An inquiry into the theme of the 16th Istanbul Biennial: The Seventh Continent

9 Oct 2019 - 13:45

An inquiry into the theme of the 16th Istanbul Biennial: The Seventh Continent

By Aaliyah Ahmed


On Saturday, the 21st September 2019, the Honours in Curatorship class made our way to the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum, where we got to see the main gallery of the Istanbul Biennial. The theme of the 16th Istanbul Biennial, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, is The Seventh Continent. The idea for The Seventh Continent stemmed from the fact that there is enough waste to fill up, or create, a seventh continent in the Pacific Ocean. This theme was a response to the new geological era we are living in which is shaped by human activity. Through selected works Bourriaud aims to create awareness around our lifestyle and calls upon government and non-government actors, and the public, to change the way we conduct our lives and lifestyle choices (Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture and Yapi Kredi Publications, 2019:16-19). He does this by making reference to the Anthropocene — the geological age in which human activity has had the most impact on the environment and climate change. It is evident that it is not enough for academics, scientists, artists, and business people to work in silos, instead the biennial indicates that it is our duty to invite everyone to the table to discuss the current situation we find ourselves in and encourage people to come up with solutions that could contribute towards addressing this global crisis. 

Fifty-six artists were invited to participate in this biennial and out of the fifty-six, thirty-six artists created new work. This is indicative of the fact that artists had to have diversified their practice to address current and future problems identified by Bourriaud. Some artists were aware of their own carbon footprint and addressed this in their artwork. They were also aware of the art world’s carbon footprint at biennials, festivals and triennials (Harris, 2019). Alongside the exhibitions, panel discussions and talks were facilitated in which anthropologists, artists and scientists were able to engage with the public regarding the ongoing debates around The Seventh Continent. After being in the exhibition space for only a few minutes, it was evident that there had been discussions around building an equal relationship between the human and non-human, whether that be through artificial intelligence, or the machines used in the process of waste elimination. 

After spending a few hours at this venue, our class conducted a discussion. We started speaking about our favourite artworks which then moved the talk towards a debate around whether biennials are an effective way in which to discuss climate change and other environmental issues. One question that was raised in this discussion was whether or not the biennial was effective in making sure the organisers, artists and public were conscious enough to reduce their waste as they travelled all the way to Istanbul to view something that critiqued human activity? This question was posed to the curator, Nicolas Bourriard, by members of the media, to which he responded, “ the real issue is mass tourism, it’s not the people who come to biennials. Let’s not assume the role of the guilty ones. The real fight is [against] mass tourism. If we stopped all of these exhibitions, it would be like a drop in the ocean,” (Harris, 2019). Although this may be true, it would have been interesting to see, or be aware of, how the biennial could have used other methods that were more eco-friendly. This being said, the biennial did reduce their paper usage by making the visitors download a QR code, which was scanned at the entrance of every biennial venue. This was an effective alternative to printing tickets for every venue or event. While the merchandise that was on sale as part of the biennial, such as tote bags and t-shirts, was all made from recycled fabric. The biennial was effective in addressing the Anthropocene, the environment, capitalism and archaeology. Although heavy action might not be the end result, the biennial does evoke thought provoking questions, which seemed both frightening and enlightening.  

Many viewers, journalists, curators, artists and critics were pleased with how Biourrand used the biennial to address such pressing issues such as climate change and the anthropocene. He brought the art world to the worldwide discussion. However, some were sceptical about the chosen theme of The Seventh Continent, they questioned whether it was only chosen as it would be less likely to cause too much trouble politically (Spence, 2019). Many saw this as a “neutral topic” in Turkey since the Turkish government have clamped down on expressionists. The reaction to the Gezi Park Protests could be seen as the starting point of this clamp down. In 2013, a group protested the development of an urban park, and resisted the “authoritarian” style of the president, the then Prime Minister, Erdogan and his government regime (Hahn, 2018).  Adding to this was the failed military coup of 2016, which was against state institutions under the rule of Erdogan. These events led to governmental restrictions on free speech and, as a result, the art scene in Turkey has been struggling (Marshall, 2019). It was during this period that many visual artists were incarcerated or exiled because of their political views which many of them depicted in their artworks. Louisa Buck, an art critic, stated that the biennial theme was “problematic” since it was “conveniently distant from human rights, freedom of speech" and all the violations to these, that are actually taking place in Turkey at the moment (Marshall, 2019). Nevertheless, The Seventh Continent is an important and urgent theme that needs to be addressed and it was refreshing to view something that was not centred around identity politics or imaginary notions of “us” and “them”. I thought that Istanbul was a perfect destination to have a biennial with this theme, as Istanbul has been, and continues to be, the place where the world meets, allowing it to act as a springboard for global discussions as well as, potentially, global change. 


Words by Honours in Curatorship student Aaliyah Ahmed. 

The Honours in Curatorship class of 2019 in front of the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.

Aaliyah's personal QR code, allowing me access into each biennial venue.