Universes in Universe / Caravan / 8th Istanbul Biennial
8th Istanbul Biennial, 20 September - 16 November 2003
Press information by the organizer, November 2002
The artistic framework of the 8th Istanbul Biennial will be formed around the concept of Poetic Justice. In proposing this phrase as the basis for a sustained investigation into the latest developments in contemporary art, the exhibition seeks to articulate an area of creative activity in which the seemingly opposing concepts of poetry and justice are brought into play together. In doing so, the exhibition reveals part of its underlying premise as an attempt to reconsider the wide stylistic breach between two different forms of art-making: one which takes as its subject the world and its affairs, a second one that address concerns which are more identified with the viewer’s inner life. Although such distinctions always run the risk of being turned into overstatements before they are even given a full consideration, until recently it was difficult to encounter artworks that attempted to bridge those two poles. In recent years, however, as a creeping awareness of the powers and limitations of the digitally interwoven global village has crept in at every strata of society, many artists have begun seeking modes of expression that engage multiple viewpoints simultaneously. Bringing together ideas that bridge a broad array of disciplines, these artists, who are all very different from each other in terms of media and stylistic attitudes, share a desire to ground their carefully articulated viewpoints about the outside world in a philosophical system that regards poetry as the pinnacle of human thought.
What is justice? Why has justice emerged today as a question of pressing concern? Is justice possible in today’s globalized world? One way of connecting these questions is through observing that a cornerstone to the collective belief in a global system of values is the paradoxical idea that if there are many systems of justice in the world, then none can be absolute. This dilemma, which appears to be in open conflict with the origins of modern justice as established by Greco-Roman law - wherein justice provides for an absolute basis for deciding right and wrong -- suggests one of the most compelling aspects of the presently unsettled state of global affairs. Simply put, notions of right and wrong, degrees of difference between the two, and the appropriate societal response to infractions that invariably occur once these differences are agreed upon, are bound to vary widely from place to place. Even within a single society or cultural group, conflict may arise over the failure of one legal code to take into account the jurisdiction of a parallel legal code (states vs. countries, religious vs. secular law). When conflicts arise over actual cases, such differences, while evident in other quarters of public life, tend to become exaggerated: what one society condemns, another celebrates. Even in cases where agreement has been reached that a crime was committed, some means of attaining justice (i.e., the death penalty) may strike certain observers as even more barbaric than the crime that it redresses.
At first glance it might appear that awareness and sensitivity toward particular systems of justice might increase as a result of the phenomenon of globalization in marketing and telecommunications, but the reality is more complicated. By definition, globalization is a mono-cultural phenomenon, one that distributes the same set of products worldwide by way of culturally tailored programs of promotion and distribution. By contrast, efforts to establish international codes of justice are rooted primarily in local standards for civil and criminal law, so that a crime against humanity cannot be said to have taken place unless there is local outcry against it. Whereas in political crises the key message sent when international codes of justice are applied is that no individual or group can operate outside the law, the parallel development of international systems of activism has sent the equally strong message that global problems can no longer be contained within one nation’s boundaries. The influence of this line of thought is especially pronounced in such spheres as ecology, population growth, women’s issues, the rights of immigrants, prisoners and refugees, the global impact of AIDS, and in areas of creative expression such as art, literature and music. In the first examples, the real and perceived failures of existing national and international bodies of knowledge to adequately address these concerns has led to the formation of activist and advocacy groups, whose distinguishing characteristic is that they function primarily outside the established parameters of their individual members’ countries. Amnesty International, World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace are three of the best-known examples of citizens’ advocacy groups whose successes has been as a result of promoting strong international ties that enable them to respond to a given emergency, regardless of whether it exists in Sri Lanka or the U.S. In some cases, these groups operate in conjunction with other, more established, institutions, so that rampant deforestation or abuse of prisoners of conscience, among other crimes, can be addressed by international courts of law once the problem is given adequate public exposure.
