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Address Unknown Cay Sophie Rabinowitz about the 9th Istanbul Biennial, September 16 thru October 30, 2005

Khalil Rabah, "The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind", Installation View, Istanbul Biennale, 2005 Khalil Rabah, "The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind", Installation View, Istanbul Biennale, 2005

A useful way to discuss the recent 9th Istanbul Biennial, curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, is to focus on some key terminologies that emerge as a result of the curators' initial remarks about the exhibition's concerns and function. Titled "Istanbul", local identity also dominates the framing of this exhibition for the curators who explain that "This biennial is for and about Istanbul (…) art in dialogue with different aspects and observations about the city itself. (...) as well as the particularities of Istanbul in comparison with cities elsewhere." Location and identity indeed seem to appear as important factors for Esche and Kortun, in particular the artists' place of origin and residence, which are the only biographical information offered on exhibition labels, in the catalogue, in press documents, and even in the so-called "Reader," titled "Art City and Politics in an Expanding World". Ironically, all the contributors to this weighty anthology of essays are introduced at the beginning of their chapters with details about their professional positions, publications, awards, and interests (although their places of residence are not always noted). Something no less ironic but somehow more questionable lies in the curators' introductory essay to this anthology where they invoke Giorgio Agamben's text "The Coming Community" and propose that "its outline may also just be visible in this biennial … [for] if the ‘coming community' is to be built, it will be from the singularity of each citizen confronting another person as simply human."

In an exhibition which claims to celebrate the value of open, unprejudiced, "human" confrontation, why is the artist's place of residence given such weight? Why do some artists (mostly those from "First World" Europe) enjoy the privileged "whole" status of having a single residence while others (many from the "Third World") are assigned divided or hybridized residence identities?

By employing a pseudo-scientific approach to map distance in the region and chart place identities ascribed to artists in the show, I shall model my investigation somewhat on the methods which structure three works: "Scene for a new heritage" by David Maljkovic; "A tribute to Safiye Behar" by Michael Blum; and Khalil Rabah's "The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind". Each of these works mimics the institutionalized presentation of place and name data in exhibitions. What does seem most interesting when looking back at this biennial is how a few works in the exhibition call into question the problematic status of localized identity and history, which are revealed to be fictionalized.

Like in earlier Istanbul Biennials, artists were invited to work in the city to produce works specifically for and in it. Unlike in those Biennials, when contemporary art was installed in the Hagia Sofia and the Yerebatan Cistern, the sites this time were often in semi-industrial areas not often sought out by tourist visitors and not historically registered. As the curators humbly proclaim, "whether this biennial succeeds or fails will be marked by the degree to which the works allow others familiar with the city to see new visions and ideas of what it is and what it could be." In accordance with this hope for an accidental encounter was the ambition to downplay the Biennial as an event spectacle or tourist destination, and to make this Biennial relevant for the locals in neighborhoods less likely to be visited by foreigners. This indicates a desire to segregate art visitors from tourists, to offer an experience "more meaningful" or more culturally valuable than that of a tourist site, as if to suggest that an experience of history or culture through contemporary art is more authentic and unmediated than an experience of the spectacular historic (and touristic) monuments.

In order to focus on location, the curators invited many artists to stay in the city and produce new work. Some were selected, they explain, "because we knew and trusted them, others through research visits in the wider region around Istanbul." In fact, close to ten of the sixty Biennial artists are described to reside in Istanbul, but this data remains perplexing if one looks closer at how the artists' places of residence are defined or on what this residence identity is based. Surprisingly, included in the list of artists from Istanbul is Lukas Duwenhögger, who according to exhibition publications, was born in 1956 in Munich and "lives in Istanbul." Is it of any importance that Duwenhögger has been living in Berlin for more than a decade and only three years ago moved to Istanbul? To be honest, maybe also compared to the significance of his artistic contribution, Mr. Duwenhögger's place of residence is of no real concern. Nor shall we linger on the ambivalence orientalist gaze in the single painting Duwenhögger installed in the exhibition, showing three Turkish workers lounging half dressed on the floor of a shelter embellished awkwardly by a wall carpet and a sheer window curtain. For now let us focus on how his name and residency, precisely, "Lukas Duwenhögger. Born in Munich. Lives in Istanbul" compares with other artists who live abroad and are identified as having dual residency—often, one part Istanbul, such as: Hala Elkoussy, "lives in Amsterdam and Cairo;" Yael Bartana, "lives in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv;" Hatice Guleryuz, "lives in Rotterdam and Istanbul;" Servet Kocyigit, "lives in Istanbul and Amsterdam;" and Solmaz Shahbazi, "lives in Tehran and Stuttgart."

