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The rise of contemporary art practices that have been politically confrontational in Turkey coincided with the years that followed the military coup in 1980. In this period, artists started to make pungent criticisms of the state ideology, developmentalist ideals, as well as the coup itself. They also took a distance from the orthodoxies that had weakened the leftist movements in the 60s and 70s. Yet, mistrust and intolerance towards contemporary art grew at the same time. This was primarily due to private companies’ increasing investment in this field in the context of a newly introduced neoliberal economy. However the protests and public discussions of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial seem to be more fervent than ever before. In this article, I will locate this year’s biennial against the background of the previous iterations and argue that it has presented a solid statement about the urgent need for the politicization of culture, while creating a strong opposition in Turkey.
Initiated in 1987, the International Istanbul Biennial did not have any difficulty plugging itself into Turkey’s newly introduced service economy. As the city sought to re-brand itself and attract more tourists, it warmly embraced an international art event which put artwork into dialogue with old architecture, including Byzantine structures and former national industrial sites. This curious flirtation between the buildings and artworks, consciously or unconsciously, remained at the core of the biennial. However, the curators of the 2005 biennial, Vasıf Kortun and Charles Esche, introduced an abrupt spatial transition by moving the exhibitions and events outside of the historical sites. Instead, they positioned them in the Galata/Beyoglu area, known as a busy trade and commercial zone that has recently turned into an arts and culture hub. This spatial transition also signaled the ideological shift that the biennial adopted. The hosting neighborhoods swallowed up the exhibitions, while the artworks arguably entered the public sphere, rather than remaining as an extension of the tourist gaze.
Various factions of the Turkish art scene have opposed the Istanbul Biennial since its inception. Modernist art-oriented schools (mostly based on painting) and commercial galleries have often criticized the biennial; they have questioned the strength and the format of the artworks, the small number of Turkish artists included in the exhibitions, and the biennial’s alleged aspiration to be visible only at the international level. In the 10th International Istanbul Biennial in 2007 "Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War," those who voiced political criticisms were more vocal than ever. They did not concern the artworks as much as they did Hou Hanru’s curatorial statement that identified Turkey as the exemplar of top-down, forced modernization projects in the non-Western world. It is true that the 2007 biennial piqued chauvinistic, nationalist appetites, but the protests and condemnations against the biennial received attention in the mainstream media. This pushed the discussion on the biennial beyond limited art circles into the public sphere.
I would easily say that the 11th International Istanbul Biennial introduced a full-fledged political statement. The curators’ collective What, How & for Whom (WHW - Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, Sabina Sabolović, and designer-publicist Dejan Kršić) chose to contextualize the biennial around Bertolt Brecht’s emancipatory theory of art and praxis, which suggests that artistic practices have the capability of transforming daily life, even politics. The premise of this move is not to rediscover Brecht’s philosophy, but rather to suggest what arts and culture could possibly propose today beyond aestheticism. The curators present the biennial as a platform that generates criticality and intellectual agitation; they emphasize political will-formation and, most importantly, the politicization of culture. Yet, WHW refrains from making judgments or statements about Turkish political history as Hou Hanru attempted to do in the previous biennial, which seems to make this year’s biennial less vulnerable to shallow criticisms. Instead, the curatorial collective puts forward global issues: political impassivity and numbness. It also takes Brecht, a venerated figure for the Marxist left, as the reference, and perhaps aims to negotiate between different leftist factions so as to incite a larger group interested in transformative dialogues.
Here are a few examples from the criticisms against this year’s biennial. DirenIstanbul, a protest group mostly known for rallying against the IMF and the WB meetings described the biennial as an "absurd cacophony of ‘radical’ statements floating in the air like over repeated tongue twisters." In their words, the curators cherished "statements like ‘socialism or barbarism’ echoing in the saloon filled with [their] sponsors, bodyguards, and ministers with fake smiles and old wine smells," referring to the opening ceremony.  In their open letter to all artists and curators, they stated: "… we fight … and resist in the streets, not in corporate spaces reserved for tolerated institutional critique so as to help them clear their conscience."  In an interview with WHW, writers and editors Yücel Göktürk, Ulus Atayurt and Erden Kosova stated: "The fact that Koç [the holding sponsoring the 2009 biennial] and Brecht are juxtaposed reveals a feeling of exploitation and makes the audience stay away from the biennial."  Artist Cavit Mukaddes wrote: "Brecht spent his entire life in resistance. Who can dare to associate such mundane dullness with this monumental figure of humanity and literature? Since when has Brecht become your clown?" 
Although these quotations only caricaturize these critiques, they still hint at certain shared contentions: politically-engaged art has become a popular marketing tool for art events; it is illusionary to imagine that these art events will lead to social and political transformation; it is contradictory, even outrageous to some, that the curators use Brecht as a reference for a biennial that is sponsored by one of the biggest industrial and financial corporations in Turkey. It seems that these arguments haven’t yet produced substantial discussions about the emancipatory strength of art. Instead, they have remained one-sided grumblings, with a solid focus on the relation between the biennial’s rhetorical devices and its sponsors. Against these arguments, WHW acknowledges the controversial sponsorship of the biennial and asks: If your political position partakes in the mainstream, what do you have to compromise? How can you negotiate your position when you are ideologically constrained? If there is no externality to the larger power structures, how can you make use of the tools of the existing system in order to express yourself?
Let’s be honest. The Istanbul Biennial is not a revolutionary institution and the curators don’t wear revolutionary hats. WHW’s curatorial proposition is about the politicization of culture. To seek a linear causality between arts and politics is not only naïve but also misleading. Exhibitions and art organizations such as the 11th International Istanbul Biennial do not change the existing system, but they have the potential to propose alternatives. This propositional endeavor that is not directly related to political responsibility seems to be the greatest asset of contemporary art. The biennial is yet to spark heated, in-depth debates on art, culture, and politics. It can incite negotiation between different groups for the sake of imagining alternate realities and perhaps starting collective, transformative discussions. In a time when the relation between society and art is so fragile, I wonder why we don’t choose to talk about why, how and with whom this space of imagination can be created.
Curator and writer based in Istanbul. She is currently the Project Manager at Collectorspace, Istanbul.
11th Istanbul Biennial
12 September -
8 November 2009
What Keeps Mankind Alive?
What, How & For Whom