It seems strange to visit a biennial and write about windows. But I find myself drawn to these transparent frames as some kind of metaphor for Nicholas Bourriaud’s concept of the Seventh Continent – the theme of the 16th Istanbul Biennial and an idea that fundamentally questions the juncture of culture and nature. As such, their permeability and position between sides seem to allude to the Anthropocene that Bourriaud writes about – a new geological era where the boundaries between humans and the environment collapse, leaving the subject and the object indistinct.
Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum (previously known as Antrepo 5) is the third of three venues for the 16th Biennale. It was included at the last minute as the previous location, the Istanbul Shipyard, remained unfinished and tainted by asbestos. The shipyard’s toxicity seems almost serendipitous and part of Bourriaud’s commentary on humanity as a force of nature. The new venue was seemingly chosen to mimic the aura of the shipyard as, it too, is a feature in the Istanbul Port and mixes ideas of the ocean, of completion, uncertainty, concrete and glass.
The original structure of the Painting and Sculpture Museum was a warehouse used as part of the customs port in Karaköy. The area has been heavily restricted since its construction in the 1960s due to bureaucratic activity and political tensions. Its rezoning and redesign began in 2011 by a high-profile Turkish architect group, Emre Arolat Architects. The concept for the reconstruction was to remove the solid walls to create a naked, three-dimensional, structural grid with inserted containers that would function as galleries. The architect interestingly refers to this as a “carcass framework” (Megson, 2016). Reading this, I am taken back to the biennial exhibition of Ozan Atalan’s Monochrome which was in one of these containers and smelt of rotting buffalo bones. His work comments on the displacement of the roaming water buffalo for the construction of the new Istanbul airport, among other developments. These allusions to skeletal remnants seem poetically aligned.
This internal structure of the museum is glazed with transparent window facades on three of the sides of the building. These windows gesture out towards Istanbul’s city and the sea. A stainless-steel mesh lines the back wall of the museum as an interface between a museum and the busy city (Megson, 2016). Looking out, one can see the ongoing development of Istanbul’s waterfront and a concrete wall willing water to stay at bay. Cranes swivel and workers recline from a day of digging. It seems like an archaeological site. And so, these scenes become part of the exhibitions. Large frames, diptychs and triptychs. The Anthropocene is next door and feels as though it is within each floor of this new, skeletal, building. Seeing the process of construction, machinery and industry contrasted with the biennial’s images of an environment in distress, ground Bourriaud’s concept in the space.
These architectural choices, perhaps labelled as curatorial, mimic other contemporary art spaces such as Istanbul’s newly opened Arter Museum and the new MoMA which visually connects different parts of the museums and their surroundings through window placement – unsettling boundaries of nature, culture, indoors and outdoors. In his book, Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Orbist reflects on the inclusion of windows in a network of white cubes. Here he argues that museums are frames in and of themselves. Furthermore, he theorizes that gradual loss of visual cues and the “outside” in museums has created an uninterrupted whiteness and the “archetypal image of the twentieth century art” (Obrist, 2014: 29). While Obrist states this without direct ponderance on windows, he notes a contemporary need to look at a museum as a medium and question where the museum ends and where the outside world begins. And so, I am brought to Pierre Bonnard’s statement that “the best things in museums are the windows” (Fletcher, 2013). While this sentiment suggests the reflective nature of windows. Beyond their materiality, museum windows and their unmediated scenes of society present immediate sites of meditation. Between galleries and gift shops, windows are a pause offering distance and examples too uncanny to be curated.
Fletcher, H. 2013. The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows. Available online: https://www.exploratorium.edu/arts/works/the-windows[2019, September 28].
Megson, K.2016. Emre Arolat's Istanbul art museum will sit inside a stark concrete frame. Available online: https://www.cladglobal.com/CLADnews/architecture-design/Emre-Arolats-Istanbul-art-museum-will-sit-inside-a-stark-concrete-frame/320490?source=grid) [2019, September 28].
List of Images:
Sana Ginwalla. 2019. A view of the Anthropocene under construction at Antrepo 5 , Istanbul [digital photograph].