hat can make a biennial relevant? It cannot be seen only as a great exibition and, especially by the efforts and values that it usually involves, should go beyond that. Among the differences that a biennial can and should make are, and that I have perceived as marks that make a difference: to deal with current issues in order to help to understand the present time; have a relationship with the local scene that provokes dialogue and deepening; involve the city where it occurs beyond conventional spaces; encompass works and debates that do not restrict themselves to contemporary art and also make it possible to deal with culture in general.
In a way, these issues are often present in the editions of the Istanbul Biennale to a greater or lesser extent, which also occurred in its 16th edition, in charge of the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud.
In the circuit of contemporary art, Bourriaud is one of the few voices that assumes a denser discourse, from a conceptual point of view, being responsible for texts and reference books, such as that dedicated to “relational aesthetics”, which guided intense debate at the beginning of the 20th century. Having organized several other biennials before, such as Lyon and Moscow – both in 2005 – his choice posed little risk.
“The seventh continent”, name of the edition performed between September 14 and November 10 this year, addressed a theme that, in a clever strategy, escaped the difficult local political context to address a universal problem: the immense amount of garbage produced by humans, so large that it becomes an area five times larger than Turkey, and can be considered a new continent.
The background of this debate is precisely the concept of Anthropocene, that is, the era that represents the transformation of nature so drastically by humanity that its action now poses a threat to the sustainability of the planet itself.
For the relief of those who already live a nightmare, especially in the country of fires, oil and the catastrophes of mining companies, it is not a biennial that looks at the topic in an illustrative or militant way, as one might imagine. Jonathas de Andrade’s ubiquitous “O peixe”,(The fish) who has participated in the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo in 2016, has been seen in dozens of museums and cultural spaces around the world and now seen in Istanbul, is a good example of this metaphorical character of the collapse of nature. Just remember that the work presents fishermen caressing the fish after killing them, a paradox that allows different readings about human violence.
Jonathas was at the Museum of Painting and Sculpture of the University of Fine Arts Mimar Sinan, one of the three venues of the 16th Istanbul Biennial, chosen, incidentally, a few months before the opening, as the space originally chosen, the Istanbul Shipyard, had to be discarded at the last minute, since toxic elements were discovered in it that made its use unfeasible. It is there that was also “Circa” (2006), by the Brazilian artist Anna Bella Geiger, a very complex installation, which starts from a book that shows models from the pyramids of Egypt, that she reconstructs in space with sand and has in the background a projection with images that address the idea of representation.
The new space, which before the renovation served other editions of the Biennial like Antrepo 5, is now a museum with exhibition space of 11,000 m2, scheduled to be opened in 2020, but basically divided into small rooms.
This itinerant character of the Istanbul Biennale, where each edition new locations serve as headquarters, in a city so rich from a historical and architectural point of view, has always been an important element in its configuration. The new museum, however, composed of these small rooms, took part of the impact of the Biennial, which is the confrontation between works, since each artist is seen individually. For works such as “O peixe”, it was the ideal situation, but the lack of dialogue between the works definitely took away the power of the exibition.
Therefore, the two other headquarters, the Pera Museum and the island of Buyukada gained relevance. The private museum, which is dedicated to the history of Turkish culture, has three floors assigned to the Biennial, and much of what is seen there is dedicated to reflecting issues around the institutionalization of art. Among the highlights are the drawings of the German scientist Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919), a detailed and microscopic observation of nature, carried out in the 19th century, of impressive aesthetic sophistication. It is this type of relationship that makes a biennial more complex, since it returns to the past to point out relationships with the present.
Another work in this sense is by the American educator Norman Daly (1911 – 2008), who over decades created a fictional museum of a civilization called Llhuros from materials discarded as kitchen appliances that, creatively reassembled, looked like pre-Columbian objects.
It is in Pera that is also the painting of the Brazilian artist Glauco Rodrigues (1929 – 2004), “Visão da Terra”, 1977, held during the military dictatorship, which presents a white man as a populist leader.
But it is in Buyukada that another of the highlights of the show is revealed, because it deals with a true history of local culture, the presence of american gay black writer James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) in Turkey, in the installation of Gleen Ligon.
Suffering prejudice in his country, Baldwin left the United States in the late 1940s and, in the 1960s, spent much of his time in Istanbul, then a welcoming place to cultural diversity. At the installation, Ligon exhibits Sedat Pakay’s 1970 film “From another place”, with testimonials from Baldwin, who is first seen there with Turkish subtitles.
In Buyukuda, four other works, including the installation of the collective Monster Chetwynd, in one of the island’s abandoned mansions, which looks like Halloween ornaments, but is somewhat adapted to the island’s decadent style. It was there that Trotsky lived exiled and his house, like so many others, seems in ruins.
“The seventh continent” is not the brightest edition of Istanbul, but by bringing a current and important theme, maintaining relationships with local history and occupying spaces beyond traditional ones, continues to remain as the most original events of the circuit.