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Arts

Istanbul Biennial: the new art of protest

Artists at this year's Biennial are turning Istanbul's public spaces into political forums. It's no coincidence. Many pieces address the mass demonstrations and social unrest in Turkey.

A green ball pounds against a concrete wall - over and over again. It's a giant wrecking ball that greets visitors at the entrance of this year's Biennial in Istanbul. With the installation, Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen references the city's urban transformation. This echoes the sentiments of curator Fulya Erdemci.

Under the event's slogan, "Mom, am I a barbarian?" the "oppressed and excluded in society" should be picked up through art, said Erdemci.

Public space as a political forum is a focus of this year's exhibition concept. And there couldn't be a more current topic.

Mass protests re-ignited

As the initial Biennial tourists strolled through downtown Istanbul, they were surprised with a fresh wave of protests. Teargas and water cannons were even being used against the protesters.

One of the reasons behind the renewed public anger was the death of 22-year-old Ahmet Atakan, who had been killed while demonstrating in the Turkish city of Antakya. Witnesses and relatives of the young man blame the police and say he was hit in the head with a teargas cartridge. Atakan's death spurred new protests in cities around the country. According to media reports, 40 people were arrested in Istanbul alone, representing a new wave of protests after the previous mass demonstrations in Istanbul's Gezi Park.

A crane holds a wrecking ball against a building, Copyright: DW/S. Sokollu/V. Uygunoglu

Ayse Erkmen's wrecking ball mirrors the changes in Istanbul

It was because of these protests that Fulya Erdemci's initial exhibit plans were scrapped. For about two years, Istanbul's public spaces had been slated for the art of the 88 international artists: Gezi Park, Taksim Square, city districts under threat of demolition, endangered natural parks, and all of these places have now suddenly become the focus of national discussion.

For 14 of the projects, Erdemci had applied for permits at Istanbul municipalities and at the Federal Ministry of Culture but never received a reply. The Istanbul municipalities supported the crackdown by police against demonstrators, and they were criticized during the protests as a result.

Curator Fulya Erdemci spontaneously withdrew her applications to five exhibition spaces in public places.

"We don't want to work with the same authorities who are trying to suppress this peaceful movement, the voice of the people," Fulya Erdemci said in an expression of solidarity. Her withdrawal sends a strong artistic and political message, she added.

Parks as a political forum

Through the Biennial, international artists can participate in the protests. German artist Christoph Schäfer is one of them. His drawings touch on the importance of parks as political forums. Istanbul's Gezi Park is an especially good example of politics in public spaces. For hours, students, artists, professors and doctors sat together in Gezi Park to discuss politics - or simply make music.

"As a result, the public debate and the political aspect take on a completely different quality," Schäfer said.

Portrait of Christoph Schäfer in foreground, one of his drawings of Gezi Park in background, Copyright: DW/S. Sokollu

Christoph Schäfer's sketches focus on Gezi Park

One of Schäfer's drawings shows a park in Hamburg. For 15 years, Schäfer has participated in "Park Fiction," an artistic and socio-political project in a Hamburg park that serves as a prime example of public art. Through their own ideas and drawings, nearby residents have a say in the park's design. Out of solidarity, the park was renamed overnight to "Gezi Park Fiction."

"Political movements in other countries could learn a lot from the movement in Istanbul because the protests were done in a smart and clever way," said the artist.

The Biennial is not a test of "civil disobedience," as it's been portrayed in media, said Schäfer, but a reflection of the events in Istanbul. "In the exhibition all the sore points are addressed. But because people today create their own political platforms, the Biennial is no longer the only bright spot," he added.

For him, the Biennial's importance has diminished because the people's anger has already erupted into the street.

Erdem Gündüz (center) stands in a silent protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul early June 18, 2013, Photo: REUTERS/Marko

Erdem Gündüz, center, initiated the silent protests on Taksim Square

Art of the silent protest

Turkish artist and choreographer Erdem Gündüz can also be found at the Biennial. During the summer protests, Gündüz provided a political platform to demonstrators: He initiated a silent, standing protest on Taksim Square, naming the event "Standing Man." Hundreds of thousands imitated the move and joined him, standing for hours on the public square. It was a creative alternative to noisy, mass demonstrations. At the Biennial he's conducting readings on various topics, including about the people in Gezi Park.

"Art isn't so distant from real life," said Günüz. "Just like the standing man. Later, people understood that art is important because a man did something like that, and he's an artist."

Art against construction plans

Alongside Gezi Park, the financial crisis is an important topic of the exhibition, said Andrea Phillips, co-curator of the Biennial. At the moment it's especially interesting in Istanbul because the city's economy is growing. Nevertheless, there are problems with capitalism in Istanbul, added the Brit.

"You only have to look at the housing situation in Turkey," Phillips said. "This problem also inspired the protests. Many buildings in downtown, also close to the Biennial, will be demolished and replaced by new luxury apartments or shopping centers."

Photos on a wall, documenting the path, Copyright: DW/S. Sokollu/V. Uygunoglu

Serkan Taycan's photos document many construction projects in Istanbul, helping citizens visualize the changes

Serkan Taycan is one of the artists that address the controversial construction project. The photographer selected a 60-kilometer (37-mile) path, which runs from the north-south axis of the Black Sea to downtown on the Marmara Sea. The path follows the construction plans of Istanbul: the Istanbul Canal as a second Bosphorus River, the third bridge over the Bosphorous, the third airport.

"This greatly affects us residents in Istanbul. With this path, I want to give people the opportunity to experience the transformation," said Taycan, adding that in five years the path will no longer exist in its current form.

With that, Taycan struck a nerve in the Turkish folk. The demonstrators in Gezi Park have often described the construction plans of the Turkish government as "megalomaniac" and "unnecessary." Even economic experts criticize the government's construction plans and say they would rather see an investment in the education and health sectors.

Art for the people

Through projects like Serkan Taycan's path or Ayse Erkmen's wrecking ball installation, the people of Turkey seem to feel understood. "The people who live in Turkey are having a tough time right now," said a young, Turkish Biennial visitor. "We are happy that artists are devoting time to current issues in human rights and even economic issues."

The Biennial doesn't end until October 20, but its resonance with the visitors is already noticeable.

"These exhibits are being viewed with a closeness that isn't noticeable at every exhibition," said German artist Christoph Schäfer.

A Swedish visitor traveled to Istanbul just to see the Biennial and made a comparison: "I'm not actually interested in political art, but I've been to many Biennials, even the one in Venice," he said. "I am surprised at how interesting this one is, especially since political events had overturned plans so spontaneously."

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