O What can make a biennial relevant? It cannot be seen only as a great exhibition and, especially for the efforts and values that it usually involves, it must go beyond that. Among the differences that a biennial can and should make are, and which I have perceived as marks that make a difference: dealing with current issues in order to help understand the present time; having a relationship with the local scene that provokes dialogue and deepening; involve the city where it takes place beyond conventional spaces; encompass works and debates that are not restricted to contemporary art and that also make it possible to deal with culture in general.
In a way, these issues tend to be present in editions of the Istanbul Biennale to a greater or lesser extent, which also occurs in its 16th edition, in charge of French curator Nicolas Bourriaud.
In the contemporary art circuit, Bourriaud is one of the few voices that assumes a denser discourse, from a conceptual point of view, being responsible for reference texts and books, such as the one dedicated to “relational aesthetics”, which guided intense debate at the beginning of the 20th century. Having organized several other biennials before, such as Lyon and Moscow — both in 2005 — his choice posed little risk.
The Seventh Continent, the name of the edition that ran between September 14 and November 10 of that year, addressed a theme that, in an intelligent strategy, escaped the difficult local political context to address a universal problem: the immense amount of garbage produced by human beings, so large that it becomes an area five times larger than Turkey, and can be considered a new continent.
The background of this debate is precisely the concept of Anthropocene, that is, the era that represents the transformation of nature in such a drastic way by humanity that its action starts to represent a threat to the sustainability of the planet itself.
For the relief of those who already live a nightmare, especially in the country of fires, oil and mining catastrophes, this is not a biennial that looks at the topic in an illustrative or militant way, as one might imagine. the omnipresent The fish, by Jonathas de Andrade, which since participating in the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, in 2016, has been seen in dozens of museums and cultural spaces around the world and now seen in Istanbul, is a good example of this metaphorical character of the collapse of nature. Just remember that the work presents fishermen caressing the fish after catching them, a paradox that allows different interpretations of human violence.
Jonathas is on display at the Museum of Painting and Sculpture of the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, one of the three venues of the 16th Istanbul Biennale, chosen, incidentally, a few months before the opening, as the space originally chosen, the Istanbul Shipyard, had to be discarded at the last minute, after toxic elements were discovered in it that made its use unfeasible.
That's where you were too Circa (2006), by the Brazilian Anna Bella Geiger, a very complex installation, which starts from a book that shows models of the pyramids of Egypt, which she reconstructs in space with sand and has a projection in the background with images that approach the idea of representation.
The new space, which before the renovation served for other editions of the Bienal such as Antrepo 5, is now a museum with an exhibition space of 11 m2, scheduled to open in 2020, but basically divided into small rooms.
This itinerant character of the Istanbul Biennale, where every edition new venues serve as headquarters, in a city so rich from the historical and architectural point of view, has always been an important element in its configuration. The new museum, however, made up of these small rooms, took away part of the Bienal's impact, which is the confrontation between works, since each artist is seen individually. For jobs like The fish, it was the ideal situation, but the lack of dialogue between the works definitely took away the power of the show.
Therefore, the two other sites, the Pera Museum and the island of Buyukada, gained relevance. The private museum, dedicated to the history of Turkish culture, has three floors given to the Bienal, and much of what is seen there is dedicated to reflecting on issues surrounding the institutionalization of art. Among the highlights are the drawings by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), a detailed, microscopic observation of nature, carried out in the 19th century, of impressive aesthetic sophistication. It is this type of relationship that makes a biennial more complex, as it goes back to the past to point out relationships with the present.
Another work in this sense is by the North American educator Norman Daly (1911–2008), who for decades created a fictional museum of a civilization called Llhuros from discarded materials such as kitchen appliances that, creatively reassembled, looked like objects pre-Columbians.
It is also in Pera that the painting by the Brazilian Glauco Rodrigues (1929-2004), Earth view, 1977, performed during the military dictatorship, which presents a white man as a populist leader.
But it is in Buyukada that another of the highlights of the show is revealed, as it deals with a real history of local culture, the presence of the American gay black writer James Baldwin (1924–1987) in Turkey, in an installation by Glenn Ligon.
Suffering from prejudice at home, Baldwin left the United States in the late 1940s and, in the 1960s, spent much of his time in Istanbul, then a place welcoming to cultural diversity. On installation, Ligon displays the movie From another place, by Sedat Pakay, held in Istanbul, in 1970, with statements by Baldwin, who is seen there for the first time with Turkish subtitles.
In Buyukada there are four other works, among them the installation of the collective Monster Chetwynd, in one of the abandoned palaces on the island, which looks like a Halloween ornament, but is somewhat in keeping with the decadent style of the island. It was there that Trotsky lived in exile and his house, like so many others, looks like ruins.
The Seventh Continent it is not the most brilliant edition of Istanbul, but by bringing a current and important theme, maintaining relationships with local history and occupying spaces beyond the traditional ones, it continues to remain one of the most original events on the circuit.