Çanakkale Biennial Cancels Upcoming 2016 Edition
By HG Masters
Less than three weeks before the opening of the 5th Çanakkale Biennial on September 24, organizers Çanakkale Biennial Initiative (CABININ) announced the event had been called off due to “developments within the political agenda that does not place art as a primary point of concern.” Beral Madra, the Biennial’s art director and co-curator since 2012, announced that she was “willingly” leaving her position. A local parliamentarian from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Bülent Turan, publicly targeted Madra, calling her a “coup supporter” and citing her perceived political inclinations toward opposition parties on social media.
The announcement comes as Turkey remains in an official state of emergency. A chaotic summer that saw a suicide attack on Istanbul's main airport by ISIS militants on June 28 was followed by a failed military coup on July 15. In the wake of the coup, the government has carried out massive waves of arrests and internal purges to root out people associated with the self-exiled imam Fethullah Gülen, who the government believes to have organized the coup. The crackdown widened further to include more liberal figures, as well as more pro-Kurdish voices, in the run-up to Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria.
CABININ alluded to the narrowing space for public expression in its statement, saying: “However, in these circumstances where art is eclipsed by the developments that exclude it, and also due to the sensitising [sic] atmosphere caused by the realities that surround us today, we have lost our ability and enthusiasm to carry out the biennale in line with our most vital values.” The Biennial was openly supported by the Çanakkale municipality—Ülgür Gökhan, the city’s mayor, visited İstanbul on May 13 for the press conference.
The theme, “Homeland” (Anavatan, Heimat, الوطن, الأم, Patria) was chosen by a curatorial team of Madra, Deniz Erbaş and Seyhan Boztepe, and reflected the urgent realities of the region and the city’s location in the northern Aegean, on the Dardenelles Strait in northwestern Turkey. More than 40 artists had been slated to participate, including well-known Turkish artists such as Nevin Aladağ, Halil Altındere and international figures such as Bouchra Khalili and Alfredo Jaar—the latter are recognized for their projects about refugees. Organizers stated: “Exactly one year after Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body was washed up on our shores, we would like to dedicate the unrealised 5th Çanakkale Biennial and the efforts of everyone involved to all the people who have been expelled from their homelands.”
The news also raises concerns about other future art events. Already this year, a YAMA-commissioned video work by Işıl Eğrikavuk, screened continuously on hotel rooftop screen, was shut down by local officials. Additionally, the 2016 Art International Istanbul fair was postponed until April 2017. The Istanbul Biennial, the country’s premier event, is scheduled for mid-September 2017, and its curators Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset began their research in Turkey in July.
HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific.