Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world so I was going to have a brilliant time, whatever the 10th biennial was like.
The excellent 9th Biennial was always going to be very hard to live up to. This year's curator is Hou Hanru who drew the backdrop of the exhibition: 'We are living in a time of global wars.' True. The three main venues were Atatürk Kultur Merkezi (AKM), Istanbul Manifaturacilar Carsisi (ICM) and Antrepo No. 3.
At Antrepo, a warehouse by the Bosphorus, the show was subtitled 'Entre-polis' and contained some strong works, sometimes badly installed. One of the high points was Rainer Ganahl's 'Silenced Voices: Bicycling Istanbul's Topography of 21 Murdered Journalists'. Ganahl wrote the names of journalists in chalk at the sites where they were murdered in the city. He was stopped by the police on one occasion, only escaping by pleading 'biennial'. Apparently Turkey is the eighth most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. Turkish collective Extrastruggle asked visitors to fill in posters with 'How... is he who calls himself an Armenian/ Kurd' in mockery of Ataturk's famous declaration 'How happy is he who calls himself a Turk'.
Another highlight was Michael Rakowitz's recreation of objects looted from the Baghdad Museum after the fall of the city in 2003, using packaging from Middle Eastern food. They are labelled with quotations from the time, from Donald Rumsfeld's glib 'freedom's untidy' to dismayed museum experts assessing how some 10,000 years of human history have been destroyed. The room reverberated incongruously to the sound of Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water' because the museum director Dr Donny George, who strikes a heroic figure in his quest to return the looted objects, plays the song in a cover band.
Ivan Grubanov's pen and ink drawings of his former president Milosevic on trial in The Hague, drawn over two years sitting in on the case, are shown on twin slide projectors. These ephemeral, banal renderings of this evil man question the reality of international justice.
Fikret Atay's 'Tinica' is projected large, a boy sets up a drum kit made of old cans above the city of Batman, the artist's home town on the border of Turkey and Iraq. After a virtuosos performance the boy suddenly kicks the improvised drums over the edge into the sunset in a rock and roll finale.
The show at AKM is called 'Burn it or not?', referring to the fate of this elegant Modernist concert hall on Taksim Square which currently hangs in the balance. AKM is threatened by the gentrifying forces of 'neo-liberal economic power, hand in hand with populist political power' who apparently wish to replace it with a post-modern corporate complex. The works in this space deal largely with similar issues, there are multiple photographs of bland interiors; a film about cleaning the glass on the Reichstag. The notable exception is Xu Zhen's glass case containing the tip of Everest and a cluster of tents that work well in their austere surroundings.
IMC (Textile Trader's Market) is an inspired venue, a huge complex of shopping units and workshops outside the tourist map of the city. This Modernist bazaar is also under threat from 'gentrifying capitalist forces'. While searching for the units housing exhibits you pass through stores selling carpets, wheelchairs, bean bags and endless sewing machines, a reminder of the sweatshops and factories in the city. Many of the units are empty and the place feels underused. There were some interesting works in this part of the exhibition, well-tuned to their surroundings, but it was practically impossible to view them comfortably. The space was too cramped with nowhere to sit for whole programmes of video works, and lux level issues had only been solved in a very temporary way. I watched some interesting documentary-style works about sex workers and sweat shop employees and read Julien Previeux's cheeky letters of 'non-application' to various unscrupulous employers. The highlight was Chinese artist Chen Chieh-jen who was 'pirating his own work', circulating copies of his much admired films using pirate vendors asking for a small donations, to be given to charity. Considering how precious most artists are about access to copies of their films, this felt radical.
Santral Istanbul, a new steel and concrete art venue in a former electricity factory, houses 'Modern and Beyond' a history of Turkish art over the last century. The first half is derivative Modern painting, such as Cubist renderings of Turkish subjects done forty years after the event, but the second half offers a fascinating and important survey of Turkish contemporary art, through conceptual art, installation, feminism and film. It showcased amongst others, Halil Altindere Esra Ersen and Serkan Özkaya. Meanwhile, Istanbul Modern showed a celebration of the last 20 years of the Istanbul Biennial; 'Time Present, Time Past'.
Sylvia Kouvali's new gallery RODEO has just opened in the Tütün Desposu (Tobacco Warehouse) in Tophane, the wooden building used in the last biennial. Kouvali has some excellent artists, a superb space and the show was thoughtfully and immaculately installed, a relief after the surrounding biennial. Ahmet Ögüt has filled the ground floor room with asphalt. A beautiful wall collage by Hüseyin B. Alptekin is assembled from his ongoing archive of objects from the journey of his life. Mustafa Hulusi's op-art 'Expander' poster, familiar from the streets of London, finds itself on the wall of a gallery. Gülsün Karamustafa presents archive photographs from 1954 when icebergs from the Black Sea entered the Bosphorous and stopped shipping traffic. The pictures show scenes of people happily hopping across the icebergs to commute to work. Eftihis Patsourakis has covered the gallery windows with colourful, abstract cubic patterns that resemble stained glass but turn out to be post-it notes. While Panayiotou's riddling mixed media installation evokes the Wizard of Oz, weather phenomena and death with its embracing skeletons. The attic is haunted by the face of an Egyptian soap star in Haris Epaminonda's tense and poignant film 'Tarahi II'. Kouvali is also responsible for the impressive YAMA, video screenings on a giant advertising screen atop the Marmara Pera Hotel, best viewed from the roof terrace bar of the Londra Hotel with a gin and tonic.
Haluk Akakce has a slick solo show at Galerist including video works and mirror wall pieces, as well as featuring in the Istanbul Modern and Santral shows. Galerist also sponsored 'Sobe!' a show of women artists curated by Leyla Gediz at Bilsar Binasi. Downstairs from Galerist is URA!, featuring the Slayer Pavilion, a Gregor Schneider inspired look into the world of a Goth-metal teenage boy. They also presented a lively gig at Dogztar featuring Selfish Cunt, No Bra and Blurt. Across the road, outside Platform Garanti, a frog jumps up and down croaking 'Great Show'. London-based artist Harold Offeh presented his Mammy project in 'Hybrid Narratives' at Akbank Sanat. And London-based curator Nazli Gurlek co-presented a collaborative international show at Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. Look out for Alti Ayik reopening in a new space in November.
All this art should be punctuated by drinks on elegant roof tops, coffee in trendy Tünel and meze in vibrant Nevizade Sokuk. Listen to the call to prayer while marvelling at once beautiful houses now derelict and inhabited by plants and stray cats. See the sights of the city, take a boat to the islands. Just don't ever rely on a taxi driver knowing where you want to go.