Spotlight On: Curators of the Istanbul Biennial

exhibist talks to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Jens Hoffmann, WHW, Hou Hanru, Charles Esche

CAROLYN CHRISTOV-BAKARGIEV, curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial: SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms

Could you tell us about your connection to Turkey and how your collaboration with the Istanbul Biennial started?

My relationship with Turkey goes back a long way. I have always admired the Istanbul Biennial because it participated in the process of decentralising art from the main capitals and major periodic exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale or the Carnegie International. Of course, there has been São Paulo since 1951, and Sydney since 1973. Still, I think Istanbul spear-headed a critique of Eurocentrism and took the lead in the contemporary movement of the decentralisation of art; bringing to the forefront many artists from Turkey, who, at that time, were not known; and later, artists from other regions of the world as well.

My collaboration with Turkey began in earnest when I was asked to be on the advisory board of the Istanbul Biennial, in 2010. I was on the board for four years, until 2013. It was the time of Jens Hoffman, Adriano Pedrosa and Fulya Erdemci. During that time I learned a lot about the inner workings of the biennial regarding the incredible energies and the very real wish to consider art and its relationship to society very carefully and also with great respect, interest and openness.

In 2008 you curated the 16th Sydney Biennial, then in 2012, dOCUMENTA (13). After that you withdrew from the art world and focused on teaching and research. How did this time affect your approach to drafting the upcoming Istanbul Biennial?

The years after dOCUMENTA (13), from the end of 2012 well into 2014, were years in which I focused not only on teaching, but also on seminars. For example, I received the Leverhulme Professorship and I worked closely with Griselda Pollock at the University of Leeds. I was also Pernod Ricard Visiting Professor in the philosophy of art and naturecultures at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, in the Philosophy Department and collaborated with Christoph Menke. Additionally, I taught at Cooper Union in New York and also Northwestern University in Chicago, in their Art Theory and Practice Department. I did other seminars and workshops as well, including one at Harvard University last spring. These years were serving the purpose of testing some of the concepts that I had expressed in dOCUMENTA (13).

These experiences have had a very clear effect on my approach to the upcoming Istanbul Biennial. In 2015, I was Visiting Scholar at the Getty Center. There you can focus exclusively on doing research with their extensive archives. I was researching Harald Szeemann’s documents there.

What occurs to me now for the first time, so thank you for the question – is that you are mostly in small groups or alone when you are doing research of that type, and I gave a lot of value and importance to this sense of being alone, withdrawn and going into depth. One of the diseases of our digital age is Attention Deficit Disorder, and also autism. The contradictions of autism are, on the one hand, withdrawal and on the other hand, this excessive being in the crowd. The one to one and small group interaction is a very difficult relationship. I think that these experiences have brought to my attention how it might be possible to organize an exhibition which seems to be a contradiction: If you look at the venues, there are only four that have group exhibitions: ARTER, the Galata Greek Primary School, the Italian High School and mainly the Istanbul Modern. The rest are a series of solo presentations in a building, a boat, a hotel and so forth. They are far from one another and so create a kind of isolation around themselves.