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Review of the 10th Istanbul Biennial, in the context of the city's dynamic art scene.By Sabine B. Vogel | Oct 2007
It is one of the most important and oldest biennials and, after twenty years of pioneer work, in 2007 it is accompanied for the first time by a sumptuous commercial and alternative parallel program. There have been two permanent exhibition sites for contemporary art, the platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center  since 2001 and the Museum Istanbul Modern  since 2004, but art was far from embedded in the city. This was also reflected in the Biennial motto "contemporary art in traditional spaces", under which the first eight Biennials in historical sites like the Hagia Sophia and the Yerebatan Cistern remained undecided between touristy retrogression and temporary consciousness of the present.
Then, two years ago, the curator team Vasif Kortun and Charles Esche broke through the choice of space that had repeatedly been criticized as romanticizing. They made "Istanbul" the theme and placed the focus on current life. So our course no longer took us to the historical sites, but to empty office rooms, factories, and apartments. Now, two years later, these sites have been occupied again. Beral Madra, coordinator and curator of the first two Istanbul Biennials, offers two storeys in the BM-Suma Contemporary Art Center  for rent for exhibitions. An ambitious gallery has been opened in a former tobacco factory and twelve galleries have meanwhile opened around the central shopping street İstiklal Caddesi. With a new self-confidence, they show Turkish artists like Ahmet Elhan or carry out targeted networking, like the Apartment Project .
Istanbul has awoken. How does the Biennial present itself now? "It's not only possible, but also necessary – optimism in the age of global war" is the title Hou Hanru has given to the 10th installment, and he has let the Biennial fan out into the city. At night the project "Nightcomers" is on the move, projecting videos in public space in various districts. During the day, on three primary sites, 96 artists from 35 countries focus on the world as a problem case. The title is concretized here as a critical reflection on modernity and its consequences. The tour thus logically begins on Taksim Square, a symbol of the "modern" Istanbul, where the Monument for the Republic and the Ataturk Cultural Center  stand. The Palace of Culture in socialistic modernism architecture is to be demolished, and so Hanru titles this part of the exhibition "Burn it or not?" The fourteen contributions in the Ataturk Cultural Center, too, revolve around this question, for example when, in striking images, Vahram Aghasyan (Armenia) narrates the loss of illusions in the face of modernity and lets ruin-like residential buildings sink in floods of water.
That, by the way, is one of the remarkable merits of this 10th edition: The themes are indeed reflected in the works. At the second site, a kind of shopping center for everything that has to do with textiles , one’s gaze is directed to conditions of production and economic developments. This approach finds its loud zenith in the former warehouse Antrepo Nr. 3 , where the subject is the opportunities and dangers of globalization. But the problem is that few of the works in the Ataturk Cultural Center can compete with the fascinating interior design and, also in the textile traders’ market, many of the contributions fade into the dominant ambience when their longwinded docu-videos, overtexted research, or all-too-simple wall diagrams seek to perform didactic work, which hardly anyone notices. And only a few artists manage to develop their own aesthetic, for example Chen Chieh-Jen, who captures us in the spell of his half-real, half-fictional stories. Apart from contributions like the maps created by Raqs Media Collective, the video "The History of Chemistry" by Lu Chungsheng, and the clothes that Tadej Pogačar produced together with prostitutes in the framework of the São Paulo Biennial 2006, what predominate are failures. Many contributions provide so much information that they are completely incomprehensible, or are catastrophically projected, or are of such low aesthetic quality, like Lordy Rodriguez’s maps and Sora Kim’s helpless "Credit Office", that all one can do is move on fast.
Then, in Antrepo Nr. 3, we are completely overwhelmed. All the videos are turned up full blast. Cao Fei’s suggestion for a new city for "Second Life" and Fikret Atay’s drum roll over the roofs of Istanbul characterize the mood. Here, apparently, Hou Hanru wants to bring the bustling metropolitan life into the realm of art and exhibits primarily works full of aggression (as the predominant feeling toward life?): Hamra Abbas’s Kamasutra figures with rifles, Abel Abdessemed’s sculptures made of knives, David Ter-Oganyan’s simulated time bombs, Huang Yon Ping’s minaret presented like a rocket on its launching pad, and the Russian artists’ group AES-F’s photo stagings of scenes of anonymous teenagers’ murders and suicides. But among them, ways out are opened again and again: meditative works like Ken Lum’s "House of Realization", Paul Chan’s light projection, and Kan Xuan’s video of everyday things falling into water, which are projected in black and white and allotted colors in the sound accompanying them. Some works almost are almost lost in the brute combination of inwardness and overwhelmingness, like Michael Rakowitz’s great installation, which was already among the high points of this year’s 8th Sharjah Biennial. On a table are many small paper maché sculptures – reproductions of some of the 7,000 art treasures from the Iraqi National Museum that were lost or stolen during the Iraq War.
Hou Hanru’s Biennial divides the visitors. Some regard the loud presentation in Antrepo Nr. 3 as an imposition, others as energetic. Finding in the exhibition sites the "global war" that the title alludes to is a challenge to our interpretive powers. "Optimism", the other conceptual cornerstone, is even harder to present and is perhaps best expressed in the "nocturnal side" of the Biennial: Hou Hanru has subsumed site-specific installations under the title "Dream House" on Antrepo Nr. 3’s main level and two built-in raised galleries. Among them are Sam Samore’s larger-than-life bed, one which we can lie down, completely exhausted, and watch the almost hypnotic video that, with hardly any narrative thread, takes us through associations and dream sequences, thereby conveying a feeling for life borne by wishes and yearnings, rather than attempts to explain the world. Then, in the evening, Yang Jiechang’s script glows on the exterior of the building: "I Believe in Angels". Is this the way out of modernity?
Sabine B. Vogel
Art critic; lecturer at the University for Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria.
10th Istanbul Biennial
8 September - 4 November 2007
Theme: Not only possible, but also necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War
Curator: Hou Hanru
More than 100 artists and groups from 35 countries participated with more than 150 projects.