The 15th Istanbul Biennial from the Curators Perspective: an Interview with Elmgreen & Dragset

by Carla Ingrasciotta
September 11, 2017
Carla Ingrasciotta
Elmgreen & Dragset

On the occasion of the 15th edition of the Istanbul Biennial we had an exclusive interview with curators Elmgreen & Dragset.
From September 16 to November 12, the biennial – centered on the concept of “a good neighbor” – will be staged across six venues in the heart of the Turkish city. The Istanbul Biennial brings together artworks by 55 artists from 32 countries, all addressing different notions of home, belonging and neighbourhood.

Carla Ingrasciotta: As artists, you’ve participated several times to in the biennial but this year you are the curators. How do you feel today, being on the other side of it?

Elmgreen & Dragset: Yes, as artists we’ve taken part in the 2001, 2011, and 2013 editions of the biennial, and we’ve seen a huge transformation of the city since 2001. As artists, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to curate a biennial. We were appointed in April 2016, and we had to postpone several of our own shows that were planned for 2017. After so many months of work, it’s really exciting to be at the point where the show will open in just two weeks. It’s been an extremely rewarding process to undertake all the research, studio visits, and travel we did to shape this exhibition and develop our concept. At the same time, we were wary of entering such a complicated political landscape, but we have spent a lot of time in Istanbul over the past year and a half, a lot of which has included learning from and listening to the local academics, artists and journalists. Through the process, we’ve learned that art can play an important role in making it through difficult times. A biennial can be a gathering point and a moment of solidarity. The past month of August has seen the works arrive at the venues and the installation process finished – it’s an incredible feeling to be so close now to the opening.

C.I.: How did you come to the curatorial concept “a good neighbour”?

E.& D.: With this biennial, we wanted to focus on the personal rather than making some sort of “zeitgeist” exhibition that maps current tendencies or takes the pulse of this moment in time. The artists in the exhibition have used the thematics as a departure point for considering larger societal issues. We see artists in the exhibition dealing with this theme in different ways, like for example, Alper Aydın, whose work includes the blade of a bulldozer filled with cut down trees, pointing out the connection between human construction and the depletion of the earth’s natural resources. Another artist, Gözde Ilkin, uses domestic fabrics from her family to investigate the borders of home while examining social and family settings. The theme can apply to interpersonal issues, as well as broader topics like environmental degradation and real estate speculation, and more widely, how we as humans experience cultural and historical memory.

C.I.: What is for you “a good neighbour” and how do you imagine it within the Istanbul art scene?

E.& D.: We don’t want to assign any one particular definition to what makes “a good neighbour.” Actually, for our first press conference announcing the conceptual framework of the exhibition, instead of writing a traditional press release, we posed forty questions asking this very thing, like “Is a good neighbour someone you rarely see” or “Is a good neighbour richer or poorer than you?” This is less an exercise in spelling out specific answers and more an attempt to get people to think about how they might answer themselves. In the Istanbul art scene, we want this edition of the Biennial to act as a space for building bridges between neighbours, for creating dialogue across different kind of borders, actual as well as mental. In times like these, it’s important to strengthen networks and show intellectuals, artists, and open-minded people that they are not alone. This year the biennial is celebrating it’s 30th anniversary, and it’s an essential part of the cityʼs cultural life – it can bring people together.

C.I.: How did you develop the path of the event within the different venues located all around Istanbul?

E. & D.: Of course visitors can visit the venues in any order they like, but in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, which also serves as a guide book, we imagine starting with Galata Greek Primary School, moving on to Istanbul Modern, from there continuing to Pera Museum, then ARK Kültür, on to Yoğunluk Atelier, and ending up at Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam. We see the venues, which are all within walking distance of one another, as making up their own neighbourhood. They are all key community institutions: museum, school, villa, apartment, work place, hammam, and in this way they re-iterate the exhibition’s themes in its spatial layout. Audiences can fully experience all the works in the biennial in a period of about two days. The biennial includes 56 artists from 32 countries, with 30 new commissions, and every artistic position occupies its own unique space within the exhibition.

C.I.: Announcing the theme and details, you stated that this year the biennial aims to take a more feminist position. Could you tell us something more about this intention?

E. & D.: It is feminist in the way that we have dared to claim that the personal is relevant in relation to the political – the personal experience as a starting point in order to speak about more abstract political matters. To us, the term “feminism” describes the struggle to fight against interconnected forms of oppression like sexism, racism, and classism. More specifically, in terms of gender roles, we’ve consciously included works that look at alternative living modes that can exist in opposition to traditional norms or expectations. For example, Louise Bourgeois’ photogravure Femme Maison depicts a nude woman who has a house in place of a head, and this work has inspired Monica Bonvicini’s video installation Hausfrau Swinging – displayed in the same room at Pera Museum – which includes a neutral, white model house placed atop a woman’s naked body, a house-head that she repeatedly bangs against a corner of white walls. These works speak to the limitations that can be imposed by the home as well as the relationship between domesticity, gender roles, and the body. Bodies and the space they take up are also the subject of Candeğer Furtun’s work. She is an 82-year-old Turkish artist who was a new discovery for us. Her sculptural piece shows 9 sets of male legs sitting in the “manspreading” position.

C.I.: What do you think about the contemporary art scene in Istanbul? As artists and curators, what would you suggest to an art lover to visit?

E. & D.: The contemporary art scene in Istanbul remains vibrant, even though it has seen many people move away and less visitors have been coming over the past year. One of the best parts of curating the biennial has been becoming more familiar with the local art scene. There are so many places for an art lover to visit in Istanbul. We would suggest Salt, which has a focus on lectures and research as well as an impressive library; Arter, which hosts a diverse range of contemporary exhibitions; and DEPO, which puts on research-based exhibitions. In addition to these, we recommend Zilberman Gallery, whose roster includes the biennial artists Heba Y. Amin and Burçak Bingöl.

C.I.: Which are your hopes and expectations after the biennial?

E. & D.: We hope that this biennial will remind people of the political potential in their own personal stories. Hopefully the biennial can serve as a space for reflecting on how we can co-exist with others, and it can help create a meaningful dialogue that differs from the simplified messages we’ve been hearing lately from populist leaders and the me

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