ISTANBUL — Grazing beneath a luxury housing compound, a herd of water buffalo made an unexpected appearance in this year’s Istanbul Biennial, part of Cooking Sections’s installation “Wallowland” (2022) that examines the unbridled development that has expanded the gargantuan city into the forests, water reservoirs, and farmlands that feed Istanbul.

Art lovers trekked through hilly pastures to peek at the sleek, skittish beasts as jets roared into Europe’s biggest airport, declared a “monument to victory” by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he opened it in 2018. Its construction felled 13 million trees and encroached on the buffalos’ habitat, imperiling a centuries-old pastoral heritage. 

Buffalo wallows lost to the airport are mapped out on the walls of a pop-up pudding shop the Turner Prize-nominated Cooking Sections opened back in the city. Creamy desserts are served in pots made by ceramicist Başak Gökalsın from the bovid’s clay wetlands, and traditional odes to the animals sung in Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Greek, and Bulgarian are piped through the mirror-clad room. 

Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar, and David Teh, 17th Istanbul Biennial curators (photos by C. Fenzi, Monica Tiwari, and Alex Davies, respectively)

“People living in Istanbul are all affected by radical environmental transformations like the new airport,” said Alon Schwabe, half of the London-based duo with Daniel Fernández Pascual. “A shopfront is a strategy to bring stakeholders around the table to consider these urgent questions.” Area tradesmen and other neighbors have stopped in to congratulate what they believe is a new business. Pascual added, “It’s a deliberate decision to engage directly with the public at the street level.” 

The Istanbul Biennial wants to get people talking. Curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar, and David Teh, the 17th edition is spread across a dozen venues, from bookshops to a botanical garden to a former gasworks, to draw in a public estranged by politics and two years of pandemic lockdowns and, they hope, spark a conversation. To that end, the Biennial does not charge an entrance fee. 

The Biennial itself was delayed by a year due to the pandemic and opened at a time of deep economic and political malaise in Turkey. One of the world’s highest inflation rates is impoverishing the people of Turkey, and Erdoğan’s 20-year rule has grown authoritarian, with artists, journalists, politicians, and others jailed for expressing dissident views.

That makes the Biennial, with more than 500 contributors from almost 30 nations, more vital than ever. “Bringing together ideas and people from around the world on this scale is a central role of the Biennial,” said director Bige Örer. “When economic and political troubles weigh heavily, seeing that similar problems have occurred in history or that they are shared in another geography creates the possibility that things can change.”

Ateş Alpar, “The Universal History of Stone,” performance, 2022 (courtesy the artist)

For Turkey’s artists, traveling abroad is increasingly difficult as the currency crisis makes airfare prohibitive and Western embassies dispense fewer visas to Turkish citizens. “The artist community has less space and has become very fragile … and the political climate can be scary,” said Bauer. “This is about giving the message, ‘You’re not isolated, you are part of an international community, and we need to hear from you too.’” 

The Biennial has long been a catalyst for Turkey’s artists and institutions to reach both local audiences and the international curators, journalists, and artists who descend on Istanbul every two years. The main commercial art fair Contemporary Istanbul has moved its dates to coincide with the Biennial. Scores of independent galleries timed openings with this year’s edition. 

Conceptual artist Ateş Alpar staged “The Universal History of Stone” in the days before the Biennial opened in September. Clutching a single stone that represented the rocks that struck minority-owned shops in Istanbul during a 1955 pogrom and the projectiles of unarmed Kurdish and Palestinian protestors, Alpar defiantly made art on the Turkish street, where public protests are rarely allowed. 

The Biennial offers artists working in Turkey “a mechanism for solidarity. We can see that other artists have found ways to express themselves in places where it is hard to make art, where there’s censorship of art that’s feminist, queer or anti-authority,” said Alpar, who has been targeted by pro-government newspapers and faced cancelations of gallery shows in recent years. 

