“How do you reconcile Brecht and the biggest capitalist industrial group in Turkey? » This was the political question that immediately made Istanbul’s 11th Biennial controversial.
“What Keeps Mankind Alive?”, the title of the Biennial this year, sounds like a call for reflection and, above all, critical thinking to the visitor. This is not a coincidence; the title of a Bertolt Brecht song has been chosen as the guiding principle. In the same way as it was used by European leftist movements in the 1970’s, the Marxist playwright’s work seems to be an ultimate reference for the curators, the Croatian collective WHW (“Who How For Whom”), a non-profit organization for visual culture dealing with relevant social issues. Quotations from Brecht, prominently displayed in the exhibit, certainly have a resonance in these contemporary times of economical crisis which have provoked a renewal of criticism against neoliberal hegemony and capitalism.
“We have to stop pretending that art is a free space, independent of networks of capital and power” explains the conceptual framework of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial. Although there is no doubt that it is politically instructive for the audience, ”The opening ceremony was followed by protest of the small group of activists. Their revolt was directed against contradictory fact that Biennial of contemporary arts, which is lead by idea of political and social engagement of art, is realized with the money coming from private capital. Girls from WHW in an informal talk supported the activists, but they stressed that the exhibition has to be opened » according to the website labculture.org, which provides an up-to-the-minute information about the cultural sector in 50 countries. Indeed, the opening ceremony was depicted by the activists of Resistanbul as an “absurd cacophony of “radical” statements” where “sponsors, bodyguards, and ministers with fake smiles and old wine smells” could be seen everywhere. And, they added ironically, “if two peanuts are enough to be sponsor, then we are willing to do it the next time!”
This collective, recently founded in order to “coordinate the Resistance Days Against IMF/WB” at the beginning of October in Istanbul, has come out with the slogan “to make Capitalism History”. Above all, it criticizes the hypocrisy of the organizers: While they quote Brecht’s assertion that “every bourgeois is a criminal”, they are “collaborating” with Koç Holding. This powerful conglomerate which belongs to Turkey’s wealthiest dynasty has indeed invested a lot of funds and is depicted as “arm dealers” by Resistanbul. More generally speaking, they denounce the collusion between art and financial power, which creates “corporate spaces reserved for tolerated institutional critique”.
Bertolt Brecht wanted to destroy art as an institution and to re-direct it towards a new social use. In its open letter to the 11th Istanbul Biennial, the Resistanbul Committee of Social Realism asserts that “Creativity belongs to each and every one of us and can’t be sponsored”. This is the obvious gap between the conceptual framework of the exhibition and its reception by a part of its audience.