16th Istanbul Biennial - The Seventh Continent


The Istanbul Biennial, launched in 1987 by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, has become a fixture on the international contemporary art map and gained a reputation for its experimental and unique character. The Biennial formed a platform of interaction involving the Biennial itself, the contemporary art scene in Istanbul, and the international art community. The Biennial has served as a dynamic plane of interaction, a meeting point, and a critical site for the development of new aesthetic and political visions. In a period of increasingly rapid communication and sharing of experiences, the Biennial has become the main hub in Istanbul for the introduction, debate, and assessment of current paradigms in both the theory and practice of local, international, and transnational contemporary art.

The Biennials have functioned as the trigger for transformational changes in contemporary art in Istanbul and Turkey. The Biennial has turned the lack of a permanent venue for its two-yearly exhibitions to advantage. The Biennial has made a point of selecting buildings of curatorial significance that make reference to certain social, historical, or urban issues and/or have special meaning in relation to the conceptual framework of the exhibition. Creating awareness for the potentiality of such spaces have led to their integration for diverse purposes of art.

The Biennial’s reputation is based on curatorial freedom, as its concept allows for diverse curatorial discourses and methodologies to be applied within a flexible structure. The Biennial constantly mobilizes its means on behalf of the curator(s) and their discourses. And each Biennial makes a point of igniting essential and often highly charged discussions in public as well as in artistic circles.

The Biennial has had a range of direct influences: it has established new relationships with both art spaces and public spaces, and criticality as an element of local art making has become widespread across the art scene because of the lasting influence of and debate about the Biennial. Such debates often focus on the curatorial concept of each Biennial, and as a result, an interest in curatorship has developed amongst a new generation. The Biennial continues to influence private and/or independent art institutions: whether non-profit art spaces or huge art fairs, the gaze of organizers, directors, and/or managers has frequently turned towards the various public programs, books, and catalogues designed and produced by the Biennial for inspiration.

The Istanbul Biennial believes in the on-going support and development of concepts of ‘critical art’ that merge the political with the aesthetic and engage both the political and social environment.


The title of the 16th Istanbul Biennial sounds like the title of a movie, so strong is the image conjured up by The Seventh Continent. As many people know, this term refers to a gigantic mass of plastic waste that now covers no less than 3.4 million square kilometres of our oceans that is almost five times the area of Turkey. It is a new world, made up of debris. But unlike that other ‘New World’ discovered by Christopher Columbus, it is one that we ourselves have created, without even being aware that we were doing it. And what we have created is exactly what we did not want. A continent composed of everything we have rejected, it is the ultimate symbol of the Anthropocene era1.

Of all those billions of bits of detritus, some are still recognisable objects, while others are broken down into no more than molecules. Living among them are plants and animals, while all around is the water and geology of the ocean. The Seventh Continent is an incredibly mixed and complex environment.

In planning the Biennial, I recognised the parallel between that world and our own world, where accepted norms and cultures have also fragmented, almost down to a cellular level. Things are changing fast. We are in a time when, as part of that fracturing, or perhaps to counter it, countries around the globe are experiencing a surge in nationalism. There are no centres, no monolithic ways of thinking any more, just a kind of archipelago of disparate thoughts.

In Istanbul, a city in which people and ideologies have met and morphed over many centuries, we have invited artists from 25 countries to take on the exploration of our new ‘decentred’ world, our Seventh Continent. They will be its anthropologists, if you like, and the work of every artist exhibiting in the Biennial will refer in some way to this aim.

Now, more than ever, the artist must be recognised as the absolute other, a person who does not depend on what exists or what is accepted, but stands separate. Artists can show us what we have created, unaware. They are tribal representatives who modify and reinvent their cultures, and create new ones.

That reinvention is a key theme of the 16th Istanbul Biennial. At the Pera Museum, for example, artists Norman Daly and Charles Avery have each conjured new, immersive worlds. Piotr Uklański explores a history between Poland and Turkey that is sometimes based in fact and is sometimes entirely fictitious.

But what is most important is that all these artists are creating new thoughts, new fields of research, and new objects to be researched. They are aliens bringing messages. And I would say that the message of the whole Biennial is that now, in this new world, we are all aliens aliens from each other and we had better get used to it, and make from it something vital and viable.

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