This is about a weekend in the islands, and contemporary art.
The Fourteenth Istanbul Biennial (September 5 to November 1, 2015) had exhibits or installations all over Istanbul, and several of these were on Büyükada, the Big Island, which is Πρίγκηπος in Greek. The Big Island is the last of the four islands visited by the ferry from the mainland. For easier access, Ayşe and I stayed on the second island, Burgazada, the night of Friday, October 23, 2015. We caught the ferry from there to Büyükada on Saturday morning. We visited all of the venues of the Biennial on the island. Illustrating this article are photographs from some of these venues.
I supply some information about the artworks from the Biennal guidebook (which can be downloaded as a pdf file). This was the information that we had at the time of visiting. It turns out that there is more information on the web, sometimes a lot more. Some of the works, at least, do not stand very well on their own. One needs to be told what one is looking at. Without this, one may still look and figure that what one is seeing is meaningful to the artist, at least; but that may be all. In this, the works in the Biennial differ from the photographs and paintings of Emine Ceylan (born 1955), which last month (February, 2016) were on display at my university’s Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Center. I give one example, from an album of my photos from the exhibit:
This seems not to be the kind of thing that the big names in art today are interested in doing.
The Biennial was called Saltwater, and in addition to a guidebook, it had a catalogue (also available as a pdf download), which gives itself—if not the whole Biennial—the subtitle, A Theory of Thought Forms.
The catalogue is a lovely work, physically: hardbound, with two ribbon bookmarks, and boxed. (And bilingual.) A good part of the catalogue is an anthology of texts selected by the artists. There may be no end to the kind of investigations that the Biennial can set off; but then these investigations depend on more than just looking at the artworks themselves. The present article is not so much the result of such investigations as a starting point for them.
Büyükada Public Library
Public libraries are not common in Istanbul, but Büyükada has one in an old wooden building. This was our first stop. The building itself had apparently been a private home until 2006. It hosted
Mater.ial, 2014–15, by Merve Kılıçer (born 1987 in Istanbul, where she lives and works), consisting of
2 custom-made tables, 2 handmade artist’s books:
There are two books in the library with prints in them. They tell the stories of Tiamat and Inanna. They are creation stories. Her prints are also stories—successive layers of etching on a metal plate with puntasecca and acquaforte.
The artist has a blog, though apparently inactive since 2009, as of this writing. A website called Universes in Universe has photographs: of the books on display in the library, of a page of one of the books, and of elsewhere in the Biennial. I pass along the photograph of the page of one of Ms Kılıçer’s books:
The photo rings a bell, though honestly I had no particular memory of the work before seeing this reminder.
Hotel Splendid Palace
The Big Island is another world, in part a playground for the Istanbul bourgeoisie. Ayşe and I might splurge some day on a weekend in the Hotel Splendid Palace.
According to the guidebook:
In 1908, Sakızlı Kazım Paşa commissioned architect Kaludi Laskaris Kalfa to build this hotel on the site of the former Hotel Giacomo. The Hotel opened in 1911. It is inspired by an Art Nouveau style, and displays a synthesis of Eastern and Western design.
I think management try to maintain the old ambience. The artwork on display consisted of videos of Trotsky and others:
O Sentimental Machine, by William Kentridge (b. 1955 in Johannesburg, where he lives and works),
5-channel video projections, sound, mixed media:
In a hotel, there are conversations behind closed doors. He sends and receives letters, dictates messages, participates in historical events at a distance. He thought the human was a sentimental but programmable machine, and yet we failed. Utopian thinking is both impossible and necessary.
Apparently Kentridge gave the 2015–16 Belknap Lecture at Princeton University, not ten days before we saw his work in Istanbul. The lecture had the same name; having listened to the introduction, I know at least that the K in Belknap is silent. Again I borrow a photo of the work in the Big Island from the Universes in Universe site:
As Kentridge explains in the lecture, film is here a kind of shorthand for sketching, though one may normally think that sketching itself is a shorthand: but to use just a few lines to convey what one wants may take more work than a detailed drawing.