Intrigued by the fact that some artists had dual and others single residences, I did some research and contacted a few artists by email. When questioned about the status of her residence in Istanbul, for instance, Hatice Guleryuz wrote that she is "living in Rotterdam", has been "doing a project in Istanbul," and since 1994 has been "living in different countries." Before going abroad in 1994, Guleryz was a student at Dokuz Eylui University in Izmir (455 km from Istanbul). It appears that artists from "unstable" places are relegated to maintain divided residency status while the "Western" nationals are able to "colonize" a place as their home at will. Not surprisingly, most of the artists with split residence identities reside partly in Western Europe, birthplace of the biennial and the research trip (specifically in Germany and the Netherlands), as well as in their respective or assumed places of origin in the developing world.

If one considers what other countries' artists have been included - and even the fact that the small number of Turkish artists who live outside Istanbul reside in Diyarbakir, on the border of Syria, 1373 km distance - it seems odd for the curators to claim that artists have been selected, in part, "through research visits in the wider region around Istanbul," because the closest (non-local) places artists were found is more than 300 kilometers from Istanbul in Bucharest and Sofia, followed by Pristina which is 860kilometers. Admittedly, the size of Turkey makes doing exhaustive research difficult, but since the curator's focus was described to be partly specific to the region, one wonders why there are no artists from neighboring Athens (580 km), Odessa (663 km), or Tbilisi (1439 km), not to mention, of course, Yerevan and Nicosia, which graze Turkey's border and are enmeshed in its Imperial history. Hence the closer one examines the way Esche and Kortun have localized identity, the more it seems that the city of Istanbul and its inhabitants, the exhibition "Istanbul" and its participants, have been made into fictionalized versions of themselves.

Let me make myself clear, this is not a bad Biennial. In the process of challenging the curators' policy of institutional identity, one recognizes how the very works they selected (or supported) reveal what is problematic about their approach. The most outstanding works employ mimicry as a critical strategy in a manner which ultimately calls into question the curatorial ideology of place.

David Maljkovic's presentation about a World War II memorial left abandoned in Croatia consists of maquettes, drawings, models, and a video. The installation at first glance resembles a presentation of new designs for a public building or sculpture so highly abstract and clad in aluminum as to appear timelessly modern. The juxtaposition of generations of sketches on paper and the variously sized models displayed on pedestals could be comfortable in an office building lobby or design museum gallery. As one bypasses the models and approaches the video projection, sound poses itself as being not clearly language but also not clearly song. People dwarfed by the large monument and its shadow cry out or sing or speak to each other. Subtitles seem to indicate that this communication is comprehensible, but it is left unclear whether the sound in fact corresponds to the subtitle text, which says, "Why have I come to this place? …Who or what is it?" Stripped of its significance, this monumental artifact, which took more than a decade to construct (the monument's designer Vojin Bakic worked on it continuously from 1970 to 1981), and which all school children visited during communist rule, seems to compulsively attract a group ruled by a new order of logic.

An interesting feeling of not knowing the status of works in the show prevailed, especially with the numerous projects that mimic institutionalized exhibition genres. Two works in particular imitate the structure of specific kinds of museums, both housed in a run-down apartment building facing the Bosporus. Michael Blum's work "Tribute to Safiye Behar" is constructed as a living museum while Khalil Rabah's work presents itself as the "Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind."

