At this year's Istanbul Biennial, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes, economic decline set the stage for re-imaginings of art's goals and potential. Anyone interested in buying Lebanon for 200 billion dollars? What about Egypt for a cool 7 trillion? Or Turkey, a bargain at 14 trillion? The artist Oraib Toukan wants to auction off the countries of the Middle East. Instead of Impressionist paintings or magnificent jewels, she plans to put 16 nations up for sale, from Morocco to Afghanistan. For the past two years, Toukan has been meeting with a slew of experts - economists, financial analysts, diplomatic advisers, foreign policy wonks, real-state auctioneers, media strategists, public relations experts and game theorists - to discuss how this could be done, not as a conceptual exercise but as a concrete financial transaction. She asked the experts how she could acquire the rights to sell such vast stretches of land (Toukan readily disclosed that she was an artist, not an eccentric entrepreneur) and what she could do to make investments in a resource-rich but conflict-prone region appear attractive rather than foolish.
Mostly, though, she needed to know how much Jordan or Palestine or the UAE would cost - based on 100-year leaseholds and factoring in inflation and perceptions of political and economic risk. Once she assessed each country's worth, she created the brand identity of a holding company called Nayruz, replete with the tagline "own this view, and everything in it." Then she printed a catalogue for the purported sale, which is scheduled to take place in Dubai in 2012.
The plausibility of that sale is the premise behind The Equity Is in the Circle, Toukan's impressive contribution to this year's Istanbul Biennial. The work consists of videos, documents, corporate logos, fake advertisements and copies of correspondences, all of which illustrate that selling a region could be easier than you might think. In the 2009 video Talking Heads, for example, Toukan's interlocutors show tremendous aptitude for translating the crazy ideas of artist into the crude realities of their professional fields. The game theorist suggests thinking of the region as a fixer-upper, because a lot of money will be spent on infrastructure. The real-estate auctioneer tells a cautionary tale from Roman history, when the auctioning of an empire's assets precipitated a civil war. The media strategist argues that ethnic states - a Kurdish enclave rather than Turkey or Iraq, for example - might be more appealing than nation states. The diplomatic adviser points out that it is already common practice for governments and companies to buy and sell enormous tracts of agricultural land all over the world. "If the price is right," he says, "you can a find a seller."
Another component of the piece is a printout of an e-mail from an economist. Below the subject line "selling nation states," the economist tells Toukan he has completed the calculations she asked for and prepared a formal presentation. "But I wanted you to see [the presentation] beforehand," he writes, "so you artists have time to digest the real world." Implicit in the economist's e-mail, of course, is the assumption that artists do not habitually digest the real world. Whether or not this true has been endlessly debated. But judging from the 141 artworks that were selected for the Istanbul Biennial, the curators decided to focus aggressively, and almost exclusively, on projects that not only digest the real world but also try to break it down and rebuild it in a more just and equitable manner.
Spread across three venues - a former customs warehouse, an old tobacco factory and a disused school for Istanbul's dwindling Greek community - the 2009 edition of the biennial was organised by the Croatian collective WHW, whose members include the curators Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic and Sabina Sabolovic, and the designer Dejan Krsic. Founded as a non-profit organisation in 1999, WHW named itself after its first show, What, How and for Whom which was staged to commemorate the Communist Manifesto and addressed "the three basic questions of every economic organisation". Those questions continue to guide the collective's work, which consistently pushes a left-leaning agenda.
In Istanbul, WHW turned to Bertolt Brecht for the biennial's theme and titled the exhibition What Keeps Mankind Alive? after a lyric from the playwright's Threepenny Opera, which doubles as a Marxist critique of capitalism. WHW saw the current financial crisis as an opportunity to revisit some of the foundational promises of communism at a time when capitalism seemed to be faltering, and to reinvest contemporary art with agency and the capacity for political action by wresting it from the machinations of the international art market and the commercialisation of culture.
