CRITIQUE (OF EXHIBITIONISM)
Danila Mayer in collaboration with Muzaffer Hasaltay and Onur Serdar: KENTLERDE SANAT – ART IN CITIES. CONSIDERING ART BIENNIALS WHILE LOOKING AT THE 11th INTERNATIONAL ISTANBUL BIENNIAL
Processes of globalization include the attempt to assert an all-encompassing dominance of “economic rationality.” This is precisely what Karl Polanyi and Pierre Bourdieu put their fingers on in pointing to non-capitalist groups and structures of exchange, distribution and reciprocity, as well as to the fatal and disastrous capitalization of the “fictious commodities:” work, land and money (Polanyi, 1978; Bourdieu, 2000). It was the mentioning of Karl Polanyi and his work The Great Transformation in the accreditation booklet which instigated our interest in the 11th International Istanbul Biennial in 2009. His analysis of the dissection of economy from society as a separate sphere also suggests that “the arts” are another such artificially forged sphere. Furthermore, our interests also lay with Turkey and Europe and their mutual “othering” processes.
In post-war Europe, Western Europe was cut off from the Eastern communist bloc. In order to share in the West’s post-war workload at low cost, people were recruited from Yugoslavia1 and Turkey. The effects of this labor emigration on the Turkish Republic were, e.g., a changed agriculture (from subsistence farming to cash-crops) and the transformation of class structures in villages and towns. These processes were negotiated among and between people and segments of families during the manifold migration and remigration experiences, which included endless departures, leaving and being left. Meanwhile, the Iron Curtain has shifted to the Mediterranean and the Bosporus and the (mythical) continental divide they assumingly are. This coalesces with an assumed religious (i.e., “irrational”) difference.
The 11th International Istanbul Biennial, organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and sponsored by Koç Holding was set for 12 September–8 November 2009, under the curatorship of What, How & for Whom/WHW. What, How and for Whom/WHW is a curators’ collective formed in 1999 and based in Zagreb, Croatia. WHW organizes various exhibitions, productions and publishing projects, and since 2003 has directed the program of Gallery Nova – a city-owned gallery in Zagreb. WHW members are the curators Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović. And so we traveled to Bogaz2, the mythical divide between Asia and Europe.
11th International Istanbul Biennial
We are rejected at the entrance by two guards. One, who we already know, enacts this as a good joke and as an expression of his sympathy; the other is serious and is reacting to our outfits: we look poor, and we don’t sport our accreditation passes. Inside, Brian Holmes is presenting his new book, Escape the Overcode. He’s in a fabulous mood, beaming, waving at people in the audience. This little incident at Istiklal Caddesi – Independence Street – in Istanbul’s Taksim district was part of our Biennial experience. The inside-outside dichotomy was again obvious at the official opening, where the protests outside took up the biennial motto “insan neyle yasar?” (“What keeps mankind alive?”) and formulated a harsh criticism of the event. Inside, the curators’ text was simultaneously being recited, in Turkish, by young women in declamatory and explicit propaganda rhetoric: “insan neyle yasar?” To enter the large hall, people had to pass through gates and metal detectors very much like at airports. The area outside was packed, representative’s cars being waved through every few minutes. Here are some lines from the protest songs on the outside:
Our choir is called the rezil ordu (the mean horde)
We let your masks drop
What, How and for Whom? you asked –
Now you are communists with sponsors.
And here is a sample from the curators’ text, read out loud and published in the Rehber (exhibition guide) and the Metinler (book of texts): “In present class society, politics without antagonism is illusory. The culturalization of politics, promoted by neo-liberal ‘diversity’ which allows for the euphoric celebration of a range of marketable differences … must be replaced by the politicization of culture. Today when the dilemma ‘barbarity or socialism’ is more real than ever and the future of the world appears divided between pauperized war zones and the stable fascistoid systems of the rich zones, this is our task.” (WHW, 2009, p. 120)
In a contribution to the 11th International Istanbul Biennial’s Metinler (book of texts), Gökce Dervisoglu analyses the position of the arts in the Republic of Turkey3. While the arts were originally under the guard of the state, and their role was to propagate the ideals of the new nation, large family-owned industrial complexes (Sabanci, Eczacibasi, Koç) took over their main sponsorship in the 1970s. They were still propagating Turkey’s virtues, but, more and more, they were also promoting Western arts in Turkey. Sponsoring institutions are IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture & Arts, producer of the biennial and owned by Eczacibasi, the main sponsor of the Istanbul Modern Museum), the Sabanci Museum, and the Koç Group (the long-term main sponsor of the Istanbul Biennial from 2007 to 2016).
The Press Conference: the four curators of WHW, up on the podium, looking stern and reserved, almost frozen. Is this the stage direction, or the difference established toward the sponsors and city executives? These are samples of contexts the 11th International Istanbul Biennial is situated in. How have the curators of What, How and for Whom/WHW worked with and against these conditions? In the Rehber (exhibition guide) and Metinler (the exhibition’s book of texts) of the biennial exhibition project, background information is amply provided: the biennial’s budget is listed, the artists’ citizenships and residences, figures about male/female participants. This no doubt expresses the curators’ intentions at being transparent. WHW also try to exit from the “double-bind discourses of global neoliberalism and local ethnonationalism” of both Istanbul and Turkey (Accreditation leaflet, p. 8).
