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T.J. Demos

Barbarity or Socialism? On the 11th International Istanbul Biennial by T. J. Demos

KP Brehmer, „Soul and Feelings of a Worker“, 1978/80, 11. Istanbul Biennale, 2009, Ausstellungsansicht KP Brehmer, „Soul and Feelings of a Worker“, 1978/80, 11. Istanbul Biennale, 2009, Ausstellungsansicht

In the current issue of “Frieze”, Tirdad Zolghadr prophezied that “Texte zur Kunst” would be gushing about the latest edition of the Istanbul Biennial. Wait and see. The leitmotif of the curatorial collective “WHW / What, How & For Whom” – to resurrect communism in the framework of a major exhibition of contemporary art – sounds ambitious, to say the least. But it may be worth a try.

Precisely how would this intention be realized on site? Which artists and aesthetic practices would actually be able to lend expression to such a project? How would the exhibition position itself vis-à-vis the by now common critique of the “Biennial culture”? In a word: was there reason to be gushing?

This 11th edition of the Istanbul Biennial, organized by the Zagreb- based, all-women curatorial collective WHW (What, How and for Whom? [1]), takes its title from Brecht’s devastating “The Threepenny Opera” finale, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”, whose refrain answers the blunt question in the harshest of terms – “The fact that millions are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed” . [2] Written in 1928 in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann and Kurt Weill and displaying remarkable foresight regarding Germany’s dark future, Brecht’s urgent call to politicize art serves as a rallying call for the curators in their effort to re-situate aesthetics today in renewed solidarity with socialist modernity. As they contend in the exhibition’s catalogue, communism, with its “basic values” of “social equality, solidarity, [and] social justice”, remains unique as an emancipatory politics capable of challenging the global hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism – meaning the free-market economy, the privatization of national institutions, the dismantling of social protections and organized labour and autocratic governance – which, in an environment of increasing political authoritarianism and military domination is leading, they claim, toward fascist tendencies. According to WHW, we continue to face the same dilemma as did Rosa Luxemburg in 1915: the choice of “barbarity or socialism”. [3]

Reanimating communism is certainly a complex, risky venture – what of the catastrophic totalitarianism of its lived experience? – and raising the spectre of fascism is potentially hyperbolic, if not dangerous, especially if it cheapens our appreciation for the singularity of its mid-twentieth century appearance. Yet, WHW has articulated its goals guardedly, if seductively, seeking to avoid a nostalgic or unmediated return to the past in their effort to extract the current potential of socialism; and they redefine fascism today as the political calculation that supports extreme economic inequality, political disenfranchisement, unjust warfare and environmental destruction. Nonetheless, these claims raise several red flags. Is it not an insurmountable historical leap to compare the current geopolitical situations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (which are themselves quite distinct) with the late 1920s in Weimar Republic Germany (or with Luxemburg’s WWI context)? Does the charge of fascism not represent an instance of radicalist rhetoric that, in failing to differentiate between historical contexts, impoverishes our political insight? And how can a biennial, understood as the very cultural manifestation of neo-liberal globalisation, credibly propose a socialist agenda without betraying a naïve hypocrisy or engendering outright cynicism?

While WHW’s proposals may not ultimately satisfy the most contrary of critics, they do demand serious consideration. Whereas all analogies, one could argue, are monstrous – because they eliminate historical singularity in creating superficial continuities (as is the risk here) – such comparisons may nevertheless be useful, for on a strategic level they grant foresight and raise warnings of disastrous potential futures capable of inspiring the energies of resistance now. In addition, historical juxtapositions allow instructive differences to emerge: e.g. Brecht’s time, as WHW acknowledges, was one of socialist struggle clearly posed against a mounting German National Socialism, whereas today’s post-socialist era leaves sympathisers without readily available options to contest the intensification of neo- liberalism despite its recent purported setback (which may yet prove to be a period of consolidation) – hence the need to rejuvenate a project of emancipatory politics. The resulting biennial, however, is not so much a matter of forcing Brechtian strategies onto contemporary practice (although certainly the use of aesthetic de-familiarization, reflexive theatricality and pedagogical experimentation – Brecht’s signature devices – surely appear to inspire certain of the selected works). Rather, WHW have made selections that effectively dramatize the erosion of liberal democracy and present a political imagination that is inventive rather than doctrinaire. To this end, WHW has knowingly entered the belly of the beast. Even when situated in a space of contradictions, the biennial, they argue – and rightly in my view – can hold out the promise of inspiring autonomous political agency.

