Istanbul – Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts

68
Istanbul Foundation

Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, Istanbul, September 12–November 8, 2009

What better way to rally against the predictable trend of international contemporary art biennials than to curate an exhibition that is tightly focussed, anti-spectacular and unapologetically political? The 11th International Istanbul Biennial does just that. Curated by the Zagreb collective What, How & for Whom (WHW)—Ivet C´urlin, Ana Devic´, Natasa Ilic´ and Sabina Sabolovic´—the goal, in their words, was to “... rethink the biennial as a meta-device with the potential to facilitate the renewal of critical thinking by extracting thought from the immediate artistic and political context where it takes place.”
Posted throughout the city in large, bold type is the question: “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” a song title borrowed from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928). In its appropriated role as the biennial’s title, the question serves as an invocation—a call for art to address fundamental questions of existence and function as a catalyst for social and political change. The song’s lyrics read as a “script” for the exhibition, narrating its themes: unequal distribution of wealth and power, war and oppression, food and hunger, and social responsibility. At risk of seeming overly idealistic in the belief in art’s political efficacy, the curators ask “And why not? Isn’t the question posed by Brecht equally urgent today?”
This sense of urgency permeates the exhibition. The works are often strikingly direct in their approach, exhaustive in their display of information, and executed with an economy of means. One course of many through the exhibition can be charted through the metaphor of food alone. At the entrance to the main venue, Canan S¸enol’s video of engorged, lactating breasts slowly and incessantly drip milk (Fountain, 2000). Jumana Emil Abboud smuggles all of the fruit from a lemon tree across the checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah (Smuggling Lemons, 2006) and captures it on raw video, revealing the exhaustive everyday reality of the border. Hans-Peter Feldmann’s slice of brown bread, the centre eaten out, rests on a modest pedestal (Bread, 2008). Larissa Sansour’s documentary shows a family seated over a traditional meal of mloukhieh, their conversation quickly drifting from Palestinian food to the daily conditions of life under occupation (Soup Over Bethlehem, 2006).
Indeed, as an exhibition, the curators have deftly woven together the often separated politics of feminism, anti-capitalism, and social democracy, with a combination of historical and current work that draws out lines of influence between artists of the 1960s and those of today, with the majority of artists hailing from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Conflicting worldviews and positions abound. References to the aesthetics of socialist realism permeate the exhibition, both in the artwork and the exhibition promotion. In a global climate of unpredictable economies and radical shifts in power, this biennial is more relevant than ever, refreshing in its transparency, curatorially concise, and remarkably bold in its call for art to address our most fundamental questions.

Image: Jumana Emil Abboud, Smuggling Lemons, 2006. photo :courtesy of the artist

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