There was no easy way to get to “The Most Beautiful of All Mothers,” Adrián Villar Rojas’ stunning sculptures along the Marmara Sea. A ferry took me to the island of Büyükada—where no cars are allowed—and my fastest option was a horse-drawn carriage. But even then, to reach the installment featured as part of the Istanbul Biennial, I had to navigate my way around 38,000 square feet of wildflowers, tall grass, and the ruins of Leon Trotsky’s old mansion.
A long, steep, downhill walk through backyard wilderness separates Trotsky’s old home and the new installation, but as the backyard (and my shoes) gave way to entropy, something truly extraordinary emerged at the base. Stunning white sculptures of animals walked on water to greet me. And after traipsing further and further away from all that was manmade and abandoned, I finally reached a serene and expansive final destination: the sea.
“The Most Beautiful of Mothers” would have been majestic in an art gallery, but the sculpted menagerie wouldn’t look as determined to reclaim the land had they not been staring at forgotten modern spaces. Letting the location become part of the art was just one of many achievements in this year’s Istanbul Biennial—which lasts until November 1. Called “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms,” the 14th annual event is a celebration of modern art that breaks away from the standard museum and makes use of boats, garages, abandoned schools, and other offbeat corners for art installations throughout the city.
Since 1987, the Istanbul Biennial has showcased international artwork that speaks to the history, culture, and identity of the city that hosts it. While other international biennials (such as the ongoing exhibits in Venice) are known for their opulence, the Istanbul event has always offered a cerebral, political lens on the art world, which makes these unique venues all the more noteworthy. You might watch a film on the Crusades in a 15th century hammam. Or navigate through the darkness in an abandoned school. From the forgotten stomping grounds of sultans to the hideouts of exiled authors, each location makes a statement as loud as the artwork it houses.
This year, over 80 artists traveled to Turkey to research the location of their art installments, resulting in nearly 1,500 pieces of work scattered along the Bosphorus. Using the theme “saltwater” to capture the fluidity and even volatility of the changing eras, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev celebrates the material that not only constitutes the majority of our bodies but also connects the map of Istanbul. Christov-Bakargiev explained her unusual location choices by saying that she wanted to “map the city with the art that was already there.”
You’ll have plenty of time to consider saltwater as you take ferries back and forth between Europe and Asia, from Marmara Sea all the way north to the Black Sea, in this sprawling set of exhibits. In a city whose long history is woven with multiple identities and eras, ancient venues work in tandem with modern art.
The Biennial recommends that you spend at least three days in Istanbul to experience the entire showcase, but if you intend to walk around each neighborhood and island (which you should!) give yourself an extra day. This is the first year that Istanbul Biennial is free and open to the public. While museums such as Istanbul Modern and Museum of Innocence are modern landmarks for Istanbul’s contemporary art, and have added new collections specifically for the Biennial, be sure to see these five offbeat and unique venues while you can.
1. The Cistern beneath the Adahan Hotel
There just aren’t enough hotels that sit atop a centuries-old cistern. This particular ancient reservoir becomes a movie theater during the Biennial, showing Pelin Tan and Anton Vidokle’s film “2084: a science fiction show.” The venue works in perfect harmony with the movie, letting the past present a possible future.
After viewing the film, head upstairs to the Adahan hotel, which used to be one of the earliest and largest banks in the Ottoman Empire in 1815. Tell the concierge you’d like to check into room 104B, and they’ll lead you to Meriç Algün Ringborg’s installation “Have you ever seen a fig tree blossom?” that pays homage to the fruit that once flourished on the very soil where Adahan now stands. The hotel room is lined with fig leaves and fun facts: did you know that Queen Victoria had a fig leaf made to hide the genitals of Michelangelo’s David to protect her bashful eyes? The fig’s symbolic links to fertility and shame sprawl decadently across a hotel room—the perfect space to explore such forbidden fruit.
