a good neighbour
15th Istanbul Biennial
16 September - 15 November 2017
Review by Wilhemina Madeley
There’s a certain irony to the theme of this year’s Istanbul Biennial. As Donald Trump promises to build a wall between the US and Mexico, Kim Jong-Un fires missiles over Japan, and Teresa May negotiates Brexit, the title, ‘a good neighbour’ seems, well…laughable. Yet, when the curators - Danish artist duo, Elmgreen and Dragset - initially set the subject of the exhibition, how were they to know that this worthy attempt at exploring our universal endeavour to establish a sense of place, would be so timely?
In recent years, ‘the biennial’ has become the apt descriptor for, ‘mental endurance test.’ Elmgreen and Dragset have broken with this reputation by including fewer art works, 56 in total, from 32 countries, 30 of which are new artist commissions. They’ve also done away with the often semantically tricky and impossible to decipher, curators statement. Instead, 40 poignant questions guide the exhibition, which include ‘Is a good neighbour someone who lives the same way as you do?’ and ‘Is a good neighbour a stranger you don’t fear?’ Rather than allow the audience to merely observe and absorb, the curators incite a different type of participation that provokes the individual to grapple with the subject. Due to its cross-cultural relevance, these questions have been proposed in cities across the world including Sydney, Belfast, Moscow and Seoul via the International Billboard Project. Former Dazed and Confused designer Rupert Smyth has collaborated with Swiss photographer Lukas Wassman to create a series of posters that depict chance encounters between strangers paired with the questions proposed by the curators, encouraging a dialogue across boarders.
During the Biennial press conference Michael Elmgreen described Istanbul as, ‘a city under construction,’ which may be why the venues selected are rooted within the local community and chosen for their social purpose. The locations include: an artists studio, a modernist house, a school, a hammam and two museums, most of which are within walking distance to each other.
Having closed in 2007, the Galata Greek Primary School, a former pillar of the community located in the trendy neighbourhood of Karaköy, was one of the main educational sites for children of Greek descent in Istanbul for over a century. Artists have responded to the architectural interventions of the building, sensitively placing works in hallways, classrooms and the attic. In one classroom, in an emotional video entitled ‘Wonderland’ (2016) by Turkish artist Erkan Özgen, a thirteen-year-old Syrian boy, who is both deaf and mute, animatedly re-enacts the traumatic events of his escape to Turkey. Its power lies in what is unsaid, the gestures easily readable and painful to absorb.
Similarly, German artist, Olaf Metzel, created ‘Sammelstelle’ (1992 - 2017) in reaction to the displacement of Yugoslavian refugees entering Germany in 1992. His claustrophobic installation can only be entered via a metal turnstile reminiscent of those found in prisons. The inner walls of the room have been covered in galvanised corrugated iron, the material of choice in makeshift homes and shantytowns. One side has been ripped open and vandalised highlighting the fragility of the material and the vulnerability of those housed within it.
Dispossession, exclusion and the privatisation of public space are recurring themes in the Biennial. ‘Lawn 1’ (2016 - 2017) by South African artist, Lungiswa Gqunta, has an understated violence. Gqunta has placed hundreds of partly broken Coca-cola bottles, filled with petrol – which recall the petrol bombs thrown in the South African riots of recent years - to form what looks like, a neat square patch of luminous green grass. The artist references historical and present tensions in South Africa as, during the apartheid, only white citizens were allowed to keep lawns and broken bottles were often attached to fences to deter trespassers. Gqunta draws attention to the ways in which, seemingly small liberties such as a meagre patch of grass can become a site of control, a place to assert difference.
In the nearby Istanbul Modern Museum, a former cargo warehouse by the harbour, Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch presents ‘Crowd Fade’ (2017): a long corridor upon which, a mural, typical of many gentrified neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires or Brooklyn, has been painted. These frescoes, depicting crowds of protestors, with masks obscuring their faces and fists in the air, have been chipped away to form neat piles of rubble that frame the space. Considering the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has arrested thousands of people believed to be connected to the attempted coup in the summer of 2016, including journalists and judges, Echakhch’s exposure of how corrupt regimes across the globe are eroding civil liberties through censorship, resonates particularly within this nation.
In ‘Untitled’ (1994 - 1996) Candeğer Furtun has also taken Turkish culture as their departure point by displaying 9 pairs of pink ceramic legs that man-spread against a beige tiled background, echoing the bathing rituals of the hammam. The mannequin-like limbs are hairless, yet the posture and contours of the muscles are overtly masculine. Through their repetition and overarching macho stance, they instantly recall the alienating and sometimes threatening male occupation of space in the public realm.
Set within the neoclassical Pera Museum, a deafening clang comes from a video work by Italian artist Monica Bonvicini. ‘Hausfrau Swinging’ (1997) depicts a naked woman wearing a house shaped helmet who continually bangs her head against the wall. Bonvicini effectively exhibits her imprisonment within the domestic sphere whilst simultaneously presenting her entrapment within a patriarchal culture.
Indeed, the home, in its many guises, is a microcosm of the social dynamics that structure society. ARK Kültür, a modernist house, redone in Bauhaus style in 2008, is the site of one work entitled, Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown ‘Crying Man’ (2017) by Egyptian artist, Mahmoud Khaled. The artist was inspired by the events of an incident in Egypt in 2001 where 50 men were arrested for taking part in a gay disco on a boat on the Nile. The men were consequently tortured by the authorities and humiliated by the mainstream media. The title recalls a press photograph taken at the trial where one man, whose face was only partially covered in white fabric to protect his identity, could be seen crying – a now iconic image within the Egyptian gay community. Upon entry into the house an audio guide takes the viewer on a journey through each room. Khaled has left clues for us to build a fictionalised image of the anonymous man that lives there: tasteful modernist furniture, immaculate settings and velvet sheets. The spoken guide frequently takes the perspective of the neighbour who observes the crying man’s movements and, like us, makes judgements based on his actions and aesthetic. Khaled plays with private and public personas, presenting how the watchful eye of society has the power to manipulate the body politic.
The success of ‘a good neighbour’ lies in its inclusion. Biennials can often isolate the audience, or artists within them, through arbitrary categorisation that fails to engage with the world’s most poignant problems. Elmgreen and Dragset have presented an earnest attempt at reuniting what is becoming an increasing fractured world.