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One of the key elements of the Istanbul Biennial is the city itself. Founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in A.D. 330 as the first world’s Christian capital, it was long the glorious center of the Byzantine Empire, before becoming the capital of the Ottoman Turks. Today, it’s a megacity in a time of radical changes.

Literally the meeting point of Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a site of unusual complexity, and therefore an ideal place for showing contemporary art. This is something the organizers have taken advantage of, and in Istanbul’s 10th biennial, curated by the Chinese-born Hou Hanru, the city serves as a platform wherein to reflect on modernization.

The biennial, whose theme is “Not only possible, but also necessary. Optimism in the age of global war,” takes place in a variety of venues that mirror the identity and dynamic history of the modern Turkish republic. Though Hou talks about the close relation between architecture and ideology, and how the buildings chosen for exhibits envision a modern political utopia, he also points out that some are now under the threat of gentrification by the forces of globalization, neoliberal economics and political cynicism — a development he finds most alarming in non-Western countries and the Third World.

Among the works that obviously correspond with this theme is Korean artist Lee Bul’s construction “Mon Grand Recit: Weep into Stones” (2005). The piece clearly relates to utopian dreams of modernism through its depiction of a large white mountain — a metaphor for progress among artists and architects in the first decade of the 20th century — invaded by buildings, roads and other futuristic structures. The sculpture evokes unfulfilled dreams, making it appear melancholy.

A more contemporary perspective is found in a piece by Japanese artist Yushi Uehara about urban development in China. He studied how villages are surrounded and eaten up by rapidly growing cities and presents the research through videos, diagrams and pictures.

Hou is the second curator from Asia to man the biennial. The first was Japan’s Yuko Hasegawa in 2001. Asked what an Asian perspective on the arts would be, and how art and, more broadly, life, could benefit from one, she says that for better or worse, the West is characterized by its strong emphasis on individuality, and therefore, she explains, the Asian collective point of view can be truly helpful in such a reorientation.

Even though Hou hasn’t explicitly worked from an Asian perspective in Istanbul, he has selected a large number of artists from China and other Asian countries. This is not surprising, as he has a deep knowledge of this scene and has been responsible for several exhibitions from the region in the last couple of years (most recently, in the Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale). Besides, the idea of a homogenous national identity is questionable: many of the artists were born and now work in different places.

One of several examples is photographer Tomoko Yoneda, who was born in 1965 in Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture. Yoneda studied at the University of Illinois and the Royal College of Art in London, where she has lived for the last 12 years. Her photographs at the biennial are taken in eastern Europe and the Baltic, and they deal with relations between places, memory and history. There is very little in them that reveals what is embedded in the mundane scenery, but ties between the past and present become visible upon reading the captions.

Yoneda’s multiculturalism is typical of contemporary art. But it is far more common for artists to move from Asia, Africa or Latin America to Europe or the United States than the other way around. Thus it is still possible to talk about a center in the art world — even if the West has lost its former hegemony.

Unfortunately, the results of the 10th Istanbul Biennial make it necessary to consider the role of the curator in the biennial system. Hou belongs to a small group of people who produce one large exhibition after another around the world. Is there a risk that this actually jeopardizes the quality of biennials? That Huo didn’t attend the symposium where all the previous curators of the Istanbul Biennial were gathered to discuss “The Future of Biennials” could be taken as a discouraging sign.

Characteristic for mega-events like these, the focus is on the theme rather than the art, which brings more attention to the curator than to the artists. The curator’s “style” becomes a trademark in the professional field of culture production — in Hou’s case, his is a bazaarlike polyphonic orchestration of objects, sound, film and more, and his agenda, as with other curators in this small group, is critical of current geopolitics.

Despite the interesting issues targeted by the Istanbul Biennial, it is very problematic. The art seems to be used simply to make abstract ideas concrete; the quality is generally low; and works are often unbelievably badly installed. From the point of view of curating, it is a failure. Instead of being a source of constructive ideas and challenging experiences, the exhibition sadly turns out to be an example of missed opportunities.

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