Set in three post-industrial and disused buildings in Istanbul’s nineteenth-century European Beyogˇlu district – the Antrepo No. 3 warehouse, the Tobacco factory and the former Feriköy Greek School – the inclusions focused largely on practices from the immediate region of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, exemplifying areas of post- socialism and post-colonialism now enthralled to so-called free-market democracy. Presenting much compelling work by a high proportion of lesser-known and underrepresented artists (only 22 of the show’s 70 artists are represented by commercial galleries, we learn from the show’s self-reflexive statistics, presented in the Feriköy School), the galleries were visually united by constructivist-red wall texts and signage. Also adding a sense of continuity was Sanja Ivekovic´’s “Turkish Report 09” (2009), comprising pieces of crumpled red paper reproducing a local NGO’s report on the precarious status of women in Turkey, including their continued subjection to the practise of honour killings, which was strewn about the floor in the galleries of all three venues, dramatizing the depressing dismissal of humanitarian concerns by the reigning government.

Advancing the curators’ intention to politicize aesthetics, the three venues included numerous historical projects that retrieved former engagements with anti-capitalist and socialist art. Particularly revelatory in this regard were the German artist KP Brehmer’s “statographic” paintings from the late 70s that analyse capitalist working conditions in sociological terms; Mohammed Ossama’s documentary film “Step by Step” (1977), portraying tradition- destroying modernization in Syria (including shots of a soldier claiming he would bulldoze his own family’s house if ordered to do so); Uzbekistani artist Vyacheslav Akhunov’s reuse of socialist propaganda imagery in his cycle of collages “Leninania”(1977–82) and Turkish artist Yüksel Arslan’s allegorical paintings from his 1973–74 series “Capital”. While such pieces granted the show a sense of historical depth, they also cast a melancholy shadow; in them we witness the downfall of socialist and anti-imperialist struggles that represents the prehistory of our own environment of depoliticized consensus.

That very conclusion was most powerfully – and depressingly – captured in Polish artist Artur Zmijewski’s multi-channel video installation “Democracies” (2009), which presents a row of some 20 flat-screened monitors that depict various street rallies and public protests, including the funeral of Austrian right-wing leader Jörg Haider, an Irish Loyalist march in Belfast and Palestinian demonstrations against the Israeli occupation along with Israeli counter-protests against the Palestinians. Playing simultaneously without commentary, the cacophonous display of videos reveals the ominous transformation of public space into an arena of mob spectacle, one of fanatical nationalism, ethnic and religious exclusionism and neo-fascist intolerance. [4] The juxtaposition, which shows a certain homogenization of urban space, captures the pervasive state of the post-political today, a state devoid of the agonistic negotiation of difference that defines democracy for theorists like Chantal Mouffe and Jacques Rancière. In this regard, Igor Grubic’s double-channel video “East Side Story” (2006–08), which paired documentation of recent attacks on gay pride demonstrators in Belgrade and Zagreb and subsequent footage of the protesters performing dances in public space that express the trauma of those homophobic events, was also poignant.

The presentation of historical material, however, bore mixed result when related to nearby contemporary pieces. Take “Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War” (1975–90), a mini- exhibition included here that was curated by Zeina Maasri originally for a show in Beirut in 2008. Displaying an archive of competing propaganda by Lebanese militias, the grid of visually strident posters provided a visual backdrop to both the bright red minimalist structure of Belarusian Marina Naprushkina’s “The President’s Platform” (2007), modelled on the one used ostentatiously by autocrat Alexander Lukashenko and Iranian artist Shahab Fotouhi’s “Study for Nuclear Bomb Shelter (no. 137)” (2005–09), a political-pop sculpture comprising a metal cage topped by an enormous inflatable resembling a mushroom cloud. The constellation of works supported the curators’ point that it’s not art that has become Brechtian, but rather the world of political demagoguery that cloaks social domination and military destruction. Yet in this case by suggesting a geopolitical convergence of these disparate states toward military totalitarianism, the specificity of each context appeared lost, simplifying our understanding of globalisation – that is, unless one took the display as capturing a political imaginary of affects built of paranoia and fear that sees no such distinctions, which is not without its reality today.

The recognition of the power of the image over reality was dramatised in Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué’s “The Inhabitants of Images”, performed during the biennial’s opening at the nearby Emek Movie Theatre. Addressing a projected image depicting an impossible meeting between Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970, and a similarly aged Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister assassinated in 2005, Mroué’s lecture-performance wove an engaging narrative concerning the investment in images that blur the boundaries between the real and the fictional. The artist proceeded to discuss Hezbollah’s digitally montaged images of martyrs following the 2006 Israeli bombing, depicting a contemporary Lebanon precariously balanced between political Islam and pro-western laissez-faire capitalism in which the individual is ever threatened with disappearance. If communism does indeed represent a promising third way, as Mroué at one point indicated, then his quickly delivered suggestion required further elaboration for credibility’s sake.

