The Istanbul Biennial: Art that taps into the zeitgeist

Istanbul Biennial reflects the world we think we are in – one in which we are desperately in need of A Good Neighbour.

Leander Schönweger’s ‘Our Family Lost’, an installation comprising a series of simple white rooms that become progressively smaller, provoking unease. Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren
Leander Schönweger’s ‘Our Family Lost’, an installation comprising a series of simple white rooms that become progressively smaller, provoking unease. Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren

If the 15th edition of the Istanbul Biennial is a sign of the times, we are living in a world on the brink of collapse. Curated by Danish-Norwegian artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the biennial taps into the zeitgeist. While it does contain kernels of political commentary, it goes beyond the expected to tackle pressing global issues, among them conflict, the destruction of nature and the refugee crisis.

The theme of this year’s edition is A Good Neighbour. Elmgreen and Dragset, for the most part, eschew the more obvious political ­interpretations of this title, such as Turkey’s relationship with its neighbouring states – or the Kurds living within its borders.

The biennial instead focuses on concepts such as home, belonging, coexistence and displacement.

“Since we chose the title, there has not only been a coup attempt in Turkey but the world witnessed the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and [Donald] Trump being elected US president, in part by promising to erect a border wall between the United States and Mexico,” Elmgreen said at the biennial’s opening press conference earlier this month. “A Good Neighbour may sound banal but there are many issues underlining the phrase, almost as if there is a question mark at the end.”

Exemplifying the biennial’s interrogatory aspect are a series of questions printed on posters and replicated on billboards around the city. These include queries like “Is a good neighbour a reminder of how things used to be?” and “Is a good neighbour a stranger you don’t fear?”

The curators have chosen to work with 56 artists from 32 countries. Their work – including 30 new commissions – is displayed in six venues, all within walking distance.


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At the Galata Greek Primary School, large-scale installations make for a fascinating immersive experience. On the top floor, Our Family Lost, an installation by the Italian artist Leander Schönweger, plunges visitors into a dream or a nightmare. A series of simple white rooms become progressively smaller, branching out, shrinking down to dollhouse size and opening up again, allowing visitors to walk, stumble and crawl like Alice in Wonderland through a maze-like, disorienting facsimile of home.

Equally unnerving and amusing is a multi-room installation by American duo Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, Scenario in the Shade. Entering through a door made from a section of a plastic portable toilet, visitors are plunged into a Mad Max-esque vision of a dystopian future California and its fictional youth ­cultures. Wild tangles of wiring and electronic parts suggest a den of hackers in one room, while another is filled with a display of DVDs with ­titles such as White Goddess Gas Chamber, Taxi Cab Linguists and Droids on Roids.

Across the hall is a work rooted, tragically, in the real world. Turkish artist Erkan Özgen’s video, Wonderland, captures a deaf and mute 13-year-old Syrian boy who fled the town of Kobani in northern Syria after it was invaded by ISIL. Using only facial expressions and gestures, he conveys the terrible events he has witnessed, from water and food shortages, to bombings and beheadings. The film conveys the individual weight and impact of war while transcending language to emphasise its ultimate universality.

Nearby, German artist Olaf Metzel has revived his 1992 installation Collecting Point. Entering through a ­turnstile, visitors find themselves enclosed in a shack made of corrugated iron, its bent edges jagged and raw.

Originally intended to evoke the shelters built for Yugoslavian refugees arriving in Germany, the work is tragically fitting in today’s Turkey, now sheltering more than three million Syrian refugees.

Nearby, Iraqi artist ­Mahmoud Obaidi’s Compact Home Project is a collection of numbered metal-bound books containing sketches, newspaper clippings and photographs collected before the artist was forced to flee Iraq. Encased in metal, they speak to the impossibility of recreating home in exile and the symbolic power of memory in establishing identity.

Volkan Aslan’s ‘Home Sweet Home’. Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren
Volkan Aslan’s ‘Home Sweet Home’. Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren

Themes of displacement carry over to Istanbul Modern, where Turkish artist ­Volkan Aslan’s film Home Sweet Home is a touching reflection on belonging and loss. A three-channel work captures two women pottering around in the domestic space. One drinks coffee, reclines on her bed, stares out of the window. The other tends to the potted plants in her garden. But these peaceful scenes of home life are illusionary – both house and garden are on a boat, ­slowing chugging its way along the Bosphorus in search of stable ground.

Nearby, Brazilian artist ­Victor Leguy is showing ­Structures for Invisible Borders, a series focusing on migration and displacement. A regular of Pages, a coffee shop and bookstore frequented by Syrian and Arab refugees and exiles, he has gathered a collection of objects donated by displaced friends, from family photographs to a pair of plastic sandals. Leguy has painted each object partially white, symbolising the whitewashing of historical narratives.

One of the more overtly political works on show is Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch’s enormous two-sided fresco Crowd Fade. The crumbling mural captures a sea of ­protesters, many wearing white surgical masks to ­protect from tear gas. Inspired by the 2013 protests in ­Istanbul’s Gezi Park, it captures the breakdown of resistance in the wake of a moment of powerful political optimism, suggesting that democracy and political freedoms are eroding under growing authoritarianism worldwide.

Other works reflect on the precarious state of the planet. Turkish artist Alper Aydın’s DM8 is a strangely beautiful tableau of severed tree branches, dead leaves still clinging to them, backed into a corner by the rusty blade of a bulldozer. Responding to the natural destruction caused by urban development, the work encapsulates the fragile state of a world blighted by pollution, rampant construction and man-made climate change.

Concerns about pollution and the destruction are echoed in the biennial’s most unusual venue, an old hammam. In the women’s section, American artist Stephen G Rhodes has created a nightmarish tower made from planks, old life jackets, tents and other paraphernalia, mounted with video screens. His many-layered work is ostensibly rooted in the practice of fracking in Louisiana, but with grotesque and tongue-in-cheek imagery – including video footage of Frankenstein in a rowing boat and plastic babies’ heads mounted on spikes – it touches on the refugee crisis and the rise of far-right politics.

In the men’s section, Italian artist Monica Bonvicini’s enormous collage made of fractured female body parts cut from glossy magazines, and her sculpture of men’s belts rigidly encircling a square form, reflect on power, intimacy, dominance and submission.

Burkal Bingol’s ‘Follower’ with traditional patterns. Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren
Burkal Bingol’s ‘Follower’ with traditional patterns. Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren

Scattered around the city and biennial venues including the Pera Museum, where the permanent collection forms an interesting dialogue with the biennial’s contemporary works, are white porcelain surveillance cameras. These pieces, by Turkish artist Burçak Bingöl, are decorated with traditional flower patterns used in the vanishing local artisanal tradition. In many ways, they sum up the themes of the biennial, reflecting on weaponry and authoritarianism, surveillance and resistance, history, vanishing traditions and fragility.

Bold, ambitious and many layered, the 15th Istanbul Biennial is very much of its time. Its apocalyptic undertones reflect a world in the grip of a collective anxiety. The need to be good neighbours to one another has never been more urgent.

The Istanbul Biennial continues until November 12. For information, visit

Published: September 25, 2017 09:28 AM


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