Saltwater. A Theory of Thought Forms

Curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the 14th Istanbul Biennial suggests a dual theme of water and the thought-form that is art.

One characteristic of the Istanbul Biennial – from its first edition in 1987 to the present day – is that, despite showcasing artists from all over the world, it is spread around several parts of the city and interacts strongly with the city’s human and urban geography.
Another trait is that it often comes at crucial moments in time: there were openings straight after the devastating earthquake of 1999 and immediately after 11 September 2001; the ninth edition opened shortly after the writer Orhan Pamuk had been accused of publically denigrating Turkish identity by defining the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians as “genocide”. The 13th Biennial, curated in 2013 by Fulya Erdemci, was seriously affected by the Gezi Park tensions.
Adrian Villar Rojas
Adrian Villar Rojas, The most beautiful of all mothers, 2015. Trotsky House. Photo Kubra Karacizmeli
In these obvious examples, but also in other years, the Biennial has had to deal very directly with this turbulent and changing metropolis which has a population of approximately 20 million. This exchange has always involved macro-issues of a social, economic and geopolitical nature, ranging from the relationship with history to the possible coexistence of different political systems, the cohabitation of religions and cultures, and the impact of urban expansion and migrations. Think back to the “Istanbul” edition curated by Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun, that of Hou Hanru entitled “Optimism in the Age of Global War”, and “Red Thread” by the WHW collective, focused on Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The fact is, this Biennial has always made a huge contribution to reflections on the conditions of artistic production and whether it can explore the meaning and role of art in today’s world.
Istanbul: Lawrence Weiner
Lawrence Weiner, On the verge (Ramak Kala), 2015. Photo Sahir Ugur Eren
Now in its 14th edition, the Biennial is, as always, organised by the IKSV Foundation for Culture and Arts, a true driving force in the country which also works on the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and holds major music, cinema, theatre and jazz festivals in Istanbul every year. It has been “sketched out” by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, curating again after a few years’ interval following dOCUMENTA 2012 and just before she becomes director of the Castello di Rivoli and GAM in Turin.
Ed Atkins
Ed Atkins, Hisser, 2015. Rizzo Palace. Photo Sahir Ugur Eren
The title of the exhibition, “Saltwater. A Theory of Thought Forms”, suggests a dual theme of water and the thought-form that is art; this is interspersed with theoretical reflections of different matrixes and an interdisciplinary approach that Christov-Bakargiev had already clearly manifested at dOCUMENTA. The 36 venues are spread mainly across three areas: the very central Tophane, and Kadiköy in Beyoglŭ; more working class and conservative districts now undergoing gentrification in the north of the city such as Şişli; and some islands, large and inhabited like Büyükada, or small and deserted like Siviriada; there are also appendages in little visited zones such as Rumelifeneli, a small port 1.5 hours by boat from the city centre, where the waters of the Bosphorus merge with those of the Sea of Marmara. It is an unspoilt location but not for much longer as the urbanisation that will accompany the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, approved by Erdoğan after years of pressure, will certainly transform this place/landscape. This brings added significance to Christov-Bakargiev’s invitation to visit this little port and the lighthouse on which Laurence Wiener has left a discreet mark.
Ed Atkins
Ed Atkins, Hisser, 2015. Rizzo Palace. Photo Sahir Ugur Eren
A tour of the island of Büyükada is also telling: cars may be banned but there are numerous fast-moving horse carriages and it still abounds with the magnificent timber houses once found all over Istanbul. Most of the works displayed on the island are in just such houses. They are mostly single works, scattered through the rooms as in the case of Ed Atkins and the video and sound installation Hisser which unfolds throughout the splendid but decadent Rizzo Palace; and of Susan Philipsz who, in the eclectic Mizzi Mansion, has dedicated a sound/photographic work to Elettra, the ship-laboratory on which Marconi conducted his radio experiments; and of Daria Martin, who acts out complex family relations in the sitting room and kitchen of a private house, illustrating the difficulty of holding together what life pulls apart.
Zeyno Pekünlü
Zeyno Pekünlü, Minima Akademika, Magnus, 2015. SALT Galata. Photo Sahir Ugur Eren
The work by Adrian Villar Rojas, an Argentinian creator of titanic installations, is spectacular: Villar Rojas draws visitors around the disjointed stairways overgrown with plants of the ruin of the house to which Trotsky was relegated from 1929 to 1933. At the end of an arduous descent, he offers visitors an enigmatic and unexpected vision: 28 white, life-size animal sculptures loaded with relics found in the sea’s waters, facing them and as if walking on water.
Susan Philipsz
Susan Philipsz, installazione sonora e fotografica, Mizzi Mansion. Photo Kubra Karacizmeli
Scattered around the other venues are works by artists and non-, all somehow linked to water, its forms and its movements: waves, flows, knots, river-bends, recourses and dispersions, trickles, spurts and reflections. Through these forms, it is possible to evoke different notions and phenomena: Christov-Bakargiev’s thought starts from the years when they invented X-rays and Telex and spans from sound waves to electromagnetic ones, waves of pleasure, emotion and memory; and from Gallé’s sinuous vases to the courses and recourses of history. Indeed, on show is footage – collected by the ArtikIsler Video Collective – of the protest demonstrations held in Turkey before the dissent led to the Gezi Park mass movement; the waves painted in 1870 by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who dreamt of being an artist but received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of neurons in 1906, and those of Annie Besant who, in the early 20th century, published a book on the power of thought before Klee and Kandinsky turned to the abstract. Speaking of links between the visible and the invisible, Elena Mazzi’s video concentrates a major project developed in Venice linked to the energy of the sun and wind, and the tradition of engraving on mirrors. Wael Shawky takes us back to history and its discordant versions by presenting the third episode of his Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala trilogy in an old hammam that was formerly a mosque; and we see Trotsky drowning in his words in William Kentridge’s videos.
Fusun Onur
Fusun Onur, Deniz (Sea), 2015. Barca con installazione sonora

