Dispatch: Istanbul

Kaija Kiuru, Kammio (Chamber), 2002. Lace tablecloths, 2m x 2.6 m x 2.6 m.

At the time of the Istanbul Biennial, at least 15 other exhibitions appeared in venues ranging from a shopping mall to a 19th-century tram tunnel. Artists from the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, along with the occasional American, constantly intersected and communicated on many different levels. At Proje4L in Levent, an upscale business district of Istanbul, a panel of artists and critics from Central Asia, sponsored by the Christenson Fund, showed videos and commented on the production of artists in Krygystan, Tajikstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. They spoke of complex negotiations in the international art world, local politics, the rejection of Soviet legacies, nurturing of traditions, and multiple modernisms. The videos were dramatic, tragic, erotic, and slapstick. In one, Kasmalieva Djumaliev from Krgyzstan performed Farewell Song, in which she played a traditional instrument, the gulnara, off key and slowly cut off her extremely long hair (based on a Kryrgyz tradition of wearing yak hair). Her avant-garde stance combined with an incredible dignity.

Philosopher/curator Ali Akay’s “Future Democracy” was on view at the Akbank Art and Culture Center. It included video and sculpture that presented ordinary people caught up in global trends, bachelor rooms of urban workers (Gemzay Toksoy and Altan Bal), urban shopkeepers and their children singing songs from their village backgrounds (Claude Leon), a transsexual collector of obsolete weapons (Seza Paker), and frank interviews with people on the street about “what they think would make the world a better place”; most of them logically said “peace” (Susan Kleinberg).

The chic Gallery Nev in upscale Tesvikiye displayed Shirin Neshat and other well-known artists. The show included a benchmark sculpture from the third Istanbul Biennial, Hale Tenger’s I know People Like This Too (1992), which addresses the timely topic of people ignoring the stupidity of macho leaders using Hear-No-Evil, See-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil monkeys and Priapus figures that form stars as if on an unspecified flag.

The Istanbul Art Museum Foundation collaborated with the Akmerkez shopping mall to show 80 Turkish artists. Balkan Naci Islimyeli’s Yeniden subverted the department store format with a powerful anti-war statement by using dismembered dummies in a wasted garden of Eden and the poetry of the famous Turkish socialist Nazim Hikmet. The same foundation supported “And…,” an exhibition held at the Military Museum’s art gallery. Eighteen Turkish, Central Asian, Balkan, and Mediterranean artists showed work they made during the two-week residency “Meeting of the Artists,” held last July in Marmaris, Turkey. The works ranged from tiny drawings to room-size installations.

Hale Tenger, I Know People Like This Two, 1992. Brass Priapus and Hear-No-Evil, See-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil monkey statuettes, 700 x 9 x 140 cm.

“Poet’s Garden,” a pairing of poetry and art at Gallery Apel, a brick-walled gallery in the heart of the city’s oldest district, included an artificial garden full of evocative urns referring to Greek mythology (Sakine Çil), a cypress tree made from barbed wire (Tugrul Selçuk), a hanging garden of bottles containing poems relating to nature (Kurucu Koçanoglu), and a luscious menagerie of mythological animals (Selma Gurbuz). Hasan Bulent Kahraman’s multi-part installation Abstraction-Materialization analyzed the conceptual shift from the abstract word-play associations of traditional Ottoman poetry to 19th-century materialism based on concrete visual reality.

Huseyin Alptekin and the Sea Elephant Travel Agency organized “B-Fact,” an off-beat, open-ended, and provocative event that unfolded over several hours. The Sea Elephant Travel Agency is a loft space in Istanbul that sponsors small seminars concerned with what Alptekin calls “Mutual Realities, Artistic Exchange, Inter-regional Solidarity, Recognition, Switch, Hospitality.” Alptekin has been an outsider/insider conceptual artist, based in Turkey but functioning internationally, for many years. In this collaborative exhibition, he worked with Halil Altindere and Vahit Tuna in Istanbul, Minna Henricksson from Helsinki and Love Enqvist from Sweden.