Unlike the combinatory display logic prevalent in the Antrepo, which at times could also be inscrutable – e.g., in the introductory gallery visitors were confronted with the jarring combination of Wafa Hourani’s futuristic modelling of a post-colonial Palestinian refugee camp (“Qualandia 2087”, 2009), Trevor Paglen’s photographs of starry nights that disclose reconnaissance/intelligence satellites, “Celestial Objects (Istanbul)” (2009), and Canal S¸enol’s video of two lactating breasts hanging over a black velvet backdrop, “Fountain” (2009) – the other venues offered smaller galleries dedicated to single presentations. The St. Petersburg-based collective Chto delat / What is to be Done? presented “Songspielen”, a series of videos documenting and re-enacting the last days of Gorbachev’s USSR under perestroika. Footage of impassioned street discussions enlivened the group’s timeline of political history ending with the Soviet Union’s dissolution. One video, a kind of contemporary Lehrstück, showed an allegory of the descent of post- communist Russia into the hands of greedy entrepreneurs, as the wall text asked “what might have been?”. Alluding to the lost potential of a reconstructed socialism – one of democratic participation, economic equality and social justice – the project was compelling in inspiring political desires that were beaten down in many other works in the show, particularly the factographic and statistical mappings of the current reality of military and political networks in the cartographic poster “Administration of Terror” (2009) by the French group Bureau d’études. While the positivism of the group’s graphics intimates a certain refusal of representational ambiguity, which could be perceived as a weakness, Bureau d’études’ unapologetic insistence on revealing sociological fact supported the curators’ resolve to avoid the artistic fashion of “ambivalence” that is, for them, indecisive and politically debilitating.

In the abandoned Feriköy Greek School – the educational site of which figured as an emblem of the curators’ desire to transform the biennial into an innovative space of aesthetic and political re- learning – the Decolonizing Architecture group (Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman) presented their futuristic proposals for the creative re-use of post-occupation spaces following Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian lands. Quoting Giorgio Agamben’s observation that all too often the processes of subjectivation are overlooked when considering Foucault’s concept of power (in favour of those of de-subjectivation), [5] one of several book-like manuals placed on school desks emphasised the need to deactivate ruling structures and restore the principle of common-use based on fluid and adaptable proposals to post-colonial architectural remainders. The books include suggestions such as refitting concrete blocks to provide housing for migrant birds and recycling checkpoints as community bingo centres and cafés, which were situated amidst texts that advanced speculative questions regarding the need to avoid duplicating former colonial power structures in new Palestinian architectural arrangements, or simply destroying the abandoned Israeli buildings. Insistently utopian, the proposals are meant to be politically operative, supporting the urgency of a constructive imagination within the very space of Israeli – and in the context of the exhibition, capitalist – colonization. Nearby pieces creatively resonated with these aspirations, such as Michel Journiac’s remarkable pre-Cindy Sherman photographs of the artist’s bodily self-transformations “Homage to Freud” (1972–84) and Nilbar Güres¸’s “Unknown Sports” (2008–09), comprising images that portray women reinventing their bodies in gender-bending forms of gym recreation, thus visualising imaginative forms of life beyond oppression.

Are these nothing but aesthetic scenarios situated within a faux- radical consumerist extravaganza? Whereas WHW writes “that a just world order and distribution of economic goods and services is viable and absolutely vital – and that communism is still the only name for that desirable project”, [6] the curators made no naïve claims that their exhibition or its included work was intended simply to bring about political changes or to catalyse any significant alteration of the status quo of political, cultural, economic neo-liberal globalisation. Still, shows like this one are, in my view, not without effect either. Rather, they advance what could be called a metapolitics, that is, a political engagement outside of governmental politics (one that resonates with Jacques Rancière’s political writing), which cannot be so easily dismissed, for it represents a crucial source of political sustenance at a time when there are few outlets for effective political mobilisation. Besides, reinforcing social activism with artistic-political imagination should not be seen as counter-productive. While the biennial could have integrated a greater awareness of communism’s history of oppression into its program, if only to advance its attempted re-invention with greater credibility, WHW’s proposal was bold for its ambitious paradigm- shifting agenda, importantly moving away from the neo-liberal consensus that has generally established itself following 1989 in the former-Soviet bloc counties and in the Middle East. If we define aesthetics as bearing its own politics – that is, not as some lack or compensatory supplement, but instead a productive force all its own – then WHW’s exhibition was successful in providing new creative answers to Brecht’s sobering query.


[1]The collective consists of curators Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Nataša Ilic, Sabina Sabolovic and designer Dejan Kršic.
[2]The full refrain, reprinted in the catalogue, runs as follows: “What keeps mankind alive? The fact that millions are daily tortured, stifled, punished, silenced, oppressed. Mankind can keep alive, thanks to its brilliance in keeping its humanity repressed. For once, you must try not to shirk the facts: Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts.”, in: 11th International Istanbul Biennial: What Keeps Mankind Alive? The Texts, ed. WHW, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts 2009, p. 477.
[3]WHW, ibid., p. 120.
[4]In this regard, I found Zmijewski’s Istanbul installation more effective than the recent presentation of the piece at Berlin’s DAAD gallery where the sound of each video was heard with earphones.
[5]The reference here is to Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, New York 2007.
[6]WHW, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”, loc. cit., p. 101.