Tuzlusu (Saltwater): Istanbul Biennial

by Stephanie Radok

Our tears are salty.
Griselda Pollock in her essay, ‘The Cure for Anything is Salt Water’
in Tuzlusu (Saltwater) catalogue, 2015

The curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial Tuzlusu (Saltwater): a Theory of Thought Forms was Italian-American-Bulgarian art historian and ex-art critic Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev (CCB) who also curated the 2008 Sydney Biennale subtitled Revolutions – Forms that turn and the massive 2012 Kassel dOCUMENTA (13), the five yearly global exhibition in Germany which acts as a punctuation point in global contemporary art. It is just a matter of time before CCB curates the Venice Biennale though she doesn’t like to be called a curator and calls herself the drafter instead, taking the term from draftsman. And usually uses a curatorium of colleagues or ‘agents’ to bounce ideas around.Clearly CCB likes the word ‘Forms’. And uses it as a term to free art from any specificities of media or task.

Curators have favourites and inclinations just like anyone. CCB’s shows tend to have a voracious and voluminous inclusivity often including, in some way, masses of dead people whether artists, philosophers, spiritualists, writers or whatever as well as lengthy writing components such as dOCUMENTA (13)’s the 100 Notes—100 Thoughts series, The Logbook and The Book of Books, and even out of reach exhibits. Thus dOCUMENTA (13) had components in Kabul, Afghanistan; Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt; and Banff, Canada, as well as in Kassel which is situated in the navel of Germany.

Tuzlusu (Saltwater) included imaginary, unattainable and out of reach spaces like Pierre Huyghe’s underwater theatre for jellyfish as well as accessible ones. And for navigation – a slim map, a paperback guidebook and a fat bilingual Turkish-English Bible-dimensioned hardback catalogue of essays, quotations and drawings.

They said it was possible to encompass Tuzlusu in three days. Works by over eighty participants from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America, were displayed in over thirty venues on the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus in museums as well as temporary spaces such as boats, hotels, former banks, garages, gardens, schools, shops and private homes.

Depending on how many days you had, what the weather was like, whether you took a tour and how good or bad your map-reading companions were you may or may not have seen everything. But I am not sure that that is important. I am coming increasingly to think that it is the experience of being somewhere at a particular time that makes an exhibition valuable.

If you went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, MONA in Hobart or indeed the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island and saw just one work because the building was being cleaned or whatever it is very likely that that one work and that experience would stay with you for much longer and mean much more than walking in endless halls and galleries until you became numb with looking. That said, part of the fun of biennials or other large art events in which work is scattered through a city is the sense of hard sweaty work and harmless adventure in finding the art, as well as the value of experiencing the way it is embedded and makes commentary in non-gallery venues. But surely it is best to not be ticking each exhibit off systematically and treating the whole event like a battle to be won, rather we should see it as a cocktail, an experience to be savoured.

And if you stop to dream and think … who knows where you might end up?

CCB is steeped in European art history, in fixed precedents and lineages which can sometimes produce an insular or smug view of contemporary art. Yet she also works at implementing new lineages and sightlines. As CCB spent some time in Australia working on the Sydney Biennale this means that she includes Australian indigenous artists in Tuzlusu but she hasn’t raised her head to see the Pacific or indeed New Zealand. So it is in many ways a limited kind of saltwater that she presents.

***

A wonderful and delicate sense of cultural, intellectual, historical, aesthetic wealth was present for me in the experience of the city of Istanbul, in freshly made pomegranate juice, in the architecture, the opulent building materials, the elegance of the furniture and environments of the privileged places I visited through the Biennial. This sense of the marriage of culture and power exists all over the world but in this legendary city, memorialised over recent years by the novels of Orhan Pamuk whose work focuses on the deep provincialism and melancholy yearnings of himself and his compatriots, it is even more prominent. Luxury is here, and poverty is here, and all the stages in-between … but it is especially opulent luxury, and defiant poverty, no not defiant there are other words – hard-working, resigned, watchful, aware of the potential suddenness of change, and the gripping weight of history and location.

Istanbul is on the must-see list for many world travellers, its past life as Constantinople and Byzantium, its location and architecture make it irresistible to tourists. My own tolerance for iconic historical sites is fairly limited though watching tourists is rich terrain. Many of the people who live in Istanbul have no prospects of travelling anywhere ever, many are refugees from other countries, and in talking to locals – people working in hotels, restaurants or shops about the Biennial it became clear that most of them didn’t know that it was happening.

Being in Istanbul for the first time and having more than historical monuments to see was excellent, it reminded me of the fellowship of the global community sometimes called the art world, a more or less moveable feast. And the importance of art as a language that is not the same all over the world but which has persistent ambitions for a kind of Cultural Esperanto, a belief system that evades art’s forced marriage to money and power and instead sees it as working optimistically as the very best kind of infotainment and as an agent for change or at the very least accessible and thought-provoking analysis.

The remarkable exhibition How did we get here, an exhibition exploring Turkey’s recent past through social movements and elements of popular culture that emerged after the coup d’état on September 12, 1980 which was on show at SALT Beyoğlu and at SALT Galata during the Biennial, though not an official part of it, demonstrated brilliantly how an international audience may be urgently washed in the recent history of a country.

It showed how a grand biennial of contemporary art away from home or even at home is always potentially much more than a venue for art. It is urgent for everyone in the world to know more about everyone else’s recent past.

