
HH: Yes. There is a very important change. When we arrived in Europe it was the high time of the European social democracy. Then, ten years later, you can see the collapse of that system. Because of the neo-conservative, so-called ‘revolution’ imposing one kind of economy—which is so-called liberal market economy — that actually kills the social democratic system and social system. It is a very rude reality.
On the other hand, you see, especially in China, India, in non-western countries, it is becoming the driving force of the world — the most dynamic anyway, as a market or production system. There is a new dynamic. There are a lot of new contradictions. This is all very different from the Cold War time, when the world was completely separated in to two camps and there were two very clear kinds of ideology out there.
Also, there were two very clear economic models: one was the liberal capitalist market-driven model; another was the state-planned economy. In between you had the Third World, and European social democratic, nation-state capitalism. All this was a more or less clear-cut system. Now we have a kind of reorganization. But one part of the system is very much dominated by one kind of dynamic, which is global free-market capitalism — whatever you want to call it. And that is generating a lot of reactions, a lot of resistance, and also a lot of innovative ideas to produce alternative models.
MS: And that is where you see art coming in I believe, as a set of alternative models?
HH: Well, art has to negotiate with this new context. Not necessarily every artist is related directly to this social background. But if you look at the bigger picture, we have to understand how art continues to make sense in the world in terms of its relation to this change.
MS: I ask because it seems you couched the Istanbul Biennial at this divide between the East and the West that you described…
HH: It is not the ‘divide’ of the East and the West. Istanbul itself is traditionally understood as a meeting point of this East and West. But, I actually proposed to look at it from this perspective: It is different models of modernization that make this city interesting, and [the idea was] to make the city or the event articulate on this dynamic.
East and West, and South and North – whatever you can call it – you have different ways you can divide the world for the convenience of understanding some specific issues. At the end of the day, it is about the reality of forms as ways of thinking about society, especially the trend of modernization. How different cultures chose different understandings of this common past and came up with different solutions.
So, when we talk about the divide of East and West, I think we really need to understand it from this perspective. It’s no longer geographical divides as we once thought in the past. China is not necessarily an eastern country. Maybe some Europe countries somehow remain very western, but if you go to major cities, metropolitan global cities, one cannot simply define it as traditionally western.
MS: No, no. But I think there was something poignant about how the biennial proposed a sense of movement. Not simply that Istanbul is a meeting point of cultures—that’s the cliché—but that there was an intersection: it arranged a place of passing through and that you were moving towards a different kind of potential.
HH: I think the biennial was really about making visible the potential—to push certain… to illuminate certain kinds of potential that are even more effective.
MS: You’ve curated in many countries over the years. Do you have a favorite exhibition that you’ve done, like a film director might have a favorite movie-making experience?
HH: I’d rather not think that way. Every one for me was equally important. Every time it is very different. Every project I do I try to think about how it is related to the momentum of the context, to the specific place. Every biennial project for me has a very clear and different political, social, cultural, artistic agenda. This agenda is always trying to answer to the needs of that momentum of the society.
For example, with the Shanghai Biennial, the intention was very clear. It was the first time we had an opportunity to organize an international contemporary art biennial in China. And, then, [in the process of organizing, we were thinking] What’s the effect? What was the influence? It must be much, much bigger than simply making a good exhibition. It has to leave a legacy. This legacy is to allow contemporary art to be accepted by the public, and also to help establish certain kinds of institutional support.
That was based on different kinds of concerns about how contemporary Chinese art had been surviving as a semi-underground activity. And also the perversion that the artists have to produce outside of their country while they are living there and therefore automatically become a kind of prey of the international market. Still it is the case. How do you help build up a healthier support system? How do you create a more… normal state of being? So they don’t have to turn their work into a kind of tool, or instrument of any… anything. The whole effort of the Shanghai Biennial in 2000 was to centralize on this intention.
Based on that, I really have to think about strategy. What kind of exhibition we should have there. The exhibition should be much more like a facturation of different kinds of efforts, rather than a provocation. In the meantime, how not to lose the critical edge when it is needed. So that the whole exhibition has been understood not only as an exhibition, but a beginning of a whole series of political and cultural events that happen — ones that can help build up the infrastructure.
