October 02, 2011

Istanbul Biennial: Art at the Crossroads of the World


There is no recession in Byzantium. To buy his £70 worth of magazines, the man ahead of me in the Istanbul newsagent touch-types his pin number while looking at a twinkling display of watches. He barely registers the cost of the glossy stack: Yacht Park & Lifestyle, Motorboat Month. Last year European City of Culture, this year European Capital of Sport and boasting an outstanding art biennial, the city that straddles Europe and Asia is resurgent. Aside from cars and cats – there are millions of both, all equally ungovernable – what strikes you most are the cashpoints. I have never seen a city with so many, nor one that boasted bigger national flags – immense red rectangles the size of basketball courts, billowing in the breeze that whips up off the Bosphorus.

And it’s a few feet from that timeless and seductive stretch of water that the 12th Istanbul Biennial has just opened its doors. In a pair of converted warehouses containing white galleries laid out in a pattern that mirrors the structure of the city itself, curators Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa have assembled the work of 135 artists from around the world. Pedrosa, a Brazilian, and Hoffmann, a Costa Rican, have divided their chosen works into five group shows and 50 solo, all under the initially somewhat unpromising title of Untitled.

Dating from 1987, Istanbul is, along with Venice and São Paulo, one of the three most esteemed art biennials in the world. In past years, work has been displayed at multiple venues around the city, but the decision this year to house all the art in a single, centralised location proves an inspired one. Venice can feel incoherent and disjointed, and is often dominated by the sheer logistics of getting to the right place to actually stand in front of stuff. The two buildings that are home to the biennial this year, Antrepo 3 and 5, are large enough to house a truly mind-stretching number of images and ideas, but temperate and compact enough to make the experience a pleasurable one.

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