And travelling to see an exhibition … when at the same time a short distance away thousands of refugees are endangering their lives on the sea has a sharpening effect on the frequent solipsism of the cultural life.

To me Istanbul was friendly, gracious and thoughtful. Yet the stencilled graffiti I saw there which stayed with me most intently said:
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

***

The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.

Isak Dinesen

 Picking my way along the shores of the Bosphorus from the Galata Bridge to Istanbul Modern after a traditional balik ekmek/fish sandwich it seemed for a little while that the entire city was an installation. Broken glass, scaffolding, temporary shelters, writing on the walls, dead end streets, mysterious shops, look at enough art for long enough and you can learn to see the world as hypothetical, provisional, there in order to make you think, to focus an issue and reformulate a position. Yet it eventually generally becomes clear where the art is by the presence of well-dressed people.

It turned out to be a colour that I took away from Tuzlusu. It is a particular pink that appears on the Biennale poster/map in a shape painted by theosophist Annie Besant from her vocabulary of Thought Forms of 1901. The form is like a star or a flower, a circle with a radiating fringe of petals or beams. You might think that such a form has a verbal explanation and so it does ‘Radiating Affection’. What the colour means is less clear.

There was a level in Tuzlusu in which the pink was connected to political events specifically the Armenian genocide that took place in 1915. There was the pink colour or something very near to it in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s work Red/Red a row of framed recycled pieces of paper and old handmade notebooks held open on bookstands which had drawings in them in red ink made from cochineal beetles who live on the Ararat Plain, the border between Turkey and Armenia. The colour is called Armenian Red.

Not the form but the colour appeared again in the shadowy, sketchy work of Bracha L. Ettinger whose 75 notebooks and midnight paintings made in the dark over several years had some likeness to the loose combinations of shapes and words in the notebooks of Orhan Pamuk. Her works are a representation of thought with all its comings and goings, splitting, pausing, regrouping, gathering and ordering.

Pamuk’s own Museum of Innocence, is a three storey building dedicated to displays of the ephemeral objects and mementoes described in his eponymous novel such as butterfly brooches, cigarette butts, matchboxes, perfume bottles, marbles, coins, lighters, glasses of antacid, photographs, menus, crockery and postcards. Each display, sometimes reminiscent of a Joseph Cornell artwork though much less discriminating, recalls a moment in time and place. On the top floor of the Museum were two Arshile Gorky drawings Act of Creations from 1949 and Vale of the Armenian from 1944. And the quite charming guard came and stood next to them while I looked at them as if I might, like a crazy iconoclastic Australian, break the glass.

 At SALT Beyoğlu in the exhibition How did we get here Aslı Çavuşoğlu had a work called ‘191/205’ that was a turntable with a record playing a song on it. The song, created with the Turkish MC Fuat, used 191 of the 205 words banned on TV and radio broadcasts in Turkey in January 1985 by the General Directorate of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) on the grounds that “they did not comply with the general structure and operation of the Turkish language and that they were beneath the level of standard Turkish.” The banned words included “memory, remember, recollection, experimental, motion, revolution, nature, dream, theory, possibility, history, freedom, example, conversation, whole, life”.

At the top of the SALT Beyoğlu building was a roof garden and on the floor just below that a vast and amazing bookshop/library asserting the immense power of writing, of books, of ideas, of language. And the presence of Europe and other places as represented by their writers – postcolonial ones as well as the old staples. On the wall were written the words of Mallarmé: Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre.

In the library I overheard two students laughing and asked them if they could repeat the words they were quoting to me. They said “Those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. “And he is a dancer and I am a musician”, the tall one said.

Another work that echoed the Tuzlusu pink was by Theaster Gates. It was located on the ground floor and upstairs in an empty shop. This work was called Three or Four Shades of Blues.

Gates is an artist engaged with making art projects that try to effect social change by retrieving and repurposing buildings and artefacts. In Chicago in the Dorchester Projects his Rebuild Foundation renovated two houses on Dorchester Avenue, one called the Archive House which holds 14,000 architecture books from a closed bookshop and one called the Listening House which holds 8,000 vinyl records.

In 2013 Gates purchased the Stony Island Savings Bank and restored the old building now known as the Stony Island Arts Bank. It contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music; and slides from the University of Chicago’s and Art Institute of Chicago’s collections.

The ground floor of the shop in Istanbul was set up like a potter’s studio where at times Gates was there making imitations of a genuine Iznik bowl from the local Museum. The Iznik bowl was on display alongside his raw clay forms. And a record player.

Up the precarious stairs was a room with a screen and some chairs. A video showed a series of slides of ceramics from all over the world, some of which were miscoloured with that recurring pink, as well as a video of a recording session at Atlantic Studios. It was a Turkish man Ahmet Ertegun who started Atlantic Records with Herb and Mariam Abramson in 1947. This work entranced me, the slides taking me back to sitting in the dark in old lecture theatres, to the comfort and monotony of illustrations of vases in books and to the mutable chemical characteristics of analogue photography, and the video slid me into the making of music and the relationships between the people making it. With projections and videos let’s face it either you duck out straight away or tune in to some level of trance that takes you inside your body, your memory and your mind.

After recalling these experiences back in Adelaide I went out in the early evening for a walk across the park where, in the summer heat, great shards of marsupial-coloured bark had fallen off the big blue gums and lay all over the ground where nine magpies stood facing into the wind. Then I saw the Tuzlusu pink on the chests and wings of a flock of galahs making their characteristic tzut tzut sound.

 

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