CCA and the Biennial: East Meets West in Istanbul

Jens Hoffmann leads CCA Curator's Forum tour of Istanbul Biennial (Kris Martin's work in foreground) (photo: George Jewett)

The Istanbul Biennial is a key event in the international contemporary art scene -- a highly visible, highly respected exhibition that draws more than 100,000 visitors to the city and exposes them to some of the most engaged and relevant art being made today. In its opening week, the 12th Istanbul Biennial (which remains open through November 13) was attended by almost 4,000 guests, including critics, curators, museum and gallery administrators, and approximately 400 members of the press from 50 different countries. Everything they saw (whether they realized it or not) bore the marks of a CCA affiliate's hand -- specifically two CCA curators, one CCA graphic designer, and one CCA editor. They also saw the work of one faculty member and three alumni; all three alumni had entire galleries devoted to their work.

CCA President Stephen Beal, chair of the Board of Trustees F. Noel Perry, other trustees, and several members of the CCA Curator's Forum (a dedicated group of Wattis Institute supporters) flew to Istanbul for the opening weekend. Stephen Beal remarked, standing at the biennial entrance, "It is very gratifying to see the college so prominently represented here. It is evidence of the major relevance, at the international level, of what we are doing, and the kinds of experiences and access that CCA makes available to its community."

The Curators

It was almost two years ago that Wattis Institute director Jens Hoffmann accepted the invitation to co-curate the 12th Istanbul Biennial. Beginning with that moment, what began as a single thread of connection between the college and the city of Istanbul expanded into a densely packed web involving multiple individuals.

Biennials, many argue, have become the exhibition format of our time. From the Venice Biennale, which is more than 100 years old, to very "young" ones in cities such as Brussels and Tehran, a biennial can be massive yet agile, representing as perhaps no museum or gallery show can the most recent advents in global art practice and the key players to watch on the world scene. The Istanbul Biennial has, over its 25 years of existence, become increasingly influential. As opposed to the Venice Biennale, which leans heavily on the traditional "national representation" model (the origin of which lies in the 19th century World Exposition), each edition of the Istanbul Biennial has a unique curatorial concept and a different international curator. Many of its past curators have responded to the city itself, or to the world social and political situation.

Hoffmann and his co-curator, Adriano Pedrosa of São Paulo, pushed what have become accepted biennial parameters, in that even though their exhibition includes a total of almost 500 works by 126 artists and collectives, the concept and the actual experience of the show are very tightly focused. They deployed a variety of strategies to create an exhibition that one must experience in person, in a time when most biennials are experienced remotely via artist lists and reviews in magazines. "This edition of the Istanbul Biennial offers a change in the state of exhibition making and the 'biennialization' of the art world," says Hoffmann. "We sought to reassess how politics and aesthetics are articulated in contemporary art and represented in exhibitions. We want visitors to be active readers, not just silent recipients."

Also, as a reaction against the increasing emphasis most art institutions are putting on special events and programming (lectures, performances, and the like) as well as the tendency to spread biennials out over numerous venues in a city, Hoffmann and Pedrosa made a point of situating their biennial in a single location designed specifically for that purpose, and holding no ancillary events. The exhibition architecture was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Ryue Nishizawa (who is coming to CCA this fall to lecture). Nishizawa transformed the venue more dramatically than it ever had been for any previous biennial.

Hoffmann was able to bring onto his team a group of CCA cohorts that he knew to be solid. Among the first was Jana Blankenship (MA Curatorial Practice 2009), who he invited to be his assistant curator. Blankenship was already managing the People's Gallery (a collaborative project between herself, Hoffmann, and the artist Harrell Fletcher) and working as the assistant curator on the fall 2011 CCA Wattis Institute exhibitions. "I said yes immediately, and then one second later wondered how I could possibly do it all," she recalls. The job included maintaining contact with more than a hundred artists and their gallery representatives, selecting artworks to exhibit, and arranging loans and physical transport.

"Frequently because of time-zone and communication lags, I had to rely on my own wits and make decisions to keep things moving. There were just an incredible number of moving parts. I wasn't actually in Istanbul until 10 days before the opening, and knew the exhibition space only through diagrams, so to arrive and encounter it in person was a huge rush. Then the race to install artworks, get the signage up, and accommodate the thousand and one requests by the artists for modifications in the installation! Despite the stress, it was a real honor to be a part of the exhibition, and the results were incredible."

