Universes in Universe / Caravan / 8th Istanbul Biennial
8th Istanbul Biennial, 20 September - 16 November 2003
Poetry is here, justice will come...
By Beral Madra
The new construction site of a tubular transportation system divides the historical avenue Meclis'i Mebusan (Ottoman Parliament) into two "cut off" pieces. Historical monuments such as Tophane-I Amire (16th century canon factory, now one of the main venues of the biennial), exquisite examples of mosques and Mimar Sinan University (the oldest academy of fine arts) are being recklessly sacrificed to the ugly mass transportation system. This has happened before in other historical parts of the city; each of these interferences set up a new metaphor of rupture, a new loss of memory.
Here in Istanbul, when discussing the biennial, the public and the artists have the habit of focusing on the curator rather than the artists; he/she is the center figure. When the biennial began, the foreign curator was for them “the other”: they were not wild about entrusting them with the biennial.) It is also customary to look at the social and artistic environment of the curator – just as one always asks about the background of the artist, why not inquire the curator's back-ground? In Dan Cameron's case, the New York art system is supported and sustained by private enterprise (transnational investment and mega-art market) and by foundations; state and local government funding in the USA is quite exceptional. This is the crucial difference between a curator from the EU and a curator from the USA. With all of its components, the NY art system is still the center of values, criteria and trends - this may stand against the currents of globality, but who can disagree? Up to now we have had curators from the old world (Rene Block from Germany, Rosa Martinez from Spain and Paolo Colombo from Italy), where to some extent state subsidies are prevailing. They tried very hard to shake the dust of orientalism from their shoulders, but still carried some euro-centric vestige. Before Dan Cameron, we had Yuko Hasegawa from Japan with her "egofugal" concept, who diverted the look to the individual's position within the global process, but stayed somehow detached from the reality of the Turkish society, which could roughly be defined as "male egocentric".
As seen from a distance, Cameron, with the benevolent "nimbus" of USA private enterprise, carried through his task with dignity and self-confidence. Contrary to worrisome expectations, he also bypassed the fixed ideas on Istanbul's exoticism and emphasised the current political situation in the region, skilfully combining it with the current artistic dilemma. New York art circles did not leave Cameron alone. They came in groups, supported him during the opening and discovered Istanbul. In the near future, this might be of benefit to the art scene.
At the beginning Cameron's task was ambiguous. He had to conceive his concept between the 11th of September and the pre-Iraq war, he was caught in the middle of the regional tension. The instability of the economy had a bad effect on all classes of the society. When noone could see his/her way clearly, the biennial was a minor concern. However, the winds of war passed quickly (!), the tide turned, the economy smiled, and the biennial came almost as a celebration. In his catalogue text, which is more of a political essay than a curatorial manifesto, Cameron not only made his position clear by declaring his radical opposition to current USA world politics, but also found his way out of the impasse of being a citizen of USA in the Middle East.
"Poetic Justice" with all its optimistic implications might be seen as a gateway out of the conflicts and dilemmas we are living in; yet it also spells trouble. The first word "poetic" touches a very soft and sore spot in the heart of the Turkish public. Poets in Ottoman and Turkish literature are almost sacred and heroic people. Apart from the numerous poets who suffered or died a tragic death throughout Ottoman and Turkish history, the most recent memories related to poems and the poets are the legend of Nazim Hikmet, whose citizenship was revoked, and who died in the Moscow Diaspora, as well as the so called "Sivas Events" (1993), when in Sivas (an Alavi city in Middle Anatolia) during a fundamentalist riot, 31 poets were burned to death in a hotel. For the reason that, neither in the past nor in the recent events, "justice" could pair up with "poetry", "poetic justice" sounded at first peculiar, but later favored as a proposal. Poetic justice also touches the harmony between the aesthetics of the art work and the spiritual needs, whereas harmony reverberates optimism and good will. So even if it is not realistic, the public - ready to be consoled - could easily get carried away
During the opening days of the biennial, I was organising, with AICA Turkey (International Association of Art Critics), a workshop for young art critics from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Egypt, Lebanon, Greece, S. Montenegro (18, 19, 21 September) as well as a round-table for the public.)
