Istanbul - a Gravitation Center for Modern Art

Istanbul is about to join the ranks of the great modern art metropolises. And now this city on the Bosporus has itself become the focus of a series of artworks. For the 9th annual Istanbul Biennial, artists from around the world have taken up the urban phenomena of this great city and its many faces

. By Dirk Fuhrig

Logo: '9th İstanbul Biennial', &copy
Never has so much artistic attention been paid to Istanbul, its urban structures, and the rapid changes underway here

​​The Biennale is pink, a pale red thread running through Istanbul's old city. Through the many old estates, the former docks, a tobacco warehouse, the famous Grand Hotel de Londres recently featured in Fatih Akin's new film - the Biennale has made its pink mark all around the city.

Now in its ninth year, the art faire has for the first time departed from its traditional space in museums and other historic exhibition halls, says Vasif Kortun, one of the Biennale curators: "This was an intentional decision. This is about creating a relationship between the people and their city. We asked them questions. About the future of the city, what direction things should go. We wanted to open up the city."

Beyoglu – a host to a thriving art scene

And this idea of opening up the city artistically - as described by Vasif Kortun - has been largely successful. Never has so much artistic attention been paid to Istanbul, its urban structures, and the rapid changes underway here.

The old European quarter Beyoglu - architecturally influenced by the Wilhelminian period and art nouveau, and today host to a thriving art scene and many galleries - has itself become a work of art in this year's Biennale.

Photography, sculpture, installations and especially the copious video art this year have portrayed the city's half dilapidated estates. A majority of the works on exhibit were created in particular for the current show. Young artists from around the world - Europeans, Americans, foreign-born Turks - came to live in Istanbul and explore the city.

Charles Esche, co-curator from the Netherlands, hopes this goes beyond the clichés, gets behind surface appearances and the tourist's viewpoint: "Making something visible that is invisible—also to the people who live here in this city. I hope the 'artists in residence' have accomplished this."

The most complex commentary on the Biennale city was that offered by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi. His black lines run throughout an entire floor of the Deniz building. They divide the city into individual parts and simultaneously place them in the context of a global world society.

The "Center of Gravity"

Parallel to the Biennale, the newly opened and already world famed "Istanbul Modern" museum is showing its first international exhibition. "Center of Gravity" was curated by Rosa Martinez, who also currently directs the Venice Biennale. This jet-setting curator has long thought of Istanbul a new art metropolis:

"In the past twenty years, the Biennale has greatly contributed to strengthening the ties between the local scene and international art," Martinez says. "The Biennale shows the most innovative trends and puts the emphasis on sociologically or politically oriented works. I hope that together we can create a real gravitation center for modern art here in Istanbul."

But the political aspects of the Biennale that Rosa Martinez points to can only be found in the margins. Some works do deal with the issue of state or military violence. But artistic statements about censorship and freedom of speech are hardly to be found.

The case of author Orhan Pamuk - which in Europe is seen a potential stumbling block for Turkey's bid to join the EU - is described by curator Vasif Kortun as a singular phenomenon:

"I spoke with him a few day ago. He himself said, 'Tant pis,' 'I don't care.' It is completely irrelevant. If it should really come to a trial, it will be a big deal. People will come from Europe, all the press. Orhan Pamuk will only gain from it, and we will all gain from it. He will be exonerated, of course. And the prosecutors will realized that they can never try something like this again."

Dirk Fuhrig


Translation from German: Christina M. White

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9th Istanbul Biennial website