Arahmaiani, “Flag Project” (2006–ongoing), Gashouse Museum, 17th Istanbul Biennial, 2022 (photo by David Levene)

Much of the critical work in the Biennial resists outright confrontation and tackles issues like ecological devastation, political violence, social polarization, and migration with shrewder strategies. The hair-raising sounds that accompany a video of shattering glass in Turkish filmmaker and artist Gülsün Karamustafa’s Insecure (2022) evoke the fraught flight from political oppression. Banners embellished with Turkish words like “love” and “justice,” rather than nationalist insignia, flutter in Indonesian artist Arahmaiani’s “Flag Project” (2006–ongoing). 

“Artists in many countries face not just economic, civic, or pandemic-related anxieties, but have been working under repressive regimes. Many of those artists are here,” said Kanwar. “They find different ways of speaking, different ways of engaging and researching. If you look closely, you can see we are talking about things that are not so easy to talk about.”

The curators eschewed a title for the show, instead sticking with the loose theme of a compost heap. “Conversations don’t need names, sometimes they don’t have a beginning or an end,” said Teh. “The compost conceit is about the idea that you have to put things together to start a process that then carries on itself.” 

Installation view of Lamia Joreige, “Uncertain Times,” Pera Museum, 17th Istanbul Biennial, 2022 (photo by David Levene)

The show includes in-depth research projects to offer a long view of history. Japanese artist Yuta Nakamura explores modernist architect Bruno Taut’s legacy in Turkey after he fled Germany in 1936, reimagining the catafalque Taut designed for the funeral of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the secular Turkish republic. 

Beirut-based Lamia Joreige has spent years digging through century-old archives in Istanbul and Nantes to create “Uncertain Times,” a work in progress that explores the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its lasting reverberations in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. “The conflicts and transformation we are living through in this region has created great anxiety. Looking back at how people felt about their future [may help us] imagine our own future,” she said. The installation marries the official with the personal, containing an early 20th century Ottoman document warning a plague of locusts may incur a famine in Lebanon — an event that Joreige’s journalist great-grandfather climbed a rocky mount to witness before plunging to his death. 

“Yenikapi’s Museums” (2022), by German-born designer Orkan Telhan, houses the flora and fauna of Istanbul’s fast-disappearing market gardens, first planted in the Byzantine period. Many of the fields have been swallowed up by a two-decade construction spree that has enriched the powerful and disfigured the 8,000-year-old city.

Installation view of work by Tarek Atoui at Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam, 17th Istanbul Biennial, 2022 (photo by David Levene)

The show reclaims spaces on the verge of obsolescence or off-limits for years. “We wanted to sprinkle the seeds of the biennial across different neighborhoods so people can depart from their routines and experience another part of the city over two months,” said Örer. The Central Greek High School for Girls, shuttered a quarter-century ago as Istanbul’s native Greek population dwindled to a few thousand, houses “Disobedience Archive(2022) by Marco Scotini and Can Altay. The twin baths of the Çinili Hammam are inundated with two sound installations, by Taloi Havini and Renato Leotta, ahead of the newly restored 500-year-old bathhouse’s re-opening next year. 

Sevilay, a 47-year-old graduate student, spent a recent evening at a Bread and Puppet Theater parade of giant papier-mâché figures and performers flashing signs that read “Use Your Head,” “I’m Beautiful” and “You’re Ugly.” For Sevilay, the Biennial is “a chance to see other perspectives. There is more to life than our economic troubles,” she said, then added, “but it’s important that it’s free of charge.” 

The 17th Istanbul Biennial continues through November 20, 2022 at various locations in Istanbul, Turkey. The exhibition was curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar, and David Teh.

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Ayla Jean Yackley

Ayla Jean Yackley writes about politics, the economy and culture, and her work has appeared in the Financial Times, The Art Newspaper, Al-Monitor, Foreign Policy and Reuters. Follow her on Twitter: @aylajean