Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? – Adolph Hitler, arguing for success of his “final solution”
What do these things have in common?
- A painted hell for rotten politicians
- The Armenian holocaust
- Leon Trotsy’s ramblings
- A theatre for jellyfish?
Nothing really – but they all take a bow at Istanbul’s 14th Art Biennial, Sept. 5 – Nov. 1, 2015.
Situated in a nation philosophically at war with civilization over their national holocaust denial, the Biennial commenced with trumpeting and international attention – but little of that has gone to the art so far.
Opening to the news of yet more war and oppression in Turkey, the massive art exhibit made a surprisingly adroit turn to face the day’s troubles. New treachery and deceit from Turkey included sudden airstrikes against Kurdish militia instead of the coordinated assaults on ISIS they had promised to the U.S.
Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargie, artist Pelin Tan and editor Anton Vidokle responded by calling Biennial artists to “suspend their work for 15 minutes” in support of Turkey’s Kurdish community. Suspending work was symbolic, but few artists followed through, since it required them to shoot themselves in the foot by remaining silent at their own presentations.
Gestures of contempt are balefully common in the West, but now the Turks are their hosts, making things dicey for native artists. Even using the forbidden term “Armenian genocide” can land you in a cell (according to Article 301 of the Turkish penal code). This is a live political grenade where bombs, slaves and absolute terror reign within hours of Istanbul and its sophisticated art shows.
Long before, Christov-Bakargiev had her sights on the Armenian holocaust and considers it timely to speak to the black cloud of collective guilt over Turkey, as well as ethnic cleansing in any place.
“The ghosts are the ghosts of history … [as well as] the very nationalistic attitude towards the Kurds that caused so many deaths also in recent years,” she says. “Turkey has so many wounds that are not healed.”
The year 2015 marks a full century since the “great crime” or what Armenians call “Medz Yeghern.” Associated with 1915, Turks had intermittently scrubbed the nation of Armenians, or specifically Christians, until they ran out at about 1.5 to 2.7 million. This was the swan song act of the Ottoman Empire and pretty much sums it up.
As a “diplomatic act,” 13 artists were asked to create works related to the world’s first prototype for modern genocide. Most of these were Armenian or of Armenian descent. The sponsors, Dilijan Art Initiative, accomplished this on a roll of critical acclaim. Their Armenian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale won the “Golden Lion award for best national participation” earlier in 2015.
Fourteen paintings by famed modernist painter Paul Guiragossian grace the exhibit. Born to parents of the Armenian diaspora, his work often relates to wandering and force displacement. His paintings are almost all columnar, appearing as tightly packed humanity, claustrophobic and with little movement.
Works by the tormented Ashile Gorky are among Armenian survivors of the last century who immigrated to America. Gorky’s mother died of starvation in the artist’s arms during a forced march, and the rest of his short life wasn’t much cheerier.
At a Greek school, Haig Aivazian performs a song by Armenian-Turkish oud master Udi Hrant Kenkulian, a survivor of the genocide. Perhaps the venue isn’t significant, but Greeks fared little better than Armenians, with about 1.5 million Greeks either murdered or forced out of the Ottoman Empire until 1923. Their genocide wasn’t racially based, it was religious. Their target was all Christianity.
Iraqi-American Jewish artist Michael Rakowitz added an impressive installation of plaster-cast of architectural details. Originals were created by Armenian craftsmen throughout Istanbul, something they excelled at. Many important buildings still bear their marks in Turkey’s largest city.
Focus from the art organizers was on Syrian refugees, murdered Kurdish civilians and at least implied the love/faux-hate relationship Turks seem to have with ISIS and other Islamic terror groups. Muslim imperialism that sent genocide and pillage across Armenia in 1915 are the parents of ISIS (although it is terribly politically incorrect to actually admit such a thing).
Turkey’s unacknowledged acts of anti-Christian hate have been like a huge rotted corpse they’ve been unable to bury by a million denials. “Armenian holocaust? What holocaust? Anyway there is no such thing as ‘Armenian’.”