Asmali Mescit Mah. General Yazgan Sok. No: 14 Beyoğlu
2. Galata Greek Primary School
The Galata Greek Primary School was built between 1885 and 1909 in a Neo-classical architectural style for the education of Greek children in Istanbul, and is another venue that reminds visitors of the cultural “waves” that have transformed Istanbul over the last century. Due to the decrease of the Greek population in the city, especially from the 1960’s onwards, the school closed in 1988, reopened, and then closed again in 2007.
Inside, Anna Boghiguian has created a shipwreck inside of the empty school. “The Salt Traders” is her stunning portrayal of a boat carrying salt in ancient times reappearing in a future post-digital world. With civil war raging just outside of Turkey’s borders, and the Mediterranean flooding with refugees, this installation becomes even more harrowing. Boghiguian’s use of watercolor and collisions of salt and sand have created haunting re-minders of the political tumult at sea, both past and present.
Upstairs, you’ll also find Hera Büyüktasçyan’s “From the Island of the Day Before,” an explicit reminder of the absence of past Istanbul communities. Using 668 notebooks to represent the now-missing Greek students, Büyüktasçyan build a topography of radical counter-education. After seeing her installation, grab a flashlight and walk into a classroom-turned-salt mine, where Mumbai-based artist Prabhakar Pachpute has sculpted miners crouched and listening to the earth. “What We Have Left is the Blue Water” includes a pitch-black mining cave adorned with wall drawings and painted sculptures.
Hacimimi Mah. Kemeralti Cad. No: 49 Beyoğlu
3. Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam
After wandering Beyoğlu, take bus number 55T from Taksim Square and get off at the Ayakapi stop. From there, you can walk to Balat, or the Old City, known for its vibrant winding streets lined with colorful houses.
These hot-pink alleyways will take you to the Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam, one of the oldest buildings of the Islamic period in Istanbul. The dark, damp, vaulted ceilings were constructed during the reign of Fatih Sultan Mehmet in 1477, just 24 years after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, and create the perfect environment for Wael Shawky’s film, “Cabaret Crusades, The Secrets of Karbala.” Using marionettes, the Alexandria-based artist recreates medieval Christian history in a neighborhood that had seen it firsthand.
Yavuz Sultan Selim Mah. Müstantik Cad. No: 23-35 Fatih
4. Kaptan Paşa Sea Bus
From Kadiköy, you can take the City Line (Şehir Haltan) ferries a little over an hour away, to Adalar, or the Princes’ Islands. There are no cars allowed on the island of Büyükada, only a peaceful thoroughfare of bicycles and horse-drawn carriages.
Your first stop when you arrive in Büyükada should be the Kaptan Paşa Sea Bus, which is docked just 150 meters away from the public ferries. Hop on board this hydrofoil and admire Pinar Yoldas’ “Saltwater Heart,” a web of water pumps, air compressors, and tubes that keep the flow on ship going, reminding us of our own salty inner workings. Inside the boat, you also have the opportunity to experience hypnosis sessions with Marcos Lutyens, as part of his multi-sensory “Neurathian Boatstrap.”
Büyükada IDO Iskelesi Büyükada
5. Trotsky House
Bring your hiking shoes for this installation. The abandoned and dilapidated Yanaros Mansion, along with its gardens and pier, were built in the 1850s by Nikola Demandes on the Western side of Büyükada. Walking through the wildflowers and unkempt terrain, you’ll eventually reach the home where Leon Trotsky lived between 1932 and 1933, at the end of his four-year exile on the island. Pass the ruins and head down towards the water, and you’ll find Adriàn Villar Rojas’ site-specific installation “The Most Beautiful of All Mothers.” The Rosario-based artist uses organic and inorganic materials to create a garden of haunting images off the waterfront of Trotsky’s house. The setting feels lived in, almost reclaimed by Rojas’ animals.
Nizam Mah. Hamlaci Sok. No: 4 Büyükada