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Contemporary Art in Turkey

The biggest event in contemporary art in Turkey is its yearly biennial.  The organizer of the biennial, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art, was founded in 1973 under the direction of Dr. Nejat F. Eczacıbaşı, in order to help of organizing an annual international art festival (music, jazz, film, theater, visual arts).

Its organizers were conscious of the unique position of the city as a bridge between Europe and Asia, between Eastern and Western world.  The biennial was definitely a location for cross-cultural dialog.

The first festival was organized in June and July 1973, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Beginning with the film festival in 1984, individual events in every genre began breaking off, but remained as always under the patronage of the original foundation.

The first biennial for the visual arts was held in 1987. Serving as general coordinator and curator, Istanbul native Beral Madra was responsible for this edition, as well as the next one

But the city of Istanbul was lacking in large exhibition venues, so after the second biennial a virtue was made of obligation, and with the motto "Contemporary Art in Traditional Spaces" historical buildings began to be included conceptually. Since then, this has become a unique and especially interesting aspect of the Istanbul Biennial.

2004 Biennial -- Poetic justice


The artistic framework of the 8th Istanbul Biennial was formed around the concept of Poetic Justice. According to the organizers, in proposing this phrase as the basis for a continual examination of the latest developments in contemporary art.  The thoughts behind the biennial according to its organizers could be summarized into the following:

  • Poetic justice sought to express an area of creative activity in which the seemingly opposing concepts of poetry and justice are brought into play together. The exhibition revealed part of its basic premise as an attempt to reconsider the wide stylistic breach between two different forms of art-making.  The first part took its subject the world and its affairs, and second one addressed concerns which were more identified with the viewer’s inner life.
  • Until not that long ago it was difficult to come across artworks that attempted to bridge those two parts. But recently however, as a creeping awareness of the powers and limitations of the digital global village has crept in at every level of contemporary society and lots of artists have begun seeking ways of expression that engage multiple viewpoints all together.
  • By bringing together ideas that bridge a broad array of disciplines, the contemporary artists -- who were all very different from each other in terms of media and stylistic attitudes -- shared a need to ground their carefully articulated opinions about the outside world in a theoretical system that regards poetry as the ultimate of human thoughts. 
  • One way of connecting aspects of poetic justice is through observing that a foundation to the combined belief in a global system of values is the contradictory idea that if there are loads of systems of justice in the world, then none can be total.
  • This problem, which appears to be in open argument with the beginning of modern justice as established by Greco-Roman law suggested one of the most persuasive aspects of the presently disturbed state of global affairs.
  • In other words, notions of right and wrong as well as degrees of difference between the two, and the appropriate societal response to infractions that invariably occur once these differences are agreed upon, are bound to differ widely from place to place.
  • Even within a single society or cultural group, conflict may arise over the failure of one legal code to take into account the jurisdiction of a parallel legal code – for example states vs. countries, religious vs. secular law.
  • When conflicts happen over genuine cases, such differences, while apparent in other quarters of communal life, tend to become blown up: what one society condemns, another admires. Even in cases where agreement has been reached that a crime was committed, some means of attaining justice such as the death penalty may strike certain observers as even more inhumanethan the crime that it punishes.
  • At first glance it might appear that consciousness and sensitivity toward particular systems of justice might boost as a result of the occurrence of globalization but the reality is more complicated. By definition, globalization is a mono-cultural experience.
  • On the other hand, efforts to establish international codes of justice are rooted primarily in local standards for civil and criminal law, so that a crime against humanity cannot be said to have taken place unless there is local outcry against it.
  • So while in political crises the key message sent when international codes of justice are applied is that no individual or group can function well outside the law, the analogous progress of international systems of activism has sent the equally strong message that global problems can no longer be contained within one particular country.
  • Take for example such issues such as  ecology, population growth, women’s issues, the rights of immigrants, prisoners and refugees, the global impact of AIDS, and in areas of creative expression such as art, literature and music.
  • Indeed, the real and supposed failures of existing national and international bodies of knowledge to adequately address these concerns has led to the formation of activist and advocacy groups, whose distinctive characteristic is that they function largely outside the conventional boundaries of their individual members’ countries.
  • The three best known examples of such institutions would be: Amnesty International, World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.  These organizations are citizens’ advocacy groups and their successes has been as a result of promoting strong international ties that enable them to respond to a given emergency world-wide. 

Further on, poetic justice takes its cue from the literary device of the same name, in which the fate that befalls a character or group bears a markedly ironic relationship to the previous behavior of that same character or group.  An example of this would be a murderer dying, accidentally by the same weapon he has used to kill others.  

In the Turkey’s biennial its present usage, the term Poetic Justice aspires to separate the two terms one more, then bring them back together within a somewhat more charged relation.

The viewer is left with poetry, which might be temporarily defined here as the attempt to pervade language with a sense of the divine. Through poetry, a writer sets out to forge relationships between words that extend much further than the customary means of description.

But poetry does not stop there, but eventually aspires to summon the full range of human knowledge and experience, things like physics and metaphysics, past and future, through words alone.

The audience for poetry, recognizing this aspiration, hears in a poem a familiar language made unfamiliar, as words that are usually uttered, heard and quickly forgotten are instead crafted with the desire to make them linger in the memory as long as possible. This desire to merge the everyday with the everlasting underscores poetry’s close proximity to the field of visual art, which attempts the same outcome through the use of materials and images grounded in experience, meant to achieve a state of long-term cultural resonance.

In contemporary art, the authority of the material universe is even reflected in the drift towards art as an exclusively social and political vehicle, wherein the role of the artist is to call attention to a set of circumstances in the material world that had previously been overlooked or misunderstood.

While this mode of thought and experience has undeniably produced some of the most compelling artworks of the last decades, it has also tended to exaggerate the primacy of the tangible and visible over the felt and imagined.

At the same time there’s a struggle that takes place in current art concerning the ideal means of addressing the lack of connection that most people feel towards contemporary art. One of the most important factors in this struggle over art’s most significant cultural meanings has been the steady failure of artists, curators and critics to characterize current life as a constant dialogue between the individual’s awareness and the outer world of things, actions and their costs.

One of the most important objectives of the 8th Istanbul Biennial was to create a lively and engaging public forum for responding to the ideas of artists whose work contains a commitment to the goal of making art a vehicle for reconciling different aspects of life. 

It was argued above that the fairly recent emergence of international organizations dedicated to forging bonds between groups of activists and/or victims represents a growing recognition that nation-based identities present severe limits to the kinds of cooperation needed to address the world’s problems in a constructive and meaningful way.

By way of comparison, biennials and other international exhibitions create an environment in which the viewer experiences a temporary but nevertheless palpable illustration of the entire world under a single roof or series of roofs.

What we do know about the world today is that our ability to negotiate cultural differences should increase, not diminish, in the years ahead.  This means that the task of forging bonds of mutual understanding will eventually fall to some specific group of people.