Hou Hanru’s 2007 Istanbul Biennial was a notoriously unwieldy affair. “Not Only Possible But Also Necessary: Optimism in a Time of Global War” assembled an unprecedented number of artists in multiple venues (two of them unreachable except via taxi), under an equally inflated curatorial thesis inspired by Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s weighty examination of the contemporary world order. The four-member, all-female curatorial collective behind this year’s Biennial, the Zagreb-based What, How and For Whom (WHW), have clearly taken Hou’s version as a model of what not to do.
“What Keeps Mankind Alive?” is a line in Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 cabaret-musical The Threepenny Opera. WHW summon the Marxist playwright Brecht as a general symbol of their own declared commitment to “a full-fledged political program that is also completely aesthetic.” Then, they relegate him to the catalog to do what they do best: curate. A comparatively smaller number of artworks are organized according to two main curatorial premises as simple as they are effective. A selection of adroit (but not immediately familiar) works from the 1970s through the 1990s provide historical grounding, while artists scattered across the Biennial’s three sites act as binding agents for the exhibition as a whole. (LEFT: VYACHESLEV AKHUNOV, FROM LENINiANA)
Viewing a selection of artists at all three venues—the waterfront customs depot Antrepo; a former tobacco warehouse in the historically European quarter of Galata; and an old Greek school which shut down in the 1980s for lack of students—surpasses a sense of mere déjà vu. Artists KP Brehmer and Vyacheslav Akhunov recur from last time, and themselves combine into a curatorial thesis in and of themselves, one which reiterates WHW’s catalog call for the “politicization of culture” in the face of the “culturalization of politics,” yet doesn’t stiffen into a specific art historical narrative. At Antrepo, the Tashkent-based Akhunov’s “Leniniana” series of collages (1977–1982) bury Lenin, his followers, and an imposing metropolis in heavy snowbanks. Up to their knees in snow, but nonetheless pursuing their revolutionizing goals, the characters’ actions are rendered both futile and entrenched in a classical, genre vocabulary. At the tobacco warehouse, a square meter pedestal is covered in open matchboxes that house tiny reproductions of nearly two decades of Akhunov’s often satirical collages and sketches: a miniature rebuttal to the grandiosity of the propagandistic imagery the artist so often manipulates. (The work is titled “1m2,” 2007).
Working in the 1970s and 80s, the German artist Brehmer made graph- and map-based illustrations of the movement of armed forces in the Vietnam war, the price of zinc and potatoes in Germany, and the year-long changes in the “soul and feelings of the worker.” Marking off a single socio-political phenomenon, and developing spare, pointed means for its visual presentation, Brehmer poses a quiet question as to the efficacy of contemporary approaches to similar circumstances. Next to Brehmer, Bureau d’études’ computer diagram of the global Administration of Terror (2009) appears tangled; Vangelis Vlahos’ “mapping” of politically-charged, maritime “grey zones” between Greece and Turkey through images and newspaper archives, vague (Grey Zones, 2009); and Société Réaliste’s alphabet of international borders turned into ideograms (Ministry of Architecture: Culture States) (2009) almost impenetrable. On the other hand, Trevor Paglen’s large, mostly black night photographs of the trajectories of reconnaissance and intelligence satellites over Istanbul, in Celestial Objects (Istanbul) (2009), benefits by Brehmer’s restrained statement-making. Cengiz Cekil, Nam June Paik, Michel Journiac, and Hans-Peter Feldmann, join Brehmer in the ranks of “historical” figures who act as a foil to the driving “contemporariness” which all too often overwhelms Biennials of this sort. (KP BREHMBER, SOUL AND FEELINGS OF THE WORKER, 1978–1980)
The sheer number of video works at the Biennial broach issues of reliance upon medium—in the face of so many screens, it’s not always clear why video is used at all. Jumana Emil Abboud’s tracks the tedium of crossing politically fraught national borders (she single-handedly smuggles an entire lemon tree’s fruit from Jerusalem to Ramallah). Doa Aly gives a distanced, folk tale-inspired portrayal of a slender girl’s dance-like wanderings. Video appears to have created its very own chicken-or-egg : which came first, the document of the walked trajectory (traced via video), or the form that provoked the perambulating impulse? See: Aly’s The Girl Splendid in Walking (2009); Karen Andreassian’s Ontological Walkscapes (2009); Abboud’s Smuggling Lemons (2006); Nevin AladaÄ?’s City Language I, II, III (2009); and Erkan Özgen’s Breath (2008).
All told, Brecht doesn’t come off too literally. Instead, WHW translates the Brechtian principle of art-focused political action into the realm of exhibition-based identity politics. WHW draw on their unstated accreditation as occupants of a “marginal” region to execute a protest against the ongoing marginalization of non-Western artists who trained outside the West, or who continue to live elsewhere, in large-scale international art exhibitions. A series of statistics reiterated across the exhibition guide, catalog, and in one of the displays, confirms this move as one of the curators’ most deliberate: 11-IB artists by country of origin: From the West: 28%. From the “Rest”: 72%. 11-IB artists live and work: In the West: 45%. Elsewhere: 55%.
The 11th Istanbul Biennial is on view through November 8.