In many ways, the 12th Istanbul Biennial was an unconventional show. While critics may be divided on the overall success of the fair, the work by women artists and artists from emerging regions such as the Middle East stand out as strong points.

Opening of 2011 Istanbul Biennal

A shot of the opening of the 2011 Istanbul Biennial.

Sophisticated design

The 12th Istanbul Biennial ran from 17 September to 13 November 2011 in Antrepo 3 and 5, a complex of former warehouses on the banks of the Bosphorus next to Istanbul Modern Museum. The two box-shaped buildings provided space for over 500 artworks created by 130 artists from 41 countries. Inside, the display was organised in five large halls for group shows. Thematically connected solo presentations were hosted in a series of smaller white-box spaces. The Economist commented that

Untamed, the buildings would force viewers into a monotonous marathon of spectatorship. But the biennial’s curators, Adriano Pedrosa (a Brazilian) and Jens Hoffmann (a Costa Rican), enlisted the help of a master of exhibition design, a Japanese architect called Ryue Nishizawa who has introduced new energy into the space by creating rooms of different sizes and marking off ‘exterior’ spaces with corrugated-steel walls.

According to The Guardian, Nishizawa’s elegant design was itself worth the trip.

Interior of Antrepo 3. Photo Mahmut Ceylan.

Interior of Antrepo 3. Photo credit: Mahmut Ceylan.

Curatorial challenge

Co-curators Pedrosa and Hoffmann organised the show, themed “Untitled”, around topics that were inspired by the work of late Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres: love, death, abstraction, contested histories and territories. Five group exhibitions were named after specific artworks by Gonzalez-Torres: Ross, Abstraction, Passport, History and Death by Gun. Hoffmann and Pedrosa explained their choice in the event’s press release:

The Biennial explores the rich relationship between art and politics, focusing on artworks that are both formally innovative and politically outspoken … Gonzalez-Torres was deeply attuned to both the personal and the political, and also rigorously attentive to the formal aspects of artistic production, integrating high modernist, minimal, and conceptual references with themes of everyday life … Visitors are encouraged to become active readers, not just silent recipients, of the artworks presented here. To paraphrase Gonzalez-Torres, the 12th Istanbul Biennial is untitled because meaning is always changing in time and space.

Theme leads to constrained artistic vision

How did critics respond to this curatorial inspiration? Some noted that, even though the biennial had been left untitled and the theme chosen in order to allow artworks that were “formally innovative”, what they saw instead was art that had been bridled by the narratives that they sought to convey.

… it was a ‘bold if problematic move’…. The show these curators did assemble can be seen, when considered on its own terms, as intellectually rigorous and provocative. Yet, presented as a biennial, it comes across as a highly confining exhibition experience with thematic narratives structured around the work of a deceased artist … who is not even included the exhibition. What? This ‘ghost in the shadows’ approach does not leave much room for the ‘open interpretation’ that the curators themselves have stated as their goal for the biennial.


12th Istanbul Biennial curators Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann. Photo credit: Muammer Yanmaz.

12th Istanbul Biennial curators Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann. Photo credit: Muammer Yanmaz.

Just how little these group exhibitions depart from their allegedly flexible premises is the biennial’s major disappointment. Each grouping strikes a single note over and over again, swelling into a sort of dogmatic march where guns are bad toys for bad boys, in ‘Untitled (Death by Gun)’; homosexuality is about men having sex with men, in ‘Untitled (Ross)’; and more than a dozen art works feature the written page as a means to address the historical record, in ‘Untitled (History)’.


For Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery who was quoted in The Art Newspaper, this curatorial approach may have narrowed down the ways in which artists responded to Gonzalez-Torres’ work, but this was balanced by a thoughtfully curated show:

‘It has a degree of intimacy because there are families of works organised in relation to particular works by Gonzalez-Torres and also because of the small presentations devoted to single artists that allow a chance for a more sustained encounter. At the same time there is almost nothing that could be considered spectacular.’