In the introduction to the Biennial catalogue, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev writes quite a bit about Trotsky and Kentridge, including:
On Büyükada, there is a hotel called Splendid. Built in 1908–11, it is one of the oldest hotels in Istanbul. It reminded me of a building in an early work by William Kentridge called Tide Table (2003). Learning of Trotsky’s exile on the island, Kentridge chose to create a work titled O Sentimental Machine where the hotel itself would become a character, along with Trotsky, his secretary and his followers. The long journey of visitors to reach Büyükada island to view the work reacalls Trotsky’s long sea journey from Odessa. Sensitive to the fragmentation of the self before the events of history, Kentridge created a multichannel audio and video installation where the visitor is caught in a hallway of the hotel overhearing conversations behind closed doors, or seeing through those doors into private worlds inside. O Sentimental Machine explores the sense of participating in historical events at a distance, by sending or receiving letters, like Trotsky dictating messages to his secretary and sending them off into the world. Logical argument and language break down into different tracks, just as utopias such as Trotsky’s failed, and the need and impossibility for utopian thinking is expressed through an imaginary office romance featuring Trotsky’s secretary and a megaphone, which represents Trotsky’s idea of the human as a sentimental but programmable machine.
In the anthology in the catalogue, Kentridge’s offering is part of an interview of Trotsky on Büyükada, appearing June 16-17, 1933, in Paris-Soir, by Belgian writer Georges Simenon. The catalogue’s source is the Marxists Internet Archive, from which I take the following selection:
I met Hitler ten times at the Kaiserhof when, tense and feverish, as Chancellor he carried out his electoral campaign. I saw Mussolini tirelessly contemplate a parade of thousands of young men. And one evening in Montparnasse I recognized Gandhi in a white silhouette that walked hugging the walls, followed by fanatical young women.
In order to interview Trotsky I found myself on the bridge that connects old and new Contantinople, Stamboul and Galata, a bridge more crowded than the Pont-Neuf in Paris. Why do I have an impression of a beautiful Sunday on the Seine near St Cloud, or Bougival or Poissy? I have no idea.
All the boats around the tangled boarding planks make me think of bateaux-mouches. Are they bigger? To be sure. They even have a marine air, and the propeller beats against the salty water. But it’s a question of proportion. The entire décor is more vast, the sky itself farther away.
Here one bank is called Europe and the other Asia. In place of the tugs and barges of the Seine there are many cargo ships and liners flying flags of all the countries of the world that head out to the Black Sea, or weave through the Dardanelles.
What does it matter? I maintain my impression of a beautiful Sunday, the outskirts of town, of cafes. There are lovers on the bridge of the ship, peasants transporting chickens and roosters in cages, sailors on leave who smile in advance at the pleasures they’re going to offer themselves.
Trotsky? I wrote to him the day before yesterday to ask him for an interview. Yesterday morning I was already awakened by the ringing of the telephone.
M. Simenon? This is M. Trotsky’s secretary. M. Trotsky will receive you tomorrow at 4:00. Before this I must tell you that M. Trotsky, whose declarations have been too often twisted, would like to receive your questions in writing in advance. He’ll respond in writing…
I asked three questions. The sky is blue, the air as limpid as the deep waters where the movements of dark green algae can nevertheless be seen. Down there, in the Sea of Marmora, one hour from Constantinople, four islands emerge, the “Islands” as they are called here, and we are already touching the landing dock of the first of them.
The catalogue omits a couple of these paragraphs, but then continues only up to the point where Trotsky starts reviewing his answers with Simenon.
