The Guardian: Istanbul Biennial under fire for tactical withdrawal from contested sites

A crackdown on anti-government protests forced the art show to abandon its more edgy ideas. But the spirit of Taksim Square is not entirely absent

Istanbul biennial: Halil Altindere’s film, Wonderland

Halil Altindere’s film, Wonderland, voices the frustration of Roma forced out of Istanbul’s Sulukele district by redevelopment. Photograph: Servet Dilber

For the time being, the days of “art for art’s sake” are over in Turkey. A police crackdown on a fresh protest in Taksim Square threatened to overshadow the opening of the Istanbul Biennial, the country’s most important contemporary art event, last week. Unaccustomed to street combat, the international art crowd found themselves inelegantly dodging clouds of tear gas as they milled from parties to private views.

Calm had returned by the time of the press preview. But the incident highlighted how this year’s biennial, which brings together 88 Turkish and international artists, has struggled to avoid being sidelined by political events and has itself become a source of controversy.

This year’s event, entitled Mom, Am I Barbarian? addresses much of the dissatisfaction with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s increasingly authoritarian regime. Turkish artist Halil Altindere’s film Wonderlandcaptures the anger and frustration of Roma youths from Istanbul’s Sulukule district, whose community was forced out of its historic settlement by a redevelopment that raised house prices tenfold. The darkly humorous hip-hop video shows boys in mock fights with mechanical diggers and setting fire to a security guard. Aggressive lyrics ram the point home: “We pissed on the foundations of the newly built blocks … My town will be torn down. Soon Sulukule will be home to the bourgeoisie.”

A display of photographs by Dutch duo Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis shows how they made a replacement peace monument with the help of residents of Kars, on the Armenian border. The original, by a Turkish artist, was demolished before it was finished after Erdogan described it as a “freak”.

It’s all very different from what the biennial’s curator, Fulya Erdemci, originally proposed back in January. The plan then was for artists to work in some of the city’s most contested areas. But everything changed in May when thousands gathered in Taksim Square, including artists, actors, writers and musicians, who staged performances and led demonstrations against plans to develop adjacent Gezi Park. Following the brutal clearance of the square in June, the biennial decided on a tactical withdrawal. Now the exhibition is being held in some of Istanbul’s most established galleries, including Arter and Salt on bustling Istiklal Street. Erdemci is determined to ensure that the exhibition speaks to the recent political turmoil. “I want you to hear what’s happening on the streets,” she said.

She claimed the biennial was also a victim of the city’s gentrification because its main venue, Antrepo 3, which has a prime view of the Bosphorus, is set to “become a five-star hotel or a shopping centre”. The first artwork to greet visitors is a replica wrecking ball swinging from a crane on to the side of the building. Erdemci described the piece, by Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen and entitled “bangbangbang”, as a ticking bomb, reflecting the fact that “this is the last time we can use this space”.

But some local art critics and artists said the biennial should have seized the opportunity to learn from the Taksim protesters how to organise more effectively to subvert public spaces.

istanbul biennial Ayse Erkman wrecking ball bangbangbang

bangbangbang, 2013, by Ayse Erkman: a wrecking ball greets visitors to main biennial venue Antrepo 3 – rumoured to be making way for a future hotel. Photograph: Servet Dilber

Artist Ahmet Ögüt, who runs the Silent University, an alternative art school for refugees supported by the Tate, said: “You lose time when you send things by email and try to get permission. It was the opposite during Gezi. People were improvising; they were very fast and very efficient at organising collectively. The biennial could learn from that.”

Marcus Graf, associate professor of contemporary art theory at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University, said: “Just pulling out of the city and organising the exhibition in white cubes does not seem right to me. There, everything is approved and accepted anyway by the followers of art and culture. I believe that this is a great failure, a missed chance.”

Arie Amaya-Akkermans, an Istanbul-based writer on contemporary Middle Eastern art, agreed: “This is not engaging with the public. They should have occupied abandoned buildings and turned them into art spaces.”

Given the difficult politics surrounding the biennial, some of the most effective work addresses the darker side of the art world. Berlin artist Hito Steyerl is showing a video lecture about how she traced the origins of ammunition from a battlefield in southern Turkey where a friend of hers who joined the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was executed by government troops. Steyerl then uncovered links between the art world and defence companies including Koç Holding. Koç is one of Turkey’s major corporations, whose subsidiaries supply the army and the police; it is also a biennial sponsor.

Another German artist, Christoph Schäfer, offers a more positive example of how artists might work to create social change. Since the mid-1990s he has helped run Park Fiction in Hamburg, through which local residents banded together to redevelop an open space themselves, thereby preventing it from being sold off to private developers. For the biennial, Schäfer has made a series of large-scale conceptual drawings of the Istanbul parks where citizens gathered after the suppression of the Gezi occupation. Two drawings, based on photos posted on Twitter on the night of 15 June as riot police moved into Taksim Square, show how the Hamburg collective declared solidarity with the Istanbul protesters by renaming themselves Gezi Park Fiction.

Schäfer said localised urban struggles across the world had emerged as key ways of developing new forms of resistance. He said: “We have the same situation of ‘Gezification’ in London, Hamburg, Istanbul. These urban protesters, and their use of social media, show how emancipatory movements can work in the future and how public spaces can become sites for forming new coalitions to effect political change.

“For me, it’s quite clear art cannot assume a position of critical distance any more. If a space like the biennial is polluted – there’s no clean money in the art world – you have to figure out your role in that. As artists we’re inside the system, and it gives us a certain power.”

Andrea Phillips, co-curator of the biennial’s cancelled public programme, said the exhibition’s problematic gestation had made her re-evaluate how art institutions should address politics. Phillips, a reader in fine art at London’s Goldsmiths university, said: “We need to decide whether we’re going to carry on playing at politics or understand the need to position ourselves differently. If you simply recognise your position in this rarefied world of art, you’re not going to make change. We need to think about programming work that might create real long-term change for local people.”

David Batty
14 September 2013