Where are Turkish Artists and Turkey at the International Istanbul Biennial ? Local Positions under the Radar of Global Art

Riccardo Legena, Art Historian

The Istanbul Biennial is one of the largest art events in the Middle East. Founded as a platform for exchange between Turkish and international artists, it quickly grew into a meeting point of the global art avant-garde. The shift from local to global can be seen not only in the change of curators, sponsors and exhibition venues, but above all in the selection of themes. Political and site-specific topics disappear, and instead global and art-theoretical topics suddenly emerge. There is an undeniable difference between the Biennial direction and the Istanbul art scene. As a counter reaction to the globalization of the Istanbul Biennial, many initiatives were launched in Istanbul to network its own art scene: contemporary museums were founded, independent exhibition spaces curate critical exhibitions, publishers translate current art literature, newspapers publish feature pages and the art schools teach new art forms. All in all, the initiatives developed in reaction as counter measures to the Istanbul Biennial and in favor of the development of the Istanbul local art scene are probably more important than the Istanbul Biennial itself.

The biennial principle has had a major impact on the Middle East’s art world in two instances. The first time, when the original Biennale di Venezia began to invite countries from the Middle East to present their contemporary artists in the international competition in which they exposed themselves to global critique and discourses. The second time, when countries in the Middle East began to establish and conduct their own biennials, thereby exhibiting transnational art in a regional context (Fleck 2012 : 213).

In Egypt, these two processes began very early on. In 1938, the country participated in the Biennale di Venezia for the first time. The purchase of a permanent pavilion in the Giardini followed in 1952 and eventually the first national biennial was held in Alexandria in 1955. Egypt is years ahead of other states in the Middle East in these matters, this is mainly due to its state-financed cultural diplomacy lead by the Foreign Ministry. It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that other countries such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Iran began setting up their own biennial activities. At this time, Egypt made another attempt, as can be seen from the first Cairo Biennial in 1984, which still exists today (Vogel 2010 : 47).

Not coincidentally, these founding years run over the period from the 1980s to the 1990s. Indeed, these were times of great political upheaval in the Middle East, but also times of internationalization and cultural opening. At the same time, the global art scene was restructured with the replacement of modern art by a triumphant contemporary art (Madra 1994 : 11). Nowhere else in the Middle East is this so clearly visible as in Istanbul.

Today’s International Istanbul Biennial is one of the largest art events of the Middle East and has a clearly globalized profile, which is very much detached from discourses around Istanbul, Turkey or the Middle East. At the same time, Istanbul has a very internationally networked art scene that is strongly dedicated to local discourses. The divergent interaction between the global Biennial and the local art scene is exemplary for many large cities in the Middle East that seek a balance between global art and local identity. The situation in Istanbul can be explained by the unique history of its Biennial.

The art scene in Istanbul in the 1980s was strongly influenced by the transition from modern to contemporary art, as a small network of painters began to experiment with the emerging installation and conceptual art. There was no modern art museum in Istanbul at the time and only a few galleries and art critics engaged in contemporary art. In September 1987 opened the « International Istanbul Contemporary Art Exhibition » under the direction of Turkish curator Beral Madra and suddenly it became one of the greatest art shows in Turkey. Works of more than 70 artists from eight countries were exhibited at four different venues in Istanbul (Madra 1987 : 77). Many Istanbul residents and art lovers from all over Turkey flocked to this exhibition. Although the Istanbul Biennial was not the first group exhibition of contemporary art – technically it was not even the first biennial in Istanbul – the works on display hit a nerve with the Turkish elite (Antmen 2000 : 21). Despite a lack of money and only few resources at hand, the Biennial organization, İstanbul Kültür ve Sanat Vakfı, decided to continue the uniquely planned exhibition every two years.

The structure of the Istanbul Biennial differs enormously from its international predecessors, especially from the original one in Venice. Instead of individually curated national pavilions, which are only spatially related to each other, Istanbul focused on a single large and thematically connected exhibition, which is spread over several locations throughout the city. The artists are not appointed through a diplomatic process as in Venice but are selected by the curatorium according to the exhibition’s theme. Many works of art are also created on site, as local and site-specific contributions to the exhibition’s theme (Jones 2010 : 69).