During one of the sessions two art critics from Turkey, Ahu Antmen and Levent Çalikoglu, aptly indicated that for the first time since we have had foreign curators, a curator did not talk our head off with the boring statement that Istanbul is a bridge between East and West. This has been pronounced by almost all curators in slightly different ways; without considering that the city is enduring political and social fragmentation, a formation of heterotopia and distopia. Nevertheless, some of the speakers asserted that the title is a container, effortlessly filled in different ways. Moreover, they said that the dialectic formulation of concepts has been a typical method since the 80's and that "Dreams and Conflicts", the title of the 50th Venice Biennale was a recent example of this habit.
All these ideas and statements do not prevent us from questioning the "poetic justice" within the political context of the Middle East. Here, poetry is being presented as a creative process and expression, through which we - all players of the art world - hope, seek and desire to make the humankind feel, comprehend, perceive, cognise the dilemmas, emergencies, stratagems, particularities, peculiarities, enigmas of this world, a task with open ends. For the artists, in the classical sense, there are two ways of achieving this goal. In her online essay (*) about Bakhtin, Dr. Mary Klages indicates that Bakhtin defines that as "the novel is more oriented toward the social/historical forms of rhetoric than toward the particular artistic or aesthetic ideas present at any particular moment, while poetry focuses primarily on aesthetic concerns and only secondarily (if at all) on other aspects of social existence. Further on there is more about this division: Poetry is meant to be an art form, to be (and to create) something beautiful; fiction, on the other hand, is a kind of rhetoric, a literary form meant to persuade or to present an argument, not to produce an aesthetic effect." According to Bakhtin, poetic language has been conceptualized historically as centripetal, and novelistic language as centrifugal. "Novelistic language is dialogic and heteroglossic", Bakhtin says, "and as such it exists as a site of struggle to overcome (or at least to parody) the univocal, monologic utterances that characterize official centralized language."
In this case, poetic language (or artworks) are centripetal and cannot overcome the official centralised language. Curiously enough, this is true for Turkey and also for the Islamic countries in general, where (today’s) contemporary artworks are not valued as ideas and concepts to challenge the state ideology, wild capitalism, or the misuse of democracy. The power to create public opinion is in the hands of prose, in some particular cases in the form of novels, but mostly as represented by the press and the media. Thus, to provoke any kind of justice through art is a dream come true.
All artworks have a poetic aspect corresponding to the grade of abstraction and conceptuality; from Duchamps "Pissoir", from Schwitter's Merzbau made of litter and garbage to Richard Serra's colossal and dangerous steel walls. These examples are fusing or melting the beautiful and the beast, spirituality and sensuality, pacification and irritation. In Marlene McCarty's drawings of criminal girls, Ann Hamilton's gigantic blue and white curtains sweeping back and forth, Monika Sosnowska's corridor, Tania Bruguera's passageway of tea bags (shown at Antrepo 4, the main venue of the Biennial), in Peter Sarkisian's and Danica Danic's video projections (at Tophane-I Amire, the Ottoman canon factory), as well as in Mike Nelson's "dark room" (at Valide Han, a 17th century caravansary), one could comprehend and perceive this kind of fusion and merge. However, two works in Antrepo 4, which attracted much attention from the viewers, have not achieved the same significance. Despite the cracked parapet glasses of Monica Bonvicini's chain and glass staircase, and despite the hopeless material of Suh Do Ho's pink tulle staircase, they have only been beautiful, sensual and pacifying.
When we look for responses to the title or concept, we see that some laconic artists immediately associated poetic justice with divine justice, while others directly delved into the intricacies of justice. The politically-laden works of artists from traumatic regions, such as Sharam Karimi's portraits of political victims in Iran, Jasmila Sbanic's video of Kosova tragedy, Emily Jacir's photo-diary of her Palestinian transit identity, Fernando Bryce's drawings on Peruvian official history, or Zwlethu Mthetwa's ethnological portraits, reveal the artists' commitment as sagacious but also anxious witnesses to the present.
