“Our emotional environment is poor and dangerous. Artistic work can’t change it, but it can transcribe it. It can also give an opinion, which we are never asked for.”
—Excerpt from Claire Fontaine’s Requiem for Jean Charles de Menezes, a work in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial
After my recent visit to the 12th installment of the Istanbul Biennial, which closes November 13, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of nostalgia and lament that pervades this major survey of international contemporary art. Curated by Jens Hoffmann, a U.S.-based curator from Latin America, and Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa, the exhibition takes on the age-old debate between form and content — an art world polemic that predictably resurfaces in urgent times when formal and aesthetic concerns seem less relevant in the face of economic and sociopolitical turmoil.
Taking inspiration from the influential work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996), the curators pay homage to the late American artist of Cuban descent, whose sculptures and installations of the 1990s provide an ideal lexicon of artistic practice to address the current moment. Indeed, Gonzalez-Torres was an artist whom Hoffmann and Pedrosa contend “successfully negotiated the personal and the political while maintaining an extremely sophisticated formal vocabulary, utilizing an aesthetic language drawn in part from post-Minimalism, Conceptualism and in part simply from everyday life.”
Organized into five sub-exhibitions, the biennial took as its point of departure five iconic works by Gonzalez-Torres, among them a history dateline piece, a candy pile totaling the ideal weight of his deceased lover Ross, a minimal grid from the “bloodwork” series (in which the artist charted the declining T-cells of his HIV-ridden immune system), and several paper stacks — one comprised of images of the sky printed in the form of passports and the other of posters memorializing the number of deaths in the U.S. by gunfire during a violent week in 1989. These works provided the organizing principle for the biennial around the potent themes of Gonzalez-Torres’ art: abstraction, history, identity, violence, and loss. To further reinforce this artistic tribute, the curators titled the biennial Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial), appropriating the artist’s own titling convention in which he left his works untitled (except for a short subtitle) to privilege both his subjectivity and that of his audience.
Although no original works by Gonzalez-Torres were included in the exhibition, they were repeatedly evoked throughout the installation, which filled two former naval hangars adjacent to the Istanbul Modern Museum, situated along the Bosphorus River. The curators’ desire to organize and thematize viewer experience through the show was complemented by the architecture of Ryue Nishizawa, who was commissioned to design a wall system to house the exhibition. Ryue created a metaphorical village that evoked the notion of parallel neighborhoods.
The exhibition included works by well-known and unfamiliar artists from around the world with notable emphases on artists from Latin America and the Middle East. Among my favorite works in the biennial were Kris Martin’s installation Obussen II (2010), a glistening pile of more than 700 polished Howitzer shells from World War I that evoked the human casualties of war; Simryn Gill’s haunting photographs of abandoned houses outside Kuala Lumpur; William E. Jones’ film archiving hundreds of “killed” negatives from the U.S. Farm Security Administration (shown in the Walker exhibition The Spectacular of Vernacular; Milena Bonilla’s Stone Deaf (2009), a film that records all variety of insects crawling along the crack across Karl Marx’s grave; and Alessandro Balteo Yazbek & Media Farzin’s wry “Cultural Diplomacy” project, which finds curious and striking parallels between the development of modern art and global politics. These were among the few works in the exhibition that captured the spirit of Gonzalez-Torres and his approach to balancing the “personal” with the “political.”
The rest of the exhibition unfortunately suffered from an explicit and often far too literal illustration of central themes, specific content, and the formal and conceptual qualities of Gonzalez-Torres’ art. Nicolás Bacal’s appropriation of Gonzalez-Torres’ pivotal work featuring two wall clocks, Perfect Lovers (1991), went too far for my taste. By far, the strict avoidance of color in the palette of the works chosen was at times unrelenting. Frustrated patrons during my visit described the exhibition as “cold,” “clinical,” and unnecessarily “oppressive.”
As I journeyed through the show, I could not help but at times feel as if I had been transported back to 1996, the year that Felix Gonzalez-Torres died, when Dave Hickey was still completing his infamous essays on beauty and the debates about form and content were raging in the contemporary art world. It was a time when global consciousness was an imperative in the mainstream art world, and many artists of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East — such as Gonzalez-Torres, Mona Hatoum, Lygia Clark, José Leonilson, and others presented here — were just starting to be championed in an array of international venues, including the Istanbul Biennial. All this was happening just as geopolitical borders around the world were dramatically shifting and the Internet was about to explode.
We now find ourselves in a vastly different place and time, one inexorably wrought by the advances, ideals, obsessions, and failures of the prior two decades. Yet, rather than mine this fertile territory of the recent past to understand the exigencies of artists in the present, the curators of this year’s Istanbul Biennial seemed weighted down by their overwhelming nostalgia for the past and their lament for an impotent present.
This lament of the present was also visible in the 2011 installment of the Venice Biennale, which I wrote about in June. Yet, what registered for me in Istanbul was a lament of a different order. This lament was one specifically focused on art produced outside the mainstreams of contemporary art, and in particular on art made in Latin America and the Middle East. The lament I heard was twofold — that the contemporary arena has sadly only marginally advanced since Gonzalez-Torres first emerged on the global stage and that most of these artists, as well as a host of others we don’t know, still need to be championed and given significant voice.
While I undoubtedly share in this lament, what I still find lacking in the 2011 Istanbul Biennial is acknowledgement anywhere in the exhibition (save for in the uncontainable canvases of Mark Bradford) of the qualities that even the most politically engaged and challenging works of Gonzalez-Torres still possess — an indefatigable spirit of generosity and faith in the potential of art to not only transcribe the exigencies of the present moment, but also transcend them.