The 15th Istanbul Biennial: An Interview with Director Bige Örer

by Carla Ingrasciotta
June 19, 2017
Carla Ingrasciotta

As announced earlier this year, the 15th edition of the Istanbul Biennial is running from 16 September to 12 November 2017. Curators Elmgreen& Dragset and director Bige Örer have proposed an exhibition which deals with the concept of “good neighboor”. On this occasion, the director shares with My Art Guides her vision and perspective on the upcoming biennial, describing the curatorial concept, the program and activities, and reflecting on her hopes and expectations.

Carla Ingrasciotta: Istanbul’s art scene has grown rapidly in recent decades. What, for you, characterizes Istanbul’s current artistic and cultural environment?

Bige Örer: I think one of the most powerful aspects of Istanbul’s artistic and cultural environment is its diversity. Since the scene doesn’t have a market pressure and also any dependency to public funds, it embraces different artistic languages. This situation also creates a space for younger voices and gives them a great opportunity to pursue with their production in dialogue with elder generations. Additionally, I believe the difficult times that we have been passing through lately create a feeling of solidarity in the art community. We understand the value of standing together and invest all our energy for a better future. Therefore, I see hope.

C.I.: You were appointed director to the Istanbul Biennial in 2008. How has the biennial and its collateral activities changed over its history?

B.O.: The Istanbul Biennial became one of the most appealing and experimental international large scale art exhibitions in the last 10 years. The learning and public programmes of the biennial have developed as well in order to reach diverse groups in the society. The Biennial acts as a school sometimes not only for the staff but also for many visitors who experience an art exhibition for the first time through the biennial.
Since Istanbul Biennial does not have a fix venue, for every edition we have an opportunity to start from scratch and to explore the city from a different standpoint responding to the conceptual framework of the exhibition. Using unconventional spaces, private houses or historical venues always creates a shift in the perception of our audience, and gives the possibility of creating contrasts- this keeps the curiosity alive.
In 2013, we decided to make admission to the biennial free of charge for everyone with the belief that the exhibition must be accessible by all.
It resulted with an important success in terms of visitor numbers. Since then, Istanbul Biennial is free of charge and our doors are open to everyone who would like to find a moment of inspiration and aesthetics. Our collateral activities have a crucial role in the understanding of our exhibitions; we try to unfold different ideas embedded in the curatorial concept through talks, lecture performances and reading groups.

C.I.: What role does the biennial play in Istanbul’s art and social scene? Do you think it would be a new point of departure? The city and the country as well are suffering a great loss in tourism economy after the various terrorist attacks of 2016…

B.O.: Istanbul Biennial has a strong presence in the art scene. This year we celebrate our thirtieth anniversary and each previous edition received a great interest from international art professionals as well as media. Each year the biennial is visited by more than 5.000 international visitors, including journalists, art professionals and art enthusiasts. Of course, this connection has more importance following last year’s conditions. After 2016, it will be a great pleasure to open the 15th Istanbul Biennial and to create physical and imaginary spaces where people from different beliefs, races, socio-economic classes can get together and contemplate on a simple yet powerful subject that is neighbourhood. Witnessing the raising of nationalism in almost every part of the world, I believe we need more than ever to empathize with others and try to learn how to live together in a way that we support each other’s existence and protect nature which generously host us.

C.I.: Let’s talk about the main theme of this year’s biennial – ‘a good neighbour’ which has been developed with curators Elmgreen & Dragset. How did you get to this focus and how did you select your collaborators?

B.O.: “‘a good neighbour’ will deal with multiple notions of home and neighbourhoods, exploring how living modes in our private spheres have changed throughout the past decades. Home is approached as an indicator of diverse identities and a vehicle for self-expression, and neighbourhood as a micro-universe exemplifying some of the challenges we face in terms of co-existence today.”
Elmgreen& Dragset have participated in the Istanbul Biennial, three times, in 2001, 2011 and 2013 and we have been following their artistic and curatorial works with a lot of enthusiasm throughout this period. We believed especially for this edition we would like to work with esteemed colleagues who have an engagement with the city and the local art scene.

C.I.: The biennial is taking place in 6 different venues across the city. In this sense, the exhibition would act as linking point among different areas, cultures and people living in and outside the city, trying to make them living into a “good neighbour”. In which way the public program will engage and attract visitors to the city?

B.O.: As you stated, our venues are neighbouring to each other. We started our exhibition in December 2016 with asking a question about “who is a good neighbour” and this is how we respond today; the exhibition itself is a way to see how different ideas generated by artists from different generations, cultures and genders can live together not in a destructive but nourishing way. For the 15th edition, we work with Zeyno Pekunlu, who is an artist and academician, for our public programs. Zeyno is curating two major talks which will be held during the opening and closing weeks, also performances, cooking sessions, reading groups, walking tours. This diversity in language will help us to engage with different groups and hopefully will open new discussions around the exhibition. Furthermore, we are working on a special project focusing on the inclusion of Syrian refugees living in Istanbul. Since 2011, Turkey hosts almost 3 million Syrians and we believe it is of utmost importance to have a connection with them in a moment when we think about “neighbours”.

C.I.: What about you feelings? Which are your hopes and expectations for visitors coming to attend the biennial?

B.O.: I am full with hope. Istanbul has a great potential thanks to many beautiful brilliant minds that live in this country. Our biennial is just a reflection of our souls, an attempt to contribute to a bigger discussion regarding our times which challenge our vision for a better future. I truly believe that the exhibition will be a fresh breeze and will be an inspiration for both visitors and the artists.

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