Titles have a stubborn tendency to stick, which is why the desire to call yourself something different is so interesting. A term that increasingly has entered curatorial jargon is that of ‘exhibition maker’. To ‘make’ rather than curate a show seems to hint at a more embodied relationship with labor, even a sense of craft involving the idiosyncrasies or style of the one who makes. Jens Hoffmann is a self-acclaimed exhibition maker, an approach felt throughout Untitled, the 12th Istanbul Biennial curated in collaboration with Adriano Pedrosa. This is by no means visible in the sense of a DIY look or a dialogue with the largely hidden labor that goes into exhibitions, far from it. But it’s present here in a number of carefully crafted statements about the biennial format itself. There is, in short, an undeniable attention to making.
This engagement started to become apparent already in October last year in the first public manifestation of the biennial, a two-day conference significantly, if not provocatively titled Remembering Istanbul. Bringing together past biennial curators to speak about their approaches, there was a recurring insistence on the radically dislocating potential of art. And yet, despite the urgency of this tradition, there was also a lingering, and uncomfortable sense of the biennial’s own implicated role within many of the structures that were critiqued. It’s in relation to these often unself-conscious paradoxes that Untitled achieves a level of radicality that one otherwise wouldn’t associate with this allover sober and formal looking exhibition.
the process of opening up for other registers of political discourse, Hoffmann and Pedrosa have turned to conceptual artist Felix González-Torres (1957-1996) both as a structuring principle and an aesthetic guide of sorts. González-Torres’ work combines an unapologetic affection for formalism with an urgent social and political discourse. The structure of Untitled comes together as five group displays curated in response to works by González-Torres, including Abstraction, Histories, Passports, Death by Gun and Ross, as well as a number of solo displays linked in more tangential ways to the late artist’s practice. Despite the fact that so many of the pieces have a similar look, leading to a form of equalizing, at times decorative effect, there are still works that push the minimal form into an embodied, and urgent narrative space in powerful ways.
An artist whose remarkable work recurs in several places throughout Untitled is that of Dóra Maurer. Since the late ’70s her work has gravitated towards reversible and variable sequences of movement, unfolding strips of simple actions ordered, numbered, and carefully mapped out. For instance, her Throwing the Plate from Very High (1970) and Dropping Acid to the Plate (1970), as well as her schematic diagrams determining and formalizing the choreographies of simple, repeated acts have a filmic, sequential quality. However, the order created operates on its own erratic logic. It’s not an unfolding sequence of events in real time and as Maurer suggests, “the result of this reversibility and variability is not by any means absurd for it is too real.” It’s a reflection that also hints at the implied failure in her conscientious mapping activities. The effect has a similar quality to Jorge Luis Borges’ story of a map so precise that it ends up covering the whole area it attempted to represent, repeating, translating to the point where its functionality breaks down.
A sense of that which resists categorization can also be found in the work of English artist Simon Evans. His meticulous drawings, crooked maps and dysfunctional diagrams are facts that never really come together, rather, they struggle to become facts in the first place. Evan’s Companion (2010) is a schoolbook-like illustration of a rat, surrounded by a cluster of neat arrows, each attached to a concise definition. Pointing to the rodent’s tail is the note ‘conclusions and some endings’; the end of the rat, that’s where the lesson ends. And yet, despite the humor and lightness of many of these diagrams, there are also darker undertones in this mash up of lewd comments, seemingly banal reflections and political statements.
In many ways this solo-display-approach allows for conversations within one artist’s practice, yet it also opens for more indirect links between neighboring displays, as when Brazilian artists Renata Lucas’ modular and portable floor, provides a physical and conceptual transition to the group display Abstraction. As far as the group displays of Untitled are concerned, Abstraction stands out for its energy and concentration. The show juxtaposes the performative and irreverent minimalism of Lygia Pape with the solid industrial outlines of Charlotte Posenenske’s DW and the more quiet pale abstract photographs of Annette Kelm in ways that feel as effortless as they as they are surprising.
Abstraction gives that much needed space and understanding for the messiness that also underpinned much of González-Torres work; the tension in his practice between an impulse to analyze, and the desire to retain a level of obscurity and mystery, to leave certain things unanalyzed. In many ways it’s in these moments when the works resist full resolution that the exhibition starts doing what it has the potential to do– to open for another register of political discourse, which is potentially subversive, embodied and insidious. Unfortunately, the extent to which these same qualities are absent in a number of the other group displays is disappointing– becoming an absence which invests them with a somewhat farcical air. The works selected in response to González-Torres’ 1990 piece Death by Gun takes the form of a catalogue raisonné of works that in various ways involve guns. Even if works like the Mexican Edgardo Aragón’s 1993, a portrait of his cousin drawn in gunpowder, or Chris Burden’s iconic Shoot (1971) speak of very different moments, concerns and localities, the curatorial framework reduces them to a readily recognizable dialogue with guns and death.
It’s in these moments that you find yourself being at once frustrated with the literalness of the curatorial voice, and at the same time absolutely and almost reluctantly drawn in by the formal command of space, to the curators’ unyielding attention to detail. Their perfectionism, which at times saps the biennial of its energy, also opens for a quiet undercurrent of possibility, hinting at the ways in which a close engagement with the tactile, physical impact of artworks might be put into practice. It’s in this possibility of unpacking the idea of exhibition making, of allowing it to move beyond curatorial jargon, and work as an actual methodology that Untitled receives a level of quiet, but undeniable potentiality.