ISTANBUL—On a recent Sunday afternoon, hundreds of weekend revelers hurried off an overcrowded ferry onto Büyükada, the largest of Istanbul’s Prince’s Islands. Some were art-hopping — there to track down the five installations included in the 16th Istanbul Biennial — but most were enjoying an afternoon of dondurma and horse-drawn carriage rides (the primary mode of transport through Büyükada’s streets of summer mansions, varying in degrees of Victorian splendor and decay).
West of the ferry docks, beside a giant Mustafa Kemal Ataturk statue, two men perched on a maze of concrete ‘benches’ with a Turkish beer. A toddler crawled her way through the gravel that filled the cell-like spaces, and on another concrete outcropping, a group of young men tapped away on their phones. All of them took in the impromptu wedding photo shoot unfolding on the seafront — a bride running to her groom, who repeatedly reacted in faux-surprise — but none of them seemed to realize that, by sitting there, they were also taking part in The Seventh Continent, the 2019 edition of the Biennial, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud.
There is perhaps nowhere better to meditate on the ambitious mission of the Biennial than atop “Personal Plots” (2019), American artist Andrea Zittel’s quietly affective bench-like contribution. Bourriaud’s edition is named for the continent-sized expanse of waste floating in the world’s oceans, and aims to tackle our new geological era, the Anthropocene, from all angles. Taken as a whole, the 220 artworks by 56 artists intend to turn visitors into anthropologists, reflecting upon the dissolution of boundaries between humans and their inhabited environments. Zittel’s concrete structure, its cells sized to the average human, is an exploration of spatial and structural control, complete with an Instagram-worthy Marmara Sea backdrop. Barely over a month into the Biennial, it is littered with cigarette butts and plastic bottles.
Sunset views and photoshoots aside, how should art function in our present age, increasingly and urgently defined by climate crisis? The Seventh Continent is meant to reflect our confused era – bursting apart neatly categorized life orders via artistic “molecular anthropology.” Delve deep into Bourriaud’s foundational theses, and the central theme spirals in limitless directions: economic and climactic globalizations, the collapse of all distances, the expanding proletariat, new spaces of decolonization, iconographic smog!
Lots to cover, then, in three venues. In a cruel twist of pollutant irony, the bulk of the work was meant to be shown at the Haliç Shipyards, only to have a report of asbestos leave the organizers venue-less a month before opening day. The nearby Painting and Sculpture Museum at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University came to the rescue, but its labyrinthine rooms inspired a visitor route that resembles an artistic IKEA, with arrows on the floor and numbered rooms to be followed in a certain order.
Early on, Dora Budor’s “Origin” installations, glass vitrines puffing dusty pigments to the vibrations of nearby construction, ground the Biennial in the local. So too does Ozan Atalan’s installation “Monochrome,” where we come face to face with the skeleton of a water buffalo. On a nearby screen, the local species’ habitats are visibly threatened by Istanbul’s urban sprawl. Simon Fujiwara’s “It’s a Small World” cleverly repurposes slightly bruised pop icons found in the trash of an attractions manufacturer outside Istanbul: new worlds are born in a Transformers hospital, a Pink Panther strip club, while an undercurrent of reflective apprehension mixes with the Small World soundtrack.
As the path continues, the installations don’t so much play off one another as lead to a feeling of fatigue as we ponder mythology, social media, cyborgs, colonialism, infectious diseases and more in rapid succession. Most interesting are the works that relate to Istanbul itself — though the inclusion of video works by Jonathas de Andrade (“O Peixe – The Fish,” 2016) and Mika Rottenberg (“Spaghetti Blockchain,” 2019) are welcome pauses in the prescribed tour (which somehow feels simultaneously restrictive in layout and overwhelming in scale).
Over at the Pera Museum, Charles Avery’s fish market installation, part of his ongoing project “The Island,” mesmerizes with glass blown eels and sea urchins. There’s less chaos here, and slightly more whimsy, exploring the artifacts of Norman Daly’s imagined “Civilization of Llhuros” (1972), or witnessing the colony of zebra mussels that took up residence on Simon Starling’s submerged Henry Moore facsimile sculpture. But Piotr Uklański’s large portraits, which scrutinize the relationship between Polish nationalism and Islam, seem more at home in the Pera — which houses an Orientalist painting collection — than in the Biennial.
The breezes of Büyükada are welcome after two days spent in low museum lighting — especially the courtyard of Taş Mektep, where Hale Tenger’s polished obsidian discs reflect the dilapidated Sophronius Palace. A poem by Tenger, in Turkish and English, allows for reflection: “Can you be by not doing?’” Down the hill, Monster Chetwynd’s playful hybrid creatures (a bat, a crocodile, a tarantula) spread out over the porch of another glorious, run-down mansion, inspired in part by the roaming cats of Istanbul, who feel at home, it seems, on any porch.
Back in the city’s Macka Sanat Park, Chetwynd contributed another installation — a permanent gift to the city in the form of a playground shaped into a giant Gorgon’s head. On my afternoon visit, I’m challenged to the central slide (the ‘tongue’) by a 9-year-old atop the ladder. He’s visiting with his family from Algeria and I ask him what he thinks of the construction. “They’re great slides, super fast.” Are they scary? “I’m not scared…you’re scared!” he declares as I take a seat at the top. I can attest, it’s a great slide. And a perfect post-biennial place to ponder just how scared we all are — or should be.
The 16th Istanbul Biennial, The Seventh Continent, continues through November 10, 2019 at various locations in Istanbul, Turkey. The exhibition was curated by Nicolas Bourriaud.