Amid Protests, Istanbul Biennale Retreats Indoors

The biennale, the city's most important contemporary art event, was to originally go on show in public spaces, including Gezi Park, that are slated for demolition amid Turkey's frantic urban-redevelopment boom...

Gezi Park, the scruffy public space at the centre of violent anti-government demonstrations in Turkey over the summer, is felt most at this year's Istanbul Biennale by its absence.

The biennale, the city's most important contemporary art event, was to originally go on show in public spaces, including Gezi Park, that are slated for demolition amid Turkey's frantic urban-redevelopment boom.

Originally, curator Fulya Erdemci felt presenting art outside to a broader public would have highlighted the city's physical and social transformation, which has been often traumatic. But the protests forced the organisers to withdraw inside just a few months before the opening. Many artists had to quickly re-contextualise their work, while others had to scrap theirs altogether and present something new.

Dutch brothers Erik and Ronald Rietveld's light installation projected onto the Ataturk Cultural Centre, an iconic concert venue overlooking Gezi Park, became the intimate yet just as powerful Intensive Care. A miniature rendering of the building's façade throbs with light like a life-support machine. The piece asks the question of whether the venue will survive the wrecking ball after conflicting government statements about its fate of the building - a controversial cultural landmark that was draped in banners by outlawed political groups during the protests.

The kernel for the Gezi protests was frustration with the government's construction plans that help power the economy but threaten to upset Istanbul's delicate ecological balancing act. They include a shopping mall at Gezi, giant new mosques, a bridge through pristine forestland, skyscrapers that have wrecked an ancient skyline, a canal that will make half of Istanbul into an island.

The very local protests soon swelled into the biggest anti-government demonstrations in decades in cities across the country. Some in Istanbul's art community worried that the biennale's retreat from the public domain and its dependence on corporate sponsorship was a desertion of the stridently anti-capitalist Gezi protest, even though organisers made the show free entry once it came inside. Erdemci has argued that any support would be illegitimate if lent by the same authorities that had cracked down so firmly on the protests.

In one of the biennale's darker works, Is the Museum a Battlefield? Berlin-based artist Hito Steyerl examined the sometimes very direct connections between war and the art world. Steyerl visited the place where her friend, a Kurdish militant, was killed fighting the Turkish army in 1998. She retrieved a bullet casing that she traced to a weapons maker that is also a major art sponsor.

"It was very important for me to articulate this here," Steyerl said during the press preview, adding that until recently she had been unable to exhibit work critical of Turkey here. "There is a change in Turkey that has allowed me to show my work here."

That change reached a peak in Gezi Park. It was a demonstration that brought together disparate strands of civil society and political groups and this biennale reflects that. Even more so than before, the exhibition blurs the lines between art and design, hip hop video and documentary, protest and commentary.

The Gezi protests inspired Istanbul Diaries, by Scandinavians Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Young members of the city's gay community - a prominent group in the protests - sit very still at dimly lit desks to write in journals throughout the five-week exhibition. The piece was also an adaption after the duo's original outdoor project had to be abandoned.

Basque artist Maider Lopez used 10 cameras to film a major Istanbul transport intersection that is particularly treacherous for pedestrians. "People find new ways when the system does not meet reality," she said.

"This is a situation where, for example, there are crossings blocked by fences, a kind of impossible situation. So what people do is create. They don't waver," she said. This certainly evokes the Gezi protest. Faced with the impossible and the immovable, people adapt and get on.

More than 250,000 have already viewed the show, which closes on October 20.


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