According to WHW's curatorial statement, What Keeps Mankind Alive was conceived as a full-fledged political programme, the purpose of which was to retool the art space as a site for analysis, education the renewal of critical thinking and the development of new concepts and ideas. "Art is arguably not the best place to plan ? the future of Palestine," the curators wrote, by way of a rather loaded example. "But it may well be the only one."
It came as no surprise, then, to find an awful lot of political art on display. The biennial racked up numerous conflicts, disasters and war zones, with works addressing violence in Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Srebrenica massacre and more. But the curators tied specific eruptions of violence to sweeping and insightful observations about how people live, work, resist exploitation and find some measure of personal and collective fulfilment in the 21st century. It is not remotely common to leave a biennial thinking seriously about how societies might be better and more beneficially governed, or about how art might be better and more effectively used to change things, but such was the effect of the exhibition in Istanbul.
Along the back wall of the former customs warehouse, WHW installed the graphic designer Zeina Maasri's Signs of Conflict, an exhibition of political posters from the early stages of Lebanon's civil war, which explores how various militias battled for prominence on the streets of Beirut, and how the development of visual languages informed the construction of political identities, which were constantly shifting throughout the war. Maasri's exhibition, which also traces the migration of revolutionary iconography from Latin American and Iran, is part of an ongoing project that has so far yielded a book and a comprehensive online database.
What was significant about seeing it in Istanbul was the fact that Maasri is not (strictly speaking) a visual artist. Under the direction of WHW, the field of what may be considered contemporary art expanded significantly. In addition to graphic design, the biennial included works in theatre, performance and film. Other works were based on extended, cross-disciplinary research, which brought different forms of knowledge into the biennial: architecture, astronomy, the study of surveillance systems, urban planning and the politics of public space, radically redrawn maps and newly invented fonts.
In a former classroom on the upper floor of the old Greek school, the architect Eyal Weizman and the artists Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti presented another long-term project, titled Returns. The work includes two videos and a series of large-format books, all of which devise imaginative strategies for "decolonising" sites in Palestine, such as the Oush Grab military base, which was abandoned by Israeli forces in 2006. Returns illustrates one memorable scheme for which the derelict buildings of the military base could be converted into enormous bird feeders, and the surrounding area transformed into a nature reserve, due to the fact that despite decades of conflict the area still serves as a major meeting point for bird migration patterns.
Istanbul's biennial was established in 1987, and over the past 20 years, it has become one of the strongest among the art world's so called "peripheral" international events, attracting heavyweight curators such as René Block, Rosa Martinez, Paolo Colombo, Dan Cameron and Hou Hanru to partake. (Biennials taking place in cities like Istanbul, Havana, Sao Paulo and Johannesburg have long been considered peripheral to those occurring in the art world's supposed centres, such as the Venice Biennale or Documenta, which runs every five years in the German city of Kassel).
It has also proven a laboratory for curatorial experimentation, particularly in 2003, when Vasif Kortun and Charles Esche chose the city itself as their theme, and challenged the increasingly bland, homogenised nature of the biennial format by insisting on site-specificity and rooting the event in the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of Galata and Beyoglu. But until now, the Istanbul Biennial has never concerned itself seriously with contemporary art in the Middle East. The event has always included a substantial number of Turkish artists, but it has not put them in dialogue with their peers from the Arab world, despite the historical ties and geographical proximities between them. Of the 96 artists and collectives selected for the 2007 biennial, only three were born in the Arab world, and just one was still living there.
WHW completely overturned this trend. Nearly 40 per cent of the artists and collectives chosen for the 2009 biennial came from the Middle East and, moreover, addressed facets of everyday life in the region in their work. Mounira al Solh's marvellous video The Sea Is a Stereo, from 2006-2009, for example, tells the stories of men who swim off the coast of Beirut every day of the year, rain or shine, war or peace. The artist asks the men questions about their routines, their tattoos, their wives, their lovers, their work and what they would do if ever they had to live apart from the sea. The poignancy of the piece comes from the effort these men exert to achieve some semblance of normality in a city that ruthlessly resists it. But the hilarity of the work comes from the fact that Solh dubbed the entire soundtrack - her questions, their answers - in her own voice.
