, Art & Design

Reviewing the Anthropocene: A Guide to the 16th Istanbul Biennial

Author: Yulia Gromova

More than 220 artworks by 56 artists and art collectives have been gathered to reflect on issues of exploitation, post-colonialism, and human impact on the planet.

The Seventh Continent is not an exhibition about ecology—it’s an exhibition caught amidst ecological catastrophe. Warming temperatures, rising seas, and species extinction are the direct consequences of Western colonization and capitalist modes of production. Only through the constant exercise of decolonization can we address the predicament of the Anthropocene. This is the main curatorial message of the recently opened 16th Istanbul Biennial.

The Seventh Continent, the theme for the Biennial, not only refers to the giant mass of plastic waste floating in the oceans, but also to the new world profoundly transformed by human activity.

“In a way, artists are the Christopher Columbus of a new world nobody wants to immigrate to—it is a world of toxic particles, a world where we are both the conquerors and the natives,” said Biennial curator Nicolas Bourriaud.

Nicolas Bourriaud at the opening press conference for the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

Artists gathered at the exhibition aim to navigate this uncanny territory by documenting the landscape of the Anthropocene, engaging with ancient forces of knowledge, proposing alternative visions of history, and exploring our contemporary societies.

The Seventh Continent is declared as a post-cultural exhibition: an exhibition that transcends the Western dualism of nature and culture.

A new generation of artists has deeply incorporated the ideas of contemporary anthropologists, such as Brazilian theoretician Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who offers a vision of anthropology as “the practice of the permanent decolonization of thought.”

“This decolonization promised by contemporary anthropology goes towards the non-human. It is a post-ethnicist, even post-human vision—in The Seventh Continent, all subjects coexist, co-work, and share a common destiny,” said Bourriaud.

Strelka Mag offers a guide to the Biennial’s exhibitions spread across three locations in Istanbul and its outskirts.


Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture

Address: Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi No: 2, Tophane, Beyoğlu

The main venue of the Biennial is housed at the newly constructed building of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University's Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum, which is due to open to the public in 2020. The exhibition opens with the work of Feral Atlas collective, curated by renowned anthropologist Anna Tsing together with visual anthropologists Jennifer Deger and Victoria Baskin Coffey, and architect Feifei Zhou.

This work-in-progress report examines the un-designed effects of human infrastructures, with the focus on feral agencies and feral dynamics—topics that are central to Tsing’s recent work, especially The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

“Anna Tsing invites us to contemplate the habitability of the world, and what kinds of cooperation can be established between species to create new worlds. I believe this Biennial is a reply to Anna Tsing’s call,” said Bige Orer, director of the Biennial.

Feral Atlas addresses a wide range of issues, from species mass extinction and simplifications of ecologies due to mono-crop plantations; to new kinds of pathogens, viruses, and bacteria emerging from the plant and animal production industries; to lack of waste management and environmental justice.

In her video for the Biennial, Anna Tsing stresses the importance of acknowledging the irregularity of the Anthropocene. “You might think that the Anthropocene can only be studied at a planetary level, but by following infrastructures, we argue, we can see the partial, fragmented, and uneven nature of the Anthropocene around us,” she said.

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Feral Atlas Collective

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Radcliffe Bailey. Nommo, 2019. Mixed media and sound installation. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

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The possibility of another life expresses itself directly in a cop car on fire and obliquely in the faces of my friends, 2019. Installation. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

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Rebecca Belmore. Body of Water, 2019. Sculpture, aluminium. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

Feral Atlas features footage of waste management and water bottle and milk production facilities documented by Armin Linke; hand-drawn illustrations and maps by Feifei Zhou; and photographs by Chris Jordan, who documented plastic waste inside the stomachs of thousands of dead albatrosses, among other works.

Many works presented at the 16th Istanbul Biennial address the issues of exploitation and violence.

Rebecca Belmore’s work is a memorial to several First Nations teenagers who have gone missing and been found drowned in the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her installation—a canoe covered by an aluminium-cast tarpaulin—is a reflection on abandoned and suppressed communities and indigenous rights.

In his work, Radcliffe Bailey reflects on the history of bondage and slavery, contemporary diasporic relations, and themes of displacement and trauma. His contribution to the Biennial is a wooden boat that refers to the ships on which enslaved Africans were transported to the West by Europeans.

Johannes Büttner is also concerned with representations of violence. His installation is comprised of seven sculptures formed out of different materials, each of which has the skeleton of a machine underneath. The sculptures resemble everything from sci-fi warriors to riot police, to terracotta soldiers turned upside down on their heads.

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Ambera Wellmann. Impingenous, 2019. Oil on linen. Courtesy the artist and Adam Green Art Advisory.

