September 23, 2011 10:05 pm

Seriously contemporary

The artists at this year’s Istanbul Biennial deftly tackle the weightiest themes

Consider the Venice Biennale: so vast as to risk incoherence, so thematically heterogeneous as to be overwhelming and pegged to national pavilions that appear increasingly anachronistic. Now imagine its polar opposite and you have this year’s Istanbul Biennial.

Confining their artists to two waterfront warehouses, co-curators Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann have departed from this biennial’s usual model of sprawling, Venice-like, across the city. Numbers are small: just 135 artists in all, organised into five group shows and 50 solo presentations. With an emphasis on artists from the Middle East and Latin America, national identities are crucial yet handled with a complexity that reflects a world where borders are more and less important than ever.

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Best of all, thanks to the curators’ decision to use Felix Gonzalez-Torres as their muse, the biennial concentrates on themes of sex, death, love and politics. Universal they may be but no artist has used them to more lyrical, oracular effect than the Cuban-American who died of Aids in 1996. His shimmering, tragic genius hangs over this exhibition like a benevolent shade.

Specialising in minimalist installations of self-replenishing stacks of objects and documents, Gonzalez-Torres’s oeuvre chronicled not only his adopted country’s political landscape but also the Aids-related death of his partner Ross Laycock. Naming his works “Untitled” then adding a more concrete moniker in brackets, he championed the idea of artistic meaning as imprecise: the territory of both redemption and recurring tragedy.

Here, Pedrosa and Hoffmann have taken five of his works as anchors for the group shows. (Rather than show Gonzalez-Torres’s installations themselves, they are explained in text panels whose jargon-free lucidity is echoed in the excellent catalogue.) The solo exhibitions stand alone yet often share similar concerns.

Although Turkey is far more liberal than many Middle Eastern countries, it’s possible that the decision to open with a voyage through abstraction is a nod to more conservative, local sensibilities. Certainly, first encounters here are subtle. For example, “Land Distribution” by the Romanian-born artists Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor consists of a waist-high grid of black tape. At first glance it appears to fill the space, forcing spectators to duck below in order to cross; in fact a path along one side allows one to bypass it entirely.

Its mute geometry a metaphor for vulnerable utopias, “Land Distribution” would sit comfortably in the group show nearby which gathers works that in some way talk back to Gonzalez-Torres’s 1994 piece, “Untitled (Bloodwork – Steady Decline)”. Proffering a sheet of graph paper that represented a failing immune system, Gonzalez-Torres reclaimed the modernist grid as a vehicle for human expression.

In Istanbul, his vision sparks a conflagration of emotion filtered through a faux-minimalist aesthetic. Brazilian artist Adriana Varejao splits a canvas in the manner of spatialist Lucio Fontana then fills the chasms with blood-red gore. From Lebanon, Mona Hatoum, one of the few global stars present, weaves her own hair into an organic web. Even before you know the back story, “180 Seconds of Lasting Images” (2006), by the Beirut-born pair Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, grips the gaze. A mosaic of 4,500 tiny rectangles of photographic paper, only on close inspection do its shifting hues resolve into figures. It was assembled from film shot by Joreige’s uncle, who is still missing since he was kidnapped in the Lebanese civil war.

From Palestine to South Africa by way of Latin America and the fight against Aids, political struggle has inspired much of the art here. Angry and didactic yet often blessed with an austere poetry, a high proportion uses archive-style materials. Consequently this is a biennial almost entirely lacking in both traditional painting and sculpture and the neo-Pop ironies that have colonised so much recent practice.

The geo-political hub is a collective show referencing Gonzalez-Torres’s work, “Untitled (Passport)”. Interrupted by the barriers of the Brazilian Rivane Neuenschwander – makeshift structures that finish in nothingness and suggest Israel’s security barrier – this room feels like a voyage through history at its most Kafkaesque.

Two artists, the Palestinian Baha Boukhari and Dor Guez, who has roots in both the Jewish and Christian Arab communities, present documents that testify to their families’ tortuous identities. From East Jerusalem, Rula Halawani uses black-and-white photography to capture intimate exchanges between anonymous hands across the wall of an Israeli checkpoint.

