Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset

As the 15th Istanbul Biennial opens, Nicole O’Rourke talks to the curators

By Nicole O’Rourke

Ingar Dragset and Michael Elmgreen. Photo: Muhsin Agkun

In April 2016 it was announced that Scandinavian artist-duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had been appointed curators of the 15th Istanbul Biennial. Last December its title was revealed: A Good Neighbour. The artists have done their job in trying circumstances: Turkey has gone through a coup attempt, postcoup crackdowns, several terrorist attacks, a constitutional referendum and a still-operational state of emergency. Nonetheless, when Nicole O'Rourke met them in a café on the European side of Istanbul two weeks before the exhibition opens – comprising work by 55 artists presented across six venues – the pair seemed relaxed.

This year marks both the biennial’s 30th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of Turkey’s first application to become a full member of the European Economic Community – the forerunner to the European Union. A Good Neighbour seems especially poignant in this context.

ARTREVIEW At the 2009 Venice Biennale you transformed the Danish and Nordic pavilions into the homes of two fictional collectors. It was as much a curatorial venture as an artistic one, featuring works by other artists as well. The two characters were neighbours, but one had died and the other appeared to be in the middle of a divorce. The pavilions provided a voyeuristic fantasy into the private lives of others. In what ways does this work inform or act as a prelude to A Good Neighbour?

INGAR DRAGSET The Venice project was a gesamtkunstwerk for which we collaborated with 24 other artists to create a narrative. So each artwork became part of a story, which is a very different approach than the one we have used here in Istanbul. Although, of course, the themes of home, domesticity, interior design, identity related to interiors, of how we express ourselves in our close environment, how interiors relate to exteriors and the world at large, these are things that we have been interested in for a very long time. And we felt we wanted to start the biennial’s curatorial process by exploring something we know about – so we don’t start completely from scratch.

The biennial has given us a chance to travel the world and meet people of different ages and backgrounds, artists involved in many different practices. This has enabled an expansion of our interests into areas that we ourselves are perhaps not able to talk about directly in our own work. For example, through the biennial we could look at our research interests from a woman’s position: from feminist positions. It’s also diffcult for us to talk about domesticity and ‘belonging’ in terms of race in our own work: we’re white Europeans; we’ll always be associated with a privileged part of the world.

MICHAEL ELMGREEN Herewe are not working with one story. We are working with multiple stories – from South Africa, Asia, South America and, of course, Turkey. Many of the problems that we face globally today will be dealt with from very personal perspectives, reflecting the artists’ different backgrounds. Many of the stories have a starting point in the artist’s life-experiences, which is really important, I think. At a time when the media dominates our consciousness and our perception of each other as neighbours, as other human beings (when the media determines our coexistence), we forget about our own personal experiences. The biennial aims to counter this, speaking with multiple voices about how we might live together.

ID The exhibition becomes a reminder of the political potential within the personal story.

“Art can be part of translating some of the problems and the crises that we face in a different way than the media”

AR About half the works in the biennial are new commissions. Can you tell me a little bit about how you approached these?

ME It’s been quite symbiotic. It’s been based on very close dialogue, something we’re used to, working as a duo: everything we do happens through an ongoing dialogue, and we just extended that to include other artists. There will be performative pieces too. We have a dance performance by Tuğçe Tuna, which is very important, because we get the impression dance has very reduced conditions in Turkey.

Lukas Wassmann, one of a series of billboard posters created for the 15th Istanbul Biennial. Photo: Lukas Wassmann. Graphic design: Rupert Smyth

ID We learned a lot from Tuğçe, hearing her speaking about the representation of the body in public space in Turkey, how dance is also almost a political act here. She will be performing in the hammam, and the work will be in dialogue with two installations by Monica Bonvicini installed there that concern the body and human physicality. Tuğçe has worked with dancers who are disabled – one dancer without legs. We discovered that a place like Istanbul isn’t so friendly if you don’t have, in the classical sense, a perfect body: it is so hilly and there is not much done for people who are not fit in that way.

AR The body also features in the work of Candeğer Fürtun, who is perhaps not so well known...

ME We have a sculpture by her featuring nine pairs of mannequin legs – though actually the material is ceramic – in a sitting position, the legs widely spread. It could have been made this year – because of the debate about ‘manspreading’, how macho men sit on the subway like that – yet she’s eighty-two years old and made the work during the mid-1990s.

AR Did you know that work before you started the process?