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Feral Atlas Collective

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Simon Fujiwara. It’s a Small World. Courtesy the artist, Dvir Gallery (Tel Aviv and Brussels), TARO NASU (Tokyo), Esther Schipper (Berlin) and Gio Marconi (Milan). Commissioned by the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

Some other artists within the Biennial seek to re-enact ancient forces and knowledge systems.

Suzanne Husky is pushing the idea of the Earth as a sacred site. Her film focuses on the figure of Starhawk, a feminist writer, witch, priestess, and sacred Earth activist. Starhawk’s book The Spiral Dance was one of the main inspirations behind the Goddess movement of the 1970s.

Starhawk sings in the film, leading the viewer through a ritual trance that channels through a cycle of growth, death, and regeneration.

Mining the deep past as well as an imagined future, Muge Yilmaz’s installation Eleven Suns is a reflection on the advent of human, plant, and animal life, on devotion and scarcity, and on the Anthropocene after capitalism, culture, and nature have expired.

Other artists are trying to make sense of new scientific and technological innovations, and envision how they might shape possible future scenarios.

Suzanne Treister tells a story of the fictional, algorithmic high-frequency trader and “techno-shaman” Hillel Fischer Traumberg. Traumberg experiments with psychotropic drugs and plants, building correlations between plant life, shamanism, numerology, and the high-frequency movers of capital. The work articulates a set of interrelations between hallucinogens, capital, art, psychoactive drugs, and consciousness.

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Muge Yilmaz. Eleven suns - Vulture (Gyps) I, 2019. CNC-cut, hand-carved birch. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

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Suzanne Husky. Regeneration, 2019. Wool rug. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

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Suzanne Treister. HFT The Gardener, 2014-2015. Archival giclée prints on Hahnemühle photo rag paper. Courtesy the artist, Annely Juda Fine Art, London and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

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Pakui Hardware. Extrakorporal, 2019. Sculpture (glass, faux fur, various textiles,latex, metal hanging system) Courtesy the artists. Commissioned by the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

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Agnieszka Kurant. Post-Fordite 3, 2019. Fossilized automotive paint, powdered rock, foam, metal alloy. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar

Agnieszka Kurant’s dynamic liquid-crystal painting, Conversions #1, transforms according to the algorithmic sentiment analysis of social media accounts belonging to protest groups.

Pakui Hardware’s Extrakorporal focuses on organs grown and cultivated outside of human bodies, within the practices of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.


Pera Museum

Address: Meşrutiyet Cd. No:65, Beyoğlu

The Pera Museum is located in the heart of the city, in a historic building which previously housed the Bristol Hotel.

Many of the projects exhibited there are digging into the past to propose alternative versions of history—a fictional archeology.

Norman Daly spent decades creating the imaginary Civilization of Llhuros. His installation presents a very detailed and convincing inventory of various artifacts of a culture that never existed.

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Sanam Khatibi. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Rodolphe. Commissioned by the 16th Istanbul Biennial.

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Norman Daly. Civilization of Llhuros, 1972. Mixed media (artifacts, sounds, texts). Courtesy David Daly.

Sanam Khatibi deals with animality and our primal impulses. She explores power relationships through an investigation of violence, engagement, and sensuality across humans and animals. Her work consists of paintings, embroideries, tapestries, archaeological stones, and ceramic sculptures that point to a speculative archaeology of human-animal relations.


Büyükada island

Address: Büyükada Island

Büyükada is the largest of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, famous for its lavish Ottoman-era mansions and rich history. Ferries depart from Dentur pier in Kabatas and the trip takes just over an hour.

The Seventh Continent presents a number of documentary works.

Armin Linke’s Prospecting Ocean brings forth rare footage of the deep-sea, as well as a series of interviews examining the political and economic exploitation of the ocean. Exhibited in the elegant building of the Anadolu Club—which was frequented by Kemal Ataturk—Linke’s work is shown alongside a commissioned extension of a project featuring a selection of documents related to Italian and Turkish marine history.

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James Baldwin: From Another Place, 1973. A Film by Sedat Pakay. Courtesy © Hudson Film Works II

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Hale Tanger. Appearance, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Galeri Nev

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Armin Linke. Prospecting Ocean, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Glenn Ligon’s body of work is inspired by African American writer and activist James Baldwin. Baldwin explored the intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies. He spent 10 years in Istanbul between 1961 and 1970, and was active in the city’s intellectual community. Installed in Mizzi Palace, a nineteenth century mansion, Ligon’s installation explores Baldwin’s historic connection to Istanbul.

The 16th Istanbul Biennial will be open to the public until November 10, 2019.

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