Istanbul Biennial

The 13th edition of the Istanbul Biennial has faced more than one challenge and has been subject to several changes during the past year. Since May of this year, news about the sporadic events and protests taking place at the Gezi Park in Istanbul have been at the heart of international media.

Yet, I do not seek to discuss the social and political aspects of the well-known Gezi resistance. But rather deviate my interest to the artistic resistance taking place in a crippled Istanbul. And more specifically concerning the Biennial taking place this weekend in the city. What are the repercussions of socio-political events on the Biennial? And how are they related?

Titled “Mom, am I a Barbarian?” the 13th Istanbul Biennial curated by Fulya Erdemci (who is the director of SKOR, the Foundation For Art and Public Domain in Amsterdam), will focus on “the notion of the public space as a political forum”. The idea of the public platform serving for political purpose could not have been more mirrored in the actual realities of the city and in the essence of the crisis.

Remember how the snowball effect started: a small group of peaceful protesters tried to object the destruction of Gezi Park in favor of the protection of green spaces, and more particularly public space. The violent reaction of the riot police –captured live on various social medias- has then amplified the situation to a national level. This brings us back to the Biennial and the significance of a project oriented toward public space in a year as particular for Turkey as this one.

Ironically enough, while the Biennial intends to focus primarily on the basis of public space, the political situation has barred the possibility to exhibit art in actual public spaces throughout the city as originally intended by the committee. However, in a recent public statement Fulya Erdemci explains:

Accomplishing these projects that articulate the question of public domain in urban public spaces under these circumstances might contradict their essence and purpose; we are thus convinced that ‘not realizing’ them is a more meaningful statement than having them materialize under such conditions. Therefore, we decided to move away from the urban public spaces”.

Doesn’t the lack of action imply the victory of dictatorship over freedom of expression?

While answers to this question are subject to debate, other changes were manifested for the 13th edition of the Istanbul Biennial such as the length of the exhibit. Initially taking place from September 14 to November 10, the dates were changed in order to narrow the display of art to the period starting September 14 to October 20, 2013. In addition, an altering feature to this year’s biennial compared to the previous ones would be the decision to proceed with free admission to all visitors. The decision to discard entry charges most probably aims at increasing the number of local and international visitors. But even more, due to the soothing qualities of art, the Biennial foundation probably wishes to provide a place of refuge to people, a place where they can unwind and forget about the exterior turmoil.

The special circumstances of the country represent a challenge for the Biennial and any other art initiative. However rest assured, even though the 13th Istanbul Biennial decided to retrieve from the chaotic streets of the city, many artists continue to foster public space with their art exactly as a stage for political dialogue and protest…

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