Each of the five group exhibitions in the 12th Istanbul Biennial takes as its point of departure a specific work by Félix González-Torres. The work that inspires Untitled (Abstraction) consists of a sheet of paper bearing a perfect horizontal and vertical grid, minimally composed and drawn in graphite, intersected by a diagonal line descending from the upper-left corner to the lower-right. It recalls the work of such 20th-century masters as Piet Mondrian, a Dutchman; Josef Albers, a German American; Max Bill, a Swiss; and Sol Lewitt and Agnes Martin, both American. The grid is the ultimate modernist emblem, and in Rosalind Krauss's terms, it "announces modern art's will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse." It speaks of neither of life nor of death.
One of the principal strategies of González-Torres, a Cuban Puerto Rican, was to infuse the traditional art historical canon, be it high modernist, minimal, or conceptual, with themes and subjects that had been excluded from its repertoire- namely, the stuff of everyday life. Here, he does it to a seemingly silent and well-balanced grid. The shift in reading is provided by the title, "Untitled" (Bloodwork-Steady Decline) (1994). What this clean and classical grid in fact represents is the declining state of a person's immune system as it is consumed by HIV. González-Torres made a number of other grid works with the same theme, sometimes in seven or 21 parts, including "Untitled" (T-Cell Count) (1990) and "Untitled" (21 Days of Bloodwork) (1994). In these, the grid is no longer detached from the world but bears a loaded, urgent, and infected narrative. As a personal and bodily representation, it becomes a picture of life and death. "Forbidden Colors" (1988) is an early example of a work by González-Torres that brings political themes into another emblematic high-modernist abstract geometric specimen: the monochrome. Four apparently harmless monochromes in red, black, green, and white take on different meanings once we read the artist's words in his exhibition statement for the New Museum in New York: "It is a fact that four colors-red, black, green, and white-placed next to each other in any form, are strictly forbidden in the Israeli army in the occupied Palestinian territories. This color combination can cause an arrest, a beating, a curfew, a shooting, or a news photograph."
What interests us here and is taken up in this exhibition is the artist's subversion of the language of geometric abstraction, and his new uses of the legacies of modern art and aesthetics. In an interview with Tim Rollins in 1993, GonzálezTorres stated his suspicion toward pure, universal aesthetics: "Ask a few simple questions to define aesthetics: Whose aesthetics? At what historical time? Under what circumstances? For what purposes? And who is deciding quality, et cetera? Then you realize very quickly that aesthetic choices are politics. Believe it or not I am a big sucker for formal issues, and yes, someone like me-the other-can indeed deal with formal issues. This is not a white-men-only terrain, sorry boys."
If the conceptual point of departure in Untitled (Abstraction) is González-Torres, then the historical matrix departs from Lygia Clark, who in many ways anticipated some of his proposals. Clark's Bicho (Beast, or Critter) sculptures of the 1960s, made with articulated, hinged sheets of aluminum, bring geometric abstraction and industrial materials into the realm of nature and interactivity, as the viewer is invited to manipulate and reconfigure the work. Clark thus questions the static and stable nature of the work, reattaching it to everyday life and breaking the distance between author/producer and viewer/consumer. Between González-Torres and Clark we find common features of generosity and the acknowledgment that the viewer is an active participant in manipulating, consuming, and understanding a work of art.
