Our tears are salty.
Griselda Pollock in her essay, The Cure for Anything is Salt Water in Tuzlusu (Saltwater) catalogue

The curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial Tuzlusu (Saltwater): a Theory of Thought Forms was Italian-American-Bulgarian art historian and ex-art critic Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev (CCB) who also curated the 2008 Sydney Biennale subtitled Revolutions – Forms that turn and the massive 2012 Kassel dOCUMENTA (13), the five yearly global exhibition in Germany which acts as a punctuation point in global contemporary art. It is just a matter of time before CCB curates the Venice Biennale though she doesn’t like to be called a curator and calls herself the drafter instead, taking the term from draftsman. And usually uses a curatorium of colleagues or ‘agents’ to bounce ideas around.

Clearly CCB likes the word ‘Forms’. And uses it as a term to free art from any specificities of media or task.

Curators have favourites and inclinations just like anyone. CCB’s shows tend to have a voracious and voluminous inclusivity often including, in some way, masses of dead people whether artists, philosophers, spiritualists, writers or whatever as well as lengthy writing components such as dOCUMENTA (13)’s the 100 Notes—100 Thoughts series and its The Logbook and The Book of Books, and even out of reach exhibits. Thus dOCUMENTA (13) had components in Kabul, Afghanistan; Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt; and Banff, Canada, as well as in Kassel which is situated in the navel of Germany.

Tuzlusu (Saltwater) included imaginary, unattainable and out of reach spaces like Pierre Huyghe’s underwater theatre for jellyfish as well as accessible ones. And for navigation – a slim map, a paperback guidebook and a fat bilingual Turkish-English Bible-dimensioned hardback catalogue of essays, quotations and drawings.

They said it was possible to encompass Tuzlusu in three days. Works by over eighty participants from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America, were displayed in over thirty venues on the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus in museums as well as temporary spaces such as boats, hotels, former banks, garages, gardens, schools, shops and private homes.

Depending on how many days you had, what the weather was like, whether you took a tour and how good or bad your map-reading companions were you may or may not have seen everything. But I am not sure that that is important. I am coming increasingly to think that it is the experience of being somewhere at a particular time that makes an exhibition valuable.

If you went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, MONA in Hobart or indeed the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island and saw just one work because the building was being cleaned or whatever it is very likely that that one work and that experience would stay with you for much longer and mean much more than walking in endless halls and galleries until you became numb with looking. That said, part of the fun of biennials or other large art events in which work is scattered through a city is the sense of hard sweaty work and harmless adventure in finding the art, as well as the value of experiencing the way it is embedded and makes commentary in non-gallery venues. But surely it is best to be not ticking each exhibit off systematically and treating the whole event like a battle to be won, rather we should see it as a cocktail, an experience to be savoured.

And if you stop to dream and think … who knows where you might end up?

CCB is steeped in European art history, in fixed precedents and lineages which can sometimes produce an insular or smug view of contemporary art. Yet she also works at implementing new lineages and sightlines. As CCB spent some time in Australia working on the Sydney Biennale this means that she includes Australian indigenous artists in Tuzlusu but she hasn’t raised her head to see the Pacific or indeed New Zealand. So it is in many ways a limited kind of saltwater that she presents.

A wonderful and delicate sense of cultural, intellectual, historical, aesthetic wealth was present for me in the experience of the city of Istanbul, in freshly made pomegranate juice, in the architecture, the opulent building materials, the elegance of the furniture and environments of the privileged places I visited through the Biennial. This sense of the marriage of culture and power exists all over the world but in this legendary city, memorialised over recent years by the novels of Orhan Pamuk whose work focuses on the deep provincialism and melancholy yearnings of himself and his compatriots, it is even more prominent. Luxury is here, and poverty is here, and all the stages in-between … but it is especially opulent luxury, and it is defiant poverty, no not defiant there are other words – hard-working, resigned, watchful, aware of the potential suddenness of change, and the gripping weight of history and location.

Istanbul is on the must-see list for many world travellers, its past life as Constantinople and Byzantium, its location and architecture make it irresistible to tourists. My own tolerance for iconic historical sites is fairly limited though watching tourists is rich terrain. Many of the people who live in Istanbul have no prospects of travelling anywhere ever, many are refugees from other countries, and in talking to locals – people working in hotels, restaurants or shops about the Biennial it became clear that most of them didn’t know that it was happening.

Being in Istanbul for the first time and having more than historical monuments to see was excellent, it reminded me of the fellowship of the global community sometimes called the art world, a more or less moveable feast. And the importance of art as a language that is not the same all over the world but which has persistent ambitions for a kind of Cultural Esperanto, a belief system that evades art’s forced marriage to money and power and sees it as working optimistically as the very best kind of infotainment and as an agent for change or at the very least accessible and thought-provoking analysis.

The remarkable exhibition How did we get here: an exhibition exploring Turkey’s recent past through social movements and elements of popular culture that emerged after the coup d’état on September 12, 1980 which was on show at SALT Beyoğlu and at SALT Galata during the Biennial, though not an official part of it, demonstrated brilliantly how an international audience may be urgently washed in the recent history of a country.

It showed how a grand biennial of contemporary art away from home or even at home is always potentially much more than a venue for art. It is urgent for everyone in the world to know more about everyone else’s recent past.

And travelling to see an exhibition … when at the same time a short distance away thousands of refugees are endangering their lives on the sea has a sharpening effect on the occasional solipsism of the cultural life.

To me Istanbul was friendly, gracious and thoughtful. Yet the stenciled graffiti I saw there which stayed with me most intently said: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”