I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. My love/hate relationship with contemporary art is mostly a hate relationship. I simply don’t get it. When we go to a rock concert, we expect meaningful songs, flawless solos and perfect harmonies. Yet, when we go to a Biennial - the epicentre of art - all standards are thrown overboard. Just the idea of making art, makes it art. It's just too easy. Art is supposed to be a celebration of beauty, humanism and godsend talent. Not a demonstration of talentless nonsense. I ain’t buying that. But for some weird reason, I keep on trying, hoping to find meaning into something that’s obviously meaningless. My latest attempt took me to the Istanbul Biennial, presenting 56 artists under the theme of ‘A good neighbour’ - a concept defined by 40 loose statements. Is it worth visiting? Allow me to add the classic saying ‘Better a neighbour nearby than a relative far away.’ So, since I’m living in nearby Beirut, why not give it a shot? You be the judge.
1. The Istanbul Biennial is FREE.
You just need to register to get your personal QR code. You can do this online or at the registration desks at the venues. Beware, during weekends it does get very busy at Istanbul Modern, the main site. A smart (but pricy) trick to skip the line is to visit the permanent collection on the first floor first, then take the stairs to the ground floor.
2. It’s a great way to discover hipster Istanbul.
When we think of Istanbul, we think of Ottoman sultans, ancient mosques and magic palaces. The Biennial lets you discover the city’s modern side. Apart from the Küçük Mustafa Pasa hammam all 6 venues are within walking distance.
3. Istanbul Modern is the classic starting point. But first, nurture your inner self.
The restaurant serves Turkish breakfast in a 'deconstructed' version i.e. small portions. Order the yummy menemen (scrambled eggs, Turkish style, with tomatoes and chillies) on top. The breathtaking view overlooking the sun-kissed Bosporus makes up for the salty bill. A sexy video installation by Julian Opie takes you to the Istanbul Modern’s collection exhibition ‘Artists in Their Time’ (25 TL, discounted 14 TL). This expo boasts blue chip names (Anselm Kiefer, Hermann Nitsch), spectacular formats and estranged videos. The real masterwork is the mesmerizing view.
4. Funny enough, Istanbul Modern offers the weakest selection of work.
Alper Aydin has left a bulldozer’s blade pushing a pile of tree branches into a corner. In any other setting, this ‘work of art’ would be mistaken for garbage. Which it actually is. Other masterworks include a depressing concrete construction, dirty carseats on a wall, torn billboards and broken faux frescoes. A good neighbour seems mostly a dirty neighbour.
A rare exception is Victor Leguy’s project ‘Structures for invisible borders’ which investigates Turkey’s influx of 3.5 million Syrian refugees. At a local cafe, the artist invited people to exchange personal stories and objects. These objects are partially painted white to create a horizon, “recalling the whitewashing of information and narratives.” Ok, at least, there’s an idea here.
5. Discover a Bauhaus treasure.
It’s a steep climb up to ARK Kültür, a modernist villa in the charming Kılıçali Paşa neighbourhood, favoured by expats. The curved corners, big windows and minimalist furniture remind me of Belgian genius Henry van de Velde. The venue houses Mahmoud Khaled’s audio guided ‘Crying Man’ exhibition. Only a few visitors can enter the place at a time, so you might have to wait your turn in the lovely garden. The exhibition itself is a celebration of brainless pathos. I really need a drink. The nearby, charming bar ‘Magritte’ brings comfort.
6. The Pera Museum is a discovery.
It’s another climb to the popular Taksim area. Istikla Street makes a rather sad impression. The ‘Champs-Élysées of Istanbul' - once crossed by charming tramways and flanked by trees - has been reduced to a sterile runway. Inside this asphalt jungle, in a parallel street, lies a neo-classical pearl: the Pera Museum. This Achille Manoussos creation now houses the Anatolian Weights and Measures collection (floor 1), Orientalist paintings (floor 2) and 3 floors of Biennial madness.On the third floor, Fred Wilson points out the role of black people in Ottoman culture. In the next room, Tatiana Trouvé has randomly thrown some items. In the normal world, this would get you a fine for littering. Oh, Michelangelo, where art thou? The fourth floor showcases some of the biggest names. The photogravure ‘Femme Maison’ of Louise Bourgeois - the grande dame of contemporary art - was the inspiration for Monica Bonvicinci’s ‘Hausfrau Swinging’ video installation. The artist wears a model house on her head ("house-wife" … got it?) and violently bangs it against two walls. I strongly feel the need to do the same thing after watching this nonsense.
But hey, we’re just warming up. In her work ‘Spreken’ (‘To Speak’), Berlinde De Bruyckere asks an intriguing question: “Can two humans ever speak to one another in any meaningful sense?” Yes, they can, but putting 2 mannequins under a blanket isn’t one of them. Aude Pariset’s piece ‘Toddler Promession’ - featuring worms devouring a styrofoam mattress - and Liliana Maresca’s ‘Recolecta’ - a cart filled with junk - complete this ensemble of masterworks.
One floor to go. The fifth floor features Tsang Kin-Wah’s video installation ‘He Is To No Purpose And He Wants to Die for The Second Time.’ What seems like a work really living up to its name turns out to be a rather spectacular animation of words. In the next rooms, Njideka Akuwyili Crosby is a welcome return to painting, Alejandro Almanza Pereda’s ‘Horror Vacui’ a monumentally transformation of petit bourgeois canvasses. Yet, nothing beats the history of weights and measurements, shown on the first floor.
7. While in Taksim, pass by the FREE ‘Helix’ exhibition.
Leading bank YapiKredi showcases its rich art collection, featuring some of Turkey’s most famous artists.
8. Yoğunluk Atelier is an experience.
One of the minor venues hides a true surprise: ‘The House’ by art collective Yoğunluk. This installation only allows 3 visitors at a time. Mobile phones have to be switched off. Talking is not allowed. Say no more. Enjoy!
9. Galata Greek Primary School: keep the best for last.
This neoclassical building - until 2007 the main educational centre for children of Greek decent - offers some of the most spectacular installations. On the ground floor, Pedro Gómez-Egaña literally created a ‘moving’ installation. Two performers constantly shuffle platforms with furniture around. The work strongly reminds me of Schuiten & Peeters’ graphic novel ‘The Walls of Samaris.’
On the second floor, a portable toilet is the entrance to Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s theatrical ‘San San Triology.’ A series of rooms take you from one world to another, strongly evoking the sense of ’The Matrix.’ On the top floor, you’ll find another cinematographic reference. Leander Schönweger’s ever declining rooms strongly echo the influence of Spike Jonze’s ‘Being John Malkovich'
10. While in Istanbul, visit ‘Ai WeiWei on Porcelain.’
The private Sakip Sabanci Museum - once the home of the Rockefeller’s of Turkey - comes with a luscious garden and terrace, offering some of the most spectacular views over the Bosporus. The spectacular exhibition covers 3 entire floors, spanning more than 40 years of Ai WeiWei’s practice. His work celebrates ancient Chinese techniques with a post-modernistic touch. Must see.
- Opening hours: Galata Greek Primary School, ARK Kültür, Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam and Yoğunluk Artist Atelier are open every day, except Monday, between 10 am and 6 pm. Pera Museum is open from 10 am to 7 pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; from 10 am to 10 pm on Friday and from noon to 6 pm on Sunday. The Museum is closed on Monday.