ISTANBUL — The ground was literally shaking as we walked into the dilapidated Rizzo Palace on the island of Büyükada, the biggest of the Prince Islands of Istanbul. A palace built in the 19th century and only recently abandoned, the house is intact but has fallen into disrepair. On the second and third floor of the building, British artist Ed Atkins is showing his video work “Hisser” as part of the 14th Istanbul biennial, Salt Water: A Theory of Thought Forms. In this two-channel digital film, Atkins recounts the last 30 minutes in the life of a Florida man whose house fell into a sinkhole while he slept. The man, from a news story of 2013, weeps and repeats to himself, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” and as the room suddenly begins to collapse in the film, the loud sounds powerfully shake the derelict palace. The recently inaugurated biennial and the many exhibitions running in the city seem to suggest that there is much to say about art in Turkey, but mesmerized by the site of the palace as we were, it was difficult to avoid a comparison between the decaying structure and our current state of political disintegration.
You couldn’t think of a more suitable metaphor than a collapsing house for the current tide of events taking place in present-day Istanbul, in an atmosphere of economic recession, violence, and uncertainty. After the art-world jet set left the biennial and their boats to Büyükada, for those of us living in Istanbul the sight was that of being stranded on a fragile moving dock, with almost no place to stand. The moment recalled Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s “Dock” (2014), a wooden structure resembling a dock that was on show in the city a few months ago and which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. A moving ceremony in remembrance of the genocide was held in April less than a kilometer away from Büyüktaşçıyan’s dock, as Turkish nationalists threatened the commemoration from nearby. The truth is that since then, many things have changed in Istanbul, and one would need to be blind to not notice this dangerous moment of transition, later confirmed by the ensuing instability.
After touring the seven biennial sites hosted in Büyükada, the hour-long ferry ride inspired a reflection on the long history of these waters. Numerous monasteries were founded on almost all of the nine islands during the Byzantine period since Emperor Justin II built an unknown convent in Büyükada in 569. These monasteries became places of exile where many were blinded. Büyüktaşçıyan’s vivid description of these monasteries, recorded in her book for her 2014 exhibition titled The Land across the Blind, comes to mind: “All of the Prince Islands, except Heybeli, each became a place of exile. As if this was not enough, hot iron rod blinded most of those exiled to the island. How dangerous could a pair of eyes, exiled on an island be?” Countless deposed emperors and dissenters ended their lives on these islands, a natural consequence of the intrigues and turbulent politics of Byzantium that eventually liquidated the empire. Are we not living through similar circumstances in the current republic? Most people seem too blind to be able to tell.
Before we reached the safety of the mainland, the national news broadcasting on the ferry blared one word: terror. The recent wave of nationalist protests, targeting minority populations of Turkey and the Kurdish-affiliated political party, have been labelled by Turkish media across the spectrum as “anti-terror protests.” These so-called protests, a euphemism for organized violence, are the apparent display of loyalty to the republic in response to a lethal battle in the east of the country between the government and insurgent forces that has left over 100 dead and reignites a 30-year-old conflict that has killed thousands. The events of the past weeks also coincide with the Istanbul pogroms against the Greek minority on September 6 and 7, 1955, and the most recent military coup, on September 12, 1980. These dates are important, in case there is a need for analogies for those who underestimate the gravity of the situation: Turkey is still ruled by the military junta constitution of 1982 with only minor amendments.
Perhaps we’ve reached the point where this country is no longer safe and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to listen to the past, before it catches up with us. On the evening of September 8, the newspaper Hürriyet was attacked by mobs for a second time with clubs and stones, smashing the windows while the employees were locked inside. The mobs that gathered around the building swore they would turn Hürriyet into Madımak — the hotel in Sivas torched in 1993 that killed 35 dissidents, mostly from the Alevi minority. But the event was considered nothing out of the extraordinary — government officials have implied that this is the new normal.
Local artists have been the only ones who have not feared to publicly support the paper after the attack. The main concern here, however, is not whether to lend support to free media, but to make sure it does effectively exist. It is the very same media that has labeled these events “anti-terror protests” that has become a victim of the same tactics of intimidation that have threatened minorities, journalists, and intellectuals for decades.
“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen … If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer,” remarked Hannah Arendt in 1974, addressing lies in politics and concluding that, “A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.” Have we reached that point? Yes, but there is no certainty of what is yet to come in this country, on the brink of a larger conflict. Under so much pressure and heavy censorship it has become increasingly difficult to write honestly about culture in Turkey and not hide behind the art, for the political climate has opened an abyss before us in which we are made defenseless. The time is up for those charades, catered to tourists, about Istanbul as the crossroads between East and West, on which the self-image of the city has fed for years. It is not possible or responsible to try to hide behind the art when there is so much at stake.
In these times of confusion, one tends to have one of two responses: either believe that a miracle will save us or that a complete disintegration is necessary in order to rebuild the polity. Both options rob individuals of agency and release them of personal responsibility. It was not too long ago, in the summer of 2013, when the Gezi Park protests became a catalyst for a new Turkey, mobilizing thousands to demonstrate against authoritarianism. But it turns out that the heavy-handed response of the authorities was only the beginning of a new era, in which the few assurances of safety and stability left would be quickly eroded. How dangerous could a pair of eyes be, indeed? To see the facts of this new reality for what they really are and without blinking seems to be the most radical place where art can go today, once the risk has become so real and one can no longer afford to concern oneself only with aesthetics.
Hale Tenger’s three-room installation “The Closet,” the second iteration of a work first produced in 1997 and which opened a few days after the biennial in an exhibition investigating the background of 1980s Turkey under the military dictatorship, reveals little in concrete terms but suggests a lot. In the rooms, there are dishes set on a table, in the bedroom beds are made and Turkish language schoolbooks lie open on a desk; inside, the closet is orderly and familiar, even the rancid smell of the past comes in waves. By the dinner table, the radio is still on, and the football game is punctuated by the news broadcast: Terrorists arrested, caught, killed. But the house is empty, and one can sense that something has happened here. This is not only an investigation of the 1980s. In Turkey, it is the here and now.
The 14th Istanbul biennial Salt Water: A Theory of Thought Forms continues through November 1. A Century of Centuries was on view at SALT Beyoğlu (İstiklal Cd. No:136, Turkey) March 10–May 24, and a version of the exhibition is currently on view at SALT Ulus (Ulus Dolmuşları No:12, 06250 Altındağ, Turkey) through November 7. How Did We Get Here? continues at SALT Beyoğlu (İstiklal Cd. No:136, Turkey) and SALT Galata (Banka Sk No:11, 34420, Turkey) through November 29.