Art biennale 'Saltwater' navigates turbulent Turkish times

Disparate ideas like a sea-borne zoo, an Aboriginal peace treaty and the lost birdsong of a ruined Armenian capital form a cohesive body of work at this year’s Istanbul Biennial, a top international art show taking place in turbulent times.

“Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms,” drafted by U.S.-based art historian Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, is inspired by the waterways that shape this ancient city, and the sprawling show set in 36 venues stretches from a Black Sea lighthouse to the island refuge of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

The title evokes salt’s dual nature to heal and corrode. “Salt is my way of speaking about power,” she said. “Art does not belong to one side or the other. It serves a third: people.”

The Istanbul Biennial, now in its 14th edition, opened in September against a backdrop of violence. Fighting between the Turkish army and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party that erupted suddenly in July wrecked a tenuous peace process.

A suicide bombing blamed on Islamic State killed 102 people in the capital this month ahead of an election on Nov. 1. War in Syria has sparked an influx of 2 million refugees, tens of thousands of whom have made the treacherous voyage to Europe.

The upheaval has not frightened off art crowds that reached a record 450,000 this week. They stop at bathhouses, hotels and garages in a kind of scavenger hunt for art through the city.

MESSAGES OF PEACE

Christov-Bakargiev, who brought a lecture series to Kabul during the 2012 documenta fair, said art is most vital in times of strife. “I am interested in working in conflict zones.”

Djambawa Marawili, a 62-year Aboriginal Australian, brought his own work as well as rare artifacts from his Yolngu people, including a graphic that served as a treaty with white settlers in 1935.

“I can see there are reasons for conflict here. By bringing our art all this way, maybe we can open eyes and minds. Making peace is what we do with art,” Marawili said.

Most references to nearby conflicts are deliberately oblique, and Christov-Bakargiev bristled at art-world criticism the show glosses over Turkey’s current problems. “You shed light on the present by looking at the past,” she said.

A dozen artists examine the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks early in the last century, including Belgian-born Francis Alys’ black-and-white video “The Silence of Ani”, in which children play among the ghostly ruins of Ani, the former seat of the Armenian kingdom, using whistles to imitate the area’s lost bird species.

ISLANDS

In “The Flesh Is Yours, the Bones Are Ours,” American artist Michael Rakowitz, whose roots are Jewish Iraqi, uses art-nouveau plaster friezes moulded by apprentices of Istanbul’s long-gone Armenian and Greek artisans. He then incorporates the real excavated bones of stray dogs that were rounded up and deported to an Istanbul island where they starved to death in 1910.

The episode foretells the expulsion of Armenians and Greeks in ensuing years. The work is in a former Greek primary school.

“Traces of fingers and hands that have borne silent witness to what has happened in the city from buildings that survived – that is something very hopeful and resilient,” Rakowitz said.

The pearl of the show is the island of Buyukada, an hour’s ferry away, where horse-drawn carriages shuttle artgoers to crumbling Victorian homes for a rare peek inside, including where exiled Trotsky wrote “History of the Russian Revolution”.

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