The Istanbul Biennial: Orhan Pamuk and the Mysteries of Water

This year, the festival's reigning motifs are lines, waves, and knots—metaphors of evanescence in a timeless city.
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istanbul biennial 2015

The Most Beautiful of All Mothers. (Photo: Kubra Karacizmeli/Istanbul Biennial)

“Knots and waves” are rather abstract tourist draws—most Westerners in Istanbul prefer to hunt after Turkish carpets and five-star Anatolian food. For the curiously inclined and artistically experimental visitor, however, knots and waves are crucial this fall: The city's Biennial is themed around "SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms"—an attempt to explore different possibilities in lines and waves. This is a special and valuable treat to the Western visitor. Forget the tired orientalist tour through Istanbul, its bazaars and historic monuments; this fall, the visitor has the chance to move around the city in search of abstract notions and imaginary artworks, in wave-like visits to the coastal city's distant corners.

Every year in June, Turkey's Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, takes his first dip of the season in one of Istanbul's Princes' Islands off the coast of the Marmara Sea. Pamuk, Nobel Prize-winner and author of nine novels, is also a painter—a failed one, by his own admission. Pamuk's notebooks, eight of them featuring his watercolors, are among the biggest draws of this year's Istanbul Biennial.

For the Biennial's navy-blue catalogue, the novelist penned an essay where he details his relationship with saltwater, the theme of this year's event.

This year's Biennial is centered around the theme of saltwater, "the most corrosive material threat to the digital age," according to the curator.

"The sea in Istanbul is like a trusty old friend, I never doubt it," Pamuk writes. "I see it every day. If I go too long without seeing it, I feel bereft. But once a year, that trust is broken, and on that day I discover there is a whole other sea inside of me. On that day I remember that the sea is a large and terrifying world full of chemical salts, weird insects, crusty creatures, and poisonous fish, an infernal liquid that could engulf me at a moment's notice and drown me before I have a chance to catch my breath."

Last week, during the press preview of the Biennial, I watched Pamuk in Büyükada's century-old, art-nouveau Splendid Hotel, located on one of the Princes' Islands. The novelist-artist discussed his recently finished novella; taking his cue from Hemingway, he compared writing to fishing, noting that "only once in a while does a writer catch a big one."

In Istanbul—the city Pamuk has brought to the heart of the literary world—the Biennial is the most anticipated art event. It does not always manage to satisfy its visitors. First organized in 1987, the Biennial has been showing the newest artworks in some of Istanbul's oldest and most historical buildings ever since. Some consider it a mere trick to maximize the flow of tourists into an already touristic city, while others see in it a potential to deconstruct and undermine Istanbul's orientalist representation in the eyes of the international traveler.

At the presser, Pamuk was sitting next to New Jersey-born curator and writer Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ranked #1 in ArtReview's Power 100—the magazine's list of the most influential figures in the art world (she ranked #19 in the most recent Power 100). ArtReview describes Christov-Bakargiev as "a significant taste-maker.” After curating the 13th edition of one of Europe's leading contemporary art events, dOCUMENTA, three years ago, Christov-Bakargiev had taken refuge in academia. Then, somehow, she agreed to make a comeback to the art world—in Istanbul.

The Biennial runs until November 1, the day on which Turkey's general election is scheduled to take place. The works on display, Christov-Bakargiev said, were meant to be seen by locals, rather than by art professionals. She had “drafted” this year's Biennial around the theme of saltwater, "the most corrosive material threat to the digital age," she said. "If you drop your smart phone in freshwater, you can dry it and it will probably work again. If it falls into saltwater, chemical molecular changes in the materials of your phone will destroy it."

I had been following Christov-Bakargiev through the labyrinthine streets of Istanbul the previous week, trailing after her from one Biennial venue to another, a pursuit which sometimes required intercontinental ferry rides. Christov-Bakargiev kickstarted the Biennial with a press conference in the Italian High School in Istanbul's Beyoğlu neighborhood—a good place to start exploring this year's event, which spreads to so many corners of the city as if to make it impossible to see all the works on display.

Impossible, that is, unless you devote a full week to locating all of them. Turkey's most populous and Europe's largest city, Istanbul is located on two continents and straddles the Bosphorus strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. After its re-establishment as Constantinople in 330 C.E., the city was shaped by roiling waves of history, serving as the capital of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires before the Turkish Republic came along.

