The large contingent of heavily armed police guarding the hotel where members of the press were staying while visiting Istanbul for the 12th Istanbul Biennial, and the crowd of locals screaming “Allahu akbar” across the street late on Wednesday night, had nothing to do with the show. The crowd was razzing members of the soccer team from Tel Aviv who were staying at the same hotel. Keeping the players awake, it was reasoned, would guarantee a poor performance by the Israelis in their match against the Istanbul outfit on Thursday night. Tensions between Israel and Turkey have been high since nine Turkish nationals on a humanitarian mission to Gaza were gunned down by Israeli commandos in 2010. Hakancan Altiner, a local working for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, which organizes the biennial, confessed to A.i.A. his fear about deadly violence at the game. In the end, Istanbul’s Besiktas club won 5-1 and everyone got home safely. It certainly made for an electric atmosphere.
CHRIS BURDEN. PHOTO BY MAHMUT CEYLAN.
“Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial),” curated by Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, opens Saturday; members of the press previewed the show Thursday and Friday. The primary thrust of the show is to demonstrate the ways that abstract, minimal and conceptual forms hold profound personal and emotional weight. Inspired by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and titled in the manner the Cuban-American artist named his works, the biennial includes five group shows on themes suggested by Gonzalez-Torres works: “Untitled (Passport),” “Untitled (History),” “Untitled (Death by Gun),” “Untitled (Abstraction)” and “Untitled (Ross),” the last being the name of the artist’s lover. The group shows treat, respectively: travel, cultural identity; interwoven political and personal histories; gun violence and the culture of the gun; abstraction and its corruption; and love, specifically gay love. About 50 solo presentations by many of the same artists gathered in the group shows are arranged in individual rooms around the group installations.
The exhibition includes some 130 artists, many contemporary but some from the 19th and 20th centuries. As for geographical distribution, 35 artists are South American, 33 European, 28 North American (26 from the U.S.), 26 Middle Eastern, four African and four Asian. The emphasis on Latin American and Middle Eastern artists is fitting for a show in Istanbul inspired by Gonzalez-Torres. The group presentations include anywhere from a dozen to 30 artists, and juxtapose historically and geographically disparate figures. In “Untitled (Death by Gun),” for example, we find Mat Collishaw’s 1988 photo Bullet Hole, photographs of Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971), photojournalist Eddie Adams’s Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner, Saigon 1968, and Matthew Brady’s photographs of the dead on Civil War battlefields.
Though of considerable size, the show feels tight and focused. Unlike any previous Istanbul Biennial, this one is housed solely in the two waterfront buildings of the Antrepo. This former maritime warehouse is now an exhibition hall and a regular Biennial venue; its interiors have been reconfigured into rooms by architect Ryue Nishizawa, using corrugated metal walls that create a temporary look. Previous shows have ranged further afield, incorporating Istanbul’s historic architecture and visually dramatic settings. This edition’s curators argue that the arrangement ran the risk of obscuring an understanding of the works, whereas here, by their very proximity, they more brightly illuminate each other.
Still, a sprawling schedule of events and exhibitions throughout the city is timed to coincide with the Biennial. A 40-page list of parallel events provided by the biennial’s press office was overwhelming even to native Istanbulites with whom A.i.A. compared notes; they attested to the explosive growth of the local art scene in recent years. In the coming days, watch for more Biennial coverage and reports from Istanbul.