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International artists explore fragmented Middle East in Istanbul

The 2017 Istanbul Biennial asks what makes a good neighbor in a world plagued by war, repression and division.

The first image that appears on screen is that of a boy mimicking the overflight of planes. He then pretends to be armed and searching for a village, throwing hand grenades and raking a target with bursts from a machine gun. Deaf and mute, 13-year-old Mohammed escaped from Kobani, in northern Syria, shortly after Islamic State fighters seized it in January 2015.

In the short video by Erkan Ozgen, a Turkish-Kurdish artist from Diyarbakir, Mohammed uses his body to express the violence he has witnessed. When he concludes his on-screen narrative with a swift hand movement that indicates a decapitation, a half-suppressed scream arose in the darkened room where a dozen people breathlessly watched. As the audience got up to leave, one young man remarked, “Perhaps a good neighbor is simply one who doesn't kill you.”

The short video, ironically titled “Wonderland," is one of the most political works in the 15th Istanbul Biennial, a contemporary art exhibition held every two years in Istanbul. This year's theme is “A Good Neighbor,” a deceptively simple, yet emotionally charged proposition in a region where neighbors are divided by ideology, ethnicity, religion and politics.

“Since we chose the title, there has not only been a coup attempt in Turkey, but the world witnessed the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and [Donald] Trump being elected US president, in part by promising to erect a border wall between the Unites States and Mexico,” said curator Michael Elmgreen, of Elmgreen & Dragset, at the opening press conference for the biennial on Sept. 12. “A good neighbor may sound banal, but there are many issues underlining the phrase, almost as if there is a question mark at the end.”

The 2017 biennial coincides with the art fair Contemporary Istanbul and the opening of “Ai Weiwei On Porcelain” at the Sakip Sabanci Museum. The event will provide a much-awaited boost for the tourism sector in Istanbul, standing out as the largest cultural event since last year's attempted coup and the referendum to switch to a presidential system, resulting in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gaining even more power. Suddenly, Istanbul's “bobo,” bourgeois-bohemian, Karakoy and Tunnel neighborhoods are buzzing with international artists, gallery owners and museum directors, culture journalists and art lovers.

Despite the giddiness of the tourism sector, politics has cast a dark shadow over the biennial, which runs Sept. 16 through Nov. 12 at six downtown venues. The works by 56 artists from 32 countries reveal the difficulties of finding a good neighbor, let alone being one, in today's world, plagued by war, destruction, repression, pollution, immigration and totalitarian regimes.

Candeger Furtun's nine pairs of ceramic legs in a hammam, Aug. 19, 2017. Photo by IKSV

A series of posters around the city raises the question of what makes a good neighbor. “Is a good neighbor someone who leaves you alone?” one poster asks, a thinly veiled reference to Turkish artist Burcak Bingol’s surveillance cameras, one of the most photographed pieces of the biennial. Bingol’s work, “Follower,” acknowledges the global culture of surveillance and consists of cameras made of white porcelain and decorated with flowers that have been installed in 20 locations. Whether a good neighbor is, indeed, someone who leaves you alone is being considered today in Turkey against the backdrop of a culture of snitching, including recent headlines about a man who complained about his neighbor to the police for wearing shorts in Ankara, the capital.

“The cameras are two-way objects,” Bingol told Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the biennial. “We are not simply being watched, we also watch others, including through social media.”

Another installation, at the Istanbul Modern, consists of nine pairs of disembodied male legs arranged side by side in a hammam. Each pair of legs is arranged in an open position, indicative of “manspread,” the infamous masculine gesture that claims surrounding space. Made by Candeger Furtun, a female Turkish artist, the appendages represent Turkey and its neighbors. One pair has a hand on the leg in a gesture suggestive of aggression or assertiveness, the owner posturing to establish himself as the alpha male. It is a gesture that many Turks would associate with Erdogan, who recently said that if there is going to be any bullying, he would be the one doing it.

The flaking murals of the Moroccan artist Latifa Echakhch are just a few steps away. What remains of the murals show people demonstrating, an obvious reference to the 2013 Gezi Park protests and how the spirit of resistance eventually faded. Echakhch had previously made a similar mural about Tahrir Square. The young tour guides refer to the mural as “the sequel to the artist’s works on Tahrir Square,” while the biennial guide makes it clear that the work, “Crowd Fade” is about Gezi.

The destruction of homes and the reluctant departure of neighbors in the Middle East figure predominantly at the biennial. Iraqi artist Mahmoud Obaidi’s paintings “Make War, Not Love” display disconnected body parts that recall Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, which revolves around a creature created from body parts scattered around Baghdad after bombings. The large drawings show distorted and disjointed bodies, isolated buildings, and trees and assorted geometric shapes. The visitor, even without knowing the title of the work or the nationality of the artist, perceives the fragmentation and destruction in the drawings, which somewhat recall Picasso’s “Guernica.”

Another work by Obaidi, “Compact Home Project,” is a series of eight books with metal covers containing some of his sketches, newspaper clippings and letters. “These are what I have carried with me as home,” he told Al-Monitor at the press preview of works. Obaidi escaped Iraq in 1991 amid war with a fake passport, becoming an international nomad.

“In 2003, war raged across Iraq for the fourth time, and I finally realized that I would never go home,” Obaidi wrote in the biennial’s “Book of Stories,” which contains artists' personal narratives. “I entombed the fragmented remnants of my nomadic life inside twelve artists books. These objects then only existed inside this artwork, as traces of impossible return, shadows of an infeasible life and parodies of a non-existent home.”

The same sense of loss animates Iranian artist Mirak Jamal’s paintings on plasterboard based on drawings he had made as a child. Some depict scenes from Iran through a child’s eyes during the period before his family left, in 1979, before the revolution. “Home Sweet Home,” a three-channel film by Volkan Aslan, shows a young woman repotting a plant and another rolling a cigarette. It eventually becomes clear that one home is on top of the other, and both are floating on the sea on an unknown journey.

Despite the theme of this year's biennial, the political criticism is so subtle that it has led some to blame censorship and self-censorship. At the Sept. 12 press conference, the first question for the curators was, “Did you experience censorship?”

After some uncomfortable moments, the two curators said there had been nothing that they had wanted to do but could not. Ingar Dragset noted that art can create a language of resistance different from that found in the media. He further explained, “Art is not there to react the same way as politicians or the media, using the same simplified populist language.”

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