Several works in “B-fact” addressed slow travel and ordinary people. These artists embraced a counter-discourse to the grand narratives of travels that seek out ruins of the past and to the government- and war-oriented focus of contemporary media. In their acceptance of the mundane and the local, they also countered the pretensions of the international biennial format. Timo Vartiainen, Finnish artist and mushroom picker (a reference to his roots in the Karelian area of Finland), presented a collage of sound, writing, photographs, and clothes in Walking and Hitchhiking. He has covered amazing distances: 8,000 kilometers through Russia, the Baltic countries, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. His journal is a travelogue with entries like “Nights,” “Fear,” “Pleasure,” and “Wild Animals.” Swedish artists Love Enqvist and Martin Berling documented their Stockholm-Istanbul: A Paddle Trip Through the Baltic Sea, Danube and the Black Sea with the canoe, the paddle, and photographs. The artists performed a three-month act of endurance as they embraced the physical experience and constructed an alternative to political geography. Underscoring the fact that gender differences still matter on the road, Kristina Junzell and Jessica Jalmo of Sweden traveled by the less macho means of train through Stockholm, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece to Turkey for their Stockholm-Istanbul: A road movie through “The New Europe.” As an alternative to the catastrophes of daily news information, they spoke with ordinary people about their dreams for the future, what makes them happy, and what is important to them.

As an accompaniment to the travel narratives, Finnish artist Kaija Kiuru, originally from Lapland, created Chamber (2002). Using dozens of antique circular tablecloths collected in secondhand shops, she constructed a temporary domestic shelter from the fruits of thousands of hours of work. Kiuru is concerned with the nature of home and women’s lives and the fact that 80 percent of the world’s refugees are woman and children. The simultaneous fragility and semi-transparency of the tent created a stunning resting place.

The Bunker Research Group (BRG) is Huseyin Alptekin’s own collaborative project with Minna Henricksson (Finland) and Staffan Jofjell (Sweden). Under the paranoid dictatorship of Enver Hoxa in Albania from 1946 to 1985, about 500,000 concrete bunkers were constructed as weekend work projects for socialist citizens, apparently to protect Albania against an imagined enemy. These bunkers now stand as useless and decaying structures all over Albania. The BRG drove around the country documenting their journey with video as both a road trip and a harsh black and white scientific study (Jofjell), with photography that suggest, the now oddly romantic character of these crumbling, useless structures (Alptekin), and with exquisite watercolors torn from a sketchbook and taped on the wall (Henricksson). Alptekin also invited Kaija Kiuru to create a domesticating lace cover for a bunker. The BRG connects reality and paranoia, derelict socialist structures and contemporary art, change and stasis.

The Istanbul “B-Fact” (other versions appear in other places) included two other segments in different venues. Near Taksim Square, the heart of contemporary Istanbul and the elegant Marmara Hotel, a street-level foyer was the site of Bathers (2001–03), a video by Elina Brotherus. On three large facing screens nude Finnish bathers slipped in and out of a cool Northern lake, dispassionately entering and exiting the vision of the stationary camera. Brotherus’s piece is about the ordinary event, and familiar art subject, of bathing, but here the watcher does not control the models as in paintings like those by Rembrandt and Cézanne.

The top floor of the Marmara Hotel hosted a performance by the Blue Noses Group. Ten floors below in Taksim Square, Siberian artists Alexander Shaburov and Slava Mizin began exploding firecrackers out of their pants. As part of their ongoing 25 Short Performances About Globalization, they had managed to get by hotel security with the firecrackers taped to their legs. The result was a hilariously funny spoof of militarism, terrorism, and suicide bombers, ironically timed just two months before the real thing happened only a few blocks away. The Blue Noses Group’s videos in the gallery display almost took over the show. In Two Against the Russian Mafia, which has five episodes including Attack of the Clones and Show Girls, they used a combination of cutouts and video with slapstick humor to appropriate a Russian militia TV series. The heroes (the artists) take on the absurdity of the social sphere, from pop culture to globalism.

“B-Fact,” as well as the other local exhibitions in Istanbul, opened up communication among cultures and artists from all over Europe and Asia. As an extension of the Istanbul Biennial, these types of shows and events are a major force toward international understanding and an important alternative to the destructive, separatist forces at work in the world today. Oddly, it seemed to me that only a few American artists and critics engaged in this international dialogue; they often seemed to be carrying on a separate conversation.