exhibist talks to Defne Ayas, Emre Baykal, Beral Madra

DEFNE AYAS, Curator of the 56th Venice Biennale’s Pavilion of Turkey: ‘Respiro’

You have been the curator of PERFORMA — the biennial of visual art performance in New York — since 2005, you co-curated the 11th Baltic Triennial, and you’ve been involved in many large- scale exhibitions as a director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam since 2012. Can you tell us about your relationship with the artist Sarkis and your role curating the current Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale?

In early June 2014, I was invited by İKSV and Sarkis to curate the Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale. I was about to give birth, but I was excited to accept the offer. Later, in a phone call with Sarkis, he described the work he was after. He said he would be reaching back a million-plus years to the creation of the universe, back to the first-ever rainbow – the first breaking point of light. He is a master, who, for the last five decades, has deftly combined ingenuity with a subtle critique of history. Sarkis had already seen the exhibition in his dreams. He had a vision when he went to Venice and visited the Scuola die San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. Almost every year, over several decades, he made the pilgrimage to see Carpaccio, who is arguably the first Orientalist painter. In Venice, he saw the space in the Arsenale with the production team. He had already mentally started a dialogue with the site, placing the works within it. He decided how to tap into his rich arsenal of visual, architectural, and musical apparatuses. Sarkis had full autonomy in selecting the artworks, the music, and even his curator. He asked me to come on board to be a dramaturg for the most important play of his life, focusing on research, development and support. Of all the work that Sarkis has produced to date, Respiro has been the most personally challenging for him — Consequently, organizing the project was a very personal journey for both of us.

How do you think this year’s Pavilion of Turkey differs from previous editions that we have seen at the Venice Biennale?

Perhaps, the pavilion had not really seen such a deep engagement with global art history before. We offered multiple references, such as the The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, and The Tempest by Giorgione. As a prelude to Respiro, we also identified international institutions to collaborate with.