Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) is a strong argument for the continued relevance of the classic exhibition form. “We are going to do a real exhibition”, curators Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa provocatively proclaimed at their first pre-biennial press conference last fall. In other words, an exhibition that takes place in a traditional exhibition space and consists of carefully installed aesthetic objects; not a project that emphasizes discourse production and social events or vacates the institution to move out into the urban fabric.
A real exhibition is in fact what meets the viewer in the three main exhibition halls of the old customs buildings Antrepo 3 and 5 down at the quay in the Beyoğlu district in Istanbul. Works by a hundred artists are soberly installed in painted white and gray rooms in an equally sober, temporary exhibition architecture designed by Ryue Nishizawa. There is no doubt that the twelfth Istanbul Biennial is a calling for a return to order, a rappel à l’ordre. In one respect it is conservative, but the conservatism of this exhibition is simultaneously the necessary condition for a series of radical curatorial decisions and artistic positions.
This can be phrased more drastically: with the twelfth Istanbul Biennial the age of the white cube seems to be definitely approaching its end. This might sound strange. Is this exhibition not installed precisely in the classic, white-walled gallery? And is it thus not instead a re-establishment of the white cube at the expense of the more experimental exhibition practices of the past two decades’ biennials (not least in Istanbul)? But “the white cube” is not primarily the name of a type of gallery architecture and exhibition design (white walls, sparse furnishings, general lighting, etc.); it is the name of an art-theoretical argument according to which this architecture and design dispositif have ideological effects. The white cube, we have learned since Brian O’Doherty introduced the term in 1976, isolates the artwork from the social reality, stifles its political potential and reduces spectatorship to a passive gaze.
The twelfth Istanbul Biennial definitely confirms what we have actually known for a long time: that it is in fact this argument that is reductive, that an artwork is not automatically disarmed by the color of the walls in the exhibition space, and that a person does not leave political reality when she enters into an art institution. By extension it also demonstrates that the concepts and analyses that form the basis of the white cube argument are no longer relevant in order to think art’s critical possibilities in the contemporary social, political and economic situation. The notion that the bourgeois art institutions maintain an alienating ideology of aesthetic autonomy that separates art from the world of political actions is insufficient as a basis for a critical or radical stance in the contemporary neo-liberal capitalist situation, in which these institutions are methodically dismantled in favor of micromanaged cultural-political initiatives, an event culture that gladly embraces audience participation yet is incompatible with any kind of complexity, and a corporate culture from which free criticism and political radicalism are excluded by definition.
Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) builds on a couple of overarching curatorial positions. The first: the biennial is not the city. The curators have not felt any responsibility for Istanbul as a metropolis in Europe’s periphery, as a place where histories and cultures intersect or as a battleground in the global class struggle. They have not chosen to use the exhibition as a socio-political project, drawing attention to the city’s margins or activating the urban space. One can imagine several reasons for this decision, not least that the long-term effects of such measures are highly uncertain and are therefore only likely to serve the interests of the tourism and event industries. Regardless, this decision makes it possible for the curators to “avoid unintended contextualizations” and implement a clear and focused exhibition whose five sections are located in the same area. If on the one hand this is a step away from the tradition of politically engaged, site-specific art, then on the other it is also a clear rejection of the regional political and business agenda that often lies behind the very existence of biennials and exerts a quiet influence on their design.
Secondly, Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) establishes a new, smaller curatorial genre: the exhibition as commentary. The exhibition as such takes its starting point in Felix Gonzalex-Torres’ work, which, the curators explain, navigated between “political provocation” and “rigorous attention to the formal aspects of artistic production”. Gonzalex-Torres’ works are not physically present in the exhibition, but the biennial’s title and subtitle are directly taken from the American artist and each of the five sections of the exhibition has a specific work of Gonzalez-Torres as model or paradigm. For example, the section Untitled (Abstraction), which discusses the political possibilities of abstraction, is based on Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Bloodwork-Steady Decline) from 1994, a sheet of graph paper with a drawn diagonal, which using simple formalism also describes the failing immune system of the AIDS-stricken artist; and the group exhibition Untitled (History), which is about art as experimental historiography, refers to Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled from 1988, a painting where a suggestive list with names and dates are written in white against a black background. The practical effects of this curatorial approach are primarily stylistic – Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) is quite simply a very elegantly composed exhibition – but also pedagogical: the repeated references to Gonzalez-Torres create a common historical-aesthetic sounding board and an interplay between the individual details and the whole that make the exhibition’s large assemblage of works coherent and surveyable.
With these points of departure the twelfth Istanbul Biennial asks a question that is simple yet immense: what are the possible political stances for an art that does not seek to repeal its alienation, to exceed its institutional context in favor of direct political practice? What are the artistic object’s – or even the commodity’s – possible politics? The exhibition’s different sections indicate possible answers to this question: Untitled (Abstraction) advocates a political reading of “abstract” art and its heirs; Untitled (Death By Gun) argues for a formally advanced realism; Untitled (History) claims that art can serve as critical historiography; Untitled (Passport) – the most imprecisely curated section – sets up a romantic, utopian image of art as poetic exile; and Untitled (Ross) reminds us of art’s ability to contribute to the process of political subjectification (the example is the gay movement and the AIDS crisis).