The title Poetic Justice takes its cue from the literary device of the same name, wherein the fate that befalls a character or group bears a markedly ironic relationship to the previous behavior of that same character or group. To have a murderer in a novel die a homicide victim is not quite poetic justice, because it is too obvious an outgrowth of his previous condition. However, if the murderer dies accidentally by the same weapon he has used to kill others, a form of poetic justice has been served. Not only has the crime been redressed, but the means and context of retribution is communicated as a kind of divine message, a warning about the destructive hubris of mortals that can be understood by those same mortals with perfect clarity. In its present usage, the term Poetic Justice aspires to isolate the two terms anew, then reunite them within a somewhat more charged relation. Having already dissected the notion of justice at some length, we are left with poetry, which might be provisionally defined here as the attempt to infuse language with a sense of the divine. Through poetry, a writer sets out to forge relationships between words that extend much further than the established conventions of description, narrative or command, and, if possible, to capture the essence of the time and place that has produced it. But poetry does not stop there, but ultimately aspires to conjure the full range of human knowledge and experience, physics and metaphysics, past and future, through words alone. The audience for poetry, recognizing this aspiration, hears in a poem a familiar language made unfamiliar, as words that are usually uttered, heard and quickly forgotten are instead crafted with the desire to make them linger in the memory as long as possible. This desire to merge the everyday with the everlasting underscores poetry’s close proximity to the field of visual art, which attempts the same outcome through the use of materials and images grounded in quotidian experience, deployed to achieve a state of long-term cultural resonance.
The most compelling motivation for linking poetry and justice comes in response to the devaluation of the spiritual in all its potential manifestations, which has become such a striking hallmark of contemporary Western society that the art of our time has responded by insisting that the realms of materiality and consciousness are not only equally vital, but, in the final analysis, inseparable. We have become too willing, it seems, to accept that what is real consists exclusively of what can be demonstrated as tangible, leaving untouched and unacknowledged any mode of experience rooted in a recognition of the individual’s inner life processes. In contemporary art, the hegemony of the material universe is even reflected in the drift towards art as an exclusively social and political vehicle, wherein the role of the artist is to call attention to a set of circumstances in the material world that had previously been overlooked or misunderstood. Whereas this mode of thought and experience has unquestionably produced some of the most compelling artworks of the last decades, it has also tended to exaggerate the primacy of the tangible and visible over the felt and imagined. As a result, an overall flatness of affect seems to persist in contemporary art production, in which a materialist instrumentalism dominates even the most well-meaning efforts to shift or augment positions of cultural authority. At the same time, a struggle is starting to take place in contemporary art concerning the ideal means of addressing the lack of connection that most people feel towards contemporary art. One of the most significant factors in this struggle over art’s most significant cultural meanings has been the consistent failure of artists, curators and critics to characterize contemporary life as a constant dialogue between the individual’s consciousness and the outer world of things, actions and their consequences. One of the most important objectives of the 8th Istanbul Biennial will be to create a lively and engaging public forum for responding to the ideas of artists whose work embodies a form of commitment to the goal of making art a vehicle for reconciling these two facets of life.
One of the more relevant questions that might be asked at this stage of the curatorial process is, ‘What meaning can be found in the effort to reconcile the truth-values of art and poetry with those of the geopolitical sphere?’ It was argued above that the fairly recent emergence of international organizations dedicated to forging bonds between groups of activists and/or victims represents a growing recognition that nation-based identities present severe limits to the kinds of cooperation needed to address the world’s problems in a constructive and meaningful way. By way of comparison, biennials and other globally-oriented exhibitions create an environment in which the viewer experiences a temporary but nonetheless palpable representation of the entire world under a single roof or series of roofs. Moving from one set of culturally determined representations to another, so that in the end one has circumnavigated an entire planet’s worth of difference, enables the imagination to navigate outside the realm of what one’s own culture has determined to be beautiful, meaningful and good. It could be argued that such representations are so particularized as to have little bearing on how the individual’s viewpoint about the nature of the world is constructed, but since the system of global exhibitions is still a relatively new one, it is still too soon to say what kind of lasting effect such undertakings will have. What we do know about the world today is that the ability to negotiate cultural differences will increase, not diminish, in the years ahead, so that the task of forging bonds of mutual understanding will eventually fall to some specific group of (hopefully) enlightened individuals. For the time being, however, the evolution of human consciousness is still very much at a crossroads, and the artist, who has historically been among the first to explore and establish new limits of thought and experience for the rest of society, may well be our best hope for envisioning a world that is, both literally and metaphorically, the same place for everyone who lives upon it. This act of imagination is, perhaps, the final distillation, even the end result, of poetry.
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