a good neighbour
15th Istanbul Biennial
16 September - 12 November 2017
Unknown to me at the time, which I am now grateful for, was the artistic practice of Elmgreen & Dragset, the curators of a good neighbour, the 2017 edition of the Istanbul Biennial. This lack of knowledge allowed me to naturally feel the complete unity of the biennial, taking it as a whole for once. None of the biennials I have been to before have such a strong feeling of unison, making this accidentally my favorite art show (and piece) this year. As I became aware of their process and work I realized how their project was the biennial, and, unlike their fake art fair The Well Fair in 2016, Elmgreen & Dragset emerge here with a very real, global and local, commentary on the xenophobic world we are in.
Elmgreen & Dragset did not include their work within the biennial but their work was ALL of the biennial. Beginning with the advertising for the fair, whether in print or in the form of online videos, the curators asked visitors, and presented to us, variations of what defines “a good neighbour,” expanding this theme beyond just the idea of ourselves and the people living next to us. This deliberately hesitant start connected to itself well, as the artist duo was able to transcend the concept via the work of fifty-six artists, whether with older selections or one of the thirty new commissioned pieces. The collection of all fifty-six artists developed the original concept created by Elmgreen & Dragset into a global connection. The language that trickled down and translated into the biennial’s art pieces was able to cover a wide array of emotions about our neighbors, about the human race and ourselves. The show was contemporary and urban, so very understanding of life, money, shifts, change, and time, but still sharp when it came to more specific representations of sadness, loss, and cultural evolution, while also adding a rural mix of imagery in order to make its urban setting look even more bizarre. Yet within this urban landscape we still saw war, displacement, and it’s affect on human life and space.
We encounter accessible and global notions of loss, movement, history, and glamorization with works like Adel Abdessemed’s 2013 ivory sculpture Cri, a three-dimensional rendering of Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photo reconfiguring and translating it into a properly universal cry of loss. Other included works show the more deliberate displacement of humans due to work and city life, as in the selection of photographs from Sim Chi Yin’s The Rat Tribe series (2011 – 2014), while additional pieces describe the opposite action of cleaning up, as with the study of skilled artisanal labor and their removal in the light and music activation of Dirty Box (2016) by Bilal Yilmuz. This adapting and lack of adapting was a recurring theme in most of the featured works, with depictions of movement collectively offering more of a comment on private and public spaces and where the idea of home is. Very few of the selected works addressed us humans and our effect on our home. The one work that has stayed with me among this group is the live installation of worms breaking down the Styrofoam mattress of a baby’s cot in Aude Pariset’s Toddle Promession (2016).
[Sim Chin Yin's The Rat Tribe series (2011-2014)]
[Bilal Yilmuz, Dirty Box (2016)]
[Aude Pariset, Toddle Promession (2016)]
Unraveling the different attributes of home and the layers of it’s meaning and representation we reach the basic problem that persists among mankind: ownership and control over this land, which has been and will always be there with or without us. Two works exhibited in the Istanbul Modern portion of the biennial present us with this clash of capitalistic control and human loss where one would try anything to steal or control the smallest area possible, even if uninhabitable. Lydia Ourahamane’s All the way up to the Heavens and down to the depths of Hell (2017) recreates a visual we have arguably become used to with the concrete foundation and four posts of an unfinished structure. Other architectural installations like Rayyane Tabet’s 2015 Colosse Aux Pieds D’Argile offer evidence of the trickery often used in land disputes. Sourced from a wholesaler that repurposes architectural fittings, the amputated nineteenth-century columns in Tabet’s installation were clandestinely dismantled by a real estate developer who faced resistance from the owners of an old house in Beirut.
[Lydia Ourahamane, All the way up to the Heavens and down to the depths of Hell (2017)]
[Rayanne Tabet, Colosse Aux Pieds D'Argile (2015)]
Having six different locations generally within easy walking distance not only helped with the collection and direction of ideas but also really pushed viewers to experience the city as we trod along, up and down the alleys and stairs of Istanbul. Installed in venues too close to drive to, by foot really was the best way to navigate the biennial, and to experience the city with its neighbors—especially the solo projects, one example being that of the Turkish artist collective Yogunluk. With their dark, sound installation The House (2017), Yogunluk brought viewers to their small apartment atelier in the middle of the city, where we were asked to wait outside for our turn to enter the space and thus were forced to experience the happenings of a busy alleyway.
The fully developed and probably most literal piece of the biennial was Mahmoud Khaled’s “Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man” (2017), which took over a villa and offered a portrait of a fictional character, exposing his very private and lonely life to us, his neighbors. The installation was spread across the three storey villa, fully set with an audio tour narrating the personal shame of this man, right down to the details of referencing the contemporary Egyptian film Toul Omry (All My Life) and paying homage to Felix Gonzales Torres’s “perfect lovers” sculpture among the character’s belongings.
Beyond the excellence of its curatorial selection, experiencing its various locations and concept in addition to the overall theme itself, the 2017 Istanbul Biennial is an art piece the sum of its included art pieces. A good curatorial job is one that makes the whole exhibition look like one large installation, rather than a collection of works. This selection of venues also forced us to manoeuvre around different living spaces, from the large and industrial to the small and homely, presenting art as part of the journey. The selected works took the biennial as far as its curators wanted it to branch out, while still remaining within this concept of the individual and the other, asking us to consider what makes “a good neighbour.”