‘Biennial has been supporting Turkey’s culture and arts world for 30 years’
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Organized for the 15th time, the Istanbul biennial has been supporting Turkey’s culture and arts world for the past 30 years, said Görgün Taner, the general director of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV). The Istanbul biennial has undergone many difficulties “but cultural activities and international meeting points like the biennial hold critical importance especially at times like these,” he added.
What would you say looking at the 30-year history of the biennial?
When the first Istanbul biennial was organized in 1987, coordinated by Beral Madra, viewers were not as familiar with concepts like biennial, curator and contemporary art as they are today.
In 30 years, the biennial has supported the culture and arts scene in Turkey. It supported artistic and intellectual creativity. But more importantly, it has offered an environment of free creation and expression for viewers and artists.
It succeeded in attracting the attention of the global art world. The Istanbul biennial has an authentic and experimental structure. It uses public spaces, gives priority to site-specific installations and integrates with Istanbul. In that sense it is unique. You have no other opportunity to see these works, but in Istanbul you can during the biennial.
The number of viewers participating in the biennial has also increased. Especially 2013, it was a turning point after entry became free of charge thanks to the support of Koç Holding. Visitor numbers were in tens of thousands by the end of the 1990’s, but now we have come to a point where we are talking about half a million.
When you look at the themes chosen over the years, what do they tell us? What makes this year’s biennial different from the others?
The biennial themes have always connected with the times we are living in. All the biennials harbored important clues about the intellectual world of the times they took place. What differentiates the 15th Istanbul Biennial from the others is its language. The language and the world that has been created in the biennial sound familiar to the viewers. The theme “a good neighbor” was something that appealed to us all. That’s why this time it was debated a lot.
The biennial went through great challenges because of Turkey’s conditions. Art by itself is a structure that brings forward critical thinking; a structure that builds on freedom of thought. The biennial voiced issues about our world and that’s why it came under the spotlight.
At first glance, maybe the works in the 15th Istanbul Biennial do not directly address current political problems but they are exhibited in a way that is thought upon, fine-tuned and distilled within the framework of the new political climate in the world.
It is the first time the biennial is taking place under a state of emergency. How was it affected?
The July 15, 2016, coup attempt followed by the state of emergency affected all cultural activities especially in 2016. But cultural activities and international meeting points like the biennial hold significance especially in times like these. Last year, we realized the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, which was also a success.
This year, more than 3,000 journalists, art critics and people from the art world attended the opening of the biennial.
We have not suffered any difficulties in terms of getting permissions for our art activities. But obviously no one would like to have a state of emergency. But when I was alluding previously to the issue of expressing in a more refined manner, it does not just stem from Turkey but also from the current state of affairs in the world. And remember, there are not just Turkish artists in the biennial. There are 150 works of 56 artists from 32 countries being exhibited, of whom 10 artists are from Turkey, which is a high number actually.
The world’s agenda bears similarities with that of Turkey’s. There are so many striking political changes taking place in different parts of the world that artists prefer to opt for a more general style rather than give a direct answer to those fast transformations.
But weren’t there concerns and hesitations about the state of emergency?
Of course there were hesitations. But our curators came to Turkey just after the coup attempt; they held numerous meetings with various contacts and concluded on the necessity of going ahead with it.
Otherwise, we know well that the climate required for critical thinking is also necessary for contemporary art to blossom; and that, of course, happens easier under normal circumstances. Our artists and curators thought that dialogue in the form of art was necessary especially nowadays.
What are the reactions you get when in touch with the international culture and arts world?
The general reaction to the 15th Istanbul Biennial was very positive; it has been a big success. But we always come across many attitudes and what we say is this: Turkey is made up of many layers. It could look different when seen from outside, but when looked from within one would see a dynamic country with many different layers. The best way to understand is to come, listen, work and interact with the people from the culture and arts world.
With so many intellectuals in jail in Turkey, isn’t there a risk for both the local organizers and artists participating in the biennial to normalize the situation by turning a blind eye to criticisms of human rights violations. Some could prefer not to come out of solidarity.
I don’t agree. We had similar experiences in the first half of the 1990s. If there are doubts, they are valid to all over the world. International relations with different layers and under various forms need to continue. No country can continue its life in isolation in our globalized world. You get nowhere with boycott. You cannot achieve an outcome by breaking dialogue.
Relations between states, nations, institutions and artists should not be interrupted. The level of relations could differ but breaking relations are not the right stance.
We tried to explain this to artists. Each country has different conditions. But the art world and artists are there to tackle this.
There are a thousand ways to express a view. No country is monolithic.
But weren’t there any concerns about whether they will be able to express themselves freely?
We have received many questions about it. We told them that they have to act in accordance with each country’s own specific conditions, that we are bound by the current laws and legislations. As long as they did not go beyond Turkey’s current laws and legislations, we would provide a space with full artistic freedom. The rest was up to artistic creativity...
The biennial has seen earthquakes and a coup attempt. Has it become immune to crises?
Our motto is to continue to work and do our job the best way we can. We have been doing this for 30 years. That means we will continue to do so under every circumstance. This is our core business and we have an accumulated experience of the dynamics of cultural activities, about diplomacy, about how they will meet with the viewers. What we have been observing is that all our audiences attend our events and they look forward to our activities. We are not doing anything that no one pays attention to.
Finally, what is your view on the restoration of the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM)?
It has been 10 years since its closure. We need to talk about it. But rather than its architecture, we need to talk about its management. Who will assume its administration? Will it have its own program or will it just cater to the needs of state institutions? Shouldn’t we analyze similar cultural centers and administrative models and canalize the debate on that? I would be very happy if we were to build a sustainable structure with a contemporary administrative approach. Our fundamental difficulty is to think about the outer layer and attribute the functions later.
Who is Görgün Taner?
Görgün Taner is the general director of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV).
A graduate of Boğazici University’s Department of History, Taner started at the foundation in 1983 and was appointed as general director in 2002.
He is also currently the chair of the European Cultural Foundation (based in Amsterdam), a board member of the Istanbul Modern Arts Museum, and a member of the international advisory board of HEC Montréal business school’s International Arts Management Master of Management program. Since 2014, he has been serving as a member of the advisory committee of the German-Turkish Youth Bridge.
Previously, he served as the president of the European Jazz Festivals Association between 1998 and 2002, and as a member of the advisory board of the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency. He was the commissioner of Turkey during the Cultural Season of Turkey in France in 2009. Between September 2010 and May 2011, he was the art consultant of the Amsterdam Municipality.