Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennale)
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Over the last few years, a sense of doubt has crept into conversations about the practice and future of biennials. The mood was captured by the title of a three-day conference held in Bergen in September 2009: “To Biennial or not to Biennial?” This question – with its clanging allusion to Hamlet’s soliloquy – extends the debate beyond curatorial, artistic, or financial imperatives into the existential realm.

Jens Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis in San Francisco and co-curator of the 12th Istanbul Biennial, has been a strident critic of recent biennial practice and active in his attempts to combat what Hans Ulrich Obrist once dubbed “exhi-bition amnesia.” Most prominently, he co-founded The Exhibitionist in 2010, a biannual “journal of exhibition making” whose inaugural issue included not one but four essays on the 11th Istanbul Biennial (2009). Hoffmann emphasized his familiarity with the Istanbul Biennial’s recent history in his co-authored cata-logue essay, and in an unassuming way, the title he selected with co-curator Adriano Pedrosa – Untitled (12th Istan-bul Biennial) – did away with both the bombast of Hou Hanru’s 2007 edition (Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War) while aiming to efface the city-centric rhetoric of Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun in 2005 (titled simply Istanbul). Many of the early responses to Untitled have focused on its use (or misuse) of Félix González-Torres: the late Cuban-American artist’s work was taken as a “point of departure” by the curators, and the format of his titles was mimicked by Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial). But relegating the exhibition’s locale to paren-theses is representative of the Biennial’s most significant shortcoming: its suppres-sion of both the city itself and the local specificities of previous editions.

Since Dan Cameron’s edition in 2003, the biennial has expanded further out into Istanbul’s urban fabric, occupy-ing historical sites and often working outside of the white cube. In 2011, it was shrunk back to its central two venues, Antrepo no. 3 and 5, two former customs houses on the banks of the Bosphorus, which have been used in every biennial since René Block’s in 1995. In collabora-tion with the architect Ryue Nishizawa, Hoffmann and Pedrosa divided the spaces up into five node-like group exhi-bitions and fifty-five solo shows. Between these open-air pavilions ran skinny corri-dors of corrugated iron, dead spaces that partially ruptured the contiguity of the network of white cube-like galleries. Much of the talk at the opening focused on the exhibition design: What did it mean for a biennial to look like a mu-seum? Was this an implied critique of the inconsistent program at the adjacent Istanbul Modern, a kind of temporary museum of international quality? Or was it simply symptomatic of how suppos-edly progressive biennials and their cura-tors cling to prevalent exhibition formats that have withstood the test of time, irre-spective of location and intent? Inserting art works into crumbling, “exotic” locales is surely a questionable response, but was this an improvement?

The 12th Istanbul Biennial amounted to an abandonment of site or context specificity. It did not aim to make viewers question the location or become aware of the conditions that led Stephen Kinzer to claim – in an essay published in The New York Review of Books one month before the exhibition opened – that: “Politically Turkey has changed more in the last ten years than it did in the pre-vious eighty.” Certainly, no exhibition should be forced or expected to bear witness to contemporaneous historical circumstances, but as Elena Filipovic has argued in The Biennial Reader, biennials’ “specificity is precisely their potential to be specific.” Though the biennial was conceived of and researched during the Arab Spring, opening just as its neighbor Syria teetered on the brink of civil war, with refugees camped on Turkey’s southern border, the exhibition’s context was acknowledged by no more than a few paintings (by Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor). The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a more frequent point of reference, indicative of the alacrity with which the biennial channeled prepack-aged conflict of days gone by, and the squeamishness it displayed regarding the uprisings on Turkey’s borders and across the Mediterranean, not to men-tion the country’s growing diplomatic presence in the region.

This was a biennial predicated on retrenchment rather than experimenta-tion, as Hoffmann and Pedrosa eschewed the discursive strategies that have charac-terized biennials for the last decade. For example, the intensive lecture programs that have been a staple of large-scale international exhibitions since Catherine David’s documenta in 1997 were pared back to a one-day conference. Also turn-ing away from socially engaged work and documentary film, the emphasis of Untitled was on the photographic docu-ment, textiles, and text-based archival work. The turn-of-the-millennium period that spawned expansive, expensive, and sometimes experimental biennials, such as Francesco Bonami’s 2003 Venice Bien-nale – which Hoffmann has described as “a pivotal moment in the development of curatorial practice” in September 2011’s frieze – has clearly come to a close.

