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art-layering the city

jean poole at the istanbul biennale 2007

Jean Poole writes and publishes video at skynoise.net, and recently spent a six month video residency in Istanbul with artificialeyes.tv

here is More Than One Way to Skin a Sheep (video still), Jennifer Allora (US) & Guillermo Calzadilla here is More Than One Way to Skin a Sheep (video still), Jennifer Allora (US) & Guillermo Calzadilla
IN THE WORLD’S ONLY CITY ON TWO CONTINENTS, RESTING FOR ONE MONTH IN THE ATATÜRK CULTURAL CENTRE, IS THE VERY TOP 1.86M OF MOUNT EVEREST, NEATLY CARVED OFF AND PRESENTED FOR ALL BY CHINESE ARTIST XU ZHEN. PROVIDING ANOTHER VANTAGE POINT WAS THE ISTANBUL MODERN, WITH A 20-YEAR BIENNALE RETROSPECTIVE. BUT ULTIMATELY THE BEST ART OF THE BIENNALE, CURATED BY CHINA’S HOU HANRU, WAS TO BE FOUND OUT IN THE NOOKS AND CRANNIES OF THIS SPRAWLING, COMPLEX CITY.

egoyan’s aurora

Appropriately, given Istanbul’s maritime history and trading port status and the Biennale’s proclaimed focus on globalisation, the largest gathering of artworks were located in a harbourside warehouse named Antrepo, the two-storey interior designed to “function like a real city...a kind of urban maze to reflect the labyrinth structure of Istanbul.” Like Istanbul, this meant a lot was crammed in, it was very noisy (lots of sound overlap), traffic flowed continuously in random directions, there was a lot of East meets West, and the complex politics and history of the region were often explicit and upfront.

Having only learnt of Turkey’s World War I era atrocities inflicted upon the Armenians since arriving in Istanbul a few months ago, I was immediately drawn to Auroras, a video work by the unflinching film director Atom Egoyan, who was born to Armenian parents in Egypt in 1960. He wrote and directed the film Ararat [2002] about the genocide. In Auroras, Egoyan focuses on Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian exiled from her homeland after her family was killed in the tragedy of 1915; she travelled to the United States hoping to find her surviving brother. In 1918, Hollywood made a film of her experiences with Aurora playing a large role, catapulting her into unexpected and unwanted stardom. She later deserted the promotional tour and threatened suicide. The studio responded by finding seven Aurora look-alikes to take her place.

Egoyan explores this true story by providing seven well groomed actresses of different ethnicities on a panoramic screen, each taking turns to speak text from accounts of Aurora’s experiences. Within the blackened room there is a smaller, discrete room waiting to be discovered in which is projected a small loop of footage of a dishevelled woman with a failing memory, old enough to be Aurora, talking to an interviewer about photographs he is showing her. She is not identified as Aurora, but in the catalogue Egoyan asks, “Are we dependent on the subjectivity of performance to absorb another person’s trauma? Does history need to entertain us?”

bicycle works

For a city where bicycles are so rarely seen (rickety roads, crazy traffic, endless hills), Antrepo held a surprising number of bicycle related artworks. There is More Than One Way to Skin a Sheep by Jennifer Allora (US) & Guillermo Calzadilla (Cuba) is a gorgeously shot six minute video which follows a cyclist around Istanbul, pausing at busy intersections to inflate his deflating bicycle tyre using a tulum (a large bagpipe-like traditional instrument from the mountainous Eastern Black Sea region of Turkey, and derived from the carcass of a sheep). The cyclist is from that region and, inflating the tube, he makes long resonating notes which are juxtaposed with and then ultimately blend into the city hustle. Working in many ways, this was a beautiful and haunting piece.

