The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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Inside the Ataturk Cultural Center: How to Hang a Building Part 1

Of the two larger installations, Burn it or Not? proves to be the most unusual, and for me, the most memorable in the biennial. Housed in the AKM (Ataturk Cultural Center), one the most iconic buildings in central Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the title refers to long-considered plans that would have the Ataturk Cultural Center demolished to make way for more lucrative development.

A friend mentioned that this was likely the biennial’s most approachable exhibition. It seems anyone off the street could walk into the modernist cathedral and be taken-in by the obsolete décor found inside.

As exhibition strategy, though, the appeal of the AKM presents a predicament: how to privilege art in such an extravagant environment. At points the ornate architecture and the art fuse in a strange ways. But this is perhaps what one hopes to find at a biennial—a testing ground examining whether an exhibition is possible in a chosen historical, if unyielding place. In the end, what is problematic is forgivable in Burn it or Not?—especially if one finds the AKM as fascinating as I did.

Entering the AKM is not a historic experience. It is the sensation of walking between microclimates, and the curating inside makes it obvious that from the beginning this was envisioned as an exhibition rooted in the element of ambiance.

Burn it or Not? asks a question most art-minded people already have an answer for: whether to preserve urban vestiges, like this idle gem, or to allow the city to contemporize in the unconsidered way that has typified civic development since the ‘80s.

Erdem Helvacioglu’s sound installation Memories of Silent Walls explores the powerlessness that confronts residents when buildings, as containers of memory, face expiration. Memories of Silent Walls is the most seamlessly site-specific work in the AKM. By combining reverberations with the elevated view from the second floor’s massive windows overlooking Taksim Square, the AKM becomes an acoustic atmosphere in the most specific and atemporal sense. The installation can be heard at all times on the second floor, yet the work is deceptively unimposing. Erdem Helvacioglu works with sound as an element of imperceptibility to blends entirely with the space. In other words, the piece resonates in an uncanny way that matches the personality of the lofty room.

The installation progresses from a whisper to a crescendo, replacing gentle ambient vibrations with the grating noise of an imploding building. Memories of Silent Walls attempts to situate two spaces of reception: the entirely real space of the AKM, and the imaginary space of urban renovation (destruction).

The intelligence of Helvacioglu’s piece is that it literally weaves the dilemma of gentrification into the personal moments one spends at the exhibition, even while looking at other artworks. The artist’s sound-work reverses a filmic tactic by creating an off-screen montage that replaces what a visual representation could only fail to capture at a particular apex (destruction of the AKM).

Few artworks realize a curatorial theme as well as Helvacioglu does here. The artist captures the canned destruction contemporary global development entails, which most biennials seem to want to “talk” about. Memories of Silent Walls also depicts the hard to relate process of collective memory we all carry, and which a place like the AKM embodies over the course of decades.

The Ataturk Cultural Center

The Ataturk Cultural Center

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