There’s no way of experiencing the 2015 Istanbul Bienali without spending a lot of time contemplating the Bosphorus. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the former Documenta curator who calls herself the “draftsperson” of this year’s sprawling exhibition, has given it the title “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms”. As venues, she has chosen not only the big, central, venerated museums and galleries you’d expect, but also a ferry terminal, a lighthouse in a fishing village on the Black Sea, and even a patch of the sea bed near Sivriada, the island where thousands of Istanbul’s stray dogs were taken in 1910 to die. Little information about what is to be found at these remote locations has been provided to visitors — although we are told in advance that if we charter a boat to visit Pierre Huyghe’s submerged installation, we won’t be able to see anything at all — so there’s a sense of adventure to the journey that can amplify the effect of the art.
One work that ambushes the viewer with particular force is ‘The Most Beautiful of All Mothers’ by the Argentine artist Adrián Villar Rojas. It’s on a quiet street on Büyükada, the largest of the Prince’s Islands that’s reached by a 90-minute ferry ride from Istanbul. After a 15-minute walk from the terminal visitors are ushered inside the fragrant, overgrown garden of the house where Leon Trotsky lived in exile for four years from 1929 — now an eerie, crumbling shell.
There are no signs explaining what’s the artwork and what’s just the environment around it. Visitors are left to wander down a sloping path through an orchard, step through a gateway, and be confronted by a panoramic vista of the sea, where a group of giant, menacing white-painted sculptures of animals stand on plinths in the shallows staring back. There’s an elephant, a gorilla, a pair of giraffes, a peacock; each looking like a ghost, a mutant or a sentry, with disintegrating fishing nets, gourds, watermelons, feathers and the forms of other creatures protruding out of their backs.
The installation is aligns well with the curatorial spirit of Christov-Bakargiev, who has treated the biennial not as a chance for the region’s most hyped artists to address newsworthy themes but as a sort of artwork of its own, meditating not only on the sea but also on various concrete and metaphorical types of waves and knots. At a preview talk, she corrected a journalist who asked about her selection process with customary bluntness: “I find the word ‘selection’ politically unacceptable.” Instead, she described the exhibition’s coming together as “a process of aggregation”, building on itself the way a plant or organism might grow, and she emphasised the physical experience of visitors to the exhibition as they encountered Istanbul, its surrounding waters, and its layers of history.
Most of the work scattered around Istanbul takes the form of small solo presentations in repurposed buildings — a garage, a high school, and the basement vault of a bank, for example — which gives each artist’s vision the space to breathe, but there are also a handful of group shows. The biggest and most significant of which is a dense, eclectic collection of artworks, scientific writings and other thematically linked curiosities at Istanbul Modern.
This brings together, among many other objects, a book by Darwin; a painting of waves by the Nobel Prize-winner Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who discovered the neuron; recordings of the Bosphorus by oceanographer Emin Ozsoy; drawings of knots by Jacques Lacan; salt crystals from Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty gathered by a Christov-Bakargiev herself; a lovely series of economic data physicalised as fragile, pretty sculptures by Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens; and paintings by a group of Yolngu artists from Australia’s Northern Territories that were used to assert their community’s rights to the waters near their lands. Biennials and triennials can be overwhelming affairs, with contrasting artworks competing for the viewer’s attention, but here the effect is harmonious and low-key. The pieces seem to contribute to a coherent, if complex, picture of the world.
Other works didn’t engage directly with the idea of saltwater, but connected instead with the political and cultural history of the region. The Egyptian artist Wael Shawky contributed the final instalment of his film trilogy, the “Cabaret Crusades”, which was screened in the humid gloom of one of the city’s oldest hammams, and featured alien-looking glass puppets playing the part of 12th-century Christian and Muslim leaders fighting over territory. Francis Alÿs screened a video documenting an intervention he staged in the ruins of a medieval Armenian city called Ani. He gave instruments that produced bird songs to a group of kids, who hid among the ancient stones and played them according to a musical score Alÿs had written, attempting to attract wildlife back to the area.
With the centenary of the Armenian genocide happening this year, it’s unsurprising that Alÿs wasn’t the only artist to engage with the fraught historical relationship between Turkey and Armenia. The former offices of the Armenian newspaper Agos were used as the venue for an emotionally resonant collection of typewritten fragments, annotated postcards, drawings and diagrams that explored the community’s vulnerable identity. Viewers could also see trinkets, awards and tributes relating to the newspaper’s former editor Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007.
If the point of a biennial is to capture the present zeitgeist or point to the future, this year’s Bienali was a failure: it looked backwards, shunned new technology and and meditated on timeless human themes. If Christov-Bakargiev’s intention, on the other hand, was to spark an open-ended conversation that might inspire new work, to connect physically and even spiritually with the city, and to provide intellectual nourishment and aesthetic pleasure, the Bienali did its job. The more of it I saw, the more the waters around the city became mathematical equations, healing forces and metaphors for the vibrations of subatomic particles or the passing of time. And with all the journeying on the Bosphorus necessary to see even a fraction of the artworks on show, there were plenty of chances to daydream.