A Tale of Two Biennales: Istanbul and Moscow

Still from Halil Atindere's Wonderland, 2013

Still from Halil Atindere’s Wonderland, 2013

So, September is traditionally a full month for the art world, as galleries click back in after summer schedules and the worldwide spate of biennales further obstructs one’s ability to schedule a Skype-call. In the whirl of events, there were two that particularly drew our attention: Moscow (obvs) and Istanbul. Contested cities, now synonymous with gas masks and protest, plagued by petitions, both sites have prompted debate about the place of politics within contemporary art.

The particular situation with this year’s Istanbul Biennial (which barely registered in comparison to the joint effort of Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa) is laid out thoughtfully (as always) by Kaelen Wilson Goldie (one of our writer crushes) at Artforum.com, who details the intricacies of the biennial’s advances and retreats in the moments before and after the Gezi Park demonstrations. This explains the resulting biennial, which feels like a skeleton of an exhibition, with its best meat carved away and replaced with Lunchable cold cuts, hastily-processed work that makes muted acknowledgment of the society’s discontent without feeding the discussion. (This shift echoes in the exhibition’s move from the public space of the outdoors to white cube galleries, but Wilson-Goldie explores that more winningly.) In her Diary, Wilson Goldie departs quite beautifully from Un Chant d’amour (1950), a silent film by Jean Genet, originally banned as “obscene” in the US, but since “hiding in plain sight” on Youtube. We would suggest another video as a counterbalance: Halil Altindere’s Wonderland (2013). A collaboration with the Roma rap group Tahribad-ı İsyan (Rebellion of Destruction), the work essentially plays like a music video for a song the group wrote about being forced out of their neighborhood.  It is also one of the few moments of unchecked emotion still allowed within the exhibition. (That is, besides the title itself: “Mom, Am I Barbarian?”, borrowed from poet Lale Müldür, who makes an appearance as the flighty blonde dame shooting balloons in one of the films.)

Installation view of "More Light"

Installation view of “More Light”, the 5th Moscow Biennale

Basically, our experience in Istanbul left us wondering if there would be a better structure for an exhibition to indulge in a little political imagination without risking its support systems (for what good is an exhibition if it is shut down within hours of opening?) This was a dilemma faced by Catherine de Zegher, curator of the Moscow Biennale. Her resolution? To avoid direct conflict altogether and instead issue a statement exploring “no-places” and “no-times.” While there is some radicality to be found in the idea of sidestepping the constant, insatiable demands on one’s time, the exhibition’s deliberate remove from its current political situation – a situation that provides plenty of opportunity for commentary – makes the resulting exhibition feel painfully flat, a selection of pretty, handmade works, too serenely installed for their original contexts to hold their edge (that is, if they had any.) In addition to the presence of craft, the show indulged in a kind of escapist naturalism, with multiple works (David Claerbout and Eija-Liisa Ahtila, for example) built around a journey into the woods. “A contemplation of contemplation,” as the Kommersant’s Anna Tolstoya generously read it.

What would the alternative look like? During the last biennale, Katya Degot ventured such a scenario with Auditorium Moscow, a project we appreciate more and more. This go round, we were impressed with Mirjam Varadinis‘s contribution, “0 Performance: The Fragile Beauty of Crisis, but the majority of that work (particularly Pilvi Takala‘s delightful Trainee) have made the rounds, making the project look like something we’ve seen before. On that note, the Ekaterina Foundation‘s joint production with the Garage, “Reconstruction,” pulled together precisely the things we haven’t seen to script a loose history of the Russian 1990s. It made for an amazing show, but again, not quite built in the biennale format.

The "Political Propaganda" action, September 21, 2013,  on the steps of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia

The “Political Propaganda” action, September 21, 2013, on the steps of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia

Surveying all the antics of Oleg Kulik and Alex Brener, it made us wonder, how do we expect art to make a statement these days?  Yesterday, Petersburg-based protest artist Peter Pavlensky (whom you might recall as the one who sewed his mouth shut in support of Pussy Riot) led a gang of nine artists in the unsanctioned exhibition, Political Propaganda.” The exhibition took place on the steps of the Hermitage, with the artists holding their works on posters, ala protest signs.  The result was singularly non-spectacular, lasting all of a half hour, before the police politely asked them to move along. (Emphasis on “polite”: one police even helped the artists to properly roll up their paintings so they wouldn’t be damaged.) Despite the fighting words of the exhibition title (and the uncanny similarities to the million little actions in “Reconstruction”), the project sparked far less conversation or discussion than the mere mention of the word “Manifesta.”

On that final note, there, taking it all in, was Manifesta delegation Kasper Koenig and Hedwig Fijen. It will be interesting to see what lessons they put into their own exhibition, whose artist list so far (Maria Lassnig, Louise Bourgeois, Timur Novikov..) seems suspended between the sublime and the subversive. We know we seem to be fixated on this show right now, but it seems to be one point where real conversation is happening. Consider us hopeful?

Update: in answer to our questions above, our friends at Artguide just alerted us to the project “Spaces of Exception,” curated by Elena Sorokina and Jelle Bouwhuis. Making good use of the Artplay hull-like spaces (scene of the 4th Moscow Biennale), the exhibition delivers some striking work by Willem de Rooik, Jiri Kovanda, Radya, Taus Makhacheva and more. To read more about this project, check here.

Timur Novikov, Sun, 1989

Timur Novikov, Sun, 1989

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3 Responses to A Tale of Two Biennales: Istanbul and Moscow

  1. Pingback: Bleak is the New Black: Nadya Tolokonnikova describes life in a Russian penal colony | Baibakov Art Projects

  2. Pingback: Manifesta receives nearly triple the state funding as the Moscow Biennale | Baibakov Art Projects

  3. Pingback: Scrotum Patrol: Who is this Peter Pavlensky? | Baibakov Art Projects

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