ME No, it was an amazing discovery from making studio visits all over Turkey. It was very important for us to include artists from Turkey, like Fürtun, who also has been a little bit under the radar for many years. It was a slow process but obviously rewarding. We live in a time of short-term memory. Everything is snap, snap, snap. You go from one webpage to the other. You change your TV channel all the time. This impatience is everywhere. People forget about history.

AR Were there any censorship problems, especially in the wake of the attempted coup in July 2016? Did you have any concerns?

ID We haven’t had any censorship problems, but of course after the coup we were very concerned and really wondered if it even would be the right place to do a biennial. Is it the right time to do such a project? So actually we put the curatorial process on hold and we came here shortly after the event – late July or at the beginning of August – to spend time talking to people outside the artworld. Editors, historians, the statisticians, writers and so on. We wanted to hear from different kinds of people as to how the biennial was perceived. How do they see the cultural landscape in relation to the political landscape? Does it make sense to make the biennial? Through those conversations we came to the understanding that, to many people, the biennial’s even more important than before. I’m sure there are also people who do not agree; but in general we have a feeling that people, who are not perhaps the best of friends, agreed on this. Because there are so many challenges we need to foster a collaborative attitude.

ME A biennial can be a celebration of togetherness. A biennial can provide a form of gathering in times when that is maybe important, but not so easy. Art can be a medium that can be part of translating some of the problems and the crises that we face in a different way than the media. The media has a tendency, especially in recent times, to come up with very easy answers to very complicated problems. Art, when it works, can help translate these problems into something we can, as human beings, relate to in a different way. Not in a reductive way, not in a simplifed way. It’s very important for art not to just react. It’s also important for art to show that you have a worth, a dignity, an urgency in yourself, and not only in relation to what the media dictates. Because, otherwise, we as artists become completely programmed by the headline news all over the world. We are beholden every day to, say, a new tweet from some kind of politician. We can react to that, but then we use all our energy on that and forget about the importance of all the other things we have to tell, all the other thoughts and feelings art can mediate and inspire. It is really important to remember that, I think.

AR The billboard project by Lukas Wassmann started months before the actual exhibition opened, but it’s part of the biennial. Can you talk about that in the context of the exhibition as a whole and why you decided to do that in different cities and different languages around the world?

ME Our first press release took the format of 40 questions – such as ‘Is a good neighbour a stranger you don’t fear?’ and ‘Is a good neighbour someone who reads the same newspaper as you?’ – which were also posed at the first press conference by 40 performers. Some of these questions we turned into billboards and combined it with the images by Wassmann. To show them in different geographical locations shows, from our side, that problems that the questions deal with are not specific to one geographical region. What happens in one place has an impact on what happens in another place. The problems happening in the world are very interconnected at the moment. We are all dealing with the same kind of problems – be they political or environmental – therefore we thought it was important to reach out of the geographical context of the biennial.

“We see ourselves only as providers, not as truth-tellers. We just come with all the artists’ stories. We don’t come to Istanbul to tell people in Istanbul how Istanbul is”

AR Do you think that it’s also a reaction to knowing instinctively that, as white male Westerners, you are locked out of the community and culture of Turkey, so instead you want to talk about more universal issues?

ME Not universal. I don’t believe in universal: you have to be very white and very male and very square to speak about universal, so I’m not a universalist. We know Istanbul quite well, since we’ve been here since 2001 when we did our first project. We have visited many times. We know a lot of people from the artworld and have been following developments and circumstances. Of course, yes, we come from another background. Everyone comes from his or her special background. Therefore, we see ourselves only as providers, not as truth-tellers. We just come with all the artists’ stories. Also because we don’t come to Istanbul to tell people in Istanbul how Istanbul is. I hate that. I live in Berlin now, and when a curator uses the Berlin Biennale to tell us how Berlin is, I get really annoyed, because you do not get that kind of knowledge by just being a curator. It’s important for a biennial to come with input from outside. I mean, it’s more interesting for people in Istanbul to see what’s going on elsewhere in the world than just to hear about what people from outside think about what’s going on in their country.

ID It needs to be an exchange. It is an interna- tional biennial, and that is something we’re really trying to underline.

AR What else do you want the typical visitor to take from the exhibition?

ME There are so many things in our everyday life right now that make us so fearful. Art can be a liberation from that.

The 15th Istanbul Biennial is at various venues in and around the city, from 16 September to 12 November

This article is previewed from the forthcoming Autumn 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia