The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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Inside the Ataturk Cultural Center: How to Hang a Building Part 3

From the perspective of modern decadence and urban renewal, interesting connections emerge on all three of the AKM’s floors in what is consistently the most uncluttered exhibition included in the biennial. Since the curators stuck almost entirely to urban themes, the subject matter that relishes modernism as dystopia is most at home in the (very post-utopian) AKM.

Istanbul native Emre Huner’s Boumont exemplifies this. His video is projected in a wide third floor stairway. Boumont succeeds where many soundtrack driven video pieces fail, by quickly enveloping the viewer in a straightforward, if brooding, cinematic landscape. In a move away from previous video work in animation, Huner creates a haunted city reminiscent of some of Istanbul’s eerie industrial parks. Scenes are populated by a sole castaway, who does little more than survive throughout the piece. Contrasting the unedited feel and talk-heavy content that fills many of the biennials other videos, Boumont communicates without producing dialogue, capturing a boundless world wrapped in one individual’s isolation. Human scarcity and self-reliance carryover into the accompanying string arrangement. Yet it is the efficient use of complimentary sound and lighting that drives the artist’s deeply apocalyptic impressions, which are indulgent without being contrived. The scenery is undemanding and has the added power of the musical score, which enhances Huner’s somber netherworld—and the AKM.

The photography most at home in the AKM comes from Canadian Nancy Davenport, who offers some of the political emphasis the biennial promised. As a treasure of the state, the Ataturk Cultural Center possesses all the requisite signs of deference to the State that the building’s namesake would suggest. That is, an imposing and decadent governmentality decorates the interior (such as a tasseled six-meter flag hanging in one of the lounges. Strangely this interiority is never really addressed in the exhibition—it is just there.) Thus, Davenport’s serene photographs serve to exorcise any dissident feelings that might have accumulated during the trek to the top floor and provide a needed counterbalance to the inescapable air of authority artificially beeming forth from the interiors.

In five photographs, The Apartments depict hijackers militantly occupying a high-rise. Masked guerillas rappel down the unassuming buildings, bomb flats, and fire pistols at airliners overhead. In digitally enhanced scenarios, the vaguely journalistic photos capture an imaginary war happening outside the New York City-esque dwellings. Combined here by Davenport is, on the one hand, a figment of a long-lost social imaginary of safety that predated 9/11. On the other hand, these revolutionaries populate a revamped techno-realism in a style somewhere between fantasy and Photoshop.

These works are beguiling in that they frame resistance in the unthinkable urban montage that digital technology permits. Politically motivated hand-to-hand violence of this sort has been virtually unseen in places like Manhattan since the turbulent ‘60s. These scenes, then, depict the outer fringes of anti-capitalism as an ideology advanced by technological innovations.

Their representation of non-realization also acts as a measure of how comically bombastic such militant aspirations look in an everyday setting. These big, unmovable high-rise condos can be conquered in a parallel universe. These anonymous extremists mount resistance only to ponder how leftism could possible be more than a symbolic substance in the near future, as it has come to be since the end of the Cold War. In the midst of a biennial, these photos wonder how universal any anti-capital message could be in practice, considering the praxis confronting these giants in site-specific terms.

Davenport explores the media-genic potential of a latter-day revolution, by processing leftist rhetoric through digital mediation. The Apartments captures the sad but comical state of things familiar to an anti-global audience: smashing capitalism seems real only in a fantasyland. I thought the stinging uncontrollable laughter that came from one young viewer as I sat nearby measured the strength of Davenport’s work, which is to say it captures the repressed state of things. This reminded me of something curator mentioned at the opening press conference about how he imagines contemporary art countering global war with optimism to the extent that it maintains the possibility of dreaming. Davenport’s The Apartments is more humorous than optimistic about twenty first-century dreaming—a world where previously impossible transferals of power occur—where big white monoliths represent the victories of puppet-like insurgents instead of the property of invisible landlords.

also questions the triumphal energies of the modern era. In this case the artist mounts a spurious expedition to the peak of Mount Everest. Denoting the famous mountain’s height, the installation, 8848-1.86, consists of a video of the make-believe climb, cargo crates, climbing gear, and a huge white sign hung at chest height. Most prominently, Xu Zhen has enclosed a replica of Everest’s peak—supposedly removed and confiscated by his expedition team. By transforming the modernist impulse to conquer nature into a quest to make the tip of the highest peak in the world a readymade, 8848-1.86mobilizes some the most conceptually vivid proposals in the show.

But the artist’s cleverly deceptive video might have done better on its own here. The installation of tents and camping supplies clashes harshly in the ornate AKM. What is an interesting project looks needlessly amateurish here. The unresolved multi-media installation fails by its own unmanaged aesthetic, and by leaving too little to the imagination. The strewn gear at first looks like a retail outlet, and the tawdry peak of Everest recalls the Styrofoam dioramas found in natural history museums. The staid utilitarian look of the outdoor gear kills the illusion of the kitschy diarama, and neither ingredient in 8848-1.86  finds balance in this particularly fussy portion of the AKM.

At times, it is hard to know whether the artist, the curators, or the AKM is to blame where the exhibition feels off. On the whole, it is the unforgiving nature of the building. But, again, taking on the challenge of curating inside the AKM makes for one of the most admirable and rewarding experiences for the viewer in this biennial.

Unlike some previous Istanbul Biennials, failures in relation to the venue occur at a material level—artistic and curatorial vision can only be so commensurate—and this show was by no means doomed by the AKM, even if it is totally overshadowed by it. Burn it or Not? proves to be a consistently insightful investigation of the biennial’s stated curatorial query—what global realities will follow a modern era dominated by western designs and influence, that fostered such beautifully ornate and oppressive buildings as this one.

The Ataturk Cultural Center

The Ataturk Cultural Center

The Ataturk Cultural Center

Xu Zhen, Mount Everest

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