Biennale highlights: from the Crusades to Mafia victims

Bonilla-Capital/Sinister Manuscript (Luxury Version), 2008 Gilt-edged printed book with linen binding  Slipcase closed: 6.1 x 33.1 x 22.6 cm; slipcase: 8 x 34.5 x 23 cm  Courtesy the artist

Milena Bonilla, 'Capital/Sinister Manuscript (Luxury Version)', 2008 gilt-edged printed book with linen binding, slipcase closed: 6.1 x 33.1 x 22.6 cm; slipcase: 8 x 34.5 x 23 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Among the most provocative works on show, according to Artnet, were Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010 to present) and Kuwaiti Ala YounisTin Soldiers (2011). In Shawky’s video, animated 200-year-old Italian marionettes dressed as Christians and Muslims re-enact events that unfolded over a four year period of the Crusades from 1096 to 1099, showing the bloody religious war from the perspective of the Arab inhabitants of the Holy Land. Younis’ installation featured 12,235 tin toy-soldiers on top of a huge table, each fitted with a military uniform from either Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria or Turkey. The piece commented on the scale of militarisation in the Arab world; the number of tin soldiers matched proportionally the number of active troops in each country.

igures) installation Each with a 5.4 cm height. Photography: courtesy the artist

Ala Younis, 'Tin Soldiers', 2010‒11, painted metal, 12,500 soldiers (figures), installation, each figure 5.4 cm in height. Image courtesy the artist.

The Guardian’s picks for the biennial included Letizia Battaglia’s “unbearably tender pictures of Mafia victims in Sicily”, produced from the 1970s onwards, and Milena Bonilla’s ironic take on socialism, with her hand-copied version of Marx’s Das Kapital. The text was rendered utterly incomprehensible because right-handed Bonilla copied its contents with her left hand.

A murdered man sits in a chair", 1975,50x60 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Letizia Battaglia, 'A murdered man sits in a chair', 1975, 50 x 60 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Memorable work by younger artists spotted by Art Agenda included a range of conceptual fruit sculptures by Colombian artist Gabriel Sierra and an installation that consisted of two bronze skeletons and a slide projection of a “live” flickering feather by the Portuguese artist Francisco Tropa. The Abstraction section of the biennial, Art Agenda reported, was “full of provocative juxtapositions, like the decision to couple a photo of the back of a white target full of bullet holes by Annette Kelm next to an aerial photo of a group of children whose heads emerge from a vast and unified white piece fabric by Lygia Pape.”

An unconventional show

A departure from the spectacular format typical of many biennials today and a greater attention paid to intellectually and politically stimulating works were felt by many commentators to be strong features of the show.

The curators have used the framework of Gonzalez-Torres’ work quite effectively as a lens to focus on Latin American, Eastern European and Middle Eastern artists with an emphasis on the political (social, geographical, cultural). Through this means, they have created a curious, and even haunting, departure from the biennial format that leads the viewer on a poetic treasure hunt for some important historical artworks, by Tina Modotti, Martha Rosler, Elizabeth Catlett and Chris Burden, among others.


Most biennials are a sprawling mess – and the worst look like commercial art fairs studded with brand-name trophies. However, those that succeed in making sense of some aspect of global culture can be both enlightening and memorable. This year’s Istanbul Biennial … [was] poignant, relevant and intellectually engaging; it has managed to create a coherent exhibition out of works by 130 artists from 41 countries – a rare achievement.

The Economist

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.


Women in the spotlight

Lygia Pape, 2,000 x 2,000 cm  Performance Courtesy the artist Photography: Paula Pape

Lygia Pape, 'Divisor', 1968–85, 2,000 x 2,000 cm, performance, courtesy the artist. Photography: Paula Pape

One aspect of the biennial that earned it critical praise from all was the attention given by the curators to work by women artists.

A series of revelatory rooms featuring the work of women artists from the 1920s to the ’70s is the biennial’s major strength. Peruvian Teresa Burga’s cataloguing of her body’s form and functions, Elizabeth Catlett’s mid-century wood-cuts of African-American share-croppers, and Turkish sculptor Füsun Onur’s canvases and small plaster works, lay the formal ground for a biennial that seeks to counter the bombast of recent mega-exhibitions – not least Hou Hanru’s 2007 Istanbul Biennial – with a quieter programme of photography, works on paper and textiles.


[The curators] have chosen to include a range of historical artworks by women who they believe deserve greater recognition. For example, they have installed photo collages from Martha Rosler’s ‘Bringing the War Home’ series, which were made during the Vietnam war between 1967 and 1972, but which still resonate because of America’s continuing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Economist

The timing of an overview exhibition called “Dream and Reality – Modern and Contemporary Women Artists from Turkey“, a show dedicated to Turkish women artists held at Istanbul Modern next to the biennial venue, did not go unnoticed.

Istanbul has launched a full frontal assault to claim its place amongst rising art centres 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.



Related Topics: biennales and biennials, curatorial practice, Istanbul art happenings

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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