The 11th Istanbul Biennial

Pablo Lafuente, Pip Day, Maria Muhle

Reviews / 01.12.2009

PIP DAY: The 11th Istanbul Biennial begins with a question: 'What Keeps Mankind Alive?'. That question, now a title, is taken from Brecht's The Threepenny Opera of 1928. And so we are introduced to the biennial project with Brecht's radical reformulation of the political problems of his time in mind. His deconstruction of the 'production apparatus' (of theatre and beyond) and his mobilisation of the 'viewer' (into a productive participant) are two elements that deeply inform the curatorial project of the Zagreb-based curatorial collective WHW - What, How and for Whom - responsible for the 2009 version of the Istanbul Biennial. WHW align themselves with Brecht not only in their attempt to 'reformulate the problems of the present', they have also set themselves the Brechtian task of the politicisation of culture. In their curator's statement on the biennial website, they write: 'Today when the dilemma "barbarity or socialism" is more real than ever and the future of the world appears divided between pauperised war zones and the stable fascistoid systems of the rich zones, this is our task.'

I wonder if it would be useful for us to think specifically about this issue of the politicisation of culture? Has this biennial brought us closer to articulating or formulating the possible and/or actual roles of cultural production (labour) under contemporary capitalism? 

In response to Brian Holmes's contribution to the biennial (the panel 'Who Needs a World View'), the Istanbul-based activist organisation Resistanbul clearly has some criticisms of the biennial structure itself,1 reminding the public that the IMF and World Bank would be in Istanbul three weeks after the biennial's opening. Indeed, the front pages of international papers on 7 October, two weeks after the exhibition opened, showed images of protesters dispersed by police use of water cannons and tear and pepper gas.

PABLO LAFUENTE: I don't know how to articulate my response to that larger question, because I feel uneasy about my reaction to the show. I feel I should welcome the show for what it tries to do, but instead I just want to point out its shortcomings. Maybe that is because, unlike most biennials, it is actually trying to do something. As you say, there is an attempt at politicising culture, which in this case means utilising the realm of cultural production (including its resources and distribution channels) to discuss and promote specific ideas that are critical with regards to the dominant production system and political models. And that is a fantastic move, which is very much needed today. The idea that art or culture has a political effect only if it withdraws itself from politics is too gentle an approach to the current system (if not a complicit one), and is too easily co-opted by it.

The biennial rejected this high Modernist model and, through its stress on figuration and content, it aligned itself with realism - a political realism that believes in, as you say, analysis and mobilisation. The problems start here, because in response to your question, I don't think the exhibition, as an exhibition, brought us closer to articulating the possible critical effects of cultural production under capitalism. Some of the works may do that individually, but neither the biennial form specifically nor the exhibition form in general was made an issue. The exhibition was - in terms of its display, of its mechanisms of discourse production and distribution and its relation to funding and supporting institutions, private and public - business as usual. Theonly unusual aspect was the fact that the curators were very explicit, in the press conference and the exhibition guide, about the hard data behind the exhibition (figures and percentages in relation to money, participants and others). But that gesture that seems to recognise the importance of the structure, seemed to end there, as a gesture.

Perhaps the curators can't change those relations, but they could definitely have done something with the display. Instead, by choosing a conventional Modernist installation, the exhibition became a clear example of how the exhibition form, following its canonical model, doesn't mobilise the audience at all, regardless of the work it contains. 

So at the end, the fact that the result was just a conventional exhibition (although one with politicised content) allows Resistanbul to dismiss it easily, as it's not apparent how this format may contribute to changing anything. And that is a shame, because the biennial, as a cultural institution, could also contribute to change, if aligned with other movements - critical activity is not only possible outside of the institution.

MARIA MUHLE: I would like to pick up on what Pablo says about the realist dimension of the exhibition and the works included within it. I agree that there is a tension between the exhibition and the works, as the display seems perfectly 'Modernist' - it does not break with the traditional ways of displaying, exhibiting or discussing works of art, that, for the most part, seem to adopt a political or critical perspective on this very system. The organisers are cautious enough to address this tension explicitly in their 'conceptual framework' in the exhibition guide, when they say that instead of redefining the urban identity of the city of Istanbul (or any city that hosts a biennial) they 'will use given parameters of the biennial format to question the potential of a mainstream cultural institution to both impose and contest dominant social frameworks'. Obviously this raises problems of sponsorship, political allegiances, etc., and makes a critique as the one raised by Resistanbul all the more possible. At the same time, it might be an interesting operation to consciously display this kind of politically engaged art in a 'white cube' space - not in order to produce a contradictory shock in the spectator (which would be a wrong way to conceive of this relationship), but in order to present artistic practice as artistic practice, and thus to allow or reinforce the tension between a realist approach and a so-called autonomous conception of art. What Jacques Rancière would call the politics of art unfolds in this very tension.