This makes the Istanbul Biennial very similar to the Havana Biennial, which started three years earlier (Niemojewski 2010 : 98). However, it can hardly be assumed that there is a direct connection. The two founding histories are too different to be able to speak of the Istanbul Biennial as a copy of the Havana Biennial. The Havana Biennial arose from the political thought of breaking with the colonial claims and views of Western art towards art from the Third World with the creation of its very own biennial. The Istanbul Biennial completely lacked this ideological superstructure (Antmen 2000 : 16). In contrast to most other biennials of the 1980s, the Istanbul Biennial did not see itself as the political voice of « Third World » or « non-Western » art, mostly because Turkey didn’t consider itself as a « Third World » nation. The Istanbul Biennial was regarded as an alternative art platform that linked the various levels between the global, regional, national and local art production and was founded with the vision of integrating Turkish artists into the global art discourse. Turkish and international artists were to be exhibited side by side on an equal level in order to create a transnational discourse between the different art works. At the same time, the Turkish public was to be confronted with current art positions from all over the world. This meant that, unlike the Havana Biennial, artists from Europe and North America were deliberately invited (McEvilley 1993, 114).

The first three editions of the Istanbul Biennial were an embodiment of the Turkish art scene, with many references to contemporary artists worldwide. The Biennial resembled more an « imaginary museum » of Turkey, conceived for the local art public, than some kind of « talent market of the third world » for a global avant-garde (Antmen 2000 : 16). But the success of the first three editions led the organizers of İKSV to wish for an even bigger and more global event.

The international breakthrough of the Istanbul Biennial came with the fourth edition in 1995, for which the artistic supervision was entrusted to the German curator René Block. Block was aware of the idea and history behind the Istanbul Biennial and he also knew how to make the event more internationally relevant without losing touch with the local environment. The theme of the fourth edition was « ORIENT/ATION – The Vision of Art in a Paradoxical World » and dealt with the cultural disorientation of Istanbul, which as a city moves between Europe and the Orient, the West and the Third World and between tradition and modernity (Block 1995 : 21). The topic was highly controversial and hit exactly the state of things in Istanbul and its Biennial. Block had correctly understood that the Biennial system as it was known worldwide had to be loosened up in order to establish new locations like Istanbul as an alternative on the world map of major exhibitions (Antmen 2000 : 18).

Ironically, René Block’s decentralized and locally-oriented struggle against the established locations of Global Art led Istanbul itself to become a global center through its Biennial. Only one edition later Rosa Martinez was invited as the first international curator who had no connection with Istanbul or Turkey whatsoever but had already been curating biennials around the world for many years.

The themes of the Istanbul Biennial shifted abruptly: instead of dealing with social change and transnational interactions in the city, location-independent and art theoretical discourses on aesthetic experiences were held. Suddenly slogans about Istanbul, such as « magical rhythm » (Martinez 1997 : 29) or « poetic presence » (Colombo 1999 : 15), made the rounds, that would have been incompatible with the orientation of previous editions. The political had been replaced with the personal.

The subsequent editions of the late 1990s and 2000s almost all followed the pattern of the globalized art exhibition: the basic structure was retained, but the site-specific themes were replaced by global discourses. The international curators, all with worldwide biennial experience, conceived personal, but usually only brief exhibition impressions. Exceptions to this are the 9th edition under Charles Esche and Vasıf Kortun, which managed to become a globally important exhibition with a strong reference to Istanbul, and the 12th edition under the direction of the Croatian curatorial collective « What, How and For Whom? » (WHW), who was unexpectedly critical towards political institutions (WHW 2009 : 22).

A particularly large point of criticism for the Istanbul Biennial by the local art scene was the decreasing proportion of Turkish artists at the Istanbul Biennial (Antmen 2000 : 17). While in the first edition more than half of the approximately seventy artists came from Turkey, in the tenth edition there were only fourteen of more than one hundred. Although many independent exhibitions with local artists were included in the Biennial’s supporting program, the proportion of Turkish artists in the main program decreased significantly. The perceived gap between the Biennial and the art scene in Istanbul widened so strongly that in the run-up to the 13th Biennial in 2013, there were artists’ demonstrations and performative actions against the Biennial organization (Doğtaş 2017 : 206). The artists protested against the exclusion of local positions, against the gentrification of the neighborhoods around the exhibition venues and against a neo-liberal appropriation of the Biennial by sponsors of the private sector. When the artists protesting expressed their solidarity with the Gezi Park demonstration, the Turkish curator Fulya Erdemci therefore withdrew all works of art from the Biennial in public space (Doğtaş 2017 : 211).

