A team of curators, sculptors and technicians were busy putting the final touches on a substantial exhibition at the Maksem Cumhuriyet Art Gallery last Tuesday. As I passed through the locked gates of the historic building, I saw the excitement on their faces and knew the reason behind it: In less than a week's time the 3rd International Istanbul Triennial would open its doors to the ceaseless flow of pedestrians on the intersection of Taksim Square and İstiklal Avenue.
"Our triennial focuses on contemporary art, and the world of contemporary art has been heavily dominated by war and waves of immigration in the past three years," curator Hülya Yazıcı told Daily Sabah in an interview. "Our selection of the theme 'no land' developed naturally. The pain caused by war and immigration had been strongly influencing artists who use it as the subject of their works."
In Turkey there are only two established triennials, Yazıcı told me. Apart from their event, there is also a triennial organized by Marmara University. The third edition of the triennial will focus "on the tragedy of those expelled from their homeland by forced migrations and exiles," according to the exhibition program.
"In various parts of the world, especially in neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to live far away from their homeland because of the invasions, coups, ethnic conflicts, authoritarian regimes and human rights violations. People who are exposed to this marginalization have been left rootless on the land that has given them their identity, their sense of belonging has been damaged and in this way their identity has become fragmented and de-territorialized. Eventually one day, the home country that is expected to be a place to return will vanish and evolve into an object that is gone, and therefore, deprivation and the tragedy of refugees will be deepened."
Yazıcı says she wanted to work together with artists who had experienced first hand the notion of "no land." "We tried to reach Syrians and immigrants all over the world," she said, adding: "We had an open call. We also got into touch with artists we already had contact with. We did not only work with Syrians. We have an artist from Kirkuk. One of our artists lives in Poland. Another, who comes from Slovenia, has not experienced war first hand, but wanted to produce a work on children deaths."
There are Turkish artists, too. "They have been watching anxiously the war in a neighboring country, one that carries the danger of spilling inside Turkey's borders," Yazıcı said. "In fact, it has already spilled inside. We are experiencing war here first hand."
Yazıcı has worked with immigrant children and painted with them. Another group of immigrant children worked with undergraduate students from different universities, aiming to heal their wounds. "They came to the triennial at the last minute. I feel honored to be able to show their work alongside professional artists here," Yazıcı said.
"In Reza Hemmatirad's work we see bombs hanging from the ceiling. The artist experienced the atmosphere of war in Iran many years ago. A fighter jet, bombing people from above. ... well, we have experienced something similar in Turkey recently. We know what kind of feelings this leaves people with. The feeling of not being able to sleep in one's bed in peace and security, this is a very important thing. The feeling of living under threat is horrific."
"July 15 was an attempt to start a civil war in Turkey, and it failed," Yazıcı said. "Had the plotters succeed, we could have found ourselves in a civil war. Such a war would bring with it an invasion. I wanted to bring attention to all of these things."
Yazıcı described how the event brings together artists with very different worldviews and sensibilities. "All of these people are working together and even that alone, I think, should say something to society. Our faiths, preferences ... these are not used to otherize one other at all. I hope this spirit of unity and diversity spreads from the Maksem to the city."
Maksem means water depot in Turkish, and this is where the triennial is located this year. "It is a very beautiful building, one that gives Taksim its name," Yazıcı said. "It is the building from where water is 'taksimed.' The water would be kept underground and sent to different places through this building. It is very valuable for Taksim, I believe. It is a very large building -- more than enough for an event like ours. As a location, too, it is ideal: It stands at the intersection of Taksim and İstiklal Avenue. There is a great influx of people. The problem is that not so many people are aware that this building is also an art gallery."
The curatorial team wondered how they could connect the Maksem building with the square and the avenue. Arsen Gushapsha started working on a sculpture for the event. "His theme is migration, and he has created many three dimensional works all over the world," Yazıcı explained. "We are also working with Emrullah Örünklü, a sculpture student from Marmara University. He is also a graffiti artist, and is preparing graffiti on the Maksem wall that proved very popular outside. People are making videos of him working on the graffiti with their smart phones. He is painting a big bottle floating on the sea."
But the curator sounded pessimistic when she returned to the themes of the triennial. "When you look at the 50,000 years of human history, I think we have made little progress in acting in a civil way," she said. "War can move anywhere. Artists are aware of this: They are sensitive creatures. It is not the artist's job to destroy and annihilate. She should instead lead society in a positive way. She should direct the viewer's gaze to new directions, make her empathize more with others."
The lengthy list of artists for this year's event features Bahram Hajou, Hülya Yazıcı, Ahmet Özel, Mustafa Küçüköner, Fadi Yazegi, Figen Batı, Farouk Muhammad, Reza Hemmatirad, Abdulrezzak Al-Salhani, Ibrahim Bremo Mohamad Amin, Khadija Baker, Ezgi Denizaslanı, Nizar Sabour, Yasemin Bol, Rabee Kiwan, Walid El Masri, Kaled Alboushi, Arsen Gushapsha, Ghamid Ibadullayev, Uğur Özen, Ibrahim Al Hassoun, Aleksandra Farazin, Adnan Abd Al-Rahman, Engin Beyaz, Azad Karim, Fatma Yıldız, Zeyn Al Ahmad, Beşik Quartet, Şükrü Karakuş, Cem Mehmet Eren, Fırat Erez, Cem Sancar, Tuğba Renkçi Taştan, Koray Sevindi, Adnan Jetto, Ayşe Taşkent, Emrullah Örünklü, Melike Kadayıfçı, Yusuf Aygeç and Senay Önay Sağıroğlu
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