Art Seen: International

Speaking for the Inarticulate // 16th Istanbul Biennial Seeks the Voice of the Seventh Continent

By Pinar Uner Yilmaz

It is old news that humans overuse the natural sources for their own benefits, bringing the world to a global environmental crisis, while a majority of people—mostly adults—are turning a blind eye to the situation. Over the past year, the 16-year-old Greta Thunberg became an iconic sign of the global climate crisis, after she made a lonely protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Thunberg  became the voice of the inarticulate, both animate and inanimate—a person who speaks for the environment,  animals, water, earth, stone, and so on, while the world leaders are mocking her for the sake of corporate profits, with the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”1 Thunberg’s act points to the urgent fact that human activities generate negative ecological consequences. One of the most visible and undeniable results is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also called the ‘Seventh Continent.’2 This mass of waste is 1.3 million square miles, a floating seven million tons of plastic in the Pacific Ocean.

With seven venues throughout the city, the 16th Istanbul Biennial explores this new continent and, like Thunberg, questions environmental futurity in the global era. Curated by the French writer and curator Nicholas Bourriaud, The Seventh Continent unfolds the layers of the Anthropocene, or the Capitalocene: a reference to the dominant economy and its impact on the environment.

Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren, the artist, and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.

With its global thinker and curator, the biennial exhibits fifty-six artists throughout three main locations, with social programs advocating for awareness, vocality, and protest built around the art. Through the run of the biennale, though, harsh criticisms have been raised against curatorial indifference towards the very real problems that Turkey is facing now. Since its opening, the environmental effects of its sponsors, the carbon footprint caused by the realization of a mega-exhibition, issues with its venues, and instances of artists standing impassive towards these problems has been in the target of the writers and critics.

Bourriaud, in response to such criticisms, enounces the strong works in the exhibition and claims that art has the power to vocalize said problems and concerns. He claims that “today’s anthropology can no longer be centered on the human species. In this de-centered world, both anthropology and art have to engage with a multitude of points of view.”3 Only then, problems can be articulated, pondered upon, and perhaps solutions can be found.

One of the examples of such engagement is Hale Tenger’s Appearance (2019), an installation located on Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands. As a venue, Büyükada creates a traffic-free haven for its residents with its horse-drawn vehicles, historic grand houses, not to mention a round-trip ferry ride with a beautiful view of Istanbul’s Historical Peninsula. Laden with the historic past, as well as the present touristic spectacle, Büyükada makes the perfect setting for Hale Tenger’s installation located in Sofronios Palace; built in 1870s, the palace is former home of the Patriarch of Alexandria, Sofronios and was then used as the Büyükada Primary School between 1922-1967. Tenger stages round, black, obsidian mirrors in the garden of this palace in ruins, while the visitors listen to a poem written by the artist. The work has three layers—the obsidian mirrors, a volcanic material prehistorically used as mirrors; a sound element, which recites a poem from the viewpoint of a fruit tree, about agency, power, self knowledge, and greed; and the inspiration from the botanical technique known as girdling, which is a method used both to enhance growth of fruits in trees or in forestry to kill trees. Tenger installs the sound as if the visitors—while exploring the garden, observing the ruins of the palace, looking in their own reflections on the obsidian mirrors—hear a fruit tree, whispering its own requiem. Tenger’s work comments on the human intervention of nature and our arrogant endeavors to revamp natural processes for our own good.

Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren, the artist, and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.

Yet, sometimes, interventions create hybrids, mutants, super heroes, or monsters. In Büyükada, on the porch of the Hacopulo Mansion, which over time served as an Imperial Hotel, the home of mayor Con Hacopulos, and now an administrative building. British artist Monster Chetwynd displays her sculptures, variously from her Hybrid Creatures series. Setting foot into the garden of the building, one sees extra-human sized sculptures of hybrid creatures—human forms melded with snakes, spiders, bats, and crocodiles. With hybridity, as well as the biological transformation on earth, Chetwynd reminds us the quintessential discussion in the 1990s art world: hybrid as the other.  The growing mobility of artists and venues for cross-cultural interaction has fundamentally restructured art’s conditions of production, reception, and display. In part, contemporary art has become a sociopolitical endeavor powered by ideologies of identity, self-determination, social change, multiplicity, diversity, differences, complexities, and new technologies. With the tools that postcolonial theory has provided, artists, curators, and critics have questioned the representation of the ‘other,’ as well as the dominance and hegemony of certain power structures in art.4 Chetwynd’s Hybrid Creatures remind us the outcast of the art world and the art history: women, people of color, people from the so called the third world, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, and so on.