Once you start digging up Istanbul's earth or dipping into its water, relics of civilizations appear mixed into each other, like waves in salty waters.

According to Christov-Bakargiev, the transformative, naturally artful powers of saltwater are the driving forces behind some of the most significant works in this year's Biennial. In the introductory text handed out to visitors, she reminds us that salt was a matter of trade and power in ancient times, and that salaries (in Roman times, a salary was called a salarium argentum) were paid with it.

"In antiquity it was a prime commodity because it preserves organic material (our food) and is necessary to our bodies' well-being and the well-being of our livestock. Salt is the water of our tears, and also the salt of life, its positively and negatively charged ions assembling molecules into salt crystals, without which there would be no life on the planet."

Salt is also a good metaphor for art and how it transforms Istanbul during this Biennial: It brings back memories of the city's saddest moments (the destruction of its multiethnic demography in early 20th century, its big fires and gentrification) while also focusing on its continuous power to fascinate and inspire its flâneurs and foreign visitors. It is a city full of life, its history filled with catastrophe and joy.   

It is, I should warn you, quite a creepy space. In one corner I saw prosthetic limbs.

Anna Boghiguian's the Salt Traders (on display at the Galata Greek School in Beyoğlu) is perhaps the work that is most focused on salt in this Biennial—a wonderful mixture of different types of salts, sand, wood, a sound installation of waves, seagulls, and the voice of a captain who reads water- and salt-related verses from Virgil's Aeneid. But saltwater is not only the theme of this year's event; it is also the exposition's venue, with many installations presented on water. Handouts instruct visitors to go north, to the Rumeli Lighthouse in the Black Sea, before sailing to Sivriada island, south of Istanbul, where stray dogs were exiled in 1911. In order to please the West, Istanbul dogs were barred from wandering in Turkish cities—both Michael Rakowitz and Hera Büyüktaşçıyan make reference to the stray dogs' exile in their works at the Galata Greek School. The memories of Istanbul, its painful transformations, thus reveal themselves in locations so strongly defined by history: No tour guide could communicate those moments and sentiments that artists depict so vividly in their works for this Biennial.

Christov-Bakargiev emphasized that she had written the texts on the handouts on a ferry last August: "The exhibition on the Bosphorus hovers around a material, saltwater, and the contrasting images of knots and waves. It considers their different frequencies and patterns, the currents and densities of water, both visible and invisible that poetically and politically shape and transform the world."

This year's is a big artistic promise which, somewhat miraculously, comes true.

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Not so long ago I boarded a ghost ship in Istanbul and found myself alongside hypnotized hipsters lying under ancient lamps in a scene straight out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Hosting works by Marcos Lutyens and Pınar Yoldaş, Kaptan Paşa is anchored on the IDO pier at Büyükada island. A 40-minute ferry ride from Kabataş, the island has never been used for the Biennial before.

Over the summer, the Biennial team has transformed this mysterious hydrofoil ship into an arts venue. They covered the interior of the ship, which normally serves as a commercial vessel for Istanbul locals, with felt. Once on board, visitors are instructed to mind their heads while entering the pitch-black interior. It is, I should warn you, quite a creepy space. Placed inside Kaptan Paşa are elements of a wooden boat; you can barely make out ropes placed inside the ship lit by ancient lamps; in one corner I saw prosthetic limbs. There are daily hypnosis sessions, where visitors have heightened concentration—their awareness routed completely toward their inner selves. Hearing waves of the Marmara Sea gently touching the ship from outside while delving into one's consciousness is quite an experience, for those interested in that kind of thing.

Climbing upstairs and walking along the empty seats in the eerily silent ship, I saw a captain in his uniform, sitting in one of the seats, looking out of the window as if dreaming. Was he real or an actor? A part of the show or a mariner waiting for the Biennial to end so he could finally get his ship back?

This is a Biennial of experiences. Just consider: Some works in the Biennial are invisible. Hypnotism, invisibility, water mysticism—what is the curator telling us here? Why are we made to experience the immaterial and the spiritual in locations so strongly associated with history? Like saltwater consisting of positively and negatively charged ions, the Biennial presents us a number of seemingly contradictory offerings: songs of experience and imagination, critiques of materialism and experiences of immaterialism. A dream-like vision we can experience best when awake. This turns our appreciation of art into a somewhat religious experience: very significant in a country where the upper-crust of society is known for its distaste for religion and spirituality, things seen as part of working-class culture.

