what is the relevance of an art biennial in the midst of an oppressive regime? In a delicate context, when after a strange coup attempt, in 2016, Turkey started to arrest dozens of intellectuals, journalists and academics, this was one of the recurring questions to the artists and curators Elmgreen & Dragset, responsible for the 15th. Istanbul Biennale.
Working together since 1995, first in Denmark, then in Berlin, where they have lived since 1997, the Norwegian Ingar Dragset (1969) and the Danish Michel Elmgreen (1961) consulted even the Nobel Prize for literature Orhan Pamuk on the desirability of organizing the biennial.
The writer's message was clear: "don't be afraid." Thus, according to Dragset, in an interview with ARTE!Brasileiros, during the opening of the Bienal, last September, the curators sought to create an exhibition that would “support the scene that exists here in Turkey, inspire people again and suggest new ways of producing language”.
Entitled “a good neighbour”, the Bienal brought together 56 artists from 32 countries, in six exhibition locations, from the Istanbul Modern museum to a modernist residence, which served as the headquarters for the Proposal for a House Museum of the Unknown Man Who Cry, a project by the artist Egyptian Mahmoud Khaled.
This intimate atmosphere ends up reverberating in several other spaces of the show, which for Dragset means that the moment is now an interior time. See why below.
Dozens of journalists and academics are in prison, and freedom of expression is seriously threatened in Turkey. What is it like to hold a biennial in this context?
INGAR DRAGSET – We were very unsure, to a certain extent, whether it would be possible or even whether it is relevant to do a biennial in a situation like this. Right after the attempted coup that took place last year, what we did was put the traditional curatorial process on hold, after all we needed to talk to local people about their view of what happened, only they would have an accurate reading of the facts. So, ten days after the coup attempt, we came to hear not only from artists and curators, but journalists, politicians, researchers, institutional directors, academics and so on what they thought of the Bienal, and whether or not organizing this event would be relevant.
We understood, then, very quickly, that the worst that could happen, at that moment, would be the break with the international community. Immediately after the coup, there was a purge of intellectuals and academics, threatened by the authorities, creating more fear and isolation. Writers like Orhan Pamuk, with whom we had dinner that week, told us, “Guys, please don't chicken out, in a very Nobel Prize-winning way of putting it.
We then returned to Berlin more encouraged and restarted the curatorial project, thinking that the Bienal could be a way of keeping the channels of communication open, of supporting the scene that exists here in Turkey, inspiring people again and suggesting new ways of language production, which has a lot to do with what you see here at the moment.
Yes, to resist, to seek alternatives. People do not know, even after Gezi (the massive protests in Taksim Gezi square in 2013), how it is possible to express opposition.
Was the theme “a good neighbor” already chosen at that moment?
Yes, it is less of a topic and more of a work tool, but it had already been chosen and became more relevant with Brexit and the wall promised in the Trump campaign on the Mexican border.
On the other hand, this name has to do with Turkey's past, which is a history of coexistence in diversity for centuries, of a society with many layers, which contradicts the country's present.
In difficult moments like this, perhaps the tendency is to be more documentary, to denounce what happens. But this biennial is the opposite of that, it is delicate and ambiguous, which are perhaps possible forms of resistance.
In moments like these, the first thing is to listen. However, the opposition is not very high, which is reflected in the works of Turkish artists, which are more introspective, more researched, more poetic, which does not mean that they are less important. This is the case of the work of Volkan Aslam, commissioned for the Bienal, very representative of what many people, especially young people, feel, which is the desire to return to the normality of everyday life, rolling a cigarette, drinking a coffee , write a letter…
In fact, there are many works on show that deal with the stability and instability of the home, such as the paintings by Andrea Joyce Heimer, which represent homes gone mad.
And we don't know where this is going, all this insecurity is not only being felt here, but in many places around the world and we are still thinking about how to react to all this stupidity from political leaders, from the highest echelons of international politics. But for that we need to take our time, insist on our identities, our ways of expressing ourselves, without being forced, as artists, intellectuals and academics, to give a quick answer like “hooligans” (fanatical fans).
And the Brazilian artist Victor Leguy, how did you arrive at his work?
To be honest, I first saw his work on Instagram. (laughs). In addition to him, I also discovered Andrea Joyce Heimer on Instagram, but I never found her, even though we communicate a lot.
With Victor, I was able to visit him in São Paulo and soon after meeting him, I realized that I would really like to work with him. He is an artist with so many levels, who addresses social issues, uses readymades, which is quite rare. This work that he presents here, in which he mixes objects he finds with personal stories, is something that many do, but the way he works, covering up blanks, is an excellent way to point out how society erases significant parts of culture, turns everything into almost the same thing, it's almost a Scandinavian way of talking about monoculture.
Using Instagram in the curatorial process is interesting, talk more about this process…
There were only two artists chosen by Instagram, but obviously we use the internet for more information, gallery websites, institutions website. But we also used the traditional research format, we went to South America, North America, South Africa – where I went for the first time and I thought it was amazing, I could do a whole biennial with artists from there, it’s a very strong scene.
The curatorship of a biennial is a process in time, which one day ends, while creating a work is a process in space, which remains. How do you differentiate these two tasks?
Curating a biennial is a work that consumes us a lot, from one moment to the next you find yourself involved in political situations to get sponsorship, define logos, spaces. It's a monster. And, in these last six months, we practically stopped producing our work, so much so that I'm afraid to go back to the studio (laughs).
I think this is the first time that a biennial is ready almost a month before the opening, is this the Scandinavian way of producing a biennial?
Superneurotic, like Bergman's films, you mean (laughs), with all the Protestant guilt... Well, one thing that we bring as an artist is this pragmatic experience, after all we've participated in many biennials, and we know that to put 60 to 70 projects takes time. We had a fantastic team too and, perhaps this relates to the difficulties of the moment, there was an incredible positive energy around the biennial, from all the technicians, assistants, volunteers, as if everyone wanted something good to happen.
How did you start curating?
We never really felt an opposition between artistic and curatorial practices. When we started, in the early 90's, in Copenhagen, there was not a commercial scene nor an institutional scene, so everything was possible and everything depended on us. We create our exhibitions, magazines, performances, exhibition spaces, festivals.
But this recognition is rare both as artists and curators. This is the first biennial, isn't it?
Yes, and it must be the last. (laughs) But, you know, it was natural, thinking back to Copenhagen. At that moment, it was almost the only option to think of everything as a “gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art).