Istanbul Design Biennial 02.11.16

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At a turbulent time for the Turkish city, this event’s rigour and independence of thought demonstrates the tenacity of its organisers

A city that has recently experienced both a major terrorist attack and a coup is not perhaps the most likely venue for architecture academia’s it couple – Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina – to work together for the first time. With Wigley in charge of Columbia’s graduate school and Colomina director of Media and Modernity at Princeton University, one might have expected their first collaboration (they’ve studiously avoided working together until now) to be a knowing little show on how the media helps construct our idea of contemporary architecture at MoMA. Instead, invited by the advisory board of the Istanbul Design Biennial, they have commendably produced a frequently stunning, thorough-going consideration of the historical relationship between mankind and design, from our first steps as homo sapiens to our ventures into deep space.

Clearly the archaeological wealth of the region was a major draw for Wigley and Colomina. Part of the multiple-venue show is held in the Archaeological Museum and some of its exhibits – co-opted into the biennial – have clearly convinced the curators to consider the long story of design stretching tantalisingly back into pre-history. A collection of arrowheads and jewellery dating from before Christ highlight the idea that design then as now has both a purpose and a prestige. It isn’t simply the proximity to the very origins of urban living that Istanbul brings however, but the dedicated and tenacious way in which the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts creates total independence for its curators.

The third Istanbul Design Biennial takes place in a climate in which the Turkish president Erdogan is closing newspapers that question him under the pretext of stability. In this milieu, it requires a dedicated professional team, not to mention a wider culture within the city, to protect such independent thinking. In a wider context in which politicians are questioning the role of ‘experts’, it is an important rejoinder. Wigley and Colomina’s inquiry may not respond to the narrow political pressure, but that in many ways is the point. The Istanbul Design Biennial has established itself as a platform for vigorous free-thinking. This is not an expo, but an exploration of design as a historical subject.

In many ways, Wigley and Colomina have in Are We Human? produced a brilliant show, particularly the central one housed in the foundation’s headquarters. (Some of the satellite shows falter without their curatorial nous and pizzazz). The main show though is conceptually ambitious, but also clear, with the installation work organised around a compelling vertical, thematic scheme. On the ground floor a series of video installations address the body and as one wanders up through the building the location of design moves further outwards until – on the top floor – one is looking at a data visualisation that shows how the number of satellites has exponentially increased over recent years. We move through layers and layers of design. This vertical orientation provides an exciting, unexpected, occasionally vertiginous perspective: the spatial equivalent of watching 2001AD.

The work is of the highest quality too; providing the individual a chance to appreciate an ambiguity in the central question as to what our status as a species is and whether we can define ourselves through it. One gazes at a Thomas Demand photograph of his recreation in cardboard of the control room at the Fukushima nuclear power plant anew. In this new context, one realises that Demand is trying to understand and reveal the purposefulness of what he is copying. These are not just strangely unhuman spaces. They are in fact highly human. Their anonymity has been designed. It is fantastic again to see work by the Centre for Land Use Interpretation in this context too. Their position of neutral quasi-scientific anthropological investigation provides the perfect tone that isn’t always adhered to.

Some of the new work by young Turkish architects and artists is excellent as well. Nine Islands by Neyran Turan and Mete Somnez is a charming series of installations that imagines the extended modern supply chain of different architectural materials: wood, Styrofoam, marble etc. and compresses it into an architectural form: architectural production as both an end and measure of society. Meanwhile So? Architecture’s survey of Istanbul cemeteries wherein particularly interesting tombs have been rendered as 3D prints on sticks is another gem. (The tomb of an air stewardess who died in an air crash, which is a marble effigy of an aeroplane at the moment of impact, is a jaw-dropping material insight into a very different way of thinking about death.)

As brilliant as the main show is, there is a lingering sense though that trying to examine or assert humanity entirely through its material production is ultimately a rather limiting exercise. Of course, one should be wary of taking the words of a curator above the exhibition itself but a number of Wigley’s statements in his introduction and the catalogue suggest that if a gun was held to his head, the question that provides the title of the Biennial ‘Are We Human?’ is probably ‘barely’ or perhaps ‘not any more’. (Colomina seemed more content to let the work do the talking.) And yet, words aside, accumulatively the curatorial strategy of the biennial does tend towards a kind of studied pessimism. Wigley’s claim that ‘the human is more in the object than the person who made it’ is an interesting one to kick off a debate, but ultimately it denigrates the values that design, like any other human agency, operates within.

Ironically perhaps, this otherwise fascinating and compelling biennial overlooks, in wider society, the very purpose that animates the admirable humanist project of its host foundation.

Istanbul Design Biennial, 22 October to 20 November 2016

 

Words

Tim Abrahams

quotes story

Wigley’s statements in his introduction and the catalogue suggest that if a gun was held to his head, the question that provides the title of the Biennial ‘Are We Human?’ is probably ‘barely’ or perhaps ‘not any more’

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