Larissa Sansour's equally uproarious video Soup Over Bethlehem, from 2006, addresses themes of occupation through footage of a rollicking family lunch, where the conversation primarily concerns the perfect preparation of mloukhieh, a tangy Levantine dish made with onions, lemons and spinach-like greens. But of course, fresh produce is not immune from checkpoints, and so the talk eventually turns to how mloukhieh will be made if access between Bethlehem and a greengrocer in Jericho is severed.
Elsewhere one found a selection of videos by the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, whose works are deeply concerned with giving meaning to often empty notions such as individuality, accountability and citizenship. A mesmerising series of photographs by Hrair Sarkissian showed seemingly innocuous public squares in Syria that were all, in fact, the sites of public executions. All told, the inclusion of so much art from the Middle East was a daring move, considering that Turkey's relationship to the Arab world is a highly charged and contentious topic. Whatever lingering influence there is of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt or Syria or Lebanon today, the Turkish republic turned its back on the Arab world long ago. To speak of any 21st-century rapprochement inevitably opens a discussion on Turkey's current ruling party, the country's bid for membership in the European Union and the enduring tug-of-war between a secular state and Islam.
Still, what linked the artists of the Istanbul Biennial together wasn't really geography at all. It was the affinity of shared experiences, such as uneven periods of modernisation or the lost promise of socialist movements. What Keeps Mankind Alive? might have looked like a showcase for contemporary art in the Middle East. But it was, more accurately, a careful examination of aesthetic practices on the edges of the developing world.
Perhaps the most trenchant example of this was Democracies, a 20-screen video installation from 2009 by the artist Artur Zmijewski. Every screen carries footage of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations - Palestinians protesting Israelis, Israelis protesting Palestinians, radical feminists in Warsaw facing off against their conservative counterparts marching on behalf of the Catholic Church. The result is a hypnotising din of discontent. The piece sadly yet brilliantly articulates how so many competing struggles for various interpretations of civil rights have effectively cancelled each other out, exposing the space and language of political protest to be both sidelined and drained of meaning.
What Keeps Mankind Alive was certainly the most focused and tightly curated biennial I have seen in years. But the remarkable thing about it was not the consistency with which the curators hammered down their ideas. Sure, there was a lot of loud, didactic material on display - the red-splashed reworking of Leninist propaganda, the graphic representations of insidious power structures, the slapping of Adam Smith's invisible hands - but some of the best moments of the biennial were those that expressed themselves quietly.
WHW communicated its theme on many different levels and in several subtle ways. Where the exhibition was softer and more muted, it addressed the question "What keeps mankind alive?" by putting forward the idea of art as solitary, skilful work, rather than cunning, media-savvy charlatanism. For many of the artists who participated in the biennial, their work was clearly the burning thing that kept them alive, and kept them going. What else would explain the wonderful but (in this context, at least) totally unexpected thematic relevance of Anna Boghiguian's gorgeous gouaches revisiting the experiences of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, or the dramatic visual poetry of the filmmaker Mohammed Osama's 1977 student film Step by Step? Works like these lent the biennial great sensitivity to material and texture and the ecology of an artist's mind.
By highlighting obsessive, excruciatingly detailed paintings and drawings, the curators signalled a return to the solemn labour of artistic production, restoring the notion of practice by scaling the term back to its original meaning: the daily, repetitive toil of object- and image-making. Nothing could be further from the manufacturing of glitzy, grandiose spectacles that have become so common in biennials worldwide. This was the most unassuming of WHW's curatorial strategies, but it might just be the one that will endure.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review.