Review: Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) 2011

Henry Kember Julia Holderness

a) the built environment _1880pxThe built environment was designed by architect Ryue Nishizawa. Photo: Mahmmut Ceylan


Any biennial with the name ‘Untitled’ set in Times New Roman is clearly bent on neutrality. However, neutrality doesn’t necessarily equal ambivalence. If anything, the 12th Istanbul Biennial has a more pointed sense of a curatorial idea than many similar large events in the global art calendar.

This year the Biennial has been curated by Adriano Pedrosa (born in Rio di Janeiro, now based in Sao Paulo) and Jens Hoffman (born in Costa Rica, now based in San Francisco). Theirs is a unique approach to the research and presentation of this biennial, and ultimately to the whole biennale form. It’s also a response to recent claims that biennials have long since completed their mission, are now in decline and are in need of an overhaul. In his potted history of the Istanbul Biennial, Osman Erden writes ‘Freeing itself from the traditional characteristics of biennials that are turning into tourist tools around the whole world, the 12th International Istanbul Biennial … is going to prove itself in success or in failure with its interpretation of Felix Gonzales-Torres’ unique artistic approach.’1 Pedrosa and Hoffman have chosen an innovative curatorial thought, that brings to our attention the importance of the exhibition as a formal tool; proving how full and complex the conversations can be when diverse works are overlapped and related.

Their curatorial framework is based on five artworks by Cuban artist Felix Gonzales-Torres, whose practice confronted political and personal issues. But the artworks themselves aren’t present. Instead, they lend their titles and provide a jumping-off point for five large group exhibitions: ’Untitled’ (Abstraction), ‘Untitled’ (Ross), ‘Untitled’ (Passport), ‘Untitled’ (History), and ‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun). These allow Hoffmann and Pedrosa to examine themes as varied as the modernist grid, relationships and loss, migration and modern borders, the telling of history, and the ubiquity of violence. Among the more than 50 solo exhibitions, these ‘cabinet’ exhibitions constitute the central focus of the Biennial. In turn, the five themes in themselves provide centres of gravity for the works to orbit around, and something for viewers to latch onto as they make their way through over 200 artworks.

Pointedly avoiding the usual hype and name-dropping associated with international biennials, very little information was released in the lead up to its opening. Only one list of eight artists was publicised, and this list happened to be all women. This was followed by the announcement that there would be no further unveiling—so as to discourage the usual rush to make judgements before the biennial was even open.

TammyRaeCarland_1880pxTammy Rae Carland, Lesbian Beds (Untitled #3) (2002) / Lesbian Beds (Untitled #5) (2002) / Lesbian Beds (Untitled #6) (2002 ) / Lesbian Beds (Untitled #10) (2002) / Lesbian Beds (Untitled #11) (2002) / Lesbian Beds (Untitled #13) (2002). All color photographs, each 972 x 737 mm. Courtesy the artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco, USA

The biennial title suggests there is no grand overarching curatorial concept in use. But really it’s a rejection of ‘title as theme’ trend established by recent comparable events. Think of other biennial titles, or even better, make up your own. Take one adjective or verb and put it next to either ‘Worlds’ or ‘Futures’ and it instantly fits the bill. These concepts are often so loose that virtually any artist can be slotted into the frame. But this is a secondary interpretation; and the primary meaning of the Biennial title is actually as apt and relevant as any. Gonzales-Torres’s naming conventions—always ‘untitled’ followed by words in parentheses—have inspired the whole concept for this biennial. The way he named (or didn’t name) his artworks left room for the viewers’ reading and acknowledged that meaning is constantly shifting in time and place. The sculptor, known for using everyday items such as piles of wrapped candy, doesn’t appear in the form of his work. However, his practice informs the entire exhibition, and pays homage in its themes and presentation to the poetic and abstract ways he represented ideas and language.

Past Istanbul Biennials have made use of the extraordinary ‘set’ the city provides, siting works in historical venues such as mosques, Ottoman palaces and Byzantine churches. We heard people talking about Jennifer Steinkamp’s computer animated trees which were projected in the cavernous 6th-century underground reservoir, known in English as the ‘Basilica Cisterns’ in the 2003 biennial. However this year the curators have chosen to focus the biennale in one place: the banks of the Bosphorus, in two of the Antrepo warehouses, a pair of abject monoliths in a city of architectural treasures. This simplifies it all, intentionally making us concentrate on the exhibitions alone, and builds a singular environment. The curators also say it was to ‘avoid competition with other visual stimulation (sic) or unintended contextualisations.’2 The maze of shipping containers, which provides the built environment, was designed by Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa. His design creates a tension between orderliness and confusion, at once echoing the taxonomical thread of the exhibition and disrupting it.

Gonzales-Torres’ artwork ‘Untitled‘ (Ross) (1991) constituted a 175kg pile of candy that visitors could help themselves to. He made it in 1991 as a memorial to his partner Ross, who died of AIDS that same year. This exhibition explores themes of sexuality, desire, fulfillment and love, through the prism of gay politics. Artists Elmgreen and Dragset’s passageway, filled with domestic-sized photographs of their friends at parties all framed in white vinyl, explores the notion of ‘family’ and suggests that for the gay community this is much wider than the nuclear unit. This show also features several works which pay homage to another poignant work Gonzales-Torres made after Ross died—a large billboard photograph of a double bed with indentations from two heads. Beds as a metaphor for relationships appear throughout the exhibition; one example being Tammy Rae Carland’s Lesbian Beds (2011), luscious oversized images of unmade double beds which act as portraits of relationships. Jonathan de Andrade’s 2 em 1 (2 in 1) (2011) is a series of photographs of two young, toned Brazilian men demonstrating the assembly of one large double bed out of two single beds. The bland instructions seem incongruous or even ludic in the context, and suggest a repression of sexual tension.

