“COMPOST IS SOMETHING where you bring in things together; but it’s also something that you need to leave alone, somethings have to take their own time and place,” mused David Teh, sitting next to his cocurators Ute Meta Bauer and Amar Kanwar at the press briefing of the seventeenth Istanbul Biennial. Compost, Teh went on, “is what gives this year’s biennial its character.” Their talk on September 12 ushered collectives, critics, curators, and “contributors” to this edition (instead of artists) into the Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plants Garden, a first-time venue for the exhibition. Afterward, a sun-soaked path in the garden led me to Laura Anderson Barbata’s Our-History-is-Not-Found-in-a-Book, 2009. Red hammocks, made by Indigenous weavers from Yucatán, hung between trees, couching friends who savored the serene moment. Amid by the musical babble of the fountains, with the breeze shuffling the leaves, I felt a pang of doubt. Was this appeal to sweetness and relaxation yet another touristic exploitation of the remaining beauties of a city imperiled by ecological collapse?
My doubt was misplaced. This subtly devastating profusion of artistic inquiries marks a return to form for the Istanbul Biennial. Whereas Nicolas Bourriaud’s listless “The Seventh Continent” largely ignored the burning issues of its locale in its exegesis on climate change, this latest iteration is an organically cultivated fruit. The curators described the lead-up to this edition as a “perfect storm,” citing the Hagia Sophia’s 2020 conversion from a museum into a mosque, Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, the “judicial farce” behind the arrests of Osman Kavala and other activists, and mounting insecurity for minorities, women, refugees, and queer communities. “For most Istanbulites, these have been difficult years,” the curators told me. “Yet we were blessed to have scores of them as our informants—artists, researchers, activists, editors, historians, curators, journalists, poets, and the biennial team—who love this place and love sharing it.”
Indeed, the rot of Turkey’s civic institutions has unwittingly cultivated a host of beneficial organisms here in Istanbul, creating fertile soil for a cultural flourishing independent from state patronage or big capital. This year’s critical compost will nourish visitors incrementally, inspiring dialogues between Istanbul’s disparate communities and even producing antibodies against autocracy. In Büyükdere35, a gallery on Boğazkesen Street, the London-based Cooking Sections sell kaymak (cream) and sütlaç (rice pudding), produced from the milk of local mandas. On site, the collective’s Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe recounted the displacement of these buffalos after government cronies built an ecologically disastrous airport in Istanbul’s vital wetlands. Their Wallowland, 2022, part of a four-year-long research project, mourned the seventeen swamps and ponds the sleek airport destroyed. Transforming the gallery into a traditional Muhallebici (dessert shop), Cooking Sections hung mirrors on the walls and installed a work—a coproduction with ethnomusicologists, biologists, and ecologists—that fills the room with the sounds and songs of Istanbul’s water buffalo. Their celebration overlaps with Turkey’s first buffalo festival, which ponders how to conserve pastoralist practices.
A few hundred yards uphill, in Beyoğlu, the Central Greek High School for Girls housed Marco Scotini’s Disobedience Archive, 2005–, an evolving video platform devoted to global resistance movements. When the Turkish artist Can Altay entered this 170-year-old space, he found it just as it was in 1999, when the school stopped operating; even the same desks and blackboards were still there. Among the work’s components is the Boğaziçi Resistance, a social media project (@budirenisi on Twitter) that compiles information about the Turkish government’s ongoing siege of Boğaziçi University, historicizing our oppressive present in real-time.
Elsewhere in Istanbul’s Şişli quarter was the Hrant Dink Foundation, where Rakel Dink, the widow of the slain Armenian journalist, joined visitors to eat dumplings. Even this is a subversive act in Turkey: Nayat Karaköse, the foundation’s program coordinator, talked about their banned conference about the social, cultural, and economic history of Armenians in the Anatolian town of Kayseri. In a moment of inspiration, they launched something else: a festival for mantı, Kayseri’s signature dish. The biennial will host this event, an opportunity for healing and unity, on October 28. The Foundation also published three issues of a gazette, Mantı Postası (The Dumpling Post), on solidarity, multiculturalism, and resistance. “It became clear that nobody can put them down, no matter what you do,” said Amar Kanwar of the Foundation’s resilience. If you silence somebody, he added, “they’ll learn another way to speak.”
On Istanbul’s Asian side, Gazhane, the city’s 130-year-old former-gas-plant-turned-cultural-complex, hosted the Flag Project, 2006–, by the Indonesian artist Arahmaiani. Fusing installation with performance, Flag Project had previous iterations in Australia, Germany, the US, and elsewhere. In Istanbul, it was striking to see performers waving massive, brightly colored flags stitched with words like “environment,” “labor,” “justice,” “equality,” “memory,” and “struggle.” In Turkey, a gathering like this is a dangerous gesture: Had they shown up in Taksim Square, performers would be beaten and detained. Such contrast added poignancy to Cem Karaca’s socialist song “Gülhane Parkında,” about hiding from the police in a park, which blasted from the speakers, linking the present with Turkey’s leftist histories.
The next day I strolled, unseen, in Yaklaşım, a massive tunnel lying beneath Gezi Park, the site of 2013’s Occupy protests in Istanbul. The door of the 843-foot-long, 13-foot-wide, 14-foot-high tunnel leads to Gezi’s trees. Installed inside was Carlos Casas’s audiovisual composition Cyclope, 2022, inspired by a military aeronautical complex in Mussolini-era Italy that produced one of the longest pipes in the world to research turbulence and friction. Though described as a sonic invocation of “mass control and torture,” Casas’s reverberation chamber felt oddly liberating; walking through it, I felt shrouded in the echoes and ghosts of this city’s resistance movements, and to struggles for dignity and autonomy across national borders. One fellow visitor to Yaklaşım, the Istanbul-based curator Mari Spirito, pressed upon the importance of staying interconnected globally to our friends and comrades, supporting each other, not feeling alone and sharing knowledge about how to survive.” Indeed, those of us who will continue to weather Turkey’s autocratic hurricane beyond this biennial’s time frame cannot survive without the nourishment of precarious, courageous collectivity.
Kaya Genç is a novelist, art critic, and historian living in Istanbul. His latest book, on the Turkish government’s assault on the country’s artistic communities, is The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey (IB Tauris, 2019).