Call to Prayer

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, 2015, installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, 2015, installation view, 14th Istanbul Biennial


In Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms, the 14th Istanbul Biennial, salt water is charged with linking disparate practices and geographies. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev stretches the poetic capacity of the symbolic material until it touches anything of consequence, including international trade, time, heartbeats, and molecular chemistry. Thought forms, though secondary in the exhibition’s title, take equal weight thematically as they engage the mythical realms of site and meaning. While underlining the collaborative and propositional structures of authorship that constellate around the exhibition, thought forms also relate to water and history: the polarities of seen/unseen, real/imaginary, and past/present.


The biennial is spread out across the city, with a concentration of works in four group presentations. The Istanbul Modern houses “The Channel”: a long corridor space that references the Bosphorus while knotting together diverse disciplines and eras, much in the vein of Christov-Bakargiev’s “Brain” section of dOCUMENTA (13). The painted blue walls of “The Channel” provide the backdrop for Charles Darwin’s writings on orchids and mimicry, Karl Blossfeldt’s photographic plant studies, the botanist Émile Gallé’s art nouveau glassware, and the theosophist Annie Besant’s astral watercolors of thought forms. A drawing by Ana Prvački, a first edition of Leon Trotsky’s The Real Situation in Russia (1928), and Frans Krajcberg’s driftwood paintings are included and loaned from Christov-Bakargiev’s personal collection, conveying the impression that “The Channel” functions as a laboratory for thinking and exchange. Although Robert Smithson’s film is installed elsewhere in the Modern, Christov-Bakargiev slips in her own (though officially unattributed) artistic video of a trip to Spiral Jetty.


Across the city, other works are presented individually in private homes, hotel rooms, a studio, a lighthouse, a sneaker shop, a bank, a hammam (Turkish bath), a library, a cistern, a car park set for demolition, and on boats. The strength of the exhibition lies in these pilgrimage sites, which layer an aura of past over the present, highlighting the porosities of both artwork and place. Christov-Bakargiev drew inspiration from Trotsky’s crumbling house on the island of Büyükada, where he allegedly wrote his memoir while in exile from 1929 to 1932; and from Laura Poitras’s film Citizenfour (2014), the majority of which takes place in a hotel room in Hong Kong. By bringing these works into sites of isolation, the exhibition posits private space as today’s agora—our contemporary arena for exchange. The guidebook indicates a number of unofficial sites where there is no artwork on view but where visitors are encouraged to linger and “imagine” the venue—much to the confusion of the proprietors.


Considering the drastic changes that occurred in the weeks leading up to its opening, the exhibition demonstrated a timely awareness of the political and social context. When their cease-fire ended in July, Turkish forces entered into open combat with Kurdish militants, escalating toward civil war. In August, they gave the United States access to Turkish air bases to strike ISIL targets in Syria; in the same month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called a repeat election, unwilling to accept defeat after his party lost the majority. In September, the number of migrant refugees from Syria exceeded two million—the largest refugee population worldwide, with more than 300,000 in Istanbul alone. Works on view grappled with the Kurdish struggle, the 1915 genocide of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, and the recent Gezi Park uprisings of 2013. In a city geographically encircled by war, the biennial makes an argument for addressing politics abstractly; it balances the overtly political with subjects that indirectly surround conflict—love and alienation, impermanence and history.


In the poet and artist Heather Phillipson’s video installation, the human heart is both an object and a character. Rapidly spliced visuals are set to a spoken-word soundtrack of the artist narrating the dissociative pull between logic and emotions: our absurd delusions and paranoia in the face of heartbreak. The Alexandrian artist Wael Shawky’s video The Secrets of Karbala (2015) tells the story of the Venetian Doge’s sacking of Constantinople from an Arab perspective. Projected in an ancient hammam, scenes shot on the rocking water find their counterpoint within the reverberant bathhouse. The protagonist of Ed Atkins’s Hisser (2015), which is based on a true story, is asleep in bed when he’s swallowed into a sinkhole. In a carefully orchestrated play of gravity and déjà vu, the video is installed on two floors in a private residence on the island of Büyükada; the vertical hold is loosened and the frames spin out of control, carrying the viewer in a dizzying revolve between the floors. On the same island, the masterpiece of the exhibition is Adrian Villar Rojas’s The Most Beautiful of All Mothers (2015)—life-size sculptures of animals installed just off the shore beyond Trotsky’s house. Each white fiberglass animal carries an organic form on its back as if shepherding it out of the sea; they alternatively meet the viewer’s eye, or gaze beyond. The baroque visual language befits Villar Rojas’s majestic subjects; like harbingers of the Anthropocene crisis, the animals appear to be migrating back to land.


If there is one piece that seems emblematic of Christov-Bakargiev’s approach to the biennial, it would be Pierre Huyghe’s underwater stage that rests just a few meters off the coast of Sivriada, a small barren island jutting steeply out of the Sea of Marmara. Sivriada is known as Dog Island because in 1911 some 80,000 stray dogs were brought there and left to die—it is said that even from the mainland 10 miles away, they could be heard crying. Though unfinished, Huyghe’s work is permanent and will eventually be accessible to divers. The poured-concrete stage will over time become home to an underwater ecosystem, welcoming Turritopsis dohrnii, an immortal jellyfish that can return to a childlike state in moments of duress. Huyghe has found ways to counteract what he calls the “hysterical object,” or a work that demands to be seen, through natural rhythms and disappearances. In this case, he creates a future relic that is mysteriously out of sight, a site of change revealing personal preoccupations with time and permanence. This is an exhibition of ghosts, and nowhere is the power of the unseen more lasting and palpable.


The morning of the biennial’s opening, the front pages of international newspapers bore the image of the Syrian three-year-old boy Aylan Kurdi face-down in the sand. His body had washed ashore on a beach in Bodrum after his family had tried to escape Syria by boat. Rather than a life source, salt water mutated into a threatening and senseless adversary. That same night, during an evening of openings on İstiklal Street, a nearby peaceful demonstration was met with police-administered tear gas that drifted into the galleries; they closed their windows and the evening proceeded amid what seemed like routine measures. It was impossible to feel detached from the disquieting passage of time and the construction of history.


Jarrett Gregory is an associate curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Sivriada. Photograph by Julian Nitzsche, 2014, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Sivriada. Photograph by Julian Nitzsche, 2014, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,