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ROME — “Urbanization has always been a class phenomenon of some sort,” David Harvey writes in Rebel Cities. The map of every city is also the map of its (unequal) social relations. This was clear when seeing Istanbul. Passion, Joy, Fury, an exhibition that just closed its doors at MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome.
Occupying the first and second floor of the recently deceased Zaha Hadid’s impressive building, the show was curated by Hou Hanru, director of the museum since December 2013, together with Ceren Erdem, Elena Motisi, and Donatella Saroli. As a result of a long-term research process, the exhibition claimed to continue the museum´s investigation about “the cultural milieu of the Mediterranean Basin and the relationships between the Middle East and Europe.” Prior to the Istanbul exhibition, the museum held an exhibition on contemporary Iranian art, and in 2017 it will host another show with Beirut as its main theme.
Istanbul. Passion, Joy, Fury succeeded in not falling into Orientalist stereotypes. Divided into chapters, the rooms followed a narrative about the metropolis’s conflicting forces. The display put two disparate views of the urban phenomenon into conflict: the city from above (gentrification and top-down development) and the city from below (social resistance and bottom-up response).
Over the last decades, Istanbul has consolidated itself as a bastion of contemporary art. New art spaces continue to sprout up and the 30th anniversary of the prestigious biennial is coming near. In press materials for the exhibition, Hou Hanru highlights how this capital city can be seen as “a major laboratory of urban and social mutation,” which might help us understand many other metropolises worldwide.
The MAXXI exhibit featured a strong narrative of the city’s accelerated gentrification. One of the many examples was the stunning photography series Shell, in which artist Serkan Taycan shows us the relentless advance along the periphery of Istanbul of architectural schemes, which rapidly invade the landscapes of his pictures with an ever-growing skyline.
In Turkey, certain ideas of “progress” and “modernization” go hand in hand with Westernization and, thus, are part of a global phenomenon. This model conceives of urban planning in terms of building shopping malls, high-end residences, and airports. It not only displaces large masses of the population in favor of private interests, but it’s also an environmental threat. In reality, what’s advancing in Istanbul is a neoliberal idea of the city — the result of massive urbanization and social cuts applied by a conservative government close to political Islam.
Ahmed Ögüt’s 2014 scale models of two well-known “nail houses” in China and Turkey, titled “Pleasure Places of All Kinds,” had a strong poetic quality. Nail houses are homes whose owners refuse to abandon in the face of development: the houses’ structures remain untouched, surrounded by a gaping hole that recalls the lost life of the surrounding areas. According to Ögüt, the nail houses are “expressions of the individual everyday resistance against the strategies of state or corporate constraint.”
Next to works that directly address the hugely orchestrated changes and urban conflicts in Turkey, Antonio Cosentino seemed to imaginarily retreat to his “Tin City” (2009–2013), an architecture utopia in which the artist uses recycled tins in order to build a colorful fantasy town.
Other works showed the complex working environment of a metropolis where Fordist and post-Fordist forms of labor coexist, along with their different forms of exploitation and alienation. Artists also dealt with migration issues and the refugee crisis, which the neoliberal city completely fails to address. An example was Cengiz Tekin´s “Just Before Paradise” (2015), where the artist portrayed refugees standing in the sea.
Hou Hanru explicitly takes sides in this battle of urban models, laid out in his exhibition, which he described as “aiming to engage with the dynamic actions of the artistic, architectural and cultural scene, defying the powers of the neoliberal capital city and authoritarianism.”
Early on in the exhibition, there was a reference to the three-week occupation of Gezi Park in 2013. This protest, a reaction against the government’s plans to build a Neo-Ottoman shopping center, saw active involvement from the artistic community.
The architectonic group Herkes Icin Mimarlik (Architecture for All), says that “Istanbul protests indicated one simple thing for architects”: “We need new definitions for architecture in situations when architecture is removed from architects.” The group’s accurate prototyping of barricades, communal kitchens, and protest stalls are reminiscent of other mappings of protest settlements, like Zuloark and VIC (vivero de iniciativas ciudadanas) in 2011’s Madrid 15-M camp. In his photography series Post Resistance, Osman Bozkurt pictures the remaining traces of erased graffiti on Istanbul’s walls. The work reminds us of Bansky’s tag, “This site contains blocked messages“.
The memory of Gezi keeps influencing Turkish society and persisted as a leitmotif throughout MAXXI exhibition. In his video “Preparation,” German-born artist Tur Nasan shows a man preparing for an action. His different gestures — making a banner, breaking bricks into smaller pieces, mapping a route, or sharpening a knife — are viewed simultaneously in a six-channel installation. This work reflects the material culture of protest. It spoke to the beauty of doing and the harmony of actions directed towards social change. On the artist’s website we are told the work could also refer to a “never ending preparation.” A similar result of communal gestures, Güneş Terkol’s patchwork flags, created by groups of women, were scattered throughout the different rooms.
Throughout the exhibition, self-empowerment and self-management are featured as forms of urban resistance. Slums, communal means of building, and other ways of urban independence were presented as a more organic response to the metropolis’s needs. Hou Hanru speaks of how “‘people’s architecture’ has always been a main form of contribution to the making of the urban reality.” Istanbul is a city where half of the built environment has been constructed illegally, mostly following a massive immigration from the countryside to the city after the mid-1940s. Informal architecture is related to informal economics. The slums that circle the metropolis are given the specific name of “gecekondu,” literally translated to “landed overnight.”
One of the most impressive pieces was Halil Atindere’s “Wonderland” (2013), which had already made an impression when it was exhibited last year at MoMA’s PS1. The music video features Tahribad-ı isyan, a hip-hop group from the Istanbul area of Sulukule, inhabited for centuries by the Roma community. The footage shows kids running away from the police, dancing, chaining themselves to a crane, climbing urban structures, walking on a bridge, and burning a police officer alive. Meanwhile, the group members rap about the destruction of their homes in this slum neighborhood, where TOKI, the government’s building agency, is displacing poor people in order to build middle class housing. The images are of freedom, poignancy, and anger. In the exhibition, Altindere also showed some of his photographs and his uncanny life-sized human figures, which portray the various types of people in the city, from a policeman to an illegal street vendor to a man making a call in a phone booth.
Through the works of 45 artists, Istanbul. Passion, Joy, Fury immersed its viewers. It displayed a complex, rich Turkish artistic environment, introducing artists who are not so well known in the West. It could be said that this show was about change in the city, featuring two possible futures: neoliberal development or social movements and resistance; the city of capital or the city from below. In short, we could conclude that imposed urban expansion is almost always met with response from individuals and the community, or those who represent the needs of a city.
Istanbul. Passion, Joy, Fury ran at MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (A, Via Guido Reni, 4, Rome, Italy) December 11–May 8.