Istanbul Biennial – a first response
Uit de keuken van de curator

Istanbul Biennial – a first response

15/09/2009

Back from Istanbul, back from holiday. It’s been quite some time since my last entry in our log of thoughts, but after visiting the Istanbul Biennial I feel the urge to write again, an urge that perhaps (or hopefully) mirrors the urge that one feels expressed in this intense biennial.

Without giving an overall review, I would like to reflect here on just one work, which, in its thematic and execution is somehow exemplary of the biennial: Marko Peljhan’s ‘Territory 1995’. The work exists out of an installation in two spaces dealing with 90s conflict in former-Yugoslavia and contains a brutal exposition on the events leading up to the Srebrenica-massacre. The first room is black, the walls are covered with sound-isolation foam, in it are hanging three rows of transparent glass, long rectangular windows prox. 40cm high and several meters long. They are hanging one after the other at eye height and are ingeniously lighted through the frame, which makes white letters that are printed upon the planes light up as though in a radio-room of James Bond-movie. One cannot move between them but only look at them from a distance. The letters or schema’s are obscure documents explaining command-hierarchies and transcripts of notes or letters with no clear discernable content. In the centre of the room a small pedestal is standing on which a type of comic or children’s book is lying. The pedestal is dramatically lighted with one spot. In the room one can sit down on a long black bench, near the entrance, and listened to fragments of radio messages. They are inaudible – or at least, to me. The darkness of the room reflects the darkness of the messages and signs to be read.

The second room is white and open on one side. Here research is presented. Maps are hanging on the wall showing movements of troops in the Yugoslav area. On a table one finds grey books containing transcripts of radio conversations and letters sent in the years of the crisis. Finally, on simple bookshelves, several books are placed, dealing with the war in Yugoslavia in a direct or more indirect way. The books can be read or glanced through on a comfortable black sofa. Thoroughly studying the material would take weeks, if not months, or even years, but browsing to the material one is quickly caught by the directness of the documents. Especially the radio transcripts make a deep impact and have an uncomfortable addictive quality; one cannot really stop reading these often banal or cryptic conversations, in which each words silently articulates the word ‘catastrophe’. The ordering of busses becomes the preparation of mass murder. Questioning if ‘they are of military age’, is cut of with a harsh tone: the reference is too direct, the enemy may be listening (was listening, since we are reading these words now). One is fascinated and appalled; the documents in their straight-forward matter-of-fact-ness have a nauseating affect. The black sofa becomes a black hole in which one slowly disappears. Where was I? What was I doing?

How can these simple, everyday words, be signs or even the origin of tragedy, of grief beyond imagination? There are no answers in those documents. And, when looking around, one realizes that the only and perhaps unsatisfying answers can be found on the shelves and the history books written about the disaster. The whiteness of the room is a whiteness in disguise: there is no clarity here; perhaps it’s nowhere.

When reading through these books, I encountered Remco, also visiting this venue and we started talking about this work, which had blown us both away. In a somewhat tentative manner we tried to find out what it was that made this work so troubling, so strong. Partly it was the personal involvement of Peljhan in the whole event. He was a radio engineer at the time of the conflict and was picking up these ephemeral signs floating through the air in Slovakia; signs, statements, that horrified and obsessed him. However, there was also something more personal about both Remco and my own deep reaction to this work, which seemed to say something more about us, since we are both of the same age, same generation: end twenties. What struck us was our inability to experience oneself as a historical subject, the incapacity to feel involved in history. Where the generation of our parents had been so overtly political, there is certain disengagement that determines our own experience of history, even if I don’t believe we are not interested. It is as though a thrust is driven between our inner world and the world at large and our voice is unable to bridge the gab, to ‘touch’, as it were, history. We are a generation of observers, onlookers on a tragic drama, which we realize is taking place, but which seems fully unaffected by any action we might take. We feel somehow like Benjamin, writing in 1940 when the shadows were closing in, on Paul Klee’s, Anglus Novus, the angle of history, who was looking at the past in which the rubble was piling up, being unable to stay, and make whole what was broken, for a storm was blowing from paradise.

Sitting in the lobby in our hotel in Istanbul we were watching on CNN how a suburb of Istanbul was being flushed away; 30 people died while we were drinking cocktails and moved with perhaps the most well-dressed community walking the planet. It was surreal. We got text-messages asking us if we were still alive, while sitting on a terrace in the sun. It feels like an uncanny parallel to Peljhan’s work. However, one thing felt different, for it seemed that dimly I felt the storm coming over us to be a historical storm, which asks, no demands, a response. I feel that somehow we need to try and touch history.