Each Istanbul Biennial is the result of a different curatorial approach. It is always exciting to unveil new layers of the city through different perspectives, I strongly believe that the themes create a beautiful constellation that reaches to infinity,” says Bige Örer, Istanbul Biennial director, on how they keep the biennial fresh. Curated for the first time by artists, the Danish/Norwegian duo Elmgreen & Dragset formally announced their chosen theme with a 40-person performance in December 2016. With posed questions such as, “Is a good neighbour leaving you alone? Someone with no WiFi password and a strong signal? Someone who has a ‘Close the Borders’ sticker on his car?” it indicates that there will be a more experimental undertone to this edition.
Community is critical to this year’s biennial — in the traditional sense as well as in reference to the current geopolitical situation, where the platform of a biennial serves as an important base to hone in on collaborative efforts and processes. Exploring community and the evolution of private spheres, “Home is approached as an indicator of diverse identities and a vehicle for self-expression, and neighbourhood as a micro-universe exemplifying some of the challenges we face in terms of co-existence today,” Elmgreen & Dragset explained at a media conference earlier this year. By engaging six walking-distance venues — Istanbul Modern, Galata Greek Primary School, Ark Kültür, Pera Museum, Yoğunluk Atelier and Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam — the showcase of 30 new commissions among works by 55 artists from 32 countries will combine to explore deeper understandings of what it means to be a good citizen and highlight positive, if alternative, modes of living.
Poster campaign. Image courtesy of Istanbul Biennial
This includes taking a markedly (if contentiously) feminist position, but Örer asserts now is the time to take bolder steps. “I think in such a moment of crisis on a global level, a good neighbour will create some physical and mental spaces where people can gather and share their own stories,” explains Örer. “The 15th edition’s theme responds very well to our current situation. It is inviting everyone to put their feet in someone else’s shoes.”
Asserting it is a time for solidarity, the biennial is featuring a slew of international artists including Rayyane Tabet, Young-Jun Tak, Heba Amin, Lee Miller, Alejandro Almanza Pereda, Dayanita Singh, and Monica Bonvicini, among others. It has also launched global collaborations in Moscow, Sydney, Milan, Ljubljana, Calgary, Plovidv, Chicago and several Northern Ireland cities via the edgy and poignant International Billboard Project that sets a clear tone of the works yet to come.
Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam venue. Image courtesy of Istanbul Biennial
Featuring Lukas Wassmann’s photographs of encounters paired alongside the 40 propositions, “We believe the strength of this project is that it poses [the] same questions in different cultural contexts and reminds us how we share a common fate beyond our own borders,” says Örer. “Society is changing, economy is changing, behaviours are changing and we all try to understand the new world order and adapt ourselves to the future. It is beautiful that this project is a result of an international collaboration.”
In an attempt to push back against the strengthening of borders through a remit that aims to “move subtly and create invisible links all over,” adds Örer, the public programming will play a solid role in supporting the theme. Coordinated by artist Zeyno Pekünlü, the biennial will offer free screenings, workshops, cooking, music and reading-oriented activities to encourage togetherness. There will also be a two part symposium tackling diverse notions of belonging, urban ecology and an escape from anthropocentrism, featuring speakers such as Shahrzad Mojab touching on the impact of war, displacement and violence on women’s learning and education; Joseph Massad offering critiques of liberal policies related to multiculturalism; and Stavros Stavrides, who will offer insight into spatial practices.
Alejandro Almanza Pereda. Horror Vacui. 2017. Concrete and found painting. 63 x 62 x 15 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and ChertLüdde, Berlin
Noting that the Istanbul public has already embraced the theme, Örer adds, “The exhibition is just a reflection of our souls, an attempt to contribute to a bigger discussion regarding our times which challenges our vision for a better future. I truly believe that the exhibition will be a fresh breeze and will be an inspiration for art lovers.”
While set to open 16 September, Örer also shares a few of the most exciting works coming: “There are very important historical presentations in the exhibition such as Liliana Maresca whose sculptures and actions have been done in the wake of the Argentinian dictatorship and ensuing state violence; Volkan Aslan’s video installation brings a poetic perspective to a good neighbour; Mark Dion’s drawings, which portrays the local urban wildlife in Istanbul; Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s elegant drawings; and Monica Bonvicini’s homage to Louise Bourgeois will be some of the surprises among many others. The performative works of artists such as Pedro Gómez-Egaña, Tuğçe Tuna and Xiao Yu will also definitely be works which will make visitors rethink interdisciplinary approaches in art.”