Contemporary Art

The 15th Istanbul Biennial

By Gareth Harris

Provocateurs Elmgreen & Dragset curate an incisive – and intimate – showcase of cutting-edge contemporary art

Istanbul - Elmgreen & Dragset, the Scandinavian artist duo and curators of the 15th Istanbul Biennial, have always insisted that they would put on an easy-to-navigate exhibition, in contrast to mega-festivals such as Venice and documenta.

The biennial, titled a good neighbour, takes place in only six venues, including museums such as Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum, as well as the Galata Greek Primary School. Out of these six, five are dotted around the central Beyoğlu district, while one is located across the Golden Horn in the Fatih residential neighbourhood. The biennial runs until 12 November and is a great opportunity to experience Istanbul’s many museums and historic sites, alongside this cutting-edge contemporary event.

The pair have brought together 56 artists – a relatively small amount by biennial standards – who deal with ideas of home and neighbourhoods. “The biennial itself is formed and shaped like a neighbourhood; it’s about the idea of coexistence,” says Michael Elmgreen. “So it is important that the venues are within walking distance.”

Istanbul Modern, a former cargo warehouse, and the Pera Museum, the private foundation space originally built as Hotel Bristol in 1893, are essential stops on the biennial trail. The presence of ten Turkish artists in the exhibition is key, Elmgreen says. “It is important that we give some of these [Turkish] artists exposure.”

Istanbul Modern

Istanbul Modern

Octogenarian artist Candeğer Furtun’s installation Untitled (1994–1996) is startling visitors at Istanbul Modern. The piece comprises nine pairs of bare human legs placed side by side on a tiled bench. This comical set-up brings to mind the Turkish hammam culture. But the organisers at Istanbul Modern point out a more sinister undertone, stressing that “this group of masculine limbs quietly addresses the furtive conditions and exclusionary tactics of male power”.

Candeğer Furtun, Untitled (1994–1996)

The area outside the museum is currently being redeveloped, resembling a huge building site. Alper Aydin’s D8M installation (2017), another Istanbul Modern standout work, is apt in the circumstances. His piece, a mess of tree branches and defunct machinery, is an eloquent take on urban expansion and development.

Alper Aydin, D8M (2017)

Çelenk Bafra is the director of exhibitions and programmes at Istanbul Modern. “My favourite work is the work by Elmgreen & Dragset,” she says – referring to the biennial itself, in which the duo are not showing their own work. She says that the “whole thing” pays dividends for the city.

Pera Museum

Over at the Pera Museum, the most impressive piece in the entire biennial is US artist Fred Wilson’s Afro Kismet, 2017. It looks to a controversial aspect of Turkish heritage and culture, focusing on the history of black people in the region through vintage prints and handcrafted items.

Fred Wilson, Afro Kismet (2017)

The work brings to mind the delicate issue of the Ottoman slave trade, and the role of Afro Turks in Turkish society today. “By reframing objects and cultural symbols, [Wilson] alters traditional interpretations,” says Douglas Baxter, president of Pace. Ralph Rugoff, the director of London’s Hayward Gallery, seen pondering the piece, picked out the multi-layered installation as one of his highlights.

Sakıp Sabancı Museum

As always, satellite projects are as much of a draw as the main event. Cultural commentators probably feel they know everything about the ideas, approach and politics of the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. But a 100-work-strong show at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, his biggest exhibition to date, is a timely meditation on the refugee crisis engulfing Europe (Ai Weiwei on Porcelain, until 28 January 2018).

The show focuses on Ai’s practice in the medium of porcelain, connecting ancient Chinese and Greek pottery production with Ottoman craftsmanship. Politics comes courtesy of a vast new wallpaper piece, Odyssey (2017), which shows refugees fleeing from conflict zones.

Nazan Ölçer, the museum’s director, believes that the show will be a revelation for Turkish audiences. “Ai is one of the most important contemporary artists who is establishing the [current] art agenda with various exhibitions in different countries. He comes to our museum with a major exhibition,” she says. But his artistic vision and techniques are at the forefront. “In all of his exhibitions he has been an activist; now we are seeing the artist behind this role,” she adds.

Sadık Paşa Mansion

Finally, an off-piste event worth catching is the latest initiative launched by the organisation Das Art Project, which describes itself “as a curatorial team that works with independent artists and transforms historical and iconic places in Istanbul into art spaces”. Welcome to Homeland is on show at the Sadık Paşa Mansion in the Cihangir district (until 21 October), and includes recent works by the Turkish artist Halil Altındere.

“The first part of the exhibition centres upon Muhammed Faris, the first Syrian astronaut who had to take refuge in Istanbul [in 2012]; the second part opens with a video work, Homeland, made in collaboration with a Berlin-based Syrian refugee rapper Abu Hajar,” says Çisem Asya Albaş, the project’s co-founder.

The 15th Istanbul Biennial takes place in six venues across Istanbul, 16 September – 12 November 2017

Istanbul Biennial:

Istanbul Modern:

Pera Museum:

Sakıp Sabancı Museum:

Sadık Paşa Mansion:

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