AliKazma_Ph_MahmutCeylan(1)_1880px-2Ali Kazma O.K., (2010). Seven-channel video installation with sound. Courtesy Vehbi Koç Foundation, Istanbul, Turkey. Photography: Selen Korkut

The exhibition ‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun) is titled after one of Gonzales-Torres’s stack pieces from 1990, a sheet of 460 identity pictures of people known to have died from gunshot wounds in a single week in America. Here the curators look at violence in society through a combination of historical and contemporary artworks. The inclusion of Matthew Brady’s (born in 1882) reportage photographs of dead soldiers in the American Civil War provides an illuminating starting point, his photographs from right in the battlefields were some of the first visual documentation of deaths in war to be made public. The curators note that it is ‘ … impossible to overestimate how shocking these pictures … must have been to viewers at the time.’3 Even now in this desensitised age, these images still provoke a visceral reaction. There is also a selection of crime scene photographs by the famous New York photojournalist Weegee who would get to the scene at the same time as the emergency services in the 1930s and 1940s. A contemporary work commenting on the prevalence of graphic violence in our media is Juego Vivo (Live Game) (2008), a short film by Jazmin Lopez, where a group of children play a game of war in a forest, with deadly consequences.

As immediate and poignant as ‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun) was, we found the most compelling exhibition theme to be ‘Untitled’ (History). This is a rich collection of works that explores history and its relationship to narrative, with many of the artists examining the use of documents by governments and states. Vluspa Jarpa’s Library of No History, compiled official documents on the Chilean dictatorship recently declassified by the US government that will be distributed freely throughout the exhibition. Ali Kazma’s multi-screened video installation of official hands stamping documents at incredible speed comments on the beaucratic machine that exists to varying degrees all over the world. The dizzying effect and sound is both captivating and sinister. The theme of history resonates greatly with the Turkish experience and the omnipresent love for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic. By putting the notion of history under the microscope, it obliquely questions the history of the host country itself, with all its narratives of expropriated and excluded minorities that lie outside the official cant. A piece from Aydan Murtezaoglu’s Blackboard series 1992-(2009-2011) questions Ataturk’s processes, commenting on the loss of language when he introduced a Latin alphabet in the late 1920s as a way to westernise society.

Jazmin Lopez 2_1880pxJasmin Lopez Live Game [Juego vivo], 2008. Video, 2 min. Courtesy the artist

It is obvious that Pedrosa and Hoffman’s research was active and multifaceted; archives, libraries and other repositories have been scoured to bring new material to light. Biennials often put the next hot young artists on the map, but this biennial presents a discovery of overlooked (and often older) unknown practitioners. There’s a solo presentation by Geta Bratescu, an 85-year-old Romanian artist who makes geometric collages from fabric off-cuts. Also included are photographs by YÁldÁz Moran Arun who travelled across Turkey in the 1960s documenting local women and village life at a time when few Turkish women journeyed on their own. Pedrosa uncovered her images in the archives of a local Istanbul University. There is also a notable lack of a reliance on big name artists. The Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio, a commercial collective run by a family of artsits in South Africa has a solo presentation of their vessels and plates. Drawing on Zulu storytelling devices, each one is a pictorial lesson in HIV prevention.

But for all the belated discoveries of older artists, there’s still a palpable sense of youth and the leading edge in contemporary art practice. A work by 25-year-old Palestinian artist Bisan Abu-Eisheh was in fact first shown at his Art Academy graduate show three years prior. Playing House exhibits items he collected from Palestinian houses that were demolished in Jerusalem by decree of the Israeli municipality. Each object has a label describing where it comes from, the date of the demolition, and the number of people who lived in the house. This solo presentation straddles the ‘Untitled’ (Death By Gun) and ‘Untitled’ (History) exhibitions, and relates to both of them in that position. It also reflects a particular focus on Middle Eastern and South American artists in the biennial.

Throughout the disparate spaces and experiences of this biennial, there is one thing you will always find. Questions. Questions about our moral code, the tension between establishment and private individual, and our attitudes to each other. The nature of the Biennial itself also questions what we have come to expect from an international art event such as this. And so we crossed the Bosphorus into deeper, less cosmopolitan Turkey feeling we had seen something that had not only moved us, but also done something to push the modern idea of a biennial into to a more enriching, mature and sophisticated place.


Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial) was staged 17 September – 13 November 2011.



1. Osman Erden, ‘The Biennial History of Istanbul’, Istanbul Contemporary Etc, Issue 4 (2011) 85.
2. Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffman, Introduction, The Companion, Istanbul Biennial (2011) 25.
3. Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffman, The Companion, Istanbul Biennial (2011) 76.


Henry Kember is what some call a multidisciplinarian. Henry thinks that's too many syllables. Across his career Henry has engaged in performance art, sculpture, and...

Julia Holderness is one half of Fitts & Holderness, a collaborative duo who work between the UK and New Zealand. Julia is an interdisciplinary artist...


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