Every week, a boat brings visitors to Pierre Huyghe's Abyssal Plain, described in the guidebook as consisting of "concrete, marine life, rocks and mixed media, dimensions variable." Placed around Sivriada island Huyghe's work is "a concrete stage built around existing rock formations on the seafloor of Sivriada, island of exile." The plain receives "objects excluded from the surface, production left over from the history of the Mediterranean region." It is not easy to verify this information, since Abyssal Plain remains enigmatically under water. There are no images of it to save on your iCloud; Abyssal Plain awaits to be experienced—not digitally re-produced. It is, according to Huyghe, "powered" by the current of the strait from Marmara Sea to Princes Islands. You will hardly forget your experience of searching for it.

Not only works but some Biennial venues, too, are invisible or unreachable. The French Orphanage in Beyoğlu had been built in 1868 and became an atelier at the hands of an Armenian plaster caster in 1950s. "Official access [to the orphanage] is denied due to unresolved international competing claims," according to the guidebook, where the Orphanage is still included as a venue. It is a place the visitor is advised to walk toward and reflect on. But not one that she can enter. Perhaps the unifying motifs here are inaccessibility, ephemerality, and mystery. These are themes explored in the novels of Pamuk: the inaccessibility of our beloved's character, her mysterious distance, the ephemerality of the visible world. Istanbul, like Pamuk's novels, provide here the necessary texture where the visitor can reflect on these themes.

A similarly elusive work is Füsun Onur's Sea, a fishing boat and a sound installation that floats on the Bosphorus. Christov-Bakargiev has advised visitors to watch this fishing boat from the distant windows of Istanbul Modern museum in Karaköy.

Unless you locate them one by one, the narrative eludes you. The experience of getting your hands on the work turns into a narrative in itself.

The difficulty of reaching the exhibits is the chief reason why this year's Biennial is so exciting, poetic, and different from those of previous years. The Istanbul Biennial of 2013, titled Mom, Am I Barbarian? with a strong focus on politics, had used only five venues, carefully distancing itself from Istanbul's street life (partly because it became difficult to show works in the public sphere after the Gezi Park Protests in the summer of 2013).

Christov-Bakargiev has embraced the other extreme. This year, works are scattered all over the city, requiring the visitor to locate them patiently—losing her way in most instances—and then re-finding it, making all manner of discoveries, big and small, along the way. It's a bit like reading a big novel, Crime and Punishment, say, whose chapters are somehow hidden in different parts of Saint Petersburg. Unless you locate them one by one, the narrative eludes you. The experience of getting your hands on the work turns into a narrative in itself.

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On July 30th this year, it was announced that the “Trotsky House” on Büyükada would be sold online; the price tag was $4.4 million. Built in the late 1850s, the mansion has 18 rooms, five living rooms, and four bathrooms. Trotsky had written his History of the Russian Revolution and his autobiography My Life there, in the Yanaros mansion, while he was exiled in Istanbul in 1930s.

"Its lobster pool has been lost to the waves, the walls are cracking and its roof has fallen in, but the historical pedigree of the Yanaros mansion has only strengthened over the years," the Guardian reported earlier this year. The piece was titled: "All Property Is Theft but This One's a Steal.”

I visited the Yanaros mansion last week—its unruly garden is part of the Biennial. As I entered the garden and started walking on its narrow paths I expected to see the interior of this house, rooms filled with artworks, perhaps a video installation about Trotsky. I couldn't have been more wrong. All one sees in the garden is rubble and some walls. Unsettled by the experience, I tried finding my way in the garden, in its many forking paths. I turned left and took a right. Increasingly, life seemed to be a matter of being on the left or the right. At the end of the garden I came across a large door. Entering it I came across the waterfront.

There, the calming sight of the sea was interrupted by huge, life-sized sculptures of giraffes and elephants, rhinos and gorillas, carrying others on their backs. Those fiberglass animals were produced by Adrian Villas Rojas and seemed to have escaped from some mysterious sea zoo. "They stay the waves that break on their flanks, and carry others on their backs," says the guidebook. "Leaderless, they gaze menacingly at the house, to haunt or reclaim a land."

This last work, titled the Most Beautiful of All Mothers, was a canny finale for this year's Biennial, where art is not simply appreciated but physically experienced, where politics are made not through big words and radical slogans but through the deceptively simple gesture of transforming a city and its salty waters into a vast, borderless platform for art.

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