Kaptan Paşa Sea Bus
The Kaptan Paşa Sea Bus is nothing special, as far as I know. Apparently it was built in 1997, and for some reason it was chosen to host two works of the Biennial. Inside the ship was
Neurathian Boatstrap, 2015, by Marcos Lutyens (b. 1964 in London, lives and works in Los Angeles), supposedly consisting of
felt, elements of a wooden boat, lamps, ropes, stools, Chladni plates, sound recordings, video installation, hypnosis sessions, readings with blind people. The dark felt lined the hold, keeping the light dim. The other mentioned items were on display, including, I think, the
readings with blind people, replayed from audio recordings; but no hypnosis was offered. According to the text:
He installs the exhibition in your mind, in a world of felt, in the bowels of a ship, a vessel on the Sea of Marmara. There are colours in there.
The title of the work is apparently a pun on Neurathian bootstrap, which is (at the time of writing) the title of a Wikipedia article with
multiple issues. Apparently Otto Neurath (1882–1945) wrote,
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
This describes a theory of knowledge. The artist provides a lot more information on a webpage devoted to the art work: I borrow from there a photograph, since I took none of my own:
The ship rolled and heaved. On deck was
Saltwater Heart, 2015, by Pınar Yoldaş (b. 1979 in Denizli, lives and works between Durham, North Carolina and Berlin):
water pumps, air compressor, water, stainless steel construction pipes:
here is a mesh of tubes over the Kaptan Paşa to keep the flow going. Circulatory systems are based on the movement of fluids. Our oceans are governed by physical forces that create the effect of multiple pumps. When a pump we call the heart stops, life ends.
Again, the artist has a lot more information and photographs on a webpage for the work.
In particular, says the artist,
Inspired by the blue whale anatomy which is pretty much the same size as Kaptan Paşa itself (~45m) I decided to build an externalized circulatory system, that could beat at the rhythm of the blue whale heart. Water circulating in the system comes from Bosphorus.
Says the guidebook,
Commissioned by George Mizzi in the late nineteenth century as a private Residence, Mizzi Mansion, also known as the Red Palace, was used as the Hotel San Remo between 1930 and 1940. The red pressed brick façade, and the monumental corner tower were designed by Italian architect Raimondo D’Aronco in 1894.
Apparently D’Aronco was chief palace architect to Abdülhamid II.
Somebody is trying to renovate the palace, though as always in Turkey there may be difficulties with the historical preservation laws. In any case, the palace housed the most conceptually interesting work on the island:
Elettra, 2015, by Susan Philipsz (b. 1965, Glasgow, lives and works in Berlin):
Multi-channel sound installation and photographic prints:
You listen to underwater recordings and beacons; Marconi said every sound we ever make is still out there. Once generated, it fades but never dies away completely.
The placard on site had a fuller explanation: here is a transcription (by means of an OCR program) from my photograph:
Multi—channel sound installation and photographic prints
Born in Glasgow in 1965, Philipsz lives and works in Berlin. Her work deals with the spatial qualites of sound, and their relationships with architecture. Philipsz is interested in the emotive and psychological properties of sound, and how it can be used to alter individual consciousness. This project (Elettra) is based on her research around the sunken remains of the ship Elettra which belonged to Guglielmo Marconi, amongst the first inventors of the radio. Fascinated by Marconi’s suggestion that sounds once generated never die—that they fade but continue to reverberate as sound waves across the universe, Philipsz started investigating Marconi’s application of radio technology to ships in distress at sea. The Elettra was built in 1904 by a Scottish shipyard for the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria. Requisitioned by the British Admiralty to be used as a minesweeper during World War I, it was purchased by Marconi in 1919 and christened Elettra. Marconi converted her into a floating radio laboratory and many of his radio experiments were conducted from the yacht, moored in the bay at Santa Margherita Ligure, near Genoa. After Marconi’s death, she was sold to the Italian Government and in 1943 became part of the German navy—the radio equipment removed as she was fitted with heavy artillery and renamed G-107. The yacht was torpedoed in 1944 and sunk near Zadar, off the Dalmatian coast. The Elettra remained stranded in shallow water where she fell into disrepair and was eventually cut up. The parts are now spread across sites in the North of Italy and beyond. Philipsz visited each of the sites and produced a series of images of each of the segments of the ship, which she proposes to unite at different stages in the project. These photographic fragments are echoed in the sound artwork that was recorded entirely underwater. Philipsz layered underwater recordings from the bay of Santa Margherita Ligure; from the fishing port of Rumelifeneri at the edge of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea; and from waters off Büyükada in the Marmara Sea to create an acoustic environment that surrounds the viewer. Sounds of boat engines, intermittent radio signals picked up by the hydrophone and the crackling sounds of water create an immersive abstract background. Philipsz also recorded an acoustic locator beacon which is part of the black box recorder fitted to both aircraft and ships and activated upon contact with water. It sends out an acoustic signal for up to 90 days until the battery runs out. These sounds are suggestive of the Morse code, also used by Marconi to create a code signal for ships in distress at sea. Through these sounds, Philipsz alludes to Marconi’s CQD signal and the more conventional SOS signal. They are fragmental sounds, and play in a call and response that animates the space.