The extraordinary thing about the Istanbul Biennial that distinguishes it from all other global biennials is the wide range of special exhibition venues and site-specific artworks. Since there was no suitable exhibition space for contemporary art in Istanbul, it was decided to exhibit in urban public space from the very first edition onwards (Green / Gardner : 123). « Contemporary Art in : Traditional Spaces » was the subtitle of the first two Biennials, which took place in various historical locations such as an ancient Greek church and an Ottoman bath (Madra 1987 : 15). The interaction between the new art and the old frame opened a dialogue between local tradition and global style, as desired by the organizers. The Biennials of the 1990s brought a change in the spatial concept. They no longer wanted to use traditional and historical places as exhibition spaces, but rather focus more on institutions that reflected social change in the city. From 1992 onwards, empty production facilities, military buildings, administrative services and public spaces were increasingly included in the exhibition concept (Jones 2010 : 75).

For example, in the third edition under the commission of Vasıf Kortun, the Feshâne, an empty Fez factory, was converted into an exhibition space. The selection of a specific building reflects the new spatial concept of the Istanbul Biennial in several ways. The Feshâne is an urban institution that is well-known in the city but had not yet been opened to the public (Tanyeli 2007 : 220). As an abandoned factory, it symbolizes the post-industrial change that Istanbul underwent at that time. This makes the Feshâne a political issue: various positions on conversion, gentrification and urban decay can be included. This automatically opens up a discourse within the framework of the Biennial, which in turn lowers the threshold of mediation between the exhibition object and the viewer. The Fez factory is not a white cube but interacts with the works of art exhibited in it through the traces left by the history of the building (Filipovic 2005 : 68).

The Feshâne, planned and built in France, was later moved to Istanbul at the end of the 19th century. There it served as a fez factory until 1925, when production was stopped by Atatürk’s hat law, which banned the Fez as a symbol of a backward-looking and non-European Turkey. The Feshâne remained abandoned for several decades and the neighborhood around it developed from a prestigious Ottoman quarter into a social hotspot (Kortun 1992 : 5).

Based on this building, an unbelievable number of narratives about the modernization and westernization of Turkey can be told : the industrial economy imported from Europe, the obsessive appropriation of Western norms, the postmodern conversion into the exhibition space of a global art event – each of these aspects managed to interact with the works of art on display. Kortun played with these narratives, picked them up or rejected them, supported or disproved them and thus opened a space for new discussions.

At the early Biennials in Istanbul all artists were equally exhibited. Thus, in the Feshâne older artists hung their work next to younger ones, well-known next to unknown and international next to Turkish artists – the hanging did not seem to favor any specific artists (Kortun 1992 : 211). This exhibition principle also lost its importance with the increasing globalization of the Istanbul Biennial. In the 10th edition under Hou Hanru, there were clear differences in the distribution of the works among the exhibition venues. In the Antrepo, the main site of the then held Biennial, globally established and art market-relevant works were exhibited, while political, institution-critical and above all local artists were banished to the periphery (Marchart 2008 : 36).

By the way, after the third Biennial, the Feshâne was renovated and converted into a contemporary art museum under the direction of Vasıf Kortun, but soon closed again for bureaucratic reasons. Today it houses a barely used festival area for Ottoman customs and traditions – the contemporary art museum was reopened as Istanbul Modern more than ten years later on the Antrepo site (Antmen 2000 : 18).

Should one read the globalization of the Istanbul Biennial as an argument for or against a rupture in Turkish art history ? Neither. Although the sponsoring private corporations and foundations marketed the Istanbul Biennial as a pioneering national exhibition ushering in a new art era in Turkey, it was probably more a product of the new dynamics in the Turkish art scene than vice versa. In the late 1970s, a network of young artists in Istanbul such as Serhat Kiraz, Ayşe Erkmen, Bedri Baykam, Erdal Aksel and Kemal Onsoy began to analyze and experiment with new forms, concepts, and subjects in contemporary art. With the re-democratization after the Evren coup and the economic opening of Turkey, which eventually peaked in an EU membership application, Turkish society experienced enormous political and economic changes, which were also to be felt in the art scene (Madra 1994 : 11).

Despite this large art production of the 1980s, its institutional conversion remained almost non-existent. At that time, there were no museums or exhibition spaces in Istanbul that corresponded to this new art (Artun 2006 : 123). Only traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture were taught at the academies, and art historical research largely spared Turkish modernism. Moreover, there were only a few patrons, collectors, art dealers, critics and journalists who addressed this new contemporary art (Vogel 2009 : 53).