MS: That leads to my next question. I wonder if you can reflect now on how the role of the curator has changed; how biennials have changed, since when you began directing larger exhibitions like this.
HH: I belong to generation of curators who came from this very particular social or political transition. Also, you have people coming from so-called non-western backgrounds to become part of this discourse, apart of this dynamism: you have people like Okwui [Enwezor], Vasif [Kortun], and many other people…. In the meantime, we basically have invented a profession, somehow, that didn’t exist.
I mean, before our generation you have of course Harold Szeeman and few – very few – others who have been independent. On the other hand, their concerns have been still mainly about the transformation of art itself. I think our generation, coming from different backgrounds, we all understand it is not only a question of making art different or evolving according to the logic of art history; but it is constantly a kind of looking for [or] building up a significance between what we call art and its social position.
The artistic event becomes a platform to talk about social issues or the transformation of the world—all from a particular perspective, using particular languages. It somehow becomes a new laboratory of social change. This is what I want to understand [as a curator]. That is what, perhaps, forces us to invent a new role for ourselves. You might say the name of the ‘curator’ has obtained a whole new meaning.
MS: You do see the work that you do as more directly involved with social transformation than the previous generation, which was engaged with a more art historical form of transformation?
HH: Probably. I think so, yes. Of course, that doesn’t exclude [the fact that] that the previous generation has their own political and social agendas. But I think we are putting the whole question on a much larger, much wider, global perspective. We are dealing with the interaction between different cultures. That is very different from the generation of Szeeman.
After the 90s, it doesn’t matter which generation you belong to, you have to deal with the fact that art is from Latin America, from Asia, from Africa, and has become a very important part of the system. From here it’s inevitable that people have to travel to China, to… I don’t know to Mali… to wherever to understand what is happening there.
MS: And was that something you feel happened because of this invention of a role for the curator, or was it something that the curator figured out how to capitalize upon?
HH: Well, it’s not because… I think when you look at the big picture, the whole post-colonial discourse, the whole debate of globalization has helped to create a new intellectual knowledge, and intellectual inspiration to redefine our job. So, I think there is a very interesting interaction, and this interaction generates people who are specialized in organizing these kinds of events. And you might call them curators….
MS: Is it possible to say how curating in Istanbul is unique?
HH: Well, unique because it was very different from the previous editions, I think. This Istanbul Biennial was conceptualized based on a very particular agenda as an understanding of the historical background of the city and the recent changes in the city. And especially, making it into an urban event — physically integrating the city. That actually brings us to think of the biennial as a complexity. It is a complex system that generates possibilities, activities.
It is not only one exhibition: we have [focal points] that are the individual exhibitions, which are very organically integrated into the architectural context. Those architectural contexts have actually been identified and chosen as a statement on some particular issues, such as political / social projects; economic issues / production; exchange / migration; and finally self-organization. For me these are some of the most urgent questions that we need to answer today — again, related to what I understand as issues of globalization. They are all trying to answer this from an alternative perspective, or trying to bring about diversity rather than one clear set menu.
That opens the door to many, many individual works. What is also very important is I tried to make it disappear and integrate into the flux of everyday life. This is why we have the program from day to night. It is not only for the art lovers coming to amuse themselves. It’s really about making it accessible to everyone living in the city—anytime in any context. We have the Nightcomers going around the city. We have the Dream House opening in the evening. That allows everyone living in the city to at least have a bite of the cake, hopefully.
In that case, it is about not about controlling the situation, but leaving the whole to be controlled, to be used by the people. In that case, I think it is different from the previous biennials.
MS: The previous biennials you’ve done? Or just Istanbul?
HH: The Istanbul Biennial. But if you look back many of my projects have been developed in this way. Basically, the Istanbul Biennial, personally for me, is a summary of my work for the last ten years or so. In the sense that there are a lot of ideas I’ve been working with that for the Istanbul Biennial I try to get to be more visible, more mature, more tangible. For me this biennial shows a certain maturity of the experiments I have been doing for the last years.
MS: As you said, in the biennial there was an attempt to engage outside conditions on the street. Was a there a part of the program that you felt integrated these conditions best, at a particular venue?
HH: I think every venue is very different and needs a different articulation. Instead of emphasizing one kind of language, one clear image, I actually tried to emphasize the organic relation between the artwork and the buildings. So you can see you