Generally, a living museum recreates to the fullest extent the material conditions of a culture, environment, or period. The objective is total immersion, designing exhibits so that visitors can experience the specific subject matter using all physical senses: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. In many living museums interpreters dress in period costume and perform crafts or work. In an attempt to question the extent to which cultural and historical truth may be constructed, Blum designed Safiye Behar's apartment to make it tell the story of an important Jewish feminist Marxist who lived in Istanbul in the early 1900s. To an uninformed viewer, the domestic spaces seem lived in, with a revolutionary newspaper lying haphazardly next to her typewriter on a mahogany desk in the study and a bottle of Raki in the dining room. In an adjoining room on a small monitor one finds a piece of contemporary "evidence" in the form of an extended interview with a man presumed to be Safiye Behar's grandson. Alongside the obvious comparison with similar museums, such as the Sigmund Freud House in Vienna or the Karl-Marx-Haus in Trier, the total-immersion, "living" aspect also recalls the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. In each of these examples the re-creation of a specific history results in fiction. For one small but maybe crucial piece of information is the fact that despite all the authentic material collected and installed by Blum, Safiye Behar, the person in whose honor the museum has been assembled, never existed.

Styled according to the conventions of a different type of museum, Khalil Rabah's "Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind" also mimics and problematizes institutional displays of native culture by presenting its subject, the olive tree, in the style of an earth sciences collection. Rabah hand-crafted every item in the so-called "Palestine before Palestine" project, and he organized them into collections: Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Zoology. The artist has given exhaustive attention to detail in both the crafting of fossilized elements and in the style of individual spaces. There are rooms with flat files full of catalogued and labeled tree branch slices, vitrines, maps, recorded expert testimony and practically every manner of presentation one might expect to find in a natural history museum. Unfortunately the work falls apart in the well placed reading room, where Rabah installed a series of large-scale lenticular photographs. I could simply not place their function in an otherwise so carefully contrived exhibition design. Rabah explained that the series, which does not really "belong" to the museum, was made when he had an artist residency in Mozambique and discovered people living in the Moputo Zoo's cages. He confessed to still being bothered by his own attraction to and fascination with the situation. These squatters who lived willingly like Kafka's "Hunger Artist", comforted by the only protection they could fathom, so "captivated" the artist in residence that he offered them money if they let themselves be photographed.

These pictures attest to the "side show" encounter that Rabah created. He cast his subject in a dramatic role that had been scripted according to his own voyeuristic fantasy (or fancy). Rabah's work recalls 19th Century World Fair exhibitions where African and Native American indigenous people were put into "authentically" staged settings to perform tasks presumed to be typical of their culture. These ethnographic displays treated human "others" like animals and thus represent the exhibition styles of zoological gardens rather than Natural History Museums. Every presentation of cultural material is subject to be framed by the place it is installed. But while in these "living museum" installations fiction becomes history through the conventions of display, a "real" historical event that occurred in the very neighborhood the Biennial was held never was invoked. The neighborhood chosen for most of the Istanbul Biennial venues was once home to the majority of local Greek, Armenian, and Jewish immigrants who were long presumed to be assimilated "Istanbulese" until the Istanbul Pogrom on September 6-7, 1955, orchestrated by the "Demokratic Parti"-government of Adnan Menderes. Bands of Turkish nationalists dragged residents from their homes, broke their shop windows and looted their merchandise. Though only recently reviewed in an exhibition of photographs at the Karsi Museum that was not included as part of the Biennial, the Istanbul Pogrom is ingrained as grim part of local history in the new Biennial neighborhood of Beyoglu.

Though only one very localized example, in general Turkey has repeatedly been susceptible to nationalism and the ideology of identity politics. So when the curators attempt to maintain a humanist approach within its borders, they should be wary of making identity and history into fiction, which is at heart an anti-humanist affair.


[1]Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, "The World is Yours" in Art, City and Politics in an Expanding World: Writings from the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, 2005, p30.
[2]Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, "The World is Yours" in Art, City and Politics in an Expanding World: Writings from the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, 2005, p.25.
[3]Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, "Introduction" Istanbul, exhibition catalogue, 2005. p. 9.
[4]Hatice Guleryuz, email correspondence sent October 30, 2005