14th Istanbul Biennale: Saltwater

Adrián Villar Rojas The Most Beautiful of All Mothers 2015 Site-specific installation
Adrián Villar Rojas,The Most Beautiful of All Mothers,2015,Site-specific installation

A single substance connecting all continents, saltwater has a habit of sustaining certain life forms while desiccating others. Its rising levels may threaten life as we know it, but, on shore, it dries into flakes—seemingly harmless, though capable of rendering the ground beneath infertile.

It is in this curious muse that the 14th Istanbul Biennial finds its inspiration. Titled “Saltwater” and “drafted” by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (who views her work as too precious to smudge with the verbal stain of “curating”), the exhibition is rhetorically sited along the Bosphorus Strait. Excepting the few symbolic splashes into other neighborhoods (Balat, Kadıköy, Rumelifeneri, and the Princes’ Island of Büyükada), the exhibition mostly pools in Beyoğlu, in the reservoirs of gallery spaces like ARTER, the Galata Greek Primary School, and Istanbul Modern. Contrary to the relative convenience of its actual layout and its more or less manageable scale (1,001 of the advertised 1,500 works are contained in one floor of ARTER), Christov-Bakargiev styles the biennial as a kind of elusive sea-beast that scorns international visitors in favor of a city it barely touches. Several of the venues are virtually inaccessible: Andrew Yang appropriates an old radar dish in a military zone closed to the public, while Pierre Huyghe’s piece lies at the bottom of the Marmara Sea.

In turbulent times, Christov Bakargiev advances an understanding of war as waves, ebbing and flowing. This poetic perspective allows her to prioritize prettified, petrified political gestures (Michael Rakowitz’s unnerving installation, The Flesh is Yours, the Bones are Ours, 2015) over open engagement with the country’s increasingly heated situation. Some of the most striking works—a set of cochineal ink drawings by Aslı Çavusoğlu, a choral performance by Haig Aivazian, a new film by Francis Alÿs—point to historical tensions rather than their recent renewal. Opting for romanticized distance over direct contact, the exhibition ultimately feels anchorless.

Various venues in Istanbul
2015.09.05 – 2015.11.01