Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, co-curators of the upcoming Istanbul Biennial, have refused to give a descriptive title to their exhibition, opting instead for “Untitled (12thIstanbul Biennial).” The show is structured as five group shows inspired by five works by Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez Torres: “Untitled” (Abstraction); “Untitled” (Death by Gun); “Untitled” (History); “Untitled” (Passport); and “Untitled” (Ross). In addition, fifty solo presentations will be arranged in the gallery spaces surrounding the group exhibitions.
Hoffmann is a writer and curator based in San Francisco where he is the Director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. Pedrosa is an independent curator, editor and writer based in São Paulo. The curators have been close colleagues for more than 10 years, researching and traveling together to see exhibitions and to meet artists. They recently collaborated on the second Trienal de PoliGrafica, San Juan, Puerto Rico (2009). Each having organized their share of large-scale international exhibitions, they both treat exhibition-making as a creative medium, where a distinct curatorial voice emerges from the juxtaposition of artists’ works and other artifacts in specially designed exhibition environments. Here they talk about some of the strategies they have employed to differentiate their Istanbul Biennial from its predecessors.
BERIN GOLONU Each edition of the Istanbul Biennial enters into a discourse generated by preceding instances of the show. What sorts of contributions does your biennial make to this growing dialogue?
JENS HOFFMANN The dialogue you mention is very important to us. We looked more closely at how one can create different formats for a biennial and how we can challenge what has become an established look and language.
ADRIANO PEDROSA We believe there has been a certain trend towards documentary, activist art and social and political practices in certain biennials. Many curators have shown a very orthodox and somewhat narrow understanding of politics in the way they organize biennials. We are looking at artworks and art productions that are complex and relevant but that can articulate both a politics and an aesthetics. This is why the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres are a source of inspiration for us.
GOLONU Can you talk about themes at play in the five group shows that draw upon the five works by Gonzalez-Torres?
PEDROSA The five Gonzalez-Torres works will not be included in the exhibitions, but their images will be printed in the companion guide and used as a point of departure. “Untitled” (Ross) is a portrait of Gonzalez-Torres’s lover, and the exhibition it inspires is about love, identity and relationships. “Untitled” (Abstraction) is a grid upon which Gonzalez-Torres has drawn his own declining T-cell count, and the exhibition looks at how geometric abstraction can incorporate references beyond the purely modernist. “Untitled” (History) is a work that rewrites history through the act of merely listing certain events and dates that carry a certain significance for the artist. It suggests that history can be read and rewritten from personal perspectives, thereby countering political master narratives. “Untitled” (Passport) addresses subjects such as national identity, the trespassing of borders, mapping, statehood, economic migration, and political and cultural alienation. Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Death by Gun) includes portraits of people killed by gunshot wounds in the U.S. in a single week. The exhibition is about violence and is situated next to the exhibition about history. Solo projects installed in galleries between these two group shows bridge these concepts by speaking to the violence of history.
GOLONU Can you give examples of other thematic dialogues that emerge between the solo and group shows?
HOFFMANN In many cases, artists are addressing several of the topics in the group exhibitions. Abraham Cruzvillegas, for example, exhibits a series of hand-printed posters and flyers that deal with the legacy of revolutionary movements in Latin America since 1968, the year he was born. It speaks about violence and war as well as a very personal history, specific to his social and ethnic background, thus linking the work with “Untitled (History)” as well as “Untitled (Death by Gun)”. It also brings into consideration questions of identity and what we identify with, concepts at play in the group exhibition “Untitled (Ross).“
GOLONU Did Gonzalez-Torres’s work inspire your curatorial approaches in other ways?
PEDROSA By calling his works “Untitled,” Gonzalez-Torres suggested that a work’s meaning might shift through contexts and time; that there might not be only one interpretation of it. This inspired our strategy for titling the biennial.
GOLONU You have refused to release a full list of names of participating artists to the press ahead of time. Were you hesitant to reveal too much information about the contents of the show? Also, you were reluctant to include your own names in press materials. Was this intended as an institutional critique of the biennial format?
PEDROSA We want to indicate that we are primarily interested in how the exhibition comes together as a whole, rather than individually branding the artists or the curators.
HOFFMANN “Institutional critique” is a very particular form of artistic practice that analyzes, exposes and critiques the art institution in relation to the way it collects, displays, interprets and also helps produce art. While our approach is certainly critical, it is not institutional critique, per se. It is more about a longing for diversity with regard to how exhibitions like biennials manifest themselves.
GOLONU Past Istanbul Biennials have been spread over different venues throughout the city. Is your decision to concentrate your exhibition in one locale, the Antrepo, intended to contribute to such diversity?
HOFFMANN We want to break away from the idea that site-specificity necessarily means placing an exhibition throughout the city, or that site-specificity should dominate the concerns of curatorial undertakings such as this. The exhibition has to be seen and understood as a whole. There are many references, dialogues, and relationships we have created among the group exhibitions and the solo presentations that would not be noticeable if the works were spread out all over the city. Creating particular conversations among the pieces requires a clear focus. We moved away from the idea of exhibiting in vacant and derelict buildings and instead developed a particular architecture (this one designed by Ryue Nishizawa) that is created in direct response to the artworks exhibited within.
GOLONU The press release mentions that your exhibition “aims at drawing attention to the importance of the exhibition . . . in response to the mentality today favoring ancillary events and programming.”
PEDROSA We held a conference in Istanbul last year, bringing curators of past Istanbul Biennials into dialogue. A published volume on that conference will be available at the opening. For the actual run of the exhibition, however, we thought it would be more interesting to keep the focus on the display of the works rather than stage the types of events that you see in so many other biennials.
GOLONU In July you released a handful of the names of the participating artists: Claudia Andujar, Martha Rosler, Dóra Maurer, Tina Modotti, Geta BrÄ?tescu, Letizia Battaglia, Zarina Hashmi and Teresa Burga. Are these artists’ works especially emblematic of the biennial’s themes and/or formal sensibilities?
HOFFMANN In fact, we did not really release those names! Rather, the press requested images, and we selected a number of images of works that we felt represented certain conceptual concentrations and an attitude about what we were planning to do.
GOLONU These names were very surprising, especially because many are not even contemporary artists.
PEDROSA In response to press requests for images, we curated a selection that included all of the senior female figures included in the exhibition. Typically, in an international biennial, there is an emphasis on the young, emerging figures. Ours was a small gesture to frustrate these types of expectations.
GOLONU Do you think that today’s transnational, globalized systems of commerce, into which the international art world fits snugly, are rendering context specificity increasingly moot, even in the developing world?
HOFFMANN The discourse that most contemporary art operates in has been shaped predominantly by Western Europe and North America. Only recently, in the last two decades, has this dominance of styles and discourses really been questioned. Biennials in fact provided one of the first platforms in which art from non-Western countries was presented in an international context. We think biennials have made it their objective to try to be context-specific in order to address the realities of the site they take place in while simultaneously trying to give audiences the chance to see what is going on in the world of art around the globe. If anything, we have now come to a point in which those particular ideas of site-specificity and the global overview have to be reevaluated in order to be more clear about what we want to say with our exhibitions. Biennials are full of complexities and contradictions, but also possibilities, and it is important to see the different editions of this biennial not as isolated from one another, but as individual chapters of a larger narrative that is negotiating contemporary art’s relationship with the world we live in today—a world of which Istanbul is a part.