Despite the qualms brought on by an e-mail query—"How many biennials are you going to this September?"—the decision to trek to Istanbul was a fairly easy one. With smart curators Charles Esche and Vasif Kortun in charge of the seven venues (thankfully all within walking distance of one another), a bearable number of participating artists (sixty), and a context-specific theme ("Istanbul"), my anticipation ran high. Pair that with the thrill of spending some time in one of the world's most fascinating cities and the decision was even easier for quite a large number of international art-world travelers. Throw in artist Pierre Bismuth's wedding reception, and, well, you have a party. Some of the most active jet-set collectors (Francesca von Habsburg, for instance) and a huge group of devoted professionals (curators Okwui Enwezor, Pier Luigi Tazzi, and Jens Hoffmann) predictably flew in, but younger visitors, many in Istanbul for the first time, mobbed the private views and parties.
Jaded biennial veterans were astonished to find a well organized and logistically smooth opening. There were only a few bumps in the road—some literal, like the nearby demolition project bedeviling the installation of Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya's nine-meter-tall golden replica of Michelangelo's David, or those felt by VIPs like Documenta XII curator Roger M. Buergel, who sat on the floor of a packed shuttle bus to one party. Later on, at the man-made island in the middle of the Bosporus, the reward for enduring the shuttles came in the form of skinny-dipping in a swimming pool with a bunch of the aforementioned younger visitors and at least one of the biennial's assistant curators.
The general consensus is that this is a very good exhibition. One visitor ventured a comparison that wouldn't sound out of place in Wine Spectator: "The best biennial since Sao Paolo ‘98." There were, of course, exceptions to the rule, like another biennial-circuit curator who was overheard several times stating sourly that he "didn't see anything of interest at this over-controlled show."
To me, though, this exhibition was well thought-out and refreshing, a quality that was especially evident after the opening of "Center of Gravity," the first international group show at the new Istanbul Modern Museum, curated by director Rosa Martinez. The show, which was independent of the biennial, boasted typical pieces by big-name artists, but, curiously, the presentation reminded one more of an art fair than a museum. (The inclusion of an old Monica Bonvicini piece was a surprise—not least to the artist herself, who was rumored to have not been informed about, or commissioned to do, the re-creation.)
The highlights of "Istanbul" itself include Nedko Solakov's intervention, titled Art & Life (in my part of the world), which is located in the rundown Deniz Palace Apartments. His humorous comments, written in black next to various marks, nails, or holes in the walls, featured a pitch-perfect blend of humor and pathos. In the same building was a "museum" dedicated to a fictional mistress of Kemal Atatürk by Michael Blum, and Phil Collins's karaoke video featuring Turkish fans doing heartfelt renditions of Smiths songs. The concept leapt off the screen at one of the official parties when Esche could be seen strutting his stuff on the stage in full Morrissey mode, to the delight of the assembled crowd.