The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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Inside the Ataturk Cultural Center: How to Hang a Building Part 2

Many artists attempt to capture political issues in a social form. Architectural photography is one example. In the last post, I considered how Erdem Helvacioglu’s sound installation avoided the tendency to merely capture, and managed to compete with the Ataturk Cultural Center’s (AKM) immersive environment by adding to it. Admittedly, adding to a space is probably easier when the medium is sound, and definitely impossible with certain visual media.

A building steeped in history like the AKM, which Helvacioglu was able to use to his advantage, often overwhelms the separate realities offered by artists when unusual buildings are used for special projects like a biennial. This is particularly evident with most of the photography here, which hangs on geometrically embossed, bronze colored walls that could hardly be more unaccommodating.

In both cases, the work of Armenian artist Vahram Aghasyan and Japanese artist Tomoko Yoneda explore comparable themes of failed ‘modernities’, and, in particular, the urban residues left in post-soviet countries. These fail to resonate in the AKM due to how the interior intensifies the medium’s two-dimensionality. In this sense, some projects presenting serious and compelling issues are only supplemental to the curatorial thematics envisioned for the space. But this points to what I find most alluring about the exhibition: it confronts the impossibility of curating the AKM. One can feel a tension as the building stubbornly refuses to recede into the background and the retrograde interiors come back to life.

The AKM also represents an important directorial decision related to Biennial’s history. Burn It or Not? inadvertently maintains a biennial tradition of curating inside obdurate architecture. The difference is that this exhibition rejects using ancient landmarks. The Hagia Sophia in the touristic Sultanahmet, exemplifies past approaches to citywide curating in Istanbul. (The last Istanbul Biennial, curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, was widely praised for an urban renegotiation that rejected tourist-friendly zones.) Despite its inflexibility, the anomalous space contained in the AKM opposes both the white cube and the historical containers used previously (see curator Dan Cameron’s 2003, 8th Istanbul Biennial, Poetic Justice). Perhaps this converted gallery makes for the most populist show in the 10th Istanbul Biennial because it is neither an antiseptic white box, nor an anachronistic art-prison.

What makes the AKM an oddly sumptuous exhibition due to the choice of building is that when viewing the art the only work that blends in seems to be more contemplative and meditative pieces. In this regard, video has an edge because it takes a magnetic and mesmerizing work to really transport the viewer beyond the AKM’s interior. As Erdem Helvacioglu’s piece exemplifies, the meditative aspect of the exhibition makes for a potentially deep visit, as you swing between the especially strong proposals that manage to deal with the AKM’s strange anatomy—local artists seemed to have an advantage in this regard.

In the AKM’s confines an inversion occurs, which reverses the illusion borne out of modern exhibition practices. Approaching the art feels quite incidental to being physically apprehended building. The exhibition is negated in light of what would otherwise be demanding artwork on display. But this is surely the downside for some visitors, because it overwhelms the installations in ways that most artist’s projects couldn’t possibly mount a response to.

As an experiment, Burn it or Not? finds the sublime side of its modern edifice at the risk of subjecting the artwork in the exhibition to a insidious, albeit temporary brut force, which contends with the fate facing the AKM by forces larger than it outside of its walls. Again, this ‘failure’ is what makes the somewhat uninventive curatorial theme novel in practice.

The Ataturk Cultural Center

The Ataturk Cultural Center

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