The biennial’s central section is without a doubt Untitled (Abstraction). It is the first section that the visitor encounters and to some extent it sets the framework for the rest. As with the others, it consists of a large, gray-painted space in which a constellation of artworks by various artists is installed (a “group exhibition”), surrounded by a system of small, whitewashed rooms with one or more works by a single artist (“solo presentations”). The group exhibition brings together some thirty historical and contemporary works, which are openly and associatively linked together to a larger whole. One can mention Lygia Clarke’s Bichos sculptures from the 1960s, small polyhedrons in metal whose sides are linked together with hinges and can be manipulated and reshaped by the viewer; Pedro Cabrita Reis’ Scandinavian (2001), an upside-down sick-bag from the airline SAS, whose fastidious design makes it reminiscent of a minimalist sculpture; and Runo Lagomarsino’s Trans-Atlantic (2010-11), a series of yellowed papers on which the shadow of a ship’s mast during a transatlantic trip has traced a horizontal line.
The solo presentations prolong the play of associations and historical and thematic connections. Renete Lucas’ installation Falha (2010) consists of large, simple and rugged wooden boards that cover the floor and are arranged against each other in various formations and, like Clarke’s sculptures, can be rearranged by the viewer; and Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin’s expansive and complex installation Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect (2008-) depicts a speculative history about the interconnections between historical modernism and global politics, where a Calder sculpture turns out to be translatable to a schematic sketch of the antagonisms and relations of interdependence between the world powers in 1943. The group exhibition’s simple argument seems to be that abstract art can speak about a political reality because there has never been any conflict between the two, because abstraction is always already political, always already infiltrated by the social and contingent life forms it wanted to repress, because it registers and reveals the tensions in the historical and political world that surrounds it.
This argument returns in various forms in each of the biennial’s sections, from Untitled (Death by Gun), where a series of artworks with varying degrees of formal sophistication address armed violence as a global and historical problem (one can mention the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s ambitious film with marionettes, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show Files from 2010, which in episodes reflects the bloody history of the territorial and economic conflicts that formed the basis of the Christian Crusades in the Middle East in the 1000s), to Untitled (Ross), where a number of sculptures, installations and photographic works return to art’s ability to produce other models of community or represent marginalized identities (one can mention the artist collective Group Material’s famous AIDS Timeline from 1989, which in text and image inscribes the history of the AIDS epidemic into a network of cultural and political events).
But the argument is specified in perhaps the most interesting way in Untitled (History), which examines the artwork’s ability to create other, critical readings of historical events and historiographic narratives. In the oblong space of the central group exhibition a number of works are collected that through unexpected juxtaposition, unconventional use of documents and eccentric selection or manipulation reveal repressed historical phenomenon and set up new perspectives on established historiography: Voluspa Jarpa’s Biblioteca de no historia (2010) creates a history where none had existed before by assembling previously classified documents about the dictatorship in Chile in large volumes that are lined up in a bookcase along one of the exhibition walls; Antoni Muntada’s series of simple photomontages, Media Sites – Media Monuments Budapest (1998), generates defamiliarizing effects by juxtaposing snapshots from tourist destinations in Budapest with photographs of the same places taken at decisive moments in the history of the city; and Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi’s Letters That Go Into the Shredder (2008-11) presents a kind of historiographic uncertainty by displaying three copies of one and the same destroyed and reconstructed letter from the US Embassy in Iran in 1979, where the text varies slightly from one copy to the others. Taken together, the works in Untitled (History) show that contemporary art, on account of its repertory of forms and techniques, has unique abilities to produce new ways of understanding and relating to historical-political developments.
Of course there are many things to remark on and object to when discussing an exhibition of this scale. That the strict focus on artworks with an unproblematic object status and high exhibition value excludes all performance art, all relational projects and any discursive platforms is one of the exhibition’s premises. A further effect of this, however, is that the narrow selection of video works gives a clumsy impression: it is as if the curators here had rewarded work that was lavishly produced rather than formally advanced and complex. One can also note that the focus on less established artists (a relatively large part of the participating artists are not part of the biennial circuit’s usual suspects and do not live and work in the art world’s global metropoles) is not matched by any desire to challenge established art historical narratives: the historical origins of the artistic tradition that is represented in this exhibition remains a post-minimalist and conceptual art of the North American model (in this regard the exhibition’s canonization of the “forgotten” Hungarian conceptual artist Dóra Mauer is a gesture without critical dimensions). But despite these objections, it can be stated that Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) is an extremely well curated exhibition and an impressive attempt to establish a catalogue of ways to understand the politics of art beyond the exhausted ideal of an escape from the white cube, of a transgression of art’s institutional context. Thereby it also shows that the end of the age of “the white cube” is not the end of critical thinking about the ideology and the political possibilities of the exhibition format. On the contrary, it is a clear indication that today this critical thinking must be re-invented with reference to new aesthetic concepts, other curatorial positions and alternative art historical lineages.
Translation from the Swedish by Jeff Kinkle.