The 12th Istanbul Biennial posed the argument that lucidity and structural legibility are today quite radical things – a somewhat depressing wager, though not an unwelcome one. This led to cer-tain successes: the catalogue is a model of clarity, and the exhibition itself boast-ed simply titled, manageably sized group shows and straightforward solo presen-tations. The best of these – including shows by Dóra Maurer, Greta Bratescu, Zarina Hashmi, and Füsun Onur – comprised compact overviews of work from older women. Likewise, the appro-priation of González-Torres as a patron saint was at points elegant. Each of the five central group shows adopted a title or theme of a work by the artist, who died from AIDS-related illness in 1996, two years after his partner and frequent subject Ross Laycock. González-Torres’s work itself was not presented but repro-duced in the catalogue and described in a wall text, framed by the curators as an inspiration “in the way that a poem, a piece of music, a political event, or theo-retical concept can serve as a starting point for a curatorial endeavor.”  

This made for an easily navigable, lucid exhibition structure, but also resulted in a fraught set of thematics.
Of course, curators often elect a specific figure as a particular inspiration: the concurrent 11th Biennale de Lyon (curated by Victoria Noorthoorn) and Dublin Contemporary (curated by Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Fauné) each claimed different versions of W. B. Yeats’s radical credentials (not to mention taking the same line of his poetry as their respective titles), while the previous edi-tion of the Istanbul Biennial, curated by the Croatian collective What, How & for Whom, leaned heavily on Bertolt Brecht. But never has the work and, more cru-cially, the life of a single figure been woven so insistently into the fabric of a biennial. At its most egregious, this curatorial conceit amounted to a crass instrumentalization of González-Torres’s legacy. In their catalogue essay, Hoff-mann and Pedrosa argue that González-Torres’s geographical liminality (he was Cuban by birth and lived in Puerto Rico before moving to New York) and his enigmatic work helped guide curatorial decisions. But in one of the more prob-lematic group shows – Untitled (Ross) – it was difficult not to think that the artist’s sexuality was the more important form of liminality for the curators. Here was a slew of artists, all but two men, most – such as Tom Burr, Colter Jacobsen, Ira Sachs, Collier Schorr, and Tammy Rae Carland – American, some of whom happen to be gay. The extreme subtlety of González-Torres’s work, its evocation of bodily presence and absence, of devo-tion and loss, was transmuted into a litany of empty beds and often naked (male) bodies.

Aside from this group, there were relatively few North American artists in the biennial, with most of the artists coming from or based in Latin America, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe. This was a welcome shift from the Eurocen-trism of Bice Curiger’s roughly concur-rent Venice Biennale (in fact, there has yet to be a non-Western curator of Venice). Tellingly, though, the US artists included in the Istanbul Biennial were mostly confined to Untitled (Ross) and Untitled (Death by Gun). Undoubtedly the most problematic of the five group shows, the latter was a parade of corpses and weaponry, including photojournalism by Eddie Adams, Weegee, and Mathew Brady and iconic pieces by Chris Burden, Roy Lichtenstein, and Raymond Petti-bon. Few will be critical of Hoffmann and Pedrosa’s approach to regional representation, but their vision of the world feels irresponsible in its limiting of issues as broad in range as AIDS and gun violence to the US.

Over the last five years or so, innova-tive exhibition making has gradually shifted from the biennial to the museum. Institutions such as the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, in particular their 2011 collaboration with the International Art Academy of Palestine in Ramallah, or SALT’s two recently opened spaces in Istanbul itself, are increasingly consider-ing new ways to work with archives, collections, and audiences. Meanwhile, Hoffmann and Pedrosa consciously sought to break out of the accepted modes of biennial making that have developed over the last fifteen years and did so with significant recourse to those of the museum. However, if this was a biennial adopting the guise of a museum, it was the guise of a rather outmoded institution. Hoffmann and Pedrosa’s statement of intent – to pay “renewed attention to the importance of the exhibition itself” – need not preclude any of the things that they have denied themselves, such as local engagement and innovative exhibition practice. In stripping away the excesses of recent biennial practice, they are not questioning received forms so much as dismantling whatever it was that made biennials specific and relevant in the first place. 

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Sam Thorne is Associate Editor of frieze magazine and is based in London, United Kingdom.

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Dora Maurer, Seven Twists, 1979, 23x23 cm, silver print. Image courtesy of Vintage Gallery, Budapest.
Dora Maurer, Seven Twists, 1979, 23x23 cm, silver print. Image courtesy of Vintage Gallery, Budapest.
Dora Maurer, Seven Twists, 1979, 23x23 cm, silver print. Image courtesy of Vintage Gallery, Budapest.
Dora Maurer, Seven Twists, 1979, 23x23 cm, silver print. Image courtesy of Vintage Gallery, Budapest.
Dora Maurer, Seven Twists, 1979, 23x23 cm, silver print. Image courtesy of Vintage Gallery, Budapest.
Dora Maurer, Seven Twists, 1979, 23x23 cm, silver print. Image courtesy of Vintage Gallery, Budapest.
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