The Moving Museum Tears Down Tired Institutional Conventions
Its Istanbul show exposes the concerns of an entire generation.
I came back from Istanbul with an usual souvenir. The bespectacled face of self-proclaimed “famous new media artist” Jeremy Bailey keeps cropping up on my screen, staring at me from the ad banner for his You Museum. He haunts me on Art Daily, on Wordreference, on Ebay, his presence as unnerving as the retargeting technology he infiltrates. I’m told that this is only the beginning. Once the You Museum reaches maturity, it will send me bespoke digital exhibitions, tailored to my tastes according to my web searches. The thought is mildly terrifying. What kind of art would come out of my hours trawling the web, looking for stuff I don’t always want to be reminded of? It sounds like a solipsistic hall of mirrors, stuffed with arty versions of my pre-existing desires—the polar opposite of art as invitation to reach beyond the narrow limits of the self.
Yet the point here, of course, isn’t the potential result, but the process. And Bailey’s appropriation of digital marketing strategies so pervasive that they’ve become barely-visible is diabolically efficient. In Istanbul, where the project was initially conceived as part of the Moving Museum’s ambitious one-off residency program, it also takes a particular resonance. Turkish officials are particularly afraid of the web’s power, and attempted clampdowns have triggered several waves of protest. Social media was a key agent in the Gezi Park movement that spread across the country in 2013. Since then, the government of Tayyip Erdogan—who defiantly vowed to “wipe out Twitter” after allegations of corruption flooded the platform ahead of last March’s elections—has been tightening the screws. Bailey’s You Museum is thus as convincing as a piece of commentary on the digital-era “me cult” as it is as a personification of online surveillance.
And perhaps it should have stopped there. In the large show that crowns the Moving Museum’s residency, Bailey has staged a semi corporate-looking booth, with a giant photo of his “famous new media artist” persona posing with an iPad in the now-pacified Gezi Park. Subtle Internet artistic interventions don’t always transition well to the offline world. Here the installation feels forced and falls flat. This isn’t just a Jeremy Bailey problem, though.
The tension between the digital and the physical world subtends much of what has been dubbed post-Internet art—and some of the Moving Museum’s exhibition too. But other artists have turned the conundrum into an opportunity. A case in point is Rafaël Rozendaal’s Abstract Browsing series (2014). The artist had the homepage structure of well-known news websites (The New York Times, The Daily Beast, CNN), embroidered by villagers in Şile, a city on the shores of the Black Sea, famous for its textile production. There’s no text, just the pure contemporary forms extracted and reborn via an ancient craft, yet still somehow loaded by the fleeting information they once carried. Few pieces I’ve seen recently feel so boldly “of the moment.”
Bailey and Rozendaal are just two of the 46 artists who took part in what may well have been Istanbul’s most remarkable residency project in recent years. Spearheaded by the nomadic Moving Museum, it welcomed artists ranging from Hito Steyerl to Jon Rafman, David Douard to Mai-Thu Perret creating new works in the city’s every nook and cranny, and sometimes beyond its limits as well. Jumana Manna researched Syrian refugee camps in Istanbul and Diyarbakir in preparation for a film project; Perret collaborated with a traditional Kilim workshop in Van at the border with Iran, and Ben Schumacher launched into a quixotic quest for the old Ottoman telegraph cables buried deep in the Black Sea. The outcome is spectacular. Spreading over three floors of a new, brightly painted car park in the city’s Şişhane district, a stone’s throw from the bustling Beyoğlu neighborhood, it showcases the produced work in well-defined spaces; it feels almost like a string of solo presentations, each precise and focused.
While Zeitgeisty post-Internet art looms large (perhaps unavoidably: see “Has Post-Internet Art Come of Age?”), it appears here part of a bigger inquiry: an investigation of one’s sense of place when travelling is the default mode, and the necessity of engaging beyond the screen. That can mean rekindling with lost technology or reaching knowledge inaccessible with a simple Google search. Schumacher learned that the Black Sea is so polluted that all Ottoman cables are likely to have disappeared, but, working in collaboration with the local maintenance company, he excavated 100 meters of historic telegraph line. They are presented here as ready-mades, precious relics reminding us that the communication revolution well predates the invention of the Internet.
Sitting straight on the floor, Oliver Osborne’s paintings turn Turkish words he gleaned during his sojourn into snippets of concrete poetry. At times, they verge on visual motifs that echo the didactic drawings he sources in language books (see “Artist in the News: British Painter Oliver Osborne“). Amalia Ulman perverts the I-was-there Instagram conceit with a series of carefully-staged selfies (shown first on Instagram, and in the show, perhaps a little less convincingly, as large photographs). They present the artist during her residency as a wealthy socialite on a romantic getaway. Unlike the Dutch student who faked her South East Asian backpacking trip on Facebook, Ulman’s proposition, like most people’s social media profiles, is almost real—and this proximity hits a nerve.
Other highlights include Haig Aivazian’s research on Turkish oud player Udi Kenkulian, materialized in the exhibition with an intriguingly abstract sculpture made by a local oud-maker; Peles Empire’s sensual accretions of printed imagery; and Ming Wong’s film of himself performing as Turkish transsexual diva Bülent Ersoy. (Wong had initially planned a performance as Ersoy, but he cancelled due to the singer’s increasingly controversial support of the Erdogan government.) There’s Özlem Altin’s alluringly elusive iPhone photograph of a hand emerging from a basement flat’s window, Güneş Terkol’s delicate anatomy-inspired embroideries executed in collaboration with local women, and George Henry Longly’s lustful film documenting the casting of a gorgeous young man’s body.
What is most striking about the Moving Museum Istanbul is that, while it doesn’t come with any grand curatorial statement, it’s more coherent than many group exhibitions I’ve seen in recent months. But perhaps calling the presentation an “exhibition” is somewhat misguided. Carried by the two antithetical words of its name, the Moving Museum has, from the moment it was launched by Aya Mousawi and Simon Sakhai in 2013, set out to challenge the art world’s die-hard categories. It’s an “institution” without a collection, without a building, one that doesn’t hesitate to sell artworks if it means more artists can be supported. It’s an ever-moving platform that has commissioned Michael Rakowitz’s now-legendary Iraqi-Jewish restaurant in Dubai, taken over an old London office block, and is now a major residency program in Istanbul, where nothing of its kind was previous in place.
More than an exhibition in the strictest sense, the resulting presentation has something of a festival, a joyous meeting of singularities. Artists came to Istanbul at different times, with their particular set of interests and techniques, but their works here respond to each other, linked by the place of their creation and the shared concerns of a generation. Organizing an art show on such a scale while almost exclusively counting on work produced in situ is a risky move. But the Moving Museum Istanbul a success—one that lingers in your mind and on your screen long after you are gone.
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