Last month Public Art Fund in New York opened Ai Weiwei’s citywide exhibition, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. The project entails steel, fence-like architectural interventions and large-scale banners depicting photographs of Syrian refugees from the artist’s time in Lesbos, Greece. The exhibition is not alone in its use of domestic language to address global issues of mass forced migration. The 15th Istanbul Biennial, which concluded last week and was curated by Danish-Norwegian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, took the title a good neighbour.
The conceit of “neighbor” brings us to the scale of the home without quite entering our home: a neighbor, after all, is our closest foreign element. Today, both Turkey and the US find themselves embroiled in internal debates over policies concerning both external borders and internal relations between communities. The invocation of neighbors addresses—though to what end varies between these exhibitions—geopolitical issues over borders and boundaries and the legal designations that determine the futures of populations displaced by war and famine. In Ai’s installation borders are evoked by fences and images of refugees installed in public spaces around the city. The Istanbul Biennial, on the other hand, nods to Turkey’s status as hosting one of the highest populations of displaced Syrians more intimately, focusing on the private rather than public spaces.
Ai Weiwei, Arch from Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, 2017, Galvanized mild steel and mirror polished stainless steel. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei studio and Frahm & Frahm. Photo: Jason Wyche
Last March Angela Merkel negotiated what has since been termed the “EU-Turkey Deal,” offering Turkey 6 billion Euro in refugee aid in exchange for the country preventing further crossings to Europe, particularly via Greece. Anyone arriving “irregularly” to Greece—even those seeking asylum—would, according to the deal, be returned to Turkey and made to apply from there. In Turkey, however, only asylum seekers originating from Europe qualify as “refugees” in any legal sense, as the country signed the 1951 Geneva Convention with a “geographical limitation.” The three million asylum seekers currently in Turkey, and any held in transit to Europe, are instead deemed “persons of subsidiary protection”—a designation that nefariously keeps would-be asylum seekers outside of the international refugee system that would protect them.
While many asylum seekers are living in camps in the south of Turkey, others have made it to cities, and Istanbul reflects its new population. In the months preceding the exhibition, promotional posters for the Biennial introduced the “good neighbor” theme in a series of questions: Is a good neighbor your friend on Facebook? Is a good neighbor someone who lives the same way as you? Is a good neighbor a stranger you don’t fear? The inquisitive framework—what is a good neighbor anyway?—contrasts the aphoristic “good neighbor” in Ai’s title, which references an ironic and often misunderstood line from Robert Frost’s 1915 poem “Mending Wall.” In both cases, however, the notion of neighbor works to “domesticate” debates about migration, to bring them down to the scale of the local, the neighborhood, the family, the home—at least ideologically. In its iterations since the the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the Istanbul Biennial has included works that take a wide-angle analysis of global socio-economic changes, featuring artists and collectives whose practices offer broad analyses of the socio-economic actors at work in the changing city. In its 2017 edition, the Biennial instead “zoomed-in” to show art that takes the home and interiority as its jumping-off point.
Ai Weiwei on Porcelain, Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul, 2017. Courtesy of Sakip Sabanci Museum
Ai, who has been praised for addressing the migration crisis and critiqued for his tone-deaf or misguided attempts at doing so, opened the show Ai Weiwei on Porcelain at the Sabanci Museum in Istanbul timed with Biennial. The exhibition includes many of his most recognizable works as well as recent work addressing the Syrian refugee crisis. Many newer works on view use domestic objects as materials and canvases—including pottery, dishes, and wallpaper emblazoned with black-and-white vignettes of refugees in makeshift camps, in transit, or running from the police. In one particularly distressing instance this wallpaper stretches around a huge atrium space, serving as a backdrop to larger-than-life documentation of Ai’s notorious performance work, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Similarly the work Study of Perspective (1995–2003), in which Ai photographs his hand “flipping off” various architectural symbols of power around the world, reads as a kind of tone-deaf bad boy move when placed in the context of aestheticized images of refugees, people to whom the option to move around the globe so freely is all but impossible.
