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Istanbul Biennial’s end of the world show 23 septembre 2009

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Istanbul, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Guardian (UK), 23 september 2009, p. 22

Fiachra Gibbons,

Has art lost its way? Curators and artists at the Istanbul Biennial certainly think so – and they’re taking action.

If you believe the curators of the Istanbul Biennial, the most political since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are in the End of Days. The crisis has come like an avenging angel to cleanse the earth and art with it. In this final reckoning, there will be no place for the hedonistic nihilism of the last 20 years, nor for the artists who have become playthings of the rich. Only politics can save us now. All that remains is to pickle Damien Hirst, stuff Sarah Lucas and put Tracey Emin to bed. The tumbrils that took Bernie Madoff and Lehman Brothers will soon be back for Saatchi and Serota. And as if on cue, Istanbul was deluged on the biennial’s opening night by an apocalyptic storm, one that killed 32 people in a suburb built on sand during the last speculative building boom.

Art biennials are expensive, often largely irrelevant affairs, and not usually marked by calls for a new world order. But Istanbul’s curators, the Croatian all-female collective What, How & for Whom, are seeking nothing less than a refounding of art on Brechtian principles, as a motor for social change. Art, they say, has lost its way, while the public (who spend less than 30 seconds in front of the average video piece) are too gullible to notice.

A crack force of right-thinking artists – the dead as well as the living – has been assembled to support their argument. Administration of Terror, by the Paris-based group Bureau d’Etudes, sets out scientifically to link the banks, intelligence agencies and shadowy business networks that secretly rule the world; American artist Trevor Paglen is tracking the spy satellites that fly over Istanbul. The floors are strewn with the crumpled pages of human rights reports on Turkey; questionnaires ask gallerygoers if we think the event is « politically instructive enough for the audience ».

The end has already come in Jesse Jones’s video piece, Mahogany, a masterful rejigging of Bertolt Brecht’s bitter fable about the fall of a city dedicated to pleasure, shot in the same arid patch of Australian dirt as Mad Max. The city’s messiah (who looks not unlike Sam Taylor-Wood) boasts that there is nothing that cannot be done in this free-market heaven; banners roll across the desert: « For Love, For the Selling of Love, For the Just Division of Spiritual Goods, For the Unjust Division of Temporal Goods, For Brute Stupidity, For Property, For the Rich ».

The biennial’s manifesto claims that « politically neutral art is a means of policing the art world ». Then comes the rub: it believes in a just world order, but « communism is still the only name for that desirable project ». And no, nobody’s laughing. To prove the point, the Russian collective Chto delat re-examine the whole Soviet project and its aftermath before proposing an alternative version.

Yet somehow the biennial escapes its own rhetoric, particularly in the venues furthest from its base on the Bosphorus. The recently abandoned Greek school in Sisli – where little Greeks were turned into little Turks – has some of the most interesting work, even if this potent symbol of slow-drip ethnic cleansing at first threatens to overwhelm it. Israeli film-maker Avi Mograbi has taken Brecht at his word by producing his own version of The Threepenny Opera, in which a commando wrestles with his conscience over his part in the murder of an unarmed Palestinian policeman. Mograbi’s Tel Aviv neighbours, Ruti Sela and Maayan Amir, mine a parallel vein of men and their weapons by filming their hotel-room encounters with men they have met online. The new political art is at least funny: in Unemployed Employee: I Have Found You a Job!, young people from Istanbul fold and unfold fashion T-shirts for the minimum wage in a mock boutique.

Elsewhere, artists have taken up arms where mainstream politics and journalism are failing: an architectural project tries to find solutions to the occupation of the West Bank; Rena Effendi’s photographs document the damage wrought by the new oil pipeline that feeds Europe. Curiously, the biennial has not risked going out on to the streets, strange at a time when protest has become almost a branch of performance art. There is also more than a whiff that this is eastern Europe’s revenge on the lingering prejudice that its art is second-rate, permanently « in transition ».

So has political art really arrived? Or do these artists protest too much? As the biennial was installed, Istanbul police raided a house in a wealthy suburb where nine young women had been held by a TV company that had promised to make them stars. After over a month of being filmed by hidden cameras, only one girl complained. Charles Saatchi’s « X Factor for artists » starts on BBC2 in November, to coincide, of course, with his first show of British art in St Petersburg. Saatchi will play himself as the unseen Big Brother pulling the strings, representing pure capital. There has been no shortage of takers for that, either.

A scene from Jesse Jones’s video work Mahogany (above) , about the fall of a city dedicated to pleasure; one of Rena Effendi’s disjointed oil pipeline shots (below left)


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