For the Europalia biennial, architect Murat Tabanlioglu has curated a display of intriguing contemporary artworks that contemplate the Turkish city’s relationship with the sea. But the exhibition’s retrospective and comparative elements somewhat weaken its impact, says John Jervis
The press conference for Port City Talks: Istanbul Antwerp – an exhibition highlighting parallels in both development and ideals between these two major centres of seaborne trade – begins with its curator, the leading Turkish architect Murat Tabanlioglu, dropping a sharp, witty aside about the invasion of architecture by urban planners. He claims this has left his profession with little choice but to shift into curatorial work. The analogy is perhaps a little risky – if architecture is best left to the experts, the same may be true for curation.
Tabanlioglu’s architectural intervention in the large third-floor gallery at MAS Antwerp – the magnificent city museum that opened alongside the River Scheldt in 2011 – is the show’s strongest suit. A maze-like tunnel of white planes that mimics the shape of the Bosphorus, this “building within a building” provides a complex, intimate yet surprisingly navigable showcase for the 15 contemporary video pieces he’s gathered for a personal exegesis on Istanbul’s relationship with the sea.
The works themselves focus quite precisely on shipping and water. Hasan Deniz’s photographs of gantries and shipping containers in dockyards soon to be redeveloped as housing, or Emre Dörter and Elif Simge Fattehoglu’s bright drone shots of supertankers and ferries, all evoke a quiet, pleasant melancholy, lacking specificity and conviction. The retreat of industry and impending gentrification (and for that matter, piles of shipping containers) are universal urban themes – to be more than wistful diversions, such art requires a more incisive and focused critique. Ali Emir Tapan’s Nowhere at least makes an intelligent play between divergent visions of Istanbul, as a horizon slowly emerges in the deep blue of sky and water with the breaking of dawn, and “stars” begin to twinkle from the rampant developments across the Marmara Sea, eventually drowning out the entire screen. The layered soundtrack of Tibetan gongs rather labours the point.
There are moments of beauty and humour, even if a curious lack of bite remains. Massive yet unheeded tankers silently slide into views across the Bosporus, intruding between two continents, in Omer Kanipak’s Massive Ghosts, elegantly capturing the ubiquity of trade in Istanbul’s past and present. An amusing dialogue is created in Emre Dörter’s Bridge – two screens face each other across a corridor, with city dwellers from Antwerp and Istanbul greeting each other from their respective waterfronts. Quite how such a horde of cheerful individuals, seemingly plucked from 1970s holiday camps, was located is a mystery. More deliberate in its retro appeal is Volkan Kizitunc’s compilation of Super 8 footage from the 1960s and 70s, in which Istanbul families are seen swimming, laughing, smoking, yachting and sunbathing in stylish swimming costumes. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this secular and surprisingly modern vision is an insight into a single, rather privileged aspect of Istanbul’s past, but it remains a touching one all the same.
Stepping outside of Tabanlioglu’s construction, a collection of historical items has been placed on the gallery walls to show purported parallels between Antwerp and Istanbul. Though frequently diverting, this display seems like an afterthought – a half-hearted effort, presumably added at the behest of MAS, to provide general visitors with a handle on the show. That both cities boast ferries, stations, docks, cranes and shipwrecks is hardly a surprise – most ports do. Old photos of the MAS site, posters for the Orient Express or fire-insurance maps of 19th-century Antwerp seem to have wandered in from various local history exhibits. It’s also noticeable that the exploitative nature of Antwerp’s trading wealth receives no attention, and that the perspectives on Istanbul are largely of western European origin – panoramas, maps, travellers’ accounts and so on. Depictions of ships painted onto 19th-century mariners’ chests are an attractive exception.
Europalia – the Brussels-based biennial festival of which this is exhibition is just one small part, and which is focusing on Turkey for this edition – is rich, impassioned and praiseworthy. One might hope that, in its 45th year, Europalia has the prestige to pin political flags to masts, but its collaborative, government-sponsored nature makes contemporary art a difficult bedfellow. When the exhibition is further diluted by scraps of comparative history best tackled in specialist exhibitions, a soft focus is inevitable, however beguiling the works gathered here by Tabanlioglu. Modern art institutions in Istanbul are already distressingly restrictive, and repeating these constraints at greater expense in Belgium merely compounds the problem. It is an issue that Europalia needs to address as it moves from its high-culture roots toward the contemporary.
Port City Talks: Istanbul Antwerp