The Istanbul city government lies with the AKP, the religious-conservative party. It is likely that they do not have staff in their ranks acquainted with international arts scenes, and that the sponsors themselves largely determine the biennial. But neither the exhibition guide nor its texts inform us about the interface sponsors/city government/curatorial collective. The curators openly reject approaches that “actively engage with their ‘home-cities,’” a characteristic of “many of the biennials in recent years,” as noted by them. WHW are critical of biennials: “Today, biennial exhibitions are elements of cultural tourism through which cities attempt to use their benign and internationally communicative regional specificities to position themselves on the map of the globalised world; they are manifestations tending to ‘cultural shopping’ in which art is often presented as cool, fun, entertaining” (Accreditation leaflet, starting from p. 6). There are no attempts at ‘maximizing inclusion’ of audiences, the public, or city-dwellers in WHW’s concept. Consequently, the 11th International Istanbul Biennial does not explicitly include its host city in its view. Considering the works of art that WHW brought together under Brecht’s motto “Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?,” there is a regional accent regarding both the works and the artists.
Antrepo No. 3, Sanja Iveković’s red-colored leaflets on women’s rights in Turkey, are thrown on the floor all over the exhibition halls; the sound which accompanies Canan Senol’s dripping of milk from breasts on a screen follows you for several yards and then welcomes you back at the end of the round; and as a first and last impression, the neon sign “Don’t Complain” by Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin sets the parameters, being both a complaint in itself as well as a threat. In both the exhibition guide and the book of texts, the extensive advertisements sector, which is largely dominated by mass media and their variations of the motto, clashes with the contributed political texts. The Brechtian song, transplanted into Istanbul, is meant to be a radical motto for a radical show, financed by large industrial sponsors who are known in the international arts scene. This observation means that critique and criticized structures fall into one. But there is still inside and outside, you can still be part of it or not. This is what the protest at the 11th International Istanbul Biennial opening meant, taking place at the border between inside and outside and thus becoming noticeable.
What, How and for Whom is an Art Biennial?
At the entrance room as well: Qalandia 2087, a large three-dimensional utopian city model by Wafa Hourani which glimmers and glows in soft lights; people are not visible. Cities of the future and of the past: Qalandia reminds us of Ahmet Ögüt’s work at the Venice Biennale, Exploded City. The text collection published in Open. Cahier on Art and the Public Domain no. 16/2009 gives some background on the special phenomenon of biennials4: “an arrangement of curated exhibitions and art installations;” can be “coordinated with the rhythm of contemporary international tourism … between nostalgia and forgetting” (Groys, 2009, p. 64). Biennials are post-institutions and fulfill the post-Fordist demands of flexibility and immaterial working conditions: event-based character, temporary contracts, as Pascal Gielen argues. This often entails structural amnesia, negation of the local context, superficiality, and lack of concentration (Gielen, 2009, p. 16). These arts events “often put political issues onto their artistic agenda” to compensate for being “increasingly deployed for developing and marketing cities and regions” (Seijdel, 2009, p. 4). A real proliferation of biennials hosted by cities in the world began in the 1990s (see Thornton, 2008), and the exact number is not clear (WHW speak of 300, Rogoff of 146). What is not taken into the focus in the Open. Cahier on Art and the Public Domain contributions is the interplay between city and contemporary arts, which is usually5 needed to produce a biennial. It also takes into account only new biennials, and not its prototype, “La Biennale” in Venice.
La Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte
Venice – a lagoon city that came to huge success thriving on the seafarer trade, inventing many of the modes of financial transaction – is also an urban center with a great affinity with the arts, and hosts what is still the most successful biennial in the world while being the global capital of tourism as well. La Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte was founded in 1895 with the aim of strengthening the Serenissima’s tourism industry, and was oriented toward world fairs and academic salons (Thornton, 2008, p. 225; Martini, 2005; Fleck, 2009). Belgium opened the first national pavilion in 1907. Other empires, the German Reich, Hungary, the British Empire (all in 1909) and the Russian Empire (in 1914) followed. France opened its pavilion in 1912. The present number is 77 exhibiting nations. The national pavilions are in the Giardini and in the Arsenale and, for roughly a decade, in Palazzi throughout the city. The nations are responsible for the maintenance and the exhibitions, which are organized6 either by national committees, a curator, a commissioner, or a consortium. There are no fixed rules, rather a set of conventions. The Biennale director curates an international exhibition in the Palazzo delle Esposizione della Biennale in the Giardini, and in the Arsenale: “Fare Mondi – Making Worlds,” was such an international exhibition put together by the Venice Biennale director Daniel Birnbaum in 2009. It attempted to build “something common, something that can be shared. Perhaps new worlds emerge where worlds meet.” (“Fare Mondi – Making Worlds,” information leaflet/map, 2009).