All the videos, skillfully installed in circular tents which break the austerity in the Antrepo, join forces with the curator's intention and send out documentary, semi-documentary or artistic images dealing with the familiar, everyday life topics, media criticism, performances, interviews, tracking, body politics, performances. What makes a video an artwork? Should a video work be an artwork? Why do filmmakers prefer to present their video works within the contemporary art context? What is the difference between a documentary and a video work? These questions are being discussed, since the videos take up large spaces in the exhibitions and since there is a new kind of exhibition design according to the character of the video works. There are many direct answers to these questions, which I will not deal with. The crucial point for the artist is to be as ego-centric as possible during the shooting and get most of the truth into the camera, and then weave the net of intimacy and captivity in the dark room between the viewer and the work. Yet, the paradox is that the viewer can effortlessly escape from this captivity which obviously happens when the video is longer than 5 minutes… Who would look to Kutlug Ataman's hours-long video interviews? In his video works, he lets the subject talk for long hours; the viewer joins in at one instance and never gets at the whole story/truth. The only responsible person in these kinds of video interviews is the interviewed himself/herself; the artist is absent, the viewer is unpredictable…
As long as the historical buildings are being used for the biennial in Istanbul, one cannot overlook the fact that the historical and religious space (St. Irene and St. Sophia) becomes a part of the work (or should be considered as such by the artist and the curator). The viewer expects an extra stimulation when entering the historical space to see a contemporary artwork. The question here is: why are the videos of Danica Dakic and Peter Sarkisian not installed in St. Sophia but in Tophane-I Amire? Dakic's work is based on the unity of religions and would be more eloquent in St. Sophia, which is a hybrid space of Christianity and Islam. Not one of the works (Feher, Garcia, Marepe, Rasdjarmrearnsook and Geers) was qualified to be in this unique space. The works were ordinary, inappropriate and buoyant. The Yerebatan cistern has been used by numerous artists by now; there are only a few which have left an impact on common memory. The first impression of animation, shadow, changing colors and sounds is pleasant, but all these works use the cistern as a background and not as the reason for the work.
Religious buildings in Istanbul should be dealt with, with utmost care and responsibility. I have witnessed the deep esteem of artists like Sol LeWitt, Daniel Buren, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Jannis Kounellis, who have masterminded many historical spaces in different cultures with their concepts and skill; almost all of them have indicated that contemporary artworks in these buildings should have another dimension, definition, intention and significance. For a number of past biennials, the artists and curators have dealt with these spaces as if there was no debate or statement in the history of contemporary art, in terms of the dialogue of the work with the space.
Moreover, there are too many layers of controversy and conflict, when it comes to questioning the position of religious buildings in Istanbul. Although the city is being praised for its historical capacity for different religions, numerous mosques are the proof of an absolute Muslim society. A watchful eye can see that most of the churches, synagogues and various buildings (i.e. cemeteries) of non-Muslim origin are somehow camouflaged by other buildings or by high walls. Yet this is not a fundamentalist act, but a policy which has emerged within the post-war nation state formation, dictating homogenisation in language and culture. Islamism in Turkey cannot be compared with the radical Islamists in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is a kind of defence against modernity and not an attack on Christianity or Judaism. Islamists in Turkey are struggling to find their place in the secular culture and within the post-modernist process. This brings me to the questions European colleagues have been asking me for many years: How does contemporary art fit into the Islamic society? How is it received by the Islamists? Contemporary art is an integral part of modernism, of the global culture of consumption and communication in Turkey. Islamists - even if they are distanced from it - swallow it as a bitter drug, as they swallow all facts and features related to the economic realities, such as prescriptions of IMF and everyday urban life with Western-style entertainment and leisure culture.
Within the heterogeneous architecture of the city, there are many spaces
to be articulated by the artists as the background or as the reason of
their work. However, the status quo of the biennials is a totality, a
space where all works exist side by side. In the 8th Istanbul Biennial,
one work has surpassed all schemes, obstructions and prejudices of the
biennial system. Mike Nelson's work in Valide Sultan Han, near the Grand
Bazaar, invites the viewer to see Istanbul from the inside out. Next to
the Grand Bazaar, which is the golden egg of Istanbul, this Han is a misfortune.
Its magnificent 16th century architecture has been abused, neglected and
destroyed. However, all of the inhabitants - mostly light industry workers
and artisans - love and cherish this building, (in part because they have
been living there since their childhood. The sub-economy in this Han is
medieval. Nelson worked there for weeks; he worked in one of the empty
two-storey darkrooms, took photos of the district, developed and hung
them all over. In my opinion, with this work, Nelson has achieved a total
"de-orientalisation". Thank you Mike Nelson.
Beral Madra / October 2003
Mikhail Bakhtin. Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor of English, University of Colorado at Boulder
Born in 1942 in Istanbul, lives there. Curator, art critic, director of the BM Contemporary Art Center.
Coordinator of the first two Istanbul Biennials (1987 and 1989), curator of the exhibitions Contemporary Art in Historical Spaces. Since 1990 curator and commissioner of the Turkish Pavilions at the Venice Biennials.
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