Asli Sungu, “Just Like Mother and Just like Father,” (2006)

ISTANBUL — Istanbul has launched a full frontal assault to claim its place amongst rising art centers by hosting the complex and provocative Istanbul Biennial, as well as a massive all-inclusive history of the city’s female artists, Dream and Reality – Modern and Contemporary Women Artists from Turkey at the Istanbul Modern right next door. The timing and juxtaposition of these two shows is not haphazard and should be viewed as twin prongs of an interior exploration and bold emergence.

Turkey, part of both Europe and Asia, is in the cross-hairs of a new global realignment of Pan Arab nationalism. Rejected for inclusion in the EEU it is gazing Eastward, upsetting global power arrangements through its fresh alliance with Egypt. The Biennial, curated by foreign curators Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa uses the work and themes of the late Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres as a point of departure, a messy and partially successful starting point. Dream and Reality includes an encyclopedic 253-page catalogue of 74 pioneering females artists spanning more than a century, as well as the breakout exhibition Uncanny Encounters of photographic and video works by six young Turkish women. The underlying strata of all exhibits highlight upheavals in power, politics, gender roles and traditional nation states.

Nezaket Ekici, “Discipulus,” (2011)

Dream and Reality at the Modern includes the pithy The Future For Turkish Women Artists as revealed to the Guerrilla Girls with the GG Girl‘s expected compendium of bullet-proof facts: forty percent of artists shown in galleries in Istanbul are women, but the Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture includes only seventeen women in its collection, and Istanbul Modern just two.

Nezaket Ekici‘s “Discipulus” (2011) video of herself submerged in water struggling  for air shows the difficulty  younger artists encounter to survive and be heard, as does the provocative video “Just Like Mother and Just like Father” (2006) where Turkish/German Asli Sungu practically strips down in front of her parents and separately asks each one what they think of the clothes the other has picked out for her to wear. The sub-theme of the acknowledgement and placement of Turkish women artists in juxtaposition to the Biennial is one I am told was deliberate, and certainly caught this reviewer’s attention.

The Istanbul Biennial, Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) 2011, is divided into group themes of Abstraction, Rossi, Passport, History and Death by Gun, all riffs off works from Gonzalez-Torres’s oeuvre, though being blissfully unaware of those distinctions still allows you to navigate your way through the two separate buildings’ spiffy corrugated aluminum galleries. The show investigates a sense of history we just don’t have in the West; a history of world powers slicing, dicing and scarfing up the Middle East and Turkey as succulent morsels that contain the world’s oil supply.  There are a lot of slashed, ripped, torn, bifurcated, bleeding and smashed works, and scads of overly political art with copious amounts of accompanying text, some of it almost microscopic in size.

Rosangela Renno, “I Memorial, Memorial” (1994)

Zarouhie Abdalian, an artist of Armenian descent, summed up the region’s underlying tensions with “Having Been Held Under the Sway,” an empty room with a thin wire on the wall reverberating to the loud booms of a hidden bass speaker. The explosive nature of underlying conflict is palpable, but also removed and hidden. You feel, hear and sense it, but you can’t see what’s causing the ruckus, which is exactly how I felt in Istanbul when that same day a bomb attack occurred in the capital city Ankara by unknown but suspected separatists

amas Kaszas and Aniko Lorant, “After Oil Coming New Slavery,” part of “PANGEA – Visual Aid for Historical Consciousness Broadband Bulletin Board” (1998-2009) (click to enlarge)

The theme Death by Gun is particularly gruesome, resurrecting the newspeak blood and gore snap shots by photojournalist Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig), and Eddie Adam’s unforgettable 1968 Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a Vietnam execution. Then there is Mat Collishaw’Bullet Hole, a 15-light box forensic look at a bullets point of entry into someone’s brain. This blood, guts and gore slap-down by the curators is intended for maximum effect and it works — you can only stagger, not walk out of that section.

Brazilian artist Rosangela Renno‘s “I Memorial, Memorial” (1994), twenty-five ortho chronic film prints of ordinary looking subversives forwarded to the FBN by the Federal Attorney General’s Office in Rio was understatedly horrific since their underlying message is these subjects are basically facing a defacto death sentence. Gaza-born Taysir Batniji‘s “Watchtowers” (2008) is a droll look at lethal rickety towers housing border control guards that resembles German couple Bernd and Hilla Bechner‘s homages to industrial sites.

The show’s surprise sleeper is Danish and Norwegian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset‘s “The Black & White Diary, Fig. 5” (2009) containing 365 black and white desaturated color prints of homoerotic life. Banal with a frisson of sexual heat, these images with their stark phallic content could have caused a riot if exhibited anywhere else but the Biennial.

Nazim Hikmet, richard dikbas, “Private Lessons,” (2011)

The British/Turkish artist Nazim Hikmet richard dikbas presented “Private Lessons” (2011), hilarious cartoons in English and Turkish catcalling the didactic frame of “shadow governments, conspiracies and hidden agendas.” Hungarians Tamas Kaszas and Aniko Lorant’s “After Oil Coming New Slavery,” part of the series PANGEA – Visual Aid for Historical Consciousness Broadband Bulletin Board (1998-2009),  summed up using oil as the basis for capitalism and slavery in broad strokes of black and white.

Some choices were downright odd. A room full of Tina Modetti photographs was beautiful, as was an enormous room full of LP covers of the early 1960s (JFK, the Pope, Golda Meir), as well as prints of Malcolm X. Yet I’m not sure that regurgitating Power to the People, the Nation of Islam and lyric 1926 Mexican worker’s protests fit in unless you are trying to say they influenced Gonzalez-Torres in a round-about kind of way. A snapshot of a Ayotolla Kohmeini poster behind an Alexander Calder mobile in Iran highlights late modernism’s struggles with fundamentalism as well as the aspirations of the Middle East to be contemporary while not losing its identity. Istanbul has more or less been struggled with that issue, according to Orhan Pamuk‘s Nobel prize winning memoir, Istanbul, since the city’s founding.

The Istanbul Biennial continues until November 13.

Homepage image: Lygia Pape, “Divisor” (1968-85) via

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.