The Istanbul Biennial was therefore an inevitable step – an expression of the institutional lagging behind the rapid artistic development that preceded it (Madra 1987 : 8). The Istanbul Biennial is thus not a rupture in Turkish art history, but – more importantly – a transmitter that carried Turkey’s new artistic developments out into the world while at the same time bringing the international art community to Istanbul, which the Istanbul Biennial has always succeeded in doing – perhaps even a little too well.

Istanbul is a longstanding bridgehead on the world map of the global art business. The Istanbul Biennial is to be mentioned in unison with other major global biennials such as São Paulo, Sydney, Dakar, Johannesburg, Shanghai or Kwangju. Every two years, the global art jet set travels to the Bosporus in order to discuss topics which are in no way related to Istanbul or Turkey. Globalized art has taken over the Istanbul Biennial and is pushing local positions to the edge of the event. Not much more has remained of the original idea than a good exhibition of international dimensions.

However, it was precisely this globalization of the Istanbul Biennial that forced the local Istanbul to restructure. During the globalization phase of the Biennial in the 2000s, six contemporary art museums – Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, Sakıp Sabanci Museum, Santralİstanbul, Elgiz Museum and Borusan Contemporary – were created in Istanbul, (Arslan 2009 : 241). Soon afterwards, independent exhibition rooms and art centers followed. New media such as installation and video art are now being taught at art academies, while since the turn of the millennium more and more young artists are turning away from classical genres and start to make conceptual art. Local publishers print art books and theoretical works in Turkish translation. As a counter-reaction to the globalized Istanbul Biennial, local biennials like the Sinopale, the Çanakkale Biennial or the Mardin Biennial with political and site-specific content are being created throughout the country. Even the Turkish state seems to understand in some way the importance of a contemporary cultural identity and has, for example, granted tax exemption for all kind of art sponsorship in the private sector (Örer 2013 : 120).

A lot has happened since the opening of the first Biennial in 1986 and much more is yet to come: on 14 September 2019, the latest edition of the Istanbul Biennial under the direction of Nicolas Bourriaud opened with the title « Seventh Continent » – a reference to the floating mountains of rubbish in the oceans. A clever leitmotif that can be understood as a call to renounce global art centers. However, the exhibition has not proven to do so. Bourriaud did not include the important local aspects of Istanbul, Turkey and the respective art scenes at all (Arend 2019 : 294). It is not yet known when the next edition will take place due to the ongoing pandemic situation, but it would be extremely surprising if the Istanbul Biennial were to disappear forever.

Contemporary art has fully arrived in Istanbul, but still no large cultural institution is independent; almost all of them are owned by foundations from huge multi-national and politically-associated enterprises (Doğtaş 2017 : 212). Turkey is currently experiencing a politically and socially highly sensitive phase and it is thus extremely difficult to predict how the Istanbul art location will develop in the future. As always in Turkey, everything remains possible. Yet contemporary art is not about institutions, but about people. If independent artists and curators resist the traditionalist drawback, the local art scene will continue to grow and thrive.

Istanbul today is one of the most interesting art metropolises in the world and it is due to the globalized Istanbul Biennial on one hand, but perhaps more importantly to the many artists and curators on the other, who opposed the globalized, site-detached narrative with local, regional, transnational, and intercultural positions. The goal of the first couple of Istanbul Biennials was to connect the Turkish art scene internationally, and they more than succeeded in doing so. Today, there is no important art exhibition in the world without one Turkish artist.

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Riccardo Legena, researcher and PhD-candidate at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy.

ORCiD ID: 0000-0002-3985-421X


Riccardo Legena, « Where are Turkish Artists and Turkey at the International Istanbul Biennial ? Local Positions under the Radar of Global Art », in : Perin Emel Yavuz, Alain Messaoudi, Silvia Naef, Fanny Gillet et Claudia Polledri (dir.), Dossier « Moderne et contemporain : usages historiographiques / Modern and contemporary: historiographical issues. Ateliers doctoraux 2018 », Carnet Hypothèses de l’ARVIMM [en ligne], Paris, ARVIMM, 2021. URL : https://arvimm.hypotheses.org/2038

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Perin Yavuz (10 avril 2021). Where are Turkish Artists and Turkey at the International Istanbul Biennial ? Local Positions under the Radar of Global Art. ARVIMM. Consulté le 13 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://arvimm.hypotheses.org/2038