"The biennale can function as a sign of solidarity with the art scene in Turkey"

Interview with Elmgreen & Dragset

Photo: Elmar Vestner

The 15th Istanbul Biennial opens on September 15 under the optimistic title “a good neighbour” – despite a sociopolitical climate that makes the work of academics and cultural practitioners extremely difficult. Eva Scharrer interviewed the curators, the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, a day before the official press conference in Istanbul. 

 

Eva Scharrer: You have participated in the Istanbul Biennial three times – in 2013, 2011 and 2001. How many Istanbul Biennials have you seen, and can you name a favourite?

Elmgreen & Dragset: Altogether we’ve seen five editions of the Istanbul Biennial. It’s hard to choose a favourite; in a way, all the editions over the years constitute a bigger project. That’s what’s been so amazing about curating this edition: we feel honoured to be a part of this vibrant organization that shifts and changes from over time; this year marks its thirtieth anniversary. That said, we are big fans of the 2013 biennial, curated by Fulya Erdemci, which persevered even through the large-scale demonstrations at the time. Her edition focused on how we interact with public space and the changing face of Istanbul as a city. The theme, “Mom, am I barbarian?” spoke about those who are not visible in society, those who are the most oppressed and excluded. The social questions raised by that edition remain relevant today.

Given that you must know the city quite well, how did you personally experience the massive changes the city has gone through since 2001, especially visible in the Beyoğlu/Galata area, usually the main neighbourhood of the biennial, and the face of İstiklâl street?

In the sixteen years since we first visited Istanbul in 2001, we’ve seen tremendous changes throughout the entire city – now it’s like a completely modernised urban landscape, and things are expanding to the north at rapid speed. Whole areas that used to be inhabited by small businesses such as hardware stores and wood workshops have morphed into trendy neighbourhoods with cafés, design shops and boutique hotels. Other parts of the city, less frequented by tourists, have seen a surge in new shopping malls of all levels, from discount to luxury. The harbour area around the Istanbul Modern – one of our Biennial venues – is currently undergoing a substantial transformation, so a lot of the works there (including those by Young-Jun Tak, Alper Aydin, Latifa Echakhch, Klara Lidén, and Rayyane Tabet) address issues around urban development and are in dialogue with the surroundings. Alper Aydin’s work, for example, consists of a bulldozer blade that has pushed a bunch of young, freshly cut trees into a corner, commenting on the impact of human construction on the environment.

 

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Can you say something regarding your choice of venues?

There are six venues in our edition of the biennial: Galata Greek Primary School, Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, ARK Kültür, Yoğunluk Atelier and Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam. These are all within walking distance of each other, so together they make up a kind of neighbourhood in themselves. And each venue represents a different kind of community institution: museum, home, hammam, workplace and school.

You were asked to curate the 15th Istanbul Biennial before the attempted military coup happened in July 2016, but even then the political climate was tense. Did you have any doubts about taking on the task?

Of course, we were wary about walking into such a complicated social and political situation. And at the beginning we were sometimes unsure if we were the right ones to lead the biennial through such troubled times. But we’ve spent a lot of time visiting Istanbul since we were appointed curators in April 2016, and during these trips we’ve been listening to and talking with locals that have much better insight into the circumstances than we have. We’ve met with artists, curators, academics and other local people to hear their stories and gain a better understanding of the situation that moves beyond the sensational headlines you see in the news media. What we’ve learned is that the biennial is a key event on multiple levels for Istanbul’s cultural scene, and it can function as a sign of solidarity with the art scene in Turkey, to show them that the international community hasn’t turned its back on them. A biennial can be a place for people to gather together, to get inspired and to generate hope.

 

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I assume you had many discussions with Turkish artists, journalists and other cultural practitioners regarding the possibility/necessity of doing – or cancelling – the biennial after the coup. You decided to go ahead, and I can understand the reasons. Were you given any “rules” regarding what not to do or show? (For instance, when I was asked to co-curate the Sharjah Biennial in 2007, the set of rules was quite simple: No nudity, no insult against God, no insult against the Ruler.) Or, to put it differently: to what degree can the Turkish artists especially address political subjects in their work without risking too much?

Yes, we had many long discussions about whether or not to do the show after the coup attempt. It soon became clear that having the biennial this year is as urgent as ever before. In terms of what we can do or cannot do, neither we nor the invited artists have been censored or self-censoring. However, one project couldn’t happen because the installation contained a huge amount of alcoholic beverage bottles, and Turkish law states that liquor bottles cannot be shown in a public display. But that is no different from the policies in many other countries, or from when we, as artists, were told by the New York City authorities that we were not allowed to show tobacco on a street poster which depicted a smoking cigar in an ashtray with a porcelain figure of a boy on it.