The Design

Graphic Design faculty member (and alumnus) Jon Sueda was tapped about a year in advance of the opening to design the graphic identity for the show, which included all of the publications, signage, and promotional materials. Sueda is the designer for the Wattis Institute exhibitions and publications, and has been an integral part of the Wattis team since he and Hoffmann both came to CCA in 2007. He says: "It was a beautiful venue and we were treated very well, but like Jana says, it came down to the wire at the end. We all stayed up for maybe 72 hours straight (with a few short naps) before the opening, installing, finding new things to design, doing it on the spot, and moving to the next thing. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I secretly love stuff like this, when what I do turns from sitting behind a desk at the computer into something very physical."

Sueda's design idea was a direct response to the curatorial concept, which referenced the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The basic design was a framed color field whose form was taken from one of Gonzalez-Torres's poster stack pieces. It had four variations -- red, blue, silver, and gold -- with the colors also extracted from various Gonzalez-Torres works. The title text was centered and set in the same typeface Gonzalez-Torres used in his text-based pieces. "Every bit of the biennial printed material is trimmed or folds down to the exact same size, so if you stack them all up, they begin to resemble Gonzalez-Torres's stack pieces," explains Sueda.
 "Out of context, the exhibition identity might seem too minimal -- almost a non-identity. But on the streets of Istanbul, the simple color fields of the posters and billboards really call attention to themselves, given their often-frenetic surroundings."

The Books

CCA managing editor Lindsey Westbrook (yours truly) edited all of the English-language materials for the biennial. For me things kicked off a year in advance of the opening, when the first press releases and e-fluxes began to be published, and the continued right up to the night before the media preview. Every one of the published pieces, which include three books (of 276, 432, and 344 pages respectively), brochures, wall texts, billboards, posters, and more, was produced bilingually in Turkish and English. Many of them were originally penned in yet other languages, requiring multiple stages of translation and editing. It was such a pleasure to play a part in such a vast project, and very interesting to learn how to make the 10-hour time difference work for us, not against us!

Featured Alumni and Faculty

Three CCA alumni and one faculty member are among the featured artists in the biennial. Lesbian Beds (2002) by Photography faculty member Tammy Rae Carland, a series of photographs of empty double beds, references Felix Gonzalez-Torres's famous billboard showing a photograph of his own empty bed after his partner died in 1991. Hank Willis Thomas (MFA and MA Visual Criticism 2004) has a solo show and is also featured in one of the group shows. His solo-show work, I Am a Man (2009), is comprised of 20 panels and relates to protest posters made during the Civil Rights era. "It was so exciting to be in Istanbul for the first time," says Willis Thomas, "and to encounter the many CCA alumni, faculty, and board members there. The CCA community is growing globally."

The Oakland-based alumna Zarouhie Abdalian (MFA 2010) presented a new site-specific work specially commissioned for the biennial. She says, "I set out to create a work that embodies the ruptures and veneers of Istanbul's history -- that is, a work that is at once undeniably present and yet obscured. I intended the piece to connect emphatically with the viewer's body and to be experienced immediately on a visceral level." Having Been Held Under the Sway (2011) is beautifully simple and elegant, a minimal gesture full of meaning -- all defining characteristics of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's work as well. Visitors walk into what appears at first to be an empty white cube and slowly perceive the piece. Affixed to the backs of the surrounding drywall, tactile transducers transmit infrasonic test tones, which are below the threshold of human hearing but still felt in the body. The infrasonic waves act on the materials of the room, creating rattling and humming sounds -- a "live" response of the room itself. On the far wall, a plumb bob hangs and registers the structural perturbation of the room; its function as a tool to measure vertical true is compromised. Visitors enter and soon find themselves leaning against the walls, pressing cheeks and hands to its surfaces to feel the vibrations.

The Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia (MFA Design 2003) has seven pieces, from three different series, in the biennial. The title of the series Nonflammable, Non-stick, Non-stain (2009-10), she says, "rhymes a little with its Farsi version, and is screamed by the peddlers selling cheap plastic tablecloths on buses and in the women-only section of the Tehran subway. I was intrigued by the irony of selling the sofreh, or tablecloth, which in Iranian culture symbolizes one's economic status." The National Security Book Series (2006) originated during her time at CCA, which was immediately post-9/11. "I became subjected to new U.S. policies, and made work playing with some of the documents related to the new policies, focusing on one report. I was struck by its language. I noticed that an alphabetized lexicon -- including any redundant entries -- revealed interesting relationships." The artwork, in its final form on display in the biennial, is an alphabetized list of words without the usual syntactical relationships, which, she says, creates "some curious juxtapositions, with unexpected meanings." In her solo show in the biennial, she displays a new work made specifically for the exhibition, Mendings (Tabriz Carpet) (2011).

Read more about the biennial and view many of the artworks at