The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary – Optimism in the Age of Global War

’s title for the 10th Istanbul Biennial reworks the pre-millennium call to arms uniting the anti-globalization movement (“another world is possible”) that typified radicalism in the 1990s. Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary—Optimism in the Age of Global War confronts twenty-first century uncertainty with pointblank utopianism. Failed utopian aspirations that defined much of the twentieth century would seem to have found new potential in the East. Solutions to the global turmoil brought on by Western expansion are sought in the obdurate niches of Istanbul’s social, cultural, and developmental production cycles. The long arch of Istanbul’s modernization now offers a potentially fresh start because, as the curator writes in the introduction, “It’s a perfect example of successful modernization beyond the Euro-centric perspective.”

In this sense, the 2007 biennial is surprising hopeful. The biennial and its host city combine in loaded terms of “realisible utopia” and “utopian idealism.” In addition to attributing these progressive, modernist preoccupations to Istanbul, the curator also endows the biennial city with postmodern virtues. The city, as he writes, represents “dynamic and different modernities” that “invent new local conditions facing the challenge of globalisation.”

Out of context the writing might appear to be yet another celebration of Istanbul’s enchanting past as a global crossroads between Europe and Asia. By posing an underrated local against a monstrous international, Hou Hanru risks overplaying contemporary art’s hand. Many will remain skeptical of art’s potential to impact the more sudden and wrenching realities facing the twenty first century’s “age of global war.” But the curator knows this and the program’s title becomes all the more provocative.

Rather than a naive investment in aesthetic or urban utopias, idealisms, and modernities, as the case may be, the retro-terminology of the curatorial scheme serves as a prompt, it would seem. Idealism is imported into the design to contrast an understandably pessimistic twenty-first century mindset that invades daily life as well as the realm of art production. The bold question seems to be whether the political conditions enabling modern global malaise will be breached by art work. In the coming decades how will contemporary art—as an international force with the potential of moving beyond traditionalism(s)—respond to an increasingly reactionary world?

In the curator’s view, contemporary art increasingly exposes alternative social structures that often go unnoticed in places like Istanbul. Art fueled by “cultural production” in remarkable global communities avoids the anti-ideal of a coercive globalism that steals life in war and limits artistic production to familiar forms of captialization. This being familiar territory, the exhibition also asks what potential our more hopeful contemporary institutions hold, knowing that art was essential in shaping previous modern eras of urban development.

Istanbul provides a compelling modernity among many, as Hou Hanru would have it, because as a locality it embodies the rawness of global transformation, from antiquity to today. Internally, Turkey’s modern electorate now faces a rising, religious middle-class. Regionally, the country looks at an increasingly imperious and demanding European Union to the west, while trouble brews in neighboring Middle Eastern states. Like other self-reliant countries surrounded by large bodies of water, Turkey is a nation that traditionally prides itself on its unique, non-assimilative character. Yet far from being isolated, a divergent modernization has seen Istanbul become a more interconnected hub.

Optimism is stressed in 10th Istanbul Biennial at the risk of disappointment and more twenty-first century disillusionment. Imperial history and the manifestations of modern globalization have often led curators to see Istanbul as an ideal locality that betrays the homogenization that modern progress demands. This is easy for foreigner or local alike to understand because there is no place like it, but cultivating that experience often leads to rather staged projects. Finding optimism for our global era ultimately will be less pressing than seeing how this biennial manages to be a fresh look at either international or civic issues as contemporary art. One can only be hopeful….