Rainer Ganahl (Austria), on the other hand, bicycle-tackled Istanbul to draw attention to 21 sites where journalists have been killed, riding between locations to generate a video-taped topography of sorts with photos and chalk outlines drawn at each site. His artist statement emphasised that the International Association of Journalists lists Turkey as the eighth most difficult country in the world in which to practice journalism. Beneath a series of photographs, the story of each victim is told. Most murders were a response to the journalist writing about a minority group in Turkey.

just awake

Fell asleep under the stairs nearby, on beanbags provided for watching ceiling projected moonscapes and cityscapes (Taro Shinada, Japan). Felt asleep walking through the well-hyped virtual RMB City built by Cao Fei (China). Not that cyber glamour and extravagance felt incongruous with Istanbul, just that Second Life graphics never seem capable of pointing to anything but 1992. Knife sculptures (Abel Abdessemed, Algeria), simulated time bombs (David Ter-Oganyan, Russia) and life-size, weapon-loaded Kama-Sutra sculptures (Hamra Abbas, Kuwait) tend to have a little more jolt. As does the upbeat if elevator jazz sounds of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (South Korea), perennial festival favourites, slinking through another wise-cracking text animation, this time a story about the importance of ignoring all curators and critics—everyone has their own valid aesthetic abilities and tastes and all established canons of art are a hoax.

video layering

I wouldn’t have been visiting the Biennale if it wasn’t for an invitation to the Istanbul video laboratory of artificialeyes.tv, a video collective steadily carving an international reputation as live video performers. Acknowledging that the art of VJing is often hidden behind technical veils, this exhibition’s attempt to reveal some of its processes proved worthwhile and popular with Biennale visitors. Hardware modifications and specialty equipment jostled for attention alongside deliberately championed software code (across 30 metres of wall space), abundant photographs of event performances, and a compilation of videos including a recent one from Cappadocia I helped film. In the end it’s all about the video, the exhibition’s lingering resonance being the video projections layered on top of everything, gliding (through the use of Video Mirror Units) across floor, wall and ceiling space in slow, choreographed manoeuvres.

the world factory

Textile manufacturing has long been a Turkish strength, and yet the changes and challenges brought by the forces of globalisation are more than evident at the ghostly Textile Trader’s Market, a multi-storey textile shopping complex with plenty of vacant shops to fit temporary Biennale exhibitions and video screening rooms. Most directly related to the setting were a range of clothes designed by Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia) together with prostitutes, as part of a prostitute fashion label. But much of the art here explored the plight of the worker—architectural diagrams for providing modular shelters and homes for factory workers in Tijuana, ambient videos documenting the otherworldiness of factory workers within industrial locations, and Ömer Ali Kazma’s (Turkey) juxtaposed videos: Brain Surgeon, Clock Master, Slaughterhouse Worker and Studio Ceramicist.

parallel trails

Alongside every festival of scale inevitably exists a bounty of unofficial treasures, side projects, renegade events and alternate mini-festivals awaiting discovery. One of the most exuberant accompaniments to the biennale was the Triangle Project, a collaboration between Copenhagen, New York and Istanbul which will culminate in 2010 (when Istanbul is celebrated as European City of Culture) with the opening of a Danish Cultural Institute in Istanbul. On this leg it seemed to mostly involve transplanting the cream of Copenhagen’s electronic artists into an Istanbul venue known as The Hall for four evenings.

And so, in an Armenian church converted into a nightclub and cultural centre: transvestite ramadan cartoons adorn the walls; a blonde ponytailed 23 year old girl (Band Ane) jogs onstage singing her way through a rave anthem; half-shaven men parade in wolverine dresses; a trio on stage (kargology.com) earnestly debate public and private space while simultaneously appearing in three-way naked and sweaty motion on the video screen behind them; a masked duo (Albertslund Terror Korps) unleash their version of Danish Bhangra gabba techno with crude animations of aliens abducting aeroplane crash victims (hello VJ Cancer); and girls choreograph the theatrical cutting apart of each other’s paper costumes with scissors.

In a similar art-fashion-actor-model-DJ kind of vein there were Hackers and Haute Couture Heretics, promoted as “a public clothes swap and hack”, and the Istanbul chapter of Swap-O-Rama-Rama. Attendees brought a bag of old clothes and were able to get assistance from professional designers with industrial sewing machines, silk screening and iron-on stations, which naturally ended in a fashion parade of the remixes, a sprawl of colour, frayed edges and reinvention.


Istanbul Biennale 2007, Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary, Optimism In The Age Of Global War, Sep 8-Nov 4, 2007, www.iksv.org/bienal; Istanbul Modern www.istanbulmodern.org; Video Mirror Units www.vms-at.com; Hackers and Haute Couture Heretics www.istanbulstreetstyle.com/swap

Jean Poole writes and publishes video at skynoise.net, and recently spent a six month video residency in Istanbul with artificialeyes.tv

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 28

© Jean Poole; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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