HUANG YONG PING, Construction Site, 2007, aluminum and tissue metal, 4 × 4 × 12 m. Photo by Serkan Taycan. Courtesy Istanbul Biennial.

Istanbul Biennial: Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary”

Multiple Venues

As one of the first biennials in the non-Western world, the Istanbul Biennial celebrated its 10th anniversary with “Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War,” curated by veteran roving independent curator Hou Hanru. This installment was a mammoth exhibition of 96 artists from 35 countries spread throughout this bustling city.

Much has changed since the Istanbul Biennial’s launch in 1987, from boom to bust and back again. In the exhibition’s guidebook, Hou writes: “The Istanbul Biennial should be understood as a part of the modernization project of Turkey in her search for both internal cultural development and international status.” To further this process, Hou re-examined a number of complex subjects, including historical memory, collective activity, modernization, violence and market forces.

Among the most moving presentations was the exhibition at the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM), an iconic structure of the 1970s unfortunately slated for demolition. Upon entering, visitors encountered Korean installation artist Lee Bul’s Mon grand récit: Weep into stones… (2005), an architectural dreamscape of a futuristic city that resembles an amusement park in an Orwellian universe with its LED billboard spelling out “because everything / only really perhaps / yet so limitless.” On AKM’s second level was Tomoko Yoneda’s “After the Thaw,” a 2004 photographic series depicting architectural spaces, mainly empty Soviet-style public swimming pools in former Eastern Bloc countries. Yoneda’s work quietly captures the melancholia of recent history and unrealized promises. 

Spilling out into the city were works in the bustling Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market, an exhibition section dubbed “World Factory.” Most of the art here explored ideas of community and globalization, such as MAP Office’s long-term examination of Chinese factories and their workers, presented in an installation of video documentaries, neon signs and drawings of workers’ uniforms. Segments from this project were cleverly embedded within the market stalls and often hard to find. Sora Kim’s Capital Plus Credit Union (2003), a banking-cum-pawnshop system, invited visitors to deposit anything they had with them—from candy to coins to fabric lint—and it would be returned over time to the owner’s address.

In the third and largest venue, the Antrepo No. 3, a former warehouse in Istanbul’s harbor, Hou displayed his zeal for sensory overload by zeroing in on the exhibition site and the city itself, referring to it as “…the Multitude. It is an Entre-Polis,” presenting 91 artists here including Korean conceptualist Gimhongsok’s multi-channel video, G5 (2004), of people around the world singing national anthems. The outstanding work that captured the precarious location and its connotations was Huang Yong Ping’s Construction Site (2007), a massive, partially concealed cast-aluminum minaret peeking out above a tent-like canvas structure. More haunting than the rest of the show, it simultaneously alludes to Turkey’s illustrious past and resembles a scud missile about to launch.