The 17th Istanbul Biennial, organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) with the support of its sponsor Koç Holding, will take place between 11 September and 14 November 2021. Held in the midst of a pandemic and increasing social and environmental dysfunction, this edition of the biennial will be very different from its predecessors in its scale, its methods and its objectives.

As this human-induced health crisis lays bare profound divisions and unsustainable social and economic norms, why put together a biennial of contemporary art? This edition of the Istanbul Biennial is an effort to rethink the purposes and potential of such international platforms. In this time of uncertainty, the curatorial team (Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar and David Teh) sees an opportunity to recalibrate the priorities of a biennial, to reimagine its forms, the nature of participation, and the expectations of its publics. This edition will exceed the normal duration of biennials, starting before and ending long after the usual eight-week season. It will engage all the senses, and multi-disciplinary creation beyond the visual arts; a range of smaller, more intimate venues will welcome diverse local communities, while the broadest possible public will be addressed on the airwaves and online.

Curatorial Team of the 17th Istanbul Biennial

The curators state: ‘As art organisations all around the world face urgent, existential questions – questions of survival and relevance, about how they operate, for whom, and to what ends – biennials are not immune. They must lead. Art can refresh the vocabularies of public discourse, it can open new pathways of thought at a time of acute and complex planetary crisis. We cannot miss the opportunity to rethink what art can offer, what it can actually do.’

Biennial as a space for composting

Rather than a theme or title, what unifies this 17th edition is a process: composting. A wide range of artists and other initiatives have been invited to share and develop the raw elements of their practices. The biennial will serve as a seedbed or nursery for a few months or more, in which to sew, transplant, nurture and fertilise, to see what sprouts. Some green shoots will awaken new and old ways of doing, saying and listening, of reading, thinking and being together; others will settle into the mulch and become something else altogether. Conventional understandings of the biennial format as a show, of the audience as passive spectators, will be challenged. The diversity of invited projects offers a horizon for reorientation, for rethinking the platform’s formal and geographical parameters.

After more than a year of confinement and isolation, this biennial aims to revive the muscles of civic engagement and mobilise the people of Istanbul as active players and hosts in an inclusive conversation and fermentation process. An extensive programme of projections, soundings, dialogues and exhibitions, across the city and elsewhere, will follow six intertwined threads. Geo-poetics / Elemental Politics highlights struggles over our planet’s most basic resources. Projects centred on News and Pedagogy rethink how we become informed and educated in an age of privatised knowledge and shrinking public spheres. Ancient Solutions seeks insights into today’s intractable problems in unorthodox practices side-lined by modernity. Synaesthesia explores the trans-sensory pathways between disciplines and between art forms; while a thread called An-archiving finds artists mobilising the resources of the past by way of use, rather than collection. The exhibitions will support and deepen these public exchanges, rather than the other way round.

From the curatorial statement

‘Rather than being a great tree, laden with sweet, ripe fruit, this biennial seeks to learn from the birds’ flight, from the once teeming seas, from the earth’s slow chemistry of renewal and nourishment. There may be no great gathering, no orchestrated coming together in one time and place; instead it might be a dispersal, an invisible fermentation. Its threads will be drawn together, but they will multiply and diverge, at different paces, crossing here and there but with no noisy culmination, no final knot. Let this biennial be compost. It may begin before it is to begin and continue well after it is over.’

The 17th Istanbul Biennial

The Advisory Board of the 17th Istanbul Biennial consists of the co-curator of the 11th Berlin Biennial Agustín Pérez Rubio; art historian and writer Ayşe Erek; the director of Whitechapel Gallery and curator Iwona Blazwick; the general director of Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, curator and art historian Levent Çalıkoğlu and the artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and academician Yuko Hasegawa.

The visual identity of the 17th Istanbul Biennial was designed by Emre Çıkınoğlu. In his poster designs, Çıkınoğlu underlines in a calm tone the fragility of public cultures, and the 17th Istanbul Biennial’s poetic call to nurture them.

The biennial will open to the public on 11 September 2021.