What I find much more difficult in this context is the explicit claim that WHW pick up from Brecht about the involvement of the spectator: according to Brecht, the political aspect of art would lie in the distancing effect produced by epic theatre, which awakens the consciousness of the audience to the fact that the work they are watching (one of capitalist exploitation) is nothing more than art, that it is artificial and thus does not rely on a natural order of things. Maybe the idea behind the traditional display of the biennial is the exact inversion of this model: by exposing art as art in the museum, as a theatre of modernity, they want to undercut the simple assumption that the realist reproduction of the political situation might be considered political per se, and that because of that it needs a different form of display. Instead, it could also be part of a catalogue of possible political approaches to art - a collection of different positions that understand themselves as political. The work of Chto delat?, for example, seems more effective when seen in the context of the rest of their work as they make it available or consultable on the internet than within the exhibition. But still I think it is productive to show these types of positions, and the biennial does not claim to be the only place for this art.

Maybe I just have problems with the idea of curating a 'political show' - how is it possible to make a political exhibition, how can political potential arise from the display of the work? That seems a very interesting question to me but I don't have an answer to it myself. I guess it is the same discussion that was going on with the last documenta, where a lot of people said that the display would not allow the spectator to even see the art, since it was too imposing - through the idea of the interconnectedness or ;migration' of forms, but also through the creation of a sort of Naturalienkabinett with dark walls and dimmed lights.

I am not sure what to think about it, but it seems connected to the question of the museum as a space of production of knowledge, as the curators say in their conceptual paper, and I don't think that it necessarily has to adopt a specific form or has to be in rupture with the traditional exhibition display.

PL: My problem with the type of display is that it seemed to inherit, without being at all troubled, the same 'hows' (in terms of presentation strategies) and 'for whoms' (audience) as any other previous Istanbul biennial. Maybe that created a friction between the type of work and its mode of address and the mode of spectatorship suggested by the display, but if that is the only thing the exhibition did, then it was a dead end - i.e. simplifying a bit, the exhibition would in that case prove that the mobilising impulse some of the work aspires to is impossible within this type of exhibition format. Because of that, it seems a missed opportunity. The show was definitely more interesting in its concerns and focus than most I've seen in recent years, but, like most of the others, it reinforced the idea that art needs to be displayed and experienced in this specific way, that this is the best possible way of displaying art. If we were talking about theatre, it would be like proposing to stick with Racine, and to not try anything else at all.

At points, however, there were interesting articulations. For example, at the entrance of the Antrepo site, with the juxtaposition of Hüseyin Alptekin's Don't Complain (2007) and Sanja Iveković's Waiting for Revolution (Alice) (1982) worked because the ambivalence of Alptekin's neon sign (an imperative, revealing a hierarchy, but also exposing it at the same time, and de facto dismissing what is going to be immediately seen) was rendered optimistic by Iveković's drawings of Alice looking at the frog, waiting... possibly for it to turn red. It could be read as 'don't complain, don't wait for it to happen, but make it happen'. But what was offered later seemed, as a whole, not to follow the aesthetics of the political programme that was proposed by that juxtaposition and the discursive apparatus.

But maybe it's worth talking more in detail about those aesthetics. The selection was almost exclusively of work that could be classified as realist - as explicitly dealing with 'the real' (I write this term with a feeling of awkwardness) and its articulation. So it was possible to conclude almost immediately that this language, mostly in the form of documentaries, film essays and research-based work, is where the curators identify art's politics today. That's an interesting hypothesis, very much worth testing. What do you think about it?

PD: I wonder if it might be interesting to keep the Benjamin quote included by the curators in the guidebook in mind:

'An author who teaches writers nothing teaches no one. What matters, therefore is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers - that is, readers or spectators into collaborators.'2

Perhaps it's naïve of me, and perhaps neither of you would think that the biennial 'apparatus' itself has been dramatically improved in 'What Keeps Mankind Alive?', but I do like to think about these more ambitious (and often not totally resolved) exhibitions-with-a-proposal as instigators for possible radical shifts and reformulations, in terms of practice itself. In 'What Keeps Mankind Alive?' there is a (clearly articulated) shift away from what has become the norm in biennials - explorations about the geopolitics of a specific locale combined with socially engaged and participatory practice - that I think bears acknowledgement. My initial response to the biennial was that, yes, the installation followed a disappointingly Modernist form, but somehow it almost manages to render that very Modernist model of installation irrelevant. Or rather, it's so familiar that one stops paying it heed and instead rolls up one's sleeves and deals with the work. I can't remember the last time I saw so much work presented together within such a complex premise actually functioning, not as examples in support of a thesis, but as both independent and codependent cultural products actually 'producing' within the exhibition space. I think we can make a lot out of the return to the 1970s, not to the 60s, as the biennials' key historical reference, for example. The presence of these post-'68 references, for me, is very important (and I articulate it clumsily) - there is something about the un-glamour of the actual labour of making change (realist, yes, but) beyond the sexiness of activism, that WHW and the artists in the exhibition seem to be immersed in.

