Istanbul biennial rentals provocative curators, but where is the political art?

In recent years, the Istanbul biennial has addressed topics such as the city’s anti-authoritarian protests in Gezi Park in 2013, and in Europe for the migration crisis. In 2009, the biennial of the poster said that “politically neutral art is a means to police the world of art”.

The 15th edition of Turkey’s most important contemporary art event, which opens Saturday, is curated by the renowned Scandinavian subversives Elmgreen and Dragset, and has as its theme “what makes a good neighbour”.

However, despite Turkey’s increasingly tense relationship with Europe, prime minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan wide crackdown in the wake of last year, the attempted coup, and his country’s role in the civil war in Syria, politically controversial art is almost entirely absent. Through its six offices, to talk about the president, his party, the AKP, or the tens of thousands of people held, from the time that the coup attempt is severely disabled.

Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset (r). Photograph: Muhsin Akgun

Elmgreen and Dragset vigorously deny that they practice self-censorship. They recognize that an absence of slogans against the government, or works of art incorporating overt activism, but to say that contemporary politics is infiltrated in more subtle ways, and that, overall, the biennale offers a more nuanced perspective of a country that is usually offered in the international media.

“It is a bit flat, if art is reduced to be a direct response to very populist politics, and very simple answers to very complicated things,” says Elmgreen. “I do not like the situation in Turkey, but I also do not believe that the mentality of ” we have a problem, you should call some of the artists here, and you can only respond like a jack-in-a-box’ is available.

“These direct responses to art in many political situations, often very little good in the political arena. It can be a work of art, but often it is very bad policy”.

Dragset, draws a distinction between the world of art and the geopolitical: “Art is not there to react in the same way as politicians or the media, using the same simplified populist language,” he says.

It is also the case, he says, that the Turkish art scene is still in search of a language of resistance and a way of expressing opinions in a way that is always more subsidiaries. “The voices are more quiet at the moment, and perhaps this show makes you think,” he says.

Both artists say they have been sensitive to the political climate facing Turkish artists.

“I get angry, which is very Eurocentric, obsessed with the idea that all the world should function in the same way as us, because it is not the reality,” says Elmgreen. “We are not so arrogant that you disrespect the artists that work in 75% of the world.”

Those works that touch on topics such as authoritarianism, the resistance and the repression of women, for the most part focus on other countries, and are internationally renowned artists.

Latifa Echakhch shows. Photograph: Sahir Ugur Eren

One of the most political of the pieces is Moroccan-French visual artist Latifa Echakhch. It is equipped with two cement walls painted with a flaking mural of the protests in Istanbul, the Gezi Park in 2013, the decay is symbolic of the pessimism that followed that moment of defiance.

There is also a video of an artist from the Kurdish Erkan Ozgen a guy deaf from Syria acting out some of the trauma of being a witness. A new work by the Brazilian artist Victor Leguy has been created in collaboration with refugees, many from Syria, living in Istanbul.

Erkan Ozgen’s video work. Photograph: Sahir Ugur Eren

Elmgreen and Dragset, who are gay, to say that the biennale is a celebration of diversity. Works on topics such as the queer community and feminism are in themselves a statement, say, in a country where traditional religion, the attitudes are invading the secular society.

As almost all of the cultural events in Turkey, the biennale is managed by a private independent foundation, and only 6% of its funding from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

The authority may interfere if they felt the need, but the director of the festival, and the curators say that it is not the government or censorship at this year’s event.

However, most of the 10 Turkish artists involved in this year’s biennale to speak openly of the difficulties of working in Turkey. The policy was present in their work, they say, only so thin, and layered.

Gözde Ilkin in the tapestry style of work. Photograph: Sahir Ugur Eren

“Of course, automatically, all of us now self-censor themselves,” says Gözde Ilkin, whose work here features a tapestry-type of a mix of old family photographs. She breaks down in tears while speaking in the aftermath of the protests of Gezi. Many people that I knew have been arrested, or transferred from, she says, and the artistic community fractured as the people became afraid and stopped to talk to one of them.

“But we have started to create layers in our work, so that what is happening in Turkey is there, but perhaps not so obvious,” he says. “The rumors have been crushed, but artists will always find a way to speak.”

YoÄŸunluk, an art collective working in Istanbul, which has brought a disturbing site-specific installation for the biennale, saying their non-political approach is the only way in which they can operate.

“If I was doing political art, I would never live in Turkey. It is impossible,” says artistic director Ismail Eğler.

“No gallery would show my work if I was doing political art, which is totally safe. Art in Turkey, in my opinion, is so superficial. People do not want to dig deeper. They are afraid to go to deeper levels. And in this biennale, it is so obvious that it is a purpose that it is not possible to see the political in the art, otherwise she would not be let go next.”

Even if the Istanbul gallery scene is thriving, there is a reluctance of the international community to collaborate with galleries and artists. Only 29 international galleries have participated in Contemporary Istanbul, in Turkey, the largest art fair, which opened this week, down to 65 last year.

“Many artists and intellectuals felt that their work is not worth more, then you are transferred abroad,” says Zeyno Pekĵnlĵ, a Turkish artist and academic who is taking care of the biennale’s public program.

“But many of them were and the ones that do are even more laborious than before, so the art scene has become even more vibrant. Events such as the biennale, the most important in the life of people because it means that we are able to hold the thought and continue the debate.”