Ai Weiwei on eBay
Prior to the Public Art Fund opening in New York, the organization opened a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and it is currently offering limited editions of the artist’s work on eBay, including small prints of the wallpaper included in the Sabanci exhibition. No portion of the proceeds have been announced as directed toward organizations working to aid victims of forced migration, nor were donation options offered on the crowdfunding campaign menu. Rather than instrumentally benefitting refugees, the resulting “good fences” around New York City are aesthetically pleasing passageways and architectural interventions that offer seating and social space in parks and art venues including Washington Square, the Queens Museum, Cooper Square, and Central Park. According to the artist, the artworks are meant to “raise awareness” of the global refugee crisis and to the bordered and bounded lives of individuals. Instead, they materialize as convivial social projects in a city central to the international power structures that produce global inequalities—further pointing to questions about Ai’s relationship to the state powers he aims to critique. If indeed this project is intended to “raise awareness,” how does that function within a leisure space? And what does it mean to do so using “neighbor,” in a place like New York, where, unlike Turkey, it is largely rhetorical? Ai’s interventions do little to interrogate their namesake. Who are these neighbors—us or them? What makes a neighbor good or bad? Who, if anyone, is implicated or educated by this artwork?
Ai Weiwei, Circle Fence from Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, 2017, Powder coated mild steel, polypropylene netting. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Timothy Schenck
Last Year Ai was “testy” in a talk with Tania Bruguera at the Brooklyn Museum, responding to her criticisms of his now infamous photograph of himself reenacting the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. He reprimanded Bruguera for not knowing the exact count of those who’d lost their lives in passage. The trouble with counting the dead and depicting only their loss or desperation is that the refugee “crisis” isn’t just a moment: it is an ongoing situation that continues even as Ai builds his beautiful fences in New York. To count is a process of memorialization we enact when a war is over, and those numbers can be put to wicked use. While Ai aggregates objects—life vests, clothing, shoes—to materialize the vast numbers of dead or displaced people, FRONTEX, the European Union’s border agency, and its supporters use the same numbers to argue for further limitations on passage and harsher criminalization, which leads desperate people to attempt even more risky routes in order to avoid detection. Ai’s 2016 installation of 14,000 life jackets on the columns of the Konzert Haus in Berlin was tagged with #safepassage which may have raised some awareness of refugees’ plights, but it also overwhelmed that hashtag’s use by Medicine Sans Frontiers and aid groups who often used it for updates on travel conditions. The image of the thousands of bright orange life jackets became a favorite social media share and was retweeted and praised by some of the same officials who supported the EU-Turkey Deal (which further restrained refugees coming from Syria). Keeping refugees in Turkey has been instrumental in Europe, leaving already vulnerable people in a much less protected position—good neighbors indeed!
Converse to spectacles of horror and vignettes of tragedy on fine china, the Istanbul Biennial stepped away from the directly political, particularly from the limited ways in which Turkey’s art scene has come to be read as a go-to site for geopolitical catastrophizing. Without artwork directly critical of the government, the exhibition has been critiqued as lacking in political art. To say the work included is not political, however, misses the strength and subtlety of the exhibition. In contrast to the more broadly critical artworks presented in past biennials, Elmgreen & Dragset have largely included artists and artworks that address daily life or engage in the making of domestic space and the borders that surround and divide it. Many works point to the ways in which the home is not a haven from the political but the seat of its entrenchment. None does this more clearly than Lee Miller’s haunting photographs made in the home of Adolf Hitler.
Around the corner from Miller, in the Pera Museum, Fred Wilson draws on materials common to stately old Istanbul homes to interrogate the erasure of Black and Afro-Turk histories from official Ottoman and Republican Turkish histories and Ottoman Turkey’s connection to slave routes through Vienna. He commissioned two intricate chandeliers that utilize both Turkish and Venetian glass methods—in one, the two styles seem to be engulfing the other. On the surrounding walls are Ottoman Turkish-style tiles painted in Arabic script with the phrases “Mother Africa” and “Black is Beautiful.” The most powerful of his works are the smallest: etchings Wilson purchased from local souvenir art shops depicting Ottoman-era images of the city. He overlaid these in translucent velum, carefully excised to obscure all but the small and often singular black figures hidden among crowds.
Fred Wilson, Afro Kismet, 2017, Historic photographs, engravings and oil paintings; contemporary acrylic paintings and miniatures, late 19th century Othello poster; Anthropomorphic terracotta flask from the 3rd century BC, glass pendants from the 5th century BC; contemporary Iznik tile panels, carpet, chandelier sculptures, globe sculpture, blown glass sculptures; mid 20th century wooden African mask, late 20th century African figures, wooden false wall, birdcage, antique chair and table, wall vinyl, mounted photo scans, cowrie shells, Dimensions variable. Courtesy of Pace Gallery and the artist. Sponsored by the Denver Art Museum. Photo (top): Sahir Uğur Eren. Photo (below): the author
While few works address the refugee crisis directly, there are strong pieces that address the precariousness of “home,” be it house or country. Mahmoud Obaidi’s Compact Home Project consists of archives of sketches, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera he has collected since leaving Iraq. Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s Domain of Things is a darkly beautiful performance installation in the Galata Greek School: an elevated domestic space suspended on rails is slowly shifted and disrupted by performers uncomfortably entangled among the supports. Lungiswa Gqunta’s Lawn reproduces the very stage of neighborly relations, the lawn, in the green hues of broken pop bottles, filled with oil to evoke the small homemade fire bombs of riots.