Since the early 1990s, a shift in contemporary art occurred, in which artists incorporated concepts such as globalization, hybridity, migration, diaspora, exile, multiculturalism, and transnationalism to their artistic practices. For anthropologist Nestor Garcia Canclini, the notion of hybridity is a tool to dissolve the oppositions between modern and traditional, modern and postmodern, anthropological and sociological, and external and internal market structures. Hybridity enables transdisciplinarity, between the cultural and socio-economical by providing a strategy of absorption, adaptation, reconversion, and replacement. Canclini believes that the dynamic of modernism is irreversible and hybridity is a convenient tool to amend the gaps that modernity has created in the non-West.5

The curator Bourriaud, with his curatorial text hints at this post-colonial approach and acknowledges that “the canonical western division between nature and culture has come to an end.”6 Beginning in the late 1980s, many scholars fought for abolishing the archaic dichotomies between the East and West and opted for hybrid alternatives. For instance, in 1995, Apinan Poshyananda wrote, “at times, Western imperialism, and Third World nationalism feed off one another, therefore it is necessary to avoid generalization and overused clichés such as global/local, universalism/tribalism, us/them.”7 Poshyananda provided an alternative viewpoint to the East versus West dichotomy and proposed an understanding of cultural differences based on the hybridities created in moments of historical transformation.

Courtesy Sahir Ugur Eren, the artist, and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.

Another thread in the biennial is the global transformation and collaboration for a change. Eva Koťátková’s work for the biennial, situated in the MSFAU Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture,8 entitled Machine for Restoring Empathy (2019) asks for global transformation through empathy as a force of action. The museum, which now occupies a newly transformed art storage warehouse on the Karaköy coast, both houses the installation and includes an accompanying sewing and storytelling workshop. In one of the wall labels Koťátková writes “For those that do not have a voice there is a loudspeaker available or someone else can speak on your behalf.” Creating a kind of a living organism in the entrance to the room, Koťátková aims to vocalize the subaltern, the creatures that can not speak, and all the living organism of the earth that feel the urge to share and protest.

Considering the works in the biennial and how they react to the global climate crisis, without commenting on the problems of the biennial itself, one could easily side with the harsh criticisms directed towards the biennial. Although I agree to the point that it is almost impossible not to see “the elephant in the room,”9 the 16th Istanbul Biennial points to urgent global matters and is triggering people to learn, research, or at the very least, get curious about environmental matters. In an era, where the world leaders are ignoring crucial issues, it is these artists’ and teenager girls’ mission to vocalize the subaltern and make this world a better place—as apparently there is no planet B.


The 16th Istanbul Biennial, The Seventh Continent, runs through November 10, 2019.

1. Thunberg, Greta, Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s Speech At The U.N. Climate Action Summit, 09.23.2019 retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit
2. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
3. Retrieved on 10/24/2019 from the curator’s statement, which can be found here https://bienal.iksv.org/en/16th-istanbul-biennial/curator-s-statement
4. Scholars like Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Arjun Appadurai have made major contributions to the understanding of global contemporary art today. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), paved the way to exposing the Orientalist motivations in art history, photography, and ethnography, while Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), brought the issues of diversity, difference, and hybridity into the conversations in contemporary art productions. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996) by Arjun Appadurai, illustrated how multiple modernities existed in the art historical discourse and proposed hybridity as a way to understand the contemporary productions.
5. Canclini, Nestor Garcia. 2001. Hybrid Cultures, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
6. Retrieved on 10/24/2019 from the curator’s statement, which can be found here https://bienal.iksv.org/en/16th-istanbul-biennial/curator-s-statement
7. Poshyananda, Apinan. 1995. ‘New/Old ORIENT/OCCIDENT/ation in the New Worl DISorder’ in Vogel, S. (ed.)  4th International Istanbul Biennial Catalogue, Istanbul: IKSV Press, 59.
8. MSFAU Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture was founded in 1937 within the halls of Dolmabahçe Palace. The museum is administered by Mimar Sinan University, which was founded as Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi Alisi in 1883, later changed the name as İstanbul State Academy of Fine Arts in 1928, and Mimar Sinan University in 1982. As the first institution that initiated an academic art education in Turkey, Mimar Sinan University, and therefore the museum has an extensive collection around 10,000 works, including works that range from oil-paintings by Şeker Ahmed Paşa, Hüseyin Zekai Paşa, Osman Hamdi, Hoca Ali Rıza, and Süleyman Seyyid to the works of Western painters such as Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Albert, Marquet, Andre Derain, Raoul Duly, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Matisse, and A. Dunoyer de Sagons, as well as contemporary art works. The museum administration decided to move to a new building and in 2012 a process of transformation has begun for the Warehouse Nr. 5. The building will open its doors in the spring of 2020 as a museum but due to an urgent venue change, the 16th Istanbul Biennial has become the first exhibition that the museum hosted in its new building, before its official opening. For more information on the venue change please see https://bienal.iksv.org/en/news/change-of-venue-for-the-16th-istanbul-biennial
9. I refer to the FT article here: https://www.ft.com/content/9ca227ce-db9a-11e9-9c26-419d783e10e8

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