It is a sign of the times – not least Israel’s marginal status in the vibrant Middle Eastern artistic landscape – that there is no work here referencing the displacements wrought by the Holocaust. Nevertheless, a scattering of battered suitcases by the young Italian conceptualist Lara Favretto cannot help but summon those absent ghosts. Actually inspired by bomb scares in 1970s Italy, it is a folorn example of art’s refusal to submit to fixed meanings.

Links between the politics of state and sexuality are underscored in myriad works. As part of the section “Untitled (Ross)” – named after one of Gonzalez-Torres’s signature candy stacks that symbolised his lover’s ideal body weight – Turkish star Kutlug Ataman displays the military service report whose shockingly offensive comments on his “effeminate” behaviour were jotted down only last year.

From Beirut-based photographer George Awde, images of tough-eyed youths in a cloyingly kitsch sitting-room gesture at the invisible pressures that sometimes nudge Middle Eastern men towards machismo. How different is the vision of Scandinavian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. In an installation of family-style photographs, they capture gay love at its most domestic, intimate and sensual.

The decision to conceal artists’ names until the opening turns out to have been wise, drawing crowds that may otherwise have stayed away had they known how few headline-makers were included.

The 27-year-old Mexican Edgardo Aragón’s sabre-sharp video “Family Effects” reveals more about violence and masculinity in Mexico than any academic treatise. More established is 39-year-old Briton Simon Evans. His hand-drawn maps of his interior world feel like a boy’s own variation on Tracey Emin.

A fine gathering of female artists include Mexican photographer Tina Modotti and Hungarian modernist Dora Maurer. Two superb artists are in their 90s: African-American printmaker Elizabeth Catlett has carved the struggle for civil rights into linocuts, while the unflinching eye of Palermo-born photographer Letizia Battaglia makes her one of our most important witnesses to Mafia terror.

Despite the socio-political content, this biennial does not sacrifice imagination to ideas. Much of its success is down to architect Ryue Nishizawa, who has divided the utilitarian spaces into white-washed secular chapels, creating a tabula rasa ideal for the contemplation of contemporary work. Most crucially, it has been curated as if it were a single, organic installation. Lacking the aura of its antique counterpart, today’s art requires such settings if it is to flourish in our collective memory.

‘(Untitled)’, 12th Istanbul Biennial, Antrepo No. 3 & 5, until November 13 Organised by IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts) and sponsored by Koç Holding. www.iksv.org

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Parallel events: Best of the rest in Istanbul

‘Dream and Reality’

Istanbul’s modern art museum showcases 74 Turkish women artists. It features overlooked modernists such as Frumet Tektas, haunting contemporary painting from 36-year-old Leyla Gedis and the surreal creations of film-maker Inci Eviner.

Istanbul Modern, until January 22 2012; www.istanbulmodern.org

Ergin Cavusoglu

Dreamy, cerebral installations, drawings and film from London-based Bulgarian Ergin Cavusoglu. The centrepiece is the five-channel film installation “Crystal & Flame”, inspired by an Italo Calvino text, but the show-stoppers are floor drawings that leap into three dimensions as spectators cross them.

Rampa Gallery, until November 5; www.rampaistanbul.com

‘Uncontainable’

Until now happy marriages between art and electronics have been rare but this show suggests times are changing. From Patrick Tresset’s robot draughtsman, who will draw your face while you wait, to digital patterns influenced by the brainwaves of Australian artist Karen Casey as she meditates, this is a virual playground for technophiles and art lovers of all persuasions.

Cumhuriyet Gallery, until October 7; isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu

Canan Tolon

One of Turkey’s finest contemporary artists, California-based Canan Tolon paints buildings as if their geometry was dissolving in front of our eyes.

Galeri Nev, until October 22; www.galerinevistanbul.com

Kutlug Ataman

The spacious galleries of a classy, not-for-profit art centre are the perfect backdrop for the demanding, poetic essays on gender and identity by Turkey’s hottest artist, Kutlug Ataman. “Mayhem”, his 2011 multi-channel film of churning waters, suggests his new, less realist style is going to be equally rich.

Arter, until November 16; www.arter.org.tr

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