Also situated at the Arsenale is the Turkish pavilion, or rather: container, “which stands alone with no doors.” The pavilion “simultaneously gathers and divides the two works” of artists Banu Cennetoglu and Ahmet Ögüt (as stated by the curator of the Turkish pavilion, Basak Senova, 2009, p. 124). Ögüt’s work, Exploded City, is a large three-dimensional model of a city;7 the text on the wall recites the story in which the Venetian Marco Polo reports to Kubilay Khan. The city consists, it emerges from the text, of models of buildings and vehicles which have been bombed since the 1990s.
Venice sticks to the established pavilion system of nation-states, with the original pavilions of the old monarchies and empires still situated in their representative positions in the Giardini. The Venice Biennale is therefore to be seen as showdown of concurring nations with art as projection screen for their liquidity. Some examples from the 53rd edition in 2009:
Iceland’s national finance system has recently broken down. Therefore, the artists simply dwell in the Iceland Pavilion in the Palazzo Michiel dal Brusà, the entrance of which is on Strada Nova on the Canal Grande. The pavilion is commissioned by the Center for Icelandic Art on behalf of the Icelandic Ministry of Culture.8 – Young women from the Emirates come to Venice as collectors.9 – Or Iran: the pavilion’s (actually an apartment in a small road) commissioner, Mr. Shalooei, is the director of Tehran MoCA and also the general director of the Visual Arts Center of the Ministry of Culture & Islamic Guidance. The “profoundly spiritual and religious touch” of Iran’s contemporary artists, maintains Shalooei, is due to their connection with the heritage of Islamic art, brought about by the revolution. “This is consistent with human nature and what today’s world is seeking.” (Booklet published by the Institute for Promotion of Contemporary Visual Arts, 2009).
Brazil, a major global player, speaks in its leaflet of “deep crisis in the Western world,” and of “a world currently undergoing a full geopolitical, economic and technological reconfiguration” (Juca Ferreira, Minister of Culture, text for the Brazilian pavilion). FUNARTE, the national arts foundation, emphasizes educational policy, the Arts as figurative spearhead for the development of human beings, and the questioning of “certain capitalist and neoliberal values” (Sergio Mamberti, president of FUNARTE).
In Venice, the system of national pavilions is a “laboratory where up-close studies could be made of the dominating economies and cultures which, in turn, reflected the functioning of the art market.” (Martini, 2005). Brazil and Iran at the Venice Biennale are examples of nations that use art and the contemporary arts contexts for positioning their economies/ideologies on the world market,10 and play alongside private sponsors. But what about other, newer biennial events, e.g., Sao Paolo and Taipei?
Brazil’s pavilion curator at Venice is Ivo Mesquita, who together with Ana Paula Cohen, also curated the 28th edition of the Sao Paolo Biennial in 2008. The second-oldest biennial was founded by industrial magnate Francisco (“Ciccillo”) Matarazzo Sobrinho in 1951. The Bienal de São Paulo gave up the national set-ups as “they no longer convey the complex network of migrations and cultural flows that characterize modern life.” Their approach for the 29th event in 2011: “However, it is important for the 29th Bienal de São Paulo to emphasize the place and time in which it is organized: from Brazil and from a time of rapid geopolitical reorganization of the world.” (Official website of the Sao Paolo Bienal, accessed April 10th, 2010).
The Taipei Biennale 2008 took “urban transformation, the dire circumstances of foreign labor forces, divided nations and micro-nations, permanent conditions of war, ecological collapse, global unrest, and another lease on the world” (Hsu/Kortun, 2009, starting from p. 10), into its horizon. Curators Manray Hsu and Vasif Kortun wanted to “insinuate that it is possible and in fact necessary, especially today, to imagine, explore and propose another world” (ibid., p. 7).
These exemplary approaches can be elucidated by findings of expert observers and analysts of biennials.11 Irit Rogoff speaks of “linked peripheries”, as biennial exhibitions around the world “have become a circuit of investigation, exchange and conversation that bypass the traditional centers of art and culture” (Rogoff, 2009, p. 114). Her hopes are that, “In the aftermath of hundreds of years of colonial empire and superpower dichotomies, the arts are becoming the site of a new cultural-geographical imagining.” (Rogoff, 2009, p. 115). Simon Sheikh says that while biennials “remain spaces of capital, they are also spaces of hope” (Sheikh, 2009, p. 79); and Boris Groys describes biennials as models of “a new world order because every biennial tries to negotiate between national and international, cultural identities and global trends, the economically successful and the politically relevant.” (Groys, 2009, p. 65).
Back to Taipei and to a different, more educational approach: Hsieh Hsiao-yun, director of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (the editors of the 08TB reader), takes a potential public into view and aims at educational goals envisioned for the biennial. He emphasizes that the “system of distributed venues allowed contemporary art to permeate the city, blend with the everyday lives of citizens.” In his Preface to the 08TB Taipei Biennial Reader, he hopes that the publication will “broaden Taiwanese readers’ understanding of the special topics presented” in the exhibition.