by TIMUR HAMMOND
Now entering its third decade of existence, the Istanbul Biennial has been transformed from a small-scale operation run on a shoestring budget to a sprawling event with a wealth of resources at its disposal. Remembering Istanbul provides an important source not only to understand the changes in the Biennial itself, but also to begin to consider how this local event has been situated within multiple cultural, economic, political, and social contexts. Examining, as Bige Örer points out in her opening essay, the relationship between the city and the biennial, Remembering Istanbul, “presents the turning points and debates that arose during the historical progression of the Istanbul Biennial… [and] invites readers to join us in contemplating the contemporary art scenes developing at both the local and the international levels” (17).
The essays collected in Remembering Istanbul emerge out of a conference of the same name that preceded the opening of the 12th Istanbul Biennial in November 2010. The conference’s goal, curators Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa explain, was to review both the biennial’s history and the various approaches adopted by previous curators. They frame the volume as a contribution to the field of exhibition history in general and that of the biennial exhibition in particular. In those terms, the book is a success. However, Remembering Istanbul is both more and less than a simple history of the Biennial. The book’s 16 essays afford an opportunity to think about the constitution of a ‘local’ event in a globalized world, the relationship between art works and their contexts, and the challenges inherent in any project of remembrance.
The book’s regrettably brief opening essays by Örer and Hoffman and Pedrosa are followed by contributions from the 10 previous curators of the Biennial and a further 4 from participating artists. While the chronological arrangement of the curatorial essays encourages a certain historical narrative, Remembering Istanbul is better read as a series of perspectives on the past. Each contributor pulls on different sources to tell their story; read together, the essays are almost like a network of roots, reaching both back into the past and spreading out around the world. Despite the many differences between the essays, three themes run throughout the book: the constitution of a local event in a globalized world; the relationship between art and its contexts; and the challenges involved in ‘remembering Istanbul’.
If it has become something of a commonplace to talk of Istanbul as a city poised between the global and the local, this book nevertheless provides a helpful set of commentaries on how the Istanbul Biennial has been positioned within a global art world. For some, Istanbul’s place on the global stage is self-evident. For example, Hou Hanru’s characterization of the biennial’s real function as one of “[stimulating] the dynamic process of the evolution of the locality as a part of the changing global world” (197) depends upon a local determined by the global. While localities evolve, they do so primarily in terms of the global.
In contrast, René Block’s describes the role of a biennial and the work of the curator as “[developing] an international context for the local art scene, to create real working and meeting places for artists” (77). The shift is telling; rather than seeing the biennial that aligns the local art scene with a pre-existing global, Block prompts us to consider the process through which the international and the global are generated as contexts for specific local events. Indeed, he reminds us that those contexts require work and maintenance. In short, the two essays mark different approaches to framing the relationship of the local biennial to a global and/or international art network.
Yet rather than speak of a ‘local’ biennial, it might be better to talk of the event as one situated in place. Such an approach foregrounds how ‘Istanbul’ comes to be conceptualized in the first place. As Beral Madra points out, while many artists did produce commentaries on Istanbul, “we also witnessed superficial references, readings reduced to a single sentence, and clichéd interpretations of this complex city” (39). What is at stake, she reminds us, is not simply how Istanbul is positioned within the global, but how “Istanbul” comes to be articulated in the first place. In that vein, Vasıf Kortun’s essay provides a particularly interesting account of the ways in which his curatorial experience was bound up in the political, economic, cultural, and architectural transformation of the city during the 1980s and 90s. He describes how Feshane, a former textile factory and the venue for the 3rd Biennial in 1992, had collapsed following the liberalization of the economy in the 1980s; the ongoing deindustrialization of the Golden Horn had left the building as an empty monument without any urban context but also made it possible to site the Biennial there. Economics, politics, and architectural transformations came together to generate a momentary context for the event.
Indeed, what is the relationship between an art event like the Istanbul Biennial and its contexts? Madra’s critique of the use of historical sites as “basic exhibition spaces” suggests that exhibition sites can have their own histories independent of their artworks; moreover – and perhaps more controversially – artworks staged in those locations ought to respond to and dialogue with those site-specific histories. Describing the 1992 Biennial, Kortun takes a similar approach: “Art [in the 1990s] was shifting from spatial practices to relational practices, from reacting to spaces to reacting to contexts” (59). While Kortun shares Madra’s commitment to developing site-specific exhibitions, Kortun’s decision in 1992 to not follow Madra’s example is an important difference and reminds us that the context – the place – of the Istanbul Biennial is never simply ‘Istanbul’. Rather, those contexts are dynamic, unstable, and themselves indelibly tied to a host of other conditions.
The third thread running through the volume concerns the project of remembrance itself: Not only why we remember, but how we remember. Madra provides an interesting entrance to the issue. Referring to her previous critiques of the Istanbul Biennials and implicitly highlighting her ‘insider’ status, she asks “which material constitutes a written source of information for the curator who comes to Istanbul with the purpose of working on a biennial” (29). In other words, she is asking about how an archive comes to be constituted. An archive published only in Turkish would have far less circulation outside of Turkey than one published in English; likewise, it seems far more likely to imagine a Biennial curator who reads no Turkish than a curator who reads no English. That imbalance – one by no means unique to the Istanbul Biennial – ought to remind us of the two different ways of conceptualizing the relationship between Istanbul and the global. Published in both Turkish and English, this volume manages to speak both to a “national” and an “international” audience. Yet as the curatorial collective What, How & For Whom reminds us, both curatorial projects and projects of remembrance are bound up not only in questions of why and how we work, but for whom we are working. Language is a central part of that.
The artist Ali Kazma makes a powerful case for memorial projects like this book. “It is very easy to conform to the status quo,” he writes, “in a place where there is no memory” (269). Further, however, this book helps to position the Istanbul Biennial on a global stage; to borrrow René Block’s phrase, Remembering Istanbul helps to begin marking out the multiple contexts of the biennial. As with all edited volumes, the essays sometimes vary in quality; in the same vein, a closing reflection by the curators Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa would have helped tie the book together into a more coherent whole. That said, there is something suggestive and exciting about the unfinished and ongoing project of Remembering Istanbul. The soon-to-be-opened online archive will provide even more opportunities to think about memory, place, and the role of art in a globalized world.
Timur Hammond is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently researching urban transformation in the Istanbul neighborhood of Eyüp.