Vulture Magazine The Michaelmas Issue 2013 | Page 28

Review of Istanbul Biennale: Artistic discussion and confrontation in Turkey’s capital I like to think of Istanbul as the centre of the world – straddling two continents, fusing East with West. This view of the old Byzantium is perhaps over-stating it a little these days, but to misjudge the significance of this city is certainly imprudent. Istanbul has come to the fore over the course of 2013, albeit on occasions in a more negative light. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) are perceived to teeter on the edge of Islamism by a population enamoured with Ataturk’s legacy of secularism and rationalist civil rights. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey since 2002, has been accused of authoritarianism in his methods of government, and this summer mass anti-government protests were met with violent police response. The protests in Istanbul, which began in May, were initially to contest the urban development of Taksim Gezi Park. The escalation of events from an isolated sit-in to a national reaction to excessive police force demonstrates the volatility of the Turkish public. Nonetheless, some developments in Istanbul elide the chaos and perhaps point to a progressive Turkey in the making. The recently opened underwater Bosphorus rail tunnel is but one example of the improving infrastructure of the city. For me, it is the artistic milieu of Istanbul that best demonstrates a notion of forward thinking, and which can ironically be seen to be embracing the chaos, not masking it. Istanbul was selected as European Capital of Culture in 2010. Events since then have been most influential in making Istanbul a platform for artistic discussion in ways that are more socially and politically relevant than we see in any other city’s artistic forums. The 13th Istanbul Biennial, which took place from the middle of September till late October, was a remarkable display of art underpinned by democratic themes. The saga of the rainbow stairs in August demonstrates the kind of civic victory that the Biennial seemed to vie for. The Biennial, entitled ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’ aimed to create the possibility of rethinking the concept of “public” art, eliciting imagination and innovative thought, and contributing to social and public engagement. With this in mind, perhaps the most resonant work of the whole Biennial was that of Hamburg artist, Christoph Schäfer, whose large-scale conceptual drawings of the movements during the Gezi Park occupation, Bostanorama, exemplify attempts by artists working to effect social change by using recent happenings to add weight to their arguments. Works such as this and Halil Altindere’s film, Wonderland, (which voices the frustration of youths forced out of Istanbul’s Sulukele district by redevelopment), capture a true sense of activism in contemporary art. The event was, however, criticised for vacillating over the issue of whether the works could be placed in truly public spaces. Following the demonstrations, it was decided that the displays would remain safely contained within four walls, but that admission would be completely free of charge for the first time since the Biennial’s conception. This inevitably marginalised a certain proportion of its potential audience, however the event was widely publicised and a huge 337,429 people visited. The relationship between the exhibition and the protests was