What were the main obstacles you were facing while working on the biennial?

As we mentioned, one obstacle we encountered early in the process was the coup attempt and the subsequent purge. Another major obstacle has been reduced international financial support due to the political events that have transpired in Turkey over the past year. Also, at the beginning, some American artists, for example, were reluctant to come to Turkey for research, but after Trump got elected, everyone seemed to realize that solidarity with progressive forces everywhere is urgent.

 

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Your curatorial concept from December 2016 consists of a set of questions regarding what constitutes “a good neighbour”. Who did you address these questions to, and how will they be answered by the artists you invited?

Exactly: rather than doing a standard format press release, we wrote forty questions asking what makes a good neighbour, like: “Is a good neighbour an elderly widow who seldom goes out?” or “Is a good neighbour someone who reads the same newspaper as you?” These questions are addressed to a general audience. They also reappear with photographs taken by the biennial artist Lukas Wassmann in the form of an international billboard project, with graphic design by Rupert Smyth. We’ve collaborated with institutions in different cities to put these billboards up in public spaces – where advertisements would usually be, extending the geographic reach of the exhibition. In Istanbul, the artists engage with themes that relate to the overarching question of what it means to be a good neighbour. Lungiswa Gqunta’s project, for example, is a “lawn” of broken Coca Cola bottles that references a reality even in post-apartheid South Africa, in which it’s mostly affluent whites who have lawns. Upturned, broken bottles are also placed on garden walls there to deter outsiders. Another artist, Kasia Fudakowski, has made a fence-like series of panels that each have a name and an identity, like the individual characters one might encounter in a neighbourhood. Brazilian artist Victor Leguy, on the other hand, has gone out into the urban landscape of Istanbul and collaborated with different people he met, all with a migrant background. The objects and stories he exchanged with these individuals are on display at Istanbul Modern – although as a response to the erasure of history and the demand to integrate, the top half of every object is whitewashed. Most of the artists have responded in very personal ways to the theme. It’s as if the complexity of reality both in Turkey and elsewhere has created a need for art of a more introspective character.

 

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Considering the title, it seems surprising that there are few artists from neighbouring countries – the Balkans, for example. Did this geographical aspect of neighbourhood not interest you?

We don’t see the term “neighbour” as just applying to people, but to geographic and geopolitical neighbours as well, but today these “neighbourly” relations do not only pertain to the countries across nearby physical borders. That said, there are artists involved born in Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Lebanon and Romania. All in all we’ve invited 56 artists from 32 countries to participate in “a good neighbour”, and the exhibition’s publications extend this reach even further. There are two biennial publications – one is an exhibition book that includes essays and short texts about the show and every artist’s work, along with practical information like maps and opening hours – and the other is a story book, which contains almost seventy contributions revolving around the exhibition’s theme. For the story book, we invited authors, Halide Velioğlu, for example, to contribute. Her piece focuses on her family’s history in Bosnia and how this has been impacted by the region’s conflicts, while at the same time casting a glance into the life of ordinary household items, and seeing home as a place of resistance in times of war. From a local perspective, we are very fond of 82-year-old Candeğer Furtun’s contribution to the biennial, where she says that her nine pairs of widely spread macho male legs represent Turkey and its eight neighbours.

As artists who work collaboratively, with each other but also with others, you have often created conceptual exhibition scenarios. I assume your approach here was different, but would you say that you completely moved into the position of “curators”, or is the biennial also an artwork of sort?

This is a question people ask us a lot, because in the past we’ve made exhibitions that have been like overall stagings, where each individual artwork became a piece in a bigger narrative. But we think it would be strange to turn the whole Istanbul Biennial into a project of ours with that approach. We want the participating artists to be able to tell their stories; it’s not about us telling ours. We have carried our own way of working together through dialogue over to the biennial. We’ve had conversations and developed ideas with all the invited artists, and we think that their works can help remind us that there is political potential in everyone’s personal story. In today’s increasingly complex geopolitical landscape, instead of following the oversimplified messages we hear from the media or populist leaders, we need to find better ways to communicate with each other and co-exist together.

 

EVA SCHARRER is a curator and writer based in Berlin.

 

The 15th Istanbul Biennial will take place between 16 September and 12 November 2017.

 

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