The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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World of Images: Entering Entre-polis

“Ming’s preoccupation with the construction of identity through portraiture has led him to subjects as varied as anonymous children, pensioners from an old age home, prisoners and on to portraits of Buddha, Mao, and Bruce Lee.” Taken from the biennial guide, this quote describes Yan Pei Ming’s kaleidoscopic installation of black and white portraits spanning a large surface on the wall as one enters Entre-polis. The exhibition is at an old dockyard warehouse, next to the Istanbul Modern in Tophane. Yan Pei Ming’s delicate portraits immediately relate an artist’s concern with identity that matches the curator’s own. Obviously care was given to framing the exhibition with a humanistic face.

It reminded me of an unlikely contrast to this opening-shot of curatorial strategy. When the Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2005 after completing a renovation (more expensive than any prior), a long deliberated decision about what painting to have head the modern art collection led to considering replacing Cézanne’s The Bather with Paul Signac’s portrait of Parisian dealer and dandy Félix Fénéon. In a moment of feigned criticality, the big establishment had self-consciously picked a fitting piece for what amounted to a $900,000,000 loss of innocence—the body of awkward perfection that defines youth had come-of-age, and come to prominence in a corrupting world of appearances.

At Entre-polis we glimpse the world in the global fashion promised, but also in a conscientious manner, epitomized by Yan Pei Ming’s appropriately titled From Worldwide to International. These stirring portraits seem stained in ink as much as possessed by the contrast of the last eight personages of the UN’s secretary-general post alongside ‘lesser’ anonymous persons—familiar children’s faces that typify world plight. With few exceptions—like the super didactic OMA’s literal view of the globe as a map with important graphic information about what’s really happening—we do not see the world from a privileged position where power is unwittingly relayed through the pretense of criticality.

Instead, chosen artists veer clear of being either too earnest or systematic about the realities that shape people. Politics and aesthetics find balance, largely because many of the videos are painterly, instead of simply documentary, and even the most militant installations are compelling multi-media projects. Turkish issues are included as relations in a family of circumstances that the curator wants to breach—not as an obligatory preponderance accompanying national sponsorship. And like Ming’s portraits, the tight positioning of things next to each other makes room for reflection without encroaching on the identity of each subject.