Istanbul’s Saltwater-Themed Biennial Exposes the Ebbs and Flows of the Human Condition
In fact, it’s the metaphor of this corrosive-but-necessary element that the 14th Istanbul Biennial, titled “SALTWATER, A Theory of Thought Forms” and open through November 1st, hinges on. After all, the city where “East” meets “West” is split by the Bosphorus, a unique straight that blends the saltwater of the Mediterranean with the fresh water of the Black Sea. The Bosphorous is both an actor and an artwork in this biennial. And surely, by now, any art follower’s Instagram feed has been barraged with life-sized fiberglass Noah’s Ark-esque animals hovering over the brackish straight or
The extent to which this metaphor guides (or rules, really) the immense exhibition parallels the square footage of this megalith city. For the record, the metropolitan area of Istanbul is 2,063 square miles—and while not all of the city is utilized in the biennial, at moments it sure feels like it. Certainly it reveals something that the exhibition’s catalogue is positioned as a guidebook, mapped out as a three-day itinerary, including treks out to the Büyükada (one of the Princes’ Islands) and Boğaz’ın Kuzeyi (Northern Bosphorus).
Thirty venues are involved, and only four contain group shows of more than a singular work or artist. “The Channel,” at Istanbul Modern, could be called the biennial’s thesis show. It features about 55 of the biennial’s 100 “participants,” a term employed by its “draughtsman” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to draw note to her inclusion of oceanographers, storytellers, mathematicians, and neuroscientists alongside artists of the more white-cube variety. The event turns towards the inherent cross-disciplinary nature of art history and contradicts the static notion that a biennial is a forum for the cutting-edge or contemporary (sorry, Venice!).
Istanbul marks Christov-Bakargiev’s first major outing since shaking things up for dOCUMENTA (13), the landmark quinquennial held since 1955 in Kassel, Germany. She extended that exhibition to places as far-flung as Banff, Canada; Alexandria/Cairo, Egypt; and Kabul, Afghanistan (and may have been the only person to have sojourned to all four sites). While the Istanbul effort assumes a similar diasporic character—the inclusion of many venues, she writes, “argues for public space to be reconstituted in interlinked temporary and provisional spaces of habitation”—and duly addresses the charged political, historical, and theoretical frameworks expected from such an art event, Christov-Bakargiev’s biennial kicks off with a few words not commonly heard in the art world. “With and through art, we commit ourselves to the possibilities of joy and vitality, leaping from form to flourishing life,” she writes in her curatorial text, suggesting that what unites her selection of works is unbridled wonder.
Wonder, which in the age of instant digital recall often feels like a memory, truly underlies this show. It operates upon a metaphor—positive and negatively charged molecules, the motion of water waves, the commodity and currency of salt—to consider the many channels through which life, society, and knowledge are understood and complicated. But Christov-Bakargiev anchors this spirit with the ideas of British theosophist
Likewise, there is a plethora of non-Turkish artists who have created site-specific pieces for the region, such as American
But any missteps aside, Christov-Bakargiev’s metaphorical play crystallizes around the essence of Besant’s “Thought Forms” in various works in the exhibition. These come in the form of what might be dubbed “future relics,” artifacts made today and aching to be found tomorrow, which offer commentary on this duality. For
Asli Çavuşoğlu, Red/Red, Istanbul Biennial. Photo by Sahir Ugur Eren.
Over in Beyoğlu, across from Hotel Galatasaray at Bostanbaşı Street,
When powerhouse literary critic Donald Davidson wrote, in his 1978 “What Metaphors Mean,” “Metaphor implies a kind and degree of artistic success,” he specifically was not talking about art, or artists, or anything really to do with the fine arts. However, art, being an inherently interdisciplinary mode of thought, can be understood through the kinds of language mechanisms, such as literary devices, to which a metaphor belongs. He continues: “It [a metaphor] is something brought off by the imaginative employment of words and sentences and depends entirely on the ordinary meanings of those words and hence on the ordinary meanings of the sentences they comprise.” And from these ordinary interpretations, metaphors then produce a truer or realer observation than the words alone could provide. In the case of “Saltwater,” a biennial so predicated on this metaphorical concept, Christov-Bakargiev has selected a group of works that bring to the surface the ways in which the human condition ebbs and flows. Earthy, coarse, rude, and shocking—much like the essential mineral, our essence is a contradiction.