Sources claim that Turks now open the border to ISIS and fund, train, trade and arm them. Considering this, ISIS representatives may be brokering deals with Turks, staying in the same hotels or treated in Istanbul’s hospitals within meters of the Biennial’s art exhibits.
Christov-Bakargiev and other organizers displayed no fear over the loaded issues they cover (in the midst of the place of their conception in some cases). She claimed that they were never censored to this point. The Biennial is privately financed and supported with no sponsorship by the Turkish government.
Other Armenian-related pieces sprinkle Istanbul. Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs offered a black and white film, “Silence of Ani,” with children from Eastern Anatolia using bird whistles to create songs. Filmed in the ruins of a ghost town near the Armenian border, emptiness and desolation symbolize the annihilated regions that Turkey seized or destroyed.
Actual title and vague theme of the exhibit is “Saltwater: a Theory of Thought Forms.” Sea water features in a few works and is referred to in artist’s statements as well as becoming part of the medium of some pieces. Thought forms? Conveniently, that could be slapped onto anything, even a genocide that began about 1894 or earlier.
If there must be so much politicizing of art, at least it is finally relevant. Artists and some exhibits at the Biennial support actual victims and observe a major crisis in real time. Most contemporary “political art” is only an excuse to further personal grandiosity or to beat a dead horse saddled with Marxist-Leftist trivia.
Curator Christov-Bakargiev speaks confidently about the power of art to “shape souls” and affect politics. “Whether the action will have any effect on the Machiavellian deals being done behind closed doors, I’m not sure,” she admitted to the press there.
Byzantine in more than one sense, the Biennial hosts at least 100 participants including artists, writers and even neuroscientists, with almost as many venues. It is intentionally difficult, and in some cases impossible, for viewers to see the entire thing, a fact Christov-Bakargiev acknowledges but thinks is not too important. Works are situated in a steam bath, a house where Leon Trotsky once lived and under the Marmara Sea, as well as traditional galleries. They straddle both the European and Asian coasts of the Bosphorus.
Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles offered his drolly-titled painting, “Project hole to throw dishonest politicians in” – which could be a light jab at Turkey’s often grandiose and brutal leaders. Christov-Bakargiev claims one of Meireles’ works is the conceptual platform for the entire Biennial Exhibition, and this is his sole contribution, so …
Although most of the world shares her concerns, it isn’t likely have much effect other than encouraging some Turkish dissidents and the Kurds (who are mentioned often). Amy Shaw for the Art Newspaper summed this up well. “The painting (by Meireles ) is a tongue-in-cheek solution, a metaphor for how to deal with corrupt statesmen, but ultimately the work – and the biennial as a whole – is futile in the face of so much suffering.”
Perhaps the tone of the Biennial and the “Project Hole” painting is best illuminated by remarks of the world’s politicians. Continuing policy of all U.S. presidents except Reagan, the words “Turkey” and genocide” never passed their lips in one sentence. (Reagan issued a written statement acknowledging the genocide.)
Obama promised to deal with this while campaigning, yet it is no shock he steadfastly refuses. Even after this pledge to the world: “I will recognize the Armenian genocide. … America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president.”
Well, he forgot, consistent with a policy of never offending Muslims. This covers both Boko Haram and marauding, genocidal Turks a century ago. To be fair, America’s Congress hasn’t officially acknowledged the Armenian holocaust either, for purely political reasons.
On the April 24, 2015 centenary anniversary of the Armenian holocaust, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent statements trivializing the genocide as equal to suffering “of every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire.” This includes thousands who were actively slaughtering Christians – and it may have been quite tiring, chasing millions across deserts into oblivion. In spite of this, Erdogan “sincerely shared their pain.”
Would it be wrong to hope Erdogan and those denying holocausts and creating new ones may indeed “share their pain” at some near point?
But I had better place a little disclaimer here for their sake: The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency or person related to the 14th Istanbul Biennial.