Pedro Gómez-Egaña, Domain of Things, 2017, Metal structure, wooden panels, furniture, sound, performance Dimensions variable Courtesy of the artist Produced with the support of Arts Council Norway, Office for Contemporary Art Norway, City of Bergen Norway, Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design, University of Bergen and BIT Teatergarasjen. Presented with the support of QP Magazine. Photo: Sahir Uğur Eren
Lungiswa Gqunta, Lawn 1, 2016/17 Wood, 3,168 broken Coca Cola glass bottles, petrol, ink, 25.5 x 484 x 366 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Sahir Uğur Eren
In both the Biennial’s domestic sensibilities and Ai’s fences-cum-playgrounds and images of toiling refugees, what is most conspicuously missing is an investigation into the lives of communities. While, as Ai’s work makes clear, thousands have died in transit at sea or remain in danger, millions of people are now living in new places. And millions of Turks now find themselves with new neighbors in the midst of an already turbulent and suspicious political climate that strains trust among even established relations.
Across Istanbul there are many groups, both art and community projects, addressing these issues. Pages, a bookstore founded by a Syrian children’s book author and his wife, is a home not only for other refugees but also a space in which to welcome those wanting to learn more about Syrian culture, including evenings of live music. It made an appearance in the biennial, if only as the site where the artist Victor Leguy met Syrians and collected their personal artifacts. These were then displayed in the Istanbul Modern, hung and partially obscured by a line of white paint. It is a beautiful work but one that also troubles the continued question of why is it that refugees are so often represented as absences or artifacts, when they aren’t being portrayed en mass. There are, by most counts, between two and three million refugees from Syria quietly going about their lives in Turkey, as well as many more from Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Their lives are not limited to the hour of border crossing, or to the suffering and loss they have experienced; their representations should not be limited to death and loss of home.
Victor Leguy, 2017, Istanbul Modern, 15th İstanbul Biennial. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren
One work in the Biennial addresses another population weathering the precarity of globalization, though their displacement is more economic than violent. Chinese photojournalist Sim Chi Yin’s The Rat Tribe is a portrait series depicting migrant low-wage workers in their underground living spaces within the 6,000 basements and air raid shelters around Beijing. Despite the bleak conditions and cramped quarters depicted, these images work to show the realities of people in migration. Their home lives, relationships, personal proclivities, and even joys are evident.
Sim Chi Yin, 2017, Pera Museum, 15th Istanbul Biennial. Photo: the author
Critiques that the 15th Istanbul Biennial lacks political edge ring false. That the domestic or interior is somehow apolitical is an old-fashioned assertion, one no longer fitting, lest we suggest that it is only bodies in the street, only public action made visible that can be deemed truly political. Rather now, how we consider the domestic, the interpersonal, dare I say, the feminine, remains a central question. The obvious, if hollow, political—the zoomed-out scale, the representations of borders and bodies so often present in the work of “political” artists—is everywhere, and as Ai’s exhibitions show, highly popular and profitable.
How and when does the domestic encounter and engage its already political place? How can kinship be reordered, and by whom? It is in these questions that we find the politics within the social and physical markings of the home, and where we open up an important assumption at the heart of the conceit of “neighbor”: the given-ness, the taken-for-granted acceptance of borders, at any level. Porosity marks lives in cosmopolitan centers; food, culture, faith, music, and language travel across borders the way sounds and smells travel through walls. Our relationships within walls are never hermetically sealed to what is outside. The domestic, the home, its neighbors and its fences, are not merely metaphors for the nation, its borders, and those outside its boundaries. Instead the domestic is itself always already engaged in the production and contestation of those systems in question. Just as the public produces our private selves, so too does the private produce a public, a national, an international; the very notion of who has a private life not only reflects but reinforces divisions of value in world politics and policy.
Danyel M. Ferrari is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn and Istanbul. She is a current PhD candidate at Rutgers University in Media Studies.
(Image at top: Promotional poster for the 15th Istanbul Biennial, Curated by Elmgreen & Dragset. Photos by Lukas Wassmann, Graphic design by Rupert Smyth)