Gripping and poetic is Francis Alÿs’ The Silence of Ani set amid the ruins of Ani, once a flourishing Armenian city; children play with birdcalls as if they could take them back to a life that is no more. “Saltwater. A Theory of Thought Forms” is a stimulating and pithy exhibition and it is also worth leafing through the lovely catalogue designed by LeftLoft.

The fact remains that extremely serious things are happening in the world today, and the Mediterranean in particular. The news coming from all over leaves no doubts as to the seismic proportions of today’s migratory phenomenon, with waves of fugitives being driven to the coasts of Europe by wars, extreme poverty and environmental displacement. This was not unforeseeable, as the phenomenon has been underway for decades. Take just one example: no Italian will have forgotten the shocking image of a ship overloaded with thousands of Albanians who crossed the Adriatic to the coast of Brindisi back in 1991. That image incontrovertibly conveyed the reality of a mass exodus destined to expand, along with its baggage of exploitation and horror.

If, as Christov-Bakargiev claims, art really does play a part through its reflection and works, or, as Vita Sackville West wrote, “And by a symbol keep civility”, the current situation is asking more questions than ever and they are hard to ignore. Turkey, in particular, is playing a large part in the turbulence of our times with tensions that have been growing for years and a diminishing press freedom. In the year of the centenary of the Great Crime against the Armenians and as Erdoğan prepares to face both elections and G20 in November, the southeast of the country is being inflamed by the Kurd issue and the Syrian tragedy. Just as the Biennial was opening and parts of southeast Turkey were adopting a curfew, refugees were boarding boats on coasts and the sea was washing up just the mortal remains of some of them. Istanbul itself, in these months, is swarming with fugitives in transit.
Liam Gillick
Liam Gillick, Hydrodynamika Applied, Istanbul Modern. Photo Sahir Ugur Eren
In the face of all this, questions on the meaning, role and potential of art are being thrust upon us. How can we not wonder whether indirect choices really are the most effective way and whether the present situation actually calls for a firmer stance. Direct condemnation may seem like the easy option but, faced with a pressing situation, its opposite is at risk of being bland. All questions that will not leave those looking to art for meaning, strength and an approach to the future alone.
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until 1° November 2015
Saltwater – 14. Istanbul Biennial

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