This year’s biennial, already hailed as Istanbul’s best, takes its themes from five key works by the late
Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose minimalist installations carried a deeply emotional
political charge. It’s concentrated in warehouses (antrepo) next to Istanbul Modern, where five group
shows and more than 50 solo shows are woven together by Japanese architect Ryue Nishizawa’s elegant
design, itself worth the trip.
When the history of string puppetry comes to be written, there will definitely be a place for this most
magnificent epic – the history of the early crusades and their effect on the bemused Christian, Muslim
and Jewish populations of the Middle East. Egyptian-born Wael Shawky and the show Cabaret Crusades:
The Horror Show File uses 200-year-old Piedmontese puppets to tell how the people from the north
wreak havoc among the angelic pale-faced mixed peoples of the Orient. It is all based on Amin Maalouf’s
nobly even-handed classic, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, and is an absolute joy.
What it is to be a Turkish woman is the subtext of Dream and Reality, the impressive historical overview
of Turkish woman artists at Istanbul Modern, in which both Batibeki and Sukran Moral feature. In Kefes
Projeleri 2, Batibeki puts her Turkish woman in a beaded cage of kitschy kitten heels and menthol
cigarettes, the tabloid life of the peroxide divas that dominate the Turkish tabloids and TV screens. She
must navigate a male world represented by the singers Tarkan (with his ambiguous sexuality) and the
consummate Kurdish/Turkish macho Ibrahim Tatlises, who may or may not have had his wife shot.
History is more compliant and malleable than we think. Witness the 11 different versions of a shredded
letter home a US diplomat wrote just before his embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranian students,
that Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afraassiabi were able to reassemble. More deliciously slippery is
Milena Bonilla’s hand-copied version of Marx’s Das Kapital, bound in cloth and gold. The right-handed
Bonilla copied it with her left, making it utterly incomprehensible — as good a take on socialism as you
are ever likely to see. The two French artists known as Claire Fontaine took a more direct approach,
wrapping the cover of Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectacle around a brick.
Now again a piece of curation stops you dead in your tracks. Taysir Batniji’s photographs of fathers
on the walls of homes and shops in his native Gaza are neatly set next to his images of the Israeli
watchtowers that hem those lives in. The result is both profound and unsettling in its ambiguity. His
Suspended Time, an hourglass put on its side so it resembles the sign for infinity, is equally powerful and
arresting. As is the treacherous beauty of Rula Halawani’s photographs of Palestinian villages that have
all but disappeared from the landscape since 1948.