At the opening press conference CAROLYN CHRISTOV-BAKARGIEV struggled through a few sentences of thanks in Turkish. After dealing with questions about whether the biennial encountered any censorship about works addressing the Armenian genocide (there was none), or about a Kurdish-solidarity protest suggested by art historian Pelin Tan and e-flux founder Anton Vidokle (she was fine with that), Christov-Bakargiev handed the stage to Chicago-based artist THEASTER GATES, who sang acapella, and Argentinian installationist ADRIÁN VILLA ROJAS, who strummed on his guitar.
The core of the exhibition is located at Istanbul Modern, beginning with an L-shaped gallery dubbed “The Channel” meant as a guide to the many enthusiasms of Christov-Bakargiev that inform the exhibition’s premise—from Art Nouveau-style glass vases by ÉMILE GALLÉ to the FABIO MAURI sculpture On the Liberty (1990), which is seen here as a reflection within the vitrine.
Made around 1905, ANNIE BESANT’s Thought Forms comprised the feminist-socialist artist’s occult experiments in creating abstract forms that contained certain ideas.
A table of economic data fashioned from household goods by RICHARD IBGHY and MARILOU LEMMENS.
SONIA BALASSANIAN’s Silence of Stones (2015) comprises tufa stones quarried in Armenia and chiseled into shapes evocative of heads.
A page from a sketchbook by noted Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who also fancies himself as a painter and serves as the Biennial’s honorary chairman.
ASLI ÇAVUŞOĞLU’s project Red/Red (2015), which, through books and drawings, compares the softness of carmine red ink made from the Ararat cochineal insect to the boldness of the Turkish-nationalist red.
LIU DING’s two new paintings from Temporary Actors (2015). In the Biennial’s guidebook, the work was accompanied by this irritatingly unhelpful explanation: “It is not that social realist figurative sculpture in China was all the same. Two paintings prove that. Additionally, he leaves poems in your hotel room.”
At the Greek School, another venue of the Biennial, was ANNA BOGHIGUIAN’s installation The Salt Traders (2015), which combines her painting practice with narratives of the Ottoman Empire and the salt trade.
MICHAEL RAKOWITZ’s project, also located in the Greek School, looks at the story of an Armenian craftsman who made plaster moldings in turn-of-the-century Constantinople, and its connections to the Louis Sullivan-designed buildings in Chicago and the 1911 massacre of 80,000 dogs on the Turkish island of Sivriada.
PRABHAKAR PACHPUTE’s wall drawing of a headless miner with water flowing from his body, part of a larger installation, What We Have Left is the Blue Water (2015).
FRANCIS ALŸS’s new film features children playing a symphony of birdcall whistles amid the ruins of the 11th-century Armenian city of Ani—today an abandoned site located on the Turkish side of the border.
One of the biennial’s new sites is Büyükada, or Prinkipo, the largest of the Princes’ Islands, which are the tradition summer homes for many of the minority communities in Istanbul (Jews, Greeks and Armenians, primarily). A hotel and several private mansions—in varying states of disrepair—were used as Biennial locations, although the buildings themselves were often more compelling than the artworks shown within them.
Located within the Mizzi Mansion, SUSAN PHILIPSZ‘s project Elettra (2015), comprised black-and-white photographs of the ship owned by Nobel Prize-winning inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who pioneered the radio-telegraph system, and later joined Benito Mussolini’s Italian Fascist party, in 1923.
The remains of the Yanaros Mansion, the house where Leon Trotsky stayed in 1932–33 during his four-year period of exile in Istanbul.
ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS’s The Most Beautiful of All Mothers (2015) was specially created for the waterfront near the Trotsky house, to spectacular if over-wrought effect, the animals suggesting tides of people or the return of forces long repressed.
A two-hour-long film created with Murano-glass puppets, WAEL SHAWKY’s final chapter of the “Cabaret Crusades” series is installed in the beautiful Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hamam, built in 1477. Oddly, despite the high-production values, impressive set-up and location in a more conservative, middle-class neighborhood, there were no Turkish subtitles (which was also the case for many other films in the Biennial).
WAEL SHAWKY’s sculpture in clay, installed in another part of the Ottoman baths.
Have You Ever Seen a Fig Tree Blossom? (2015) by MERIÇ ALGÜN RINGBORG centers around her adventures in the Galata district of Turkey, looking for fig trees, while recalling their Edenic and sexual connotations.
RENE GABRI and AYREEN ANASTAS’s project is located in the former offices of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos, whose editor Hrant Dink was assassinated on the street outside, in 2007, by a teenager with murky links to government officials. The installation of poems and texts on old photographs is evocative of many different, divergent stories of Armenians dispersed or killed during the 1915 genocide, rather than being strictly narrative.
RENE GABRI and AYREEN ANASTAS also gave the former Agos offices a reconfiguration, allowing three existing archives to be more prominently displayed. These binders, part of an entire wall, contain transcripts and court documents from all of the trials brought against Hrank Dink, as well as the proceedings related to his assassination.
DENIZ GÜL’s carved wooden slabs on the ceiling of an abandoned house refer to the markings sought out by treasure hunters in eastern Anatolia, who believe they indicate riches left behind by vanished populations (such as Armenians and Kurds).
CEVDET EREK’s A Room of Rhythms – Otopark (2015) is a minimalistic, sonic and visual installation in an old parking garage, which provides a respite from the chaos of Istanbul’s streets.
At THEASTER GATES’s pottery studio, entitled Three or Four Shades of Blue (2015), a Japanese potter was creating dishes inspired by an İznik design while listening to albums produced by Atlantic Records—the renowned jazz label founded by Turkish-American businessman Ahmet Ertegün. It was a strained effort by the artist to connect his locally rooted practice to something Turkish.
Of much more significance than Theaster Gates’s project, at a space above a discount shoe store, CANSU ÇAKAR created an atelier 100° where marginalized women were learning miniature painting. A seven-meter-long rendering of the historical buildings on İstiklal Caddesi (just outside the windows) was in progress in the display case on the right.