Istanbul Biennial focuses on devastating effects of humanity on nature
The event features work by 57 artists and collectives from 26 countries, including 38 new commissions.
A camera shutter clicks and whirs above a dead bird, with a flat, lifeless eye and a long, dull beak. A halo of feathers surround a gristly centrepiece: the interior of the bird’s body is filled with pieces of plastic, their bright colours jarring against the faded greys and dirty whites of its feathers. Unsettlingly, the photograph resembles a nest, the bird’s carcass cradling the jumble of plastic pieces like twigs encircling a clutch of eggs.
“Kneeling over these scenes is like looking into a mirror. Here we face one surreal consequence of our collective choice. This is our culture, turned inside out,” says a man’s voice, as the shutter continues to click and more photographs appear one by one on the screen. Bird after bird lies dead, its insides full of hard plastic.
American artist Chris Jordan’s feature-length film Albatross was shot on Midway Island in the north Pacific more than 3,000 kilometres from the nearest continent. In its direct, unflinching examination of the way human waste has infiltrated the furthest reaches of the planet and contributed to the destruction of its ecosystems, it sums up the theme of the 16th Istanbul Biennial, which is running in the city until Sunday, November 10.
Curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, director of Montpellier Contemporain, the biennial explores the Anthropocene, the epoch some experts say we are now living in, and which is defined as the period in which human activity is the dominant influence on the climate and the environment. The event features work by 57 artists and collectives from 26 countries, including 38 new commissions.
The biennial’s title, The Seventh Continent, refers to the huge floating raft of rubbish known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of plastic waste weighing seven million tonnes, which covers an area five times the size of Turkey. “It’s a world of toxic particles. It’s a world where we are both the conquerors and the natives,” Bourriaud says. “It is the mirror of our production systems. And, in a way, it’s our collective unconscious. This drifting continent of plastic is floating in the oceans, but the seventh continent is now everywhere around us: in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat.”
One of the most visually striking legacies of the Anthropocene, the seventh continent’s poisonous effects on the natural world are highlighted in Jordan’s film, which is on show as part of a display by the Feral Atlas Collective, a group of more than 100 scientists, artists and thinkers whose work tackles ecology, colonial legacies and climate change.
The 16th Istanbul Biennial is the first one that has ever been moved from a venue for environmental reasons. Here, reality meets the aesthetic state of an exhibition.
The more insidious effects of humanity’s approach to the planet as a resource to be mined are explored in the rest of the biennial, which is held across three venues. The most environmentally focused works are located in a refurbished warehouse due to open next year as the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum. The site was selected at the 11th hour after the planned venue, the Halic Shipyards, was discovered to contain dangerous levels of asbestos. “The 16th Istanbul Biennial is the first one that has ever been moved from a venue for environmental reasons. Here, reality meets the aesthetic state of an exhibition,” Bourriaud says. “The Seventh Continent did not intend to be an exhibition about ecology. It’s an exhibition pulled into the ecological catastrophe. It’s an exhibition that tries to reflect it.”
The new venue – a dense network of metal rooms resembling industrial storage containers, flanked on both sides by construction sites – turns out to be a fitting location for works that dwell on human destruction, capitalism and greed. Visitors are guided from one installation to another, stepping in and out of identikit rooms filled with a dizzying selection of works tackling ravaged landscapes and invasive species, mountains of tyres and seas of waste, and more subtle, allusive works that explore mankind’s relationship to the natural world.
Offsetting Jordan’s exploration of the unintended devastation of natural life wrought by human dependence on plastic is Jonathas de Andrade’s moving film The Fish, which lingers on the anguished faces of Brazilian fishermen who tenderly cradle the fish they have caught, stroking their scales gently until they stop breathing. Their taking of life is conscious and deeply felt, and Andrade captures the dichotomous nature of mankind, a contradictory predator, capable at once of ruthlessness and of empathy and regret.
Turkish artist Ozan Atalan tackles the correlation between human construction and environmental destruction in his installation Monochrome. A dual-channel video contrasts scenes of water buffalo roaming the natural pastureland outside Istanbul with footage of the of reams of new developments on the fridges of the city, including a new airport and a third bridge across the Bosphorus that have destroyed the natural habitats of many animals. Dominating the room, a real water buffalo skeleton lies entombed in a deadly mass of concrete, glue and soil.
Other installations take a more abstract approach. Croatian artist Dora Budor has created large glass tanks filled with floating clouds of soft pastel pink and yellow dust, inspired by the colours of J M W Turner’s polluted 19th century skies. Gusts of air erupt seemingly at random from craters in the base of each tank, blowing clouds of fine particles and pigments into the air like miniature volcanoes. The airflow is triggered by the patterns of noise from nearby construction sites, creating a visual representation of the ubiquitous soundscape that has come to dominate city life.
Among the biennial’s most compelling works is German artist Johannes Buttner’s installation, The possibility of another life expresses itself directly in a cop car on fire and obliquely in the faces of my friends. Using mud and clay layered atop a base of mechanical parts, Buttner has created an army of seven golem-like cyborg soldiers, armed with truncheons and machine guns. Standing upside down, they tremble and shake in response to a cycle of localised earthquakes, linking the ancient ritualistic import of the Terracotta Army with a contemporary world of algorithm-led violence.
Meanwhile a womb-like, suffocating installation by South African artist Turiya Magadlela, of a room lined with an enormous patchwork made from hundreds of pairs of nylon tights in different hues, delves into gender, race and socio-political history. It forms a striking counterpart to Czech artist Eva Kotatkova’s installation The Machine for Restoring Empathy. Conceived as a sewing and storytelling workshop, the space houses a towering central sculpture, surrounded by wall displays that include patterns for chairs with octopus legs and shopping bags with arms, inventions designed to cater to imagined people, animals and plants with limbs, beaks, tentacles or leaves, in need of succour and understanding.
The sheer density and volume of work housed under a single roof can feel overwhelming and the biennial’s unrelenting focus on the terrible short-sightedness, greed, wastefulness and irresponsibility of humanity is enough to induce a quietly building sense of panic and horror. The most powerful works are those that spike these feelings of terror a few notches higher. As millions gather worldwide to protest climate change, the Istanbul Biennial reflects back to us the world we have wrought, one of rubbish, of pollution and of death – yet one still filled with passion, integrity and creativity.
Updated: September 30, 2019 07:43 PM