MM: I wouldn't understand realist art as dealing with the real, maybe it would be easier to talk about reality and not the real in order to avoid the psychoanalytical implications. I think realist art is a reflection about the notion of representation in both its traditional aesthetical and political senses. Realism could be understood as the contrary of representation. That is why documentary strategies in the arts do not exist as such, they are always mingled with a fictional (staged) account of things. It is thus not about showing 'how things are in reality', but about staging a specific reality as specific and therefore 'made' or 'artificial'. That is very Brechtian, I guess, and I already said this regarding the question of display but it also comes into account for the actual work, like Sharon Hayes's I Didn't Know I Loved You (2009), for example, that reflects on the conditions of the construction of reality. I guess realism has more to do with this historical aprioristic level where it's decided what is to be seen as real and in what way, or how, reality is constructed. Maybe Artur Żmijewski's Democracies (2009) is linked to this, but as its opposite since he exposes and connects different documentary pieces that all deal with the issue of public demonstrations in very different situations. I must admit that I was somehow struck by it, but I couldn't say exactly why, maybe this is more a question about the collision of different realities and the latent patterns that inhere in them that then become visible... but this is a very Structuralist thesis, it must be wrong.

I do agree that the biennial seems 'just' regarding its lack of 'political hipness' (even though Brian Holmes's statement says the exact opposite and pathetically highlights a revolutionary romanticism that is not that present in the exhibition itself). And as I said, I did not at all mind the Modernist display; I find it in a way even more appropriate since it does not call for too much attention. But maybe Democracies does expose what you call 'the beyond of the sexiness of activism' by exposing activism as an activity that has become too much linked - and in a very unreflective way - to the art world. Maybe this is wishful thinking...

Another thing that struck me very much in this context was the contrast between two works by the same artist: Canan Senol. While her video Fountain (2000) (of two breasts dripping with milk) was for me the perfect illustration of the not-so-interesting (and even crude/distasteful) return to the '60s, her animated video work Exemplary (2009) explored a related subject (the role of women in Turkish society) in a very interesting and playful manner, using the visual vocabulary of classical Ottoman miniature illuminations and calligraphy in order to document the current situation and oppression of Turkish women and to relate it to the situation during the Ottoman Empire. Maybe this narrative style has more to do with realism than with the straight documentary style, which I do not think is that present in Istanbul. One example for the latter might be Mohammed Ossama's Step by Step from 1979, which follows a very traditional political strategy by showing the submission of young Syrian country boys to religion and political ideologies. I found it a very interesting move to show this film with the others in order to underline that artistic-political strategies do change, that they are historically connoted and that maybe the blurring of the clear frontier between the documentary and the fictional is the contemporary way of dealing with political issues. Which could then raise a larger discussion on theories of representation.

PL: It's curious, because the exhibition you describe - an exhibition dealing with representation through a Modernist display - makes me think of Documenta11, and that's not meant as a compliment. But this Istanbul biennial was very different from that documenta. There was in it some vibrancy, some risk that I didn't find in Kassel in 2002. I am having trouble locating the reason for it, but it might be in its return to a combative mode typical of Brecht, a confrontational attitude, a provocation with populist undertones (this is meant as a compliment). Maybe it is in that willingness, following Benjamin, to serve as an example, to function as some kind of artistic-political vanguard. This doesn't seem to be an un-glamorous, un-sexy task, rather the opposite - attraction is normally part of the mechanism that makes something work as an example. Lots of the works in the show had some of this, so maybe it's silly to ask the show itself to also have that effect. But maybe it'd be worth trying that one out!

Interview originally commissioned by Celeste Magazine.

This interview was conducted by email between Pip Day, Maria Muhle and Pablo Lafuente in October, 2009.

  1., to which there follows a rather unsophisticated response from Brian Holmes. For more information on Resistanbul see

  2. Quoting Walter Benjamin, 'The Author as Producer', in Selected Writings, Vol.2 1927-34 , Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002, p.777. Found on p.43 of the biennial guide.