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Kate Sutton on the Istanbul Biennial


For Hyperallergic, Kate Sutton writes about her favorite and least-favorite exhibitions of 2015, and the Istanbul Biennial fell into the, uh, least-favorite category. Her take on Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial approach is both laugh-out-loud funny and spot-on. Read her [full thoughts on Hyperallergic.][1]

Speaking of rhetorical hobbling, this fall’s Istanbul Biennial was by far the most disappointing exhibition of the year. This had nothing to do with its stalwart roster of artists — Pierre Huyghe, Emre Hüner, Francis Alÿs, Aslı Çavusoğlu, Cevdet Erek, and Haig Aivazian, among them — and everything to do with the smug posturing and bombastic rhetoric of the curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.

For her 2013 Documenta, Christov-Bakargiev pawned the unruliness of her exhibition-as-organism off as a curatorial strategy. And it worked, her network of artists and “agents” more or less successfully testing the myriad modes of inhabiting the traditional exhibition space of Kassel. When applied in half-assed form to Istanbul, however, this same strategy read like a shirking of curatorial responsibilities. (I guess to be expected from someone who prefers to think of herself as a “drafter” rather than a curator, which was the distinction she made during the Biennial’s press conference.) Armed with the promising title – “Saltwater” – and a premise that urged viewers to re-learn their experience of the city, taking to the Bosphorus rather than the three main streets they know off Taksim, the biennale had all the makings of a thinking (wo)man’s blockbuster. Indeed, the exhibition was more or less coherent in its central iteration in the Istanbul Modern, with a corridor rechristened “The Channel” operating much the same way “The Brain” did at the Fridericianum in Documenta. But Christov-Bakargiev didn’t stop there. Rather than build out her theme, taking to the many municipal ferries and stationing a route of works leading all the way up both sides of the Strait and out to the mouth of the Black Sea (where Lawrence Weiner’s lonely little lighthouse looked on, unvisited save for a few die-hards and obliged gallery directors), Christov-Bakargiev talked fast and loose about the scope (1,001 of the 1,500 advertised artworks were actually tiny drawings that made up one single display) and geographic spread of an exhibition that, in reality, was concentrated in Beyoğlu. The mere handful of offsite venues could hardly justify the curator’s warnings that one would need at least three full days to see it all. By exaggerating the scale, Christov-Bakargiev turned the conversation around the biennial into one of accessibility, not content or context. Even more problematically, detractors were blasted with the curator’s trademark disdain and the grossly unsupported claim that the target audience was never the international art world, but rather the local population. Like an art world Gwyneth Paltrow, Christov-Bakargiev’s efforts to connect with “the commoners” only reveals how out of touch she really is. It would be interesting to learn what percentage of the local population took their private speedboats out to visit Huyghe’s (invisible) underwater installation.

While Christov-Bakargiev’s tantrums and theatrics can ultimately be ignored, there was something more troubling about her proposal that war be thought of as waves washing up on shore, one after the other. Pretty, yes, we’ll give her that. But by sticking to conflict only in mostly calcified form (Armenian genocide, yes; Syria, no), she dismissed a tremendous aspect to the context: why is it so hard to travel up and down the Bosphorus? Why do the international art worlders only stick to those three streets they know off Taksim? Why is it politically valiant to speak of the Armenian genocide, but beside the point to mention current tensions? I can sympathize with not wanting to get bogged down (try to find a person who didn’t have their soul crushed by a glimpse of All the World’s Futures at this year’s Venice Biennale) but the privileges of this position are glaring. It’s easy to shrug off waves when you’ve only seen them from the hotel kiddie pool.

*Image caption: Adrián Villar Rojas, “The Most Beautiful of All Mothers,” 2015; Istanbul Biennial