Courtesy the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery
Commissioned by the 14th Istanbul Biennial and co-produced with Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce with the support of Francesca Cillutta and Angela Chianale, Henry Moore Foundation, British Council and AmiXi Villa Croce
The guidebook says,
This twin house was built in 1907–1908 by an Armenian tradesman for his two Daughters. It is legend that Trotsky sojourned in this house for a couple of weeks during his stay on the island. More recently, the journalist Ahmet Emin Yalman lived there and the house was used as a location for a Turkish soap opera ‘Dudaktan Kalbe’.
In one of the houses, there was a film in one room and a place to sit in another room. The film, called
At The Threshold (2015), was by Daria Martin (born 1973 in San Francisco, lives and works in London):
A family of synaesthetes lives here. Life is hard for them because they are so sensitive. She realises, without turning, he has entered and is watching her. Her breathing slows. He cuts a piece of fruit. She struggles to contain her feeling that every cut is cutting into her skin. She touches leaves at the end of the evening.
I have dim memories of this.
The so-called Trotsky house is a ruin. There is practically nothing left that could be restored, unless perhaps one counted the garden as part of the house.
The guidebook says,
The Yanaros Mansion, gardens and pier were built in the 1850s by Nikola Demades on the Western side of Büyükada. Leon Trotsky lived here between 1932 and 1933 at the end of his four-year exile on the island.
One walked down a muddy path to the seaside, where were standing in the water the animal sculptures constituting
The Most Beautiful of All Mothers (2015) by Adrián Villar Rojas (born 1980, Rosario, Argentina, where he lives and works):
We exit the garden for relief and are stunned. Chimeras in the sea, inorganic and organic, just off the waterfront of Trotsky’s house. They stay the waves that break on their flanks, and carry others on their backs. Leaderless, they gaze menacingly at the house, to haunt or reclaim a land.
A doorway to the sea may be an invitation to adventure.
It may also be a reminder of the Door of No Return on Gorée Island.
Built in the nineteenth century says the guidebook,
this typical wooden house is named after its first owner, Stefan Rizzo. It was a private residence until 1961, when it was acquired by the Balıklı Greek Hospital Foundation and served as a pension until 2010.
If only it could be restored to full use.
Visitors were allowed to poke around inside a little bit.
Upstairs one watched
Hisser by Ed Atkins (born 1982 in Oxford, lives and works between London and Berlin):
He fell into a sink hole that opened directly under his bed while he was sleeping. These are the last thirty minutes of his life.
The film may well have been half an hour. I did watch the whole thing, standing, or leaning against the wall in the large central room from which several bedrooms were reached. The few chairs were occupied. Some people sat on the floor. It was not obvious that the film was entirely computer generated. What impressed me most was the repeated opening instrumental chords of the duet by Elton John and Kiki Dee, Youtube, showing Dee a bit unnerved, at first, by John’s bodily intimacy. What has this got to do with Atkins’s video on the theme of a Florida man who fell into a sinkhole? I don’t know, but Atkins did choose to put a snatch of the pop song in his video in the first place.