Historically in close proximity to Clark, we find Charlotte Posenenske, whose DW (1967) sculptures made of corrugated cardboard in abstract geometric shapes also bear an industrial reminiscence (they recall ventilation shafts) and a sense of generosity and openness. It is up to the curator, collector, or installer to decide how many elements are to be installed, and in what configuration. The unlimited edition and low-cost nature of the piece facilitates its dissemination. In Untitled (Abstraction), Posenenske's works will assume a new configuration each week. Edward Krasinski's Intervention (1981) consists of an abstract black-and-white geometric wall sculpture crossed horizontally by his signature blue tape, which reaches and stretches to encompass the entire wall where the work is hanging, drawing a blue horizon in the architecture. In the artist's own words: "Plastic tape Scotch blue, width 19 mm, length unknown. I stick it horizontally on everything and everywhere, at a height of 130 cm." Its contribution to this exhibition's narrative is the disruption of space- both of the work and of the space that surrounds it. Dóra Maurer also draws in space, yet using a camera: her two works Rajzolás kamerával kör a négyzetben (Drawing with the Camera-Circle in the Square, 1979) and Rajzolás kamerával kör a négyzet körül (Drawing with the Camera-Circle Around the Square, 1979) trace a line in space through a sequence of black and white photographs in which the artist moves, as the titles indicate, in a circular manner with the camera at hand in and around a square room. The relationship between a work and its surroundings is developed through mirroring and reflection by Faouzi Laatiris in Vis-à-vis (2010), in which two mirrors, each in the shape of a Moroccan zellige (a terra-cotta tile), are hung across from each other in the exhibition space, one facing the viewer (thus bringing him or her into the work), and the other facing the wall. Alexander Gutke's 16-mm film Singularity (2010) projects into a corner of the room a film of a measuring tape whose reel runs through the edges of the entire exhibition space, thus sizing up and framing all the works in Untitled (Abstraction).
In the lineage of Clark, several artists bring organic elements to subvert the grid and infuse it with everyday life. Gabriel Sierra's Sin titulo (Soporte para lección de matemáticas) (Untitled (Support for Math Class), 2007) juxtaposes nature with geometry in another classical genre, the still life, with constructivist roots made of interlocking rulers. Mona Hatoum's Untitled (Hair Grid with Knots 6) (2003) consists of a drawing of a simple grid made by weaving human hair into paper, a metonymical representation of the body. Dóra Maurer's Seven Rotations (1979) brings the body through a photographic self-portrait in which a sequence of photographs are taken. The first one shows her holding a square, blank piece of white paper, which is subsequently replaced by a new photograph taken and developed, always into the same square shape, but multiplying the artist's face in a geometric spiral. The work evokes González-Torres's own geometric T-cell count portraits made over the course of several days. Theo Craveiro's Formigueiro-Idéia Visível (Formicary-Visible Idea, 1956/2010) departs from a wellknown painting from the Brazilian concrete period by Waldemar Cordeiro titled Idéia Visível (Visible Idea, 1956), appropriating the design of its grid to construct a framed glass-and-wood ant farm. Cevdet Erek's Anti-Pigeon Net (2010) grew out of an installation he made in the courtyard of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna, using anti-pigeon netting and sound. His abstract grid framed in wood alternately evokes the sanitary and the scatological.
Rivane Neuenschwander brings the street into the grid, unfolding it into space (her work also appears in the exhibition"Untitled" (Passport)). At a Certain Distance (Public Barriers) (2010) consists of a three-dimensional grid made up of horizontal steel cables that are connected to poles stuck into concrete bases cast in buckets. Onto the cables she attaches wooden objects of different types and sources, many of them found on the streets of Istanbul. Magdalena Jitrik's work opens up abstraction to life in a different way. Painting in Askeaton (2009), an abstract geometric composition, is exhibited next to a video of its making, as if the painter is revealing or demystifying her mastery. The video soundtrack is the guitar from Jitrik's own group, Orquestra Roja (Red Orchestra).
Lucio Fontana provides another historical matrix through which to consider the work of González-Torres. His Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept, 1962) is traditionally viewed from a modernist perspective as a rupture in the pictorial field, transforming the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional-which would position it close to Krasinski and Clark. In this context, however, Fontana's latent bodily references are called forth, specifically via the juxtaposition with works by Adriana Varejão, whose Parede com Incisões à la Fontana, Istanbul (Wall with Incisions à la Fontana, Istambul, 2011) eloquently reveals Fontana's cuts as open wounds, and a documentary photograph of Lygia Pape's Divisor (1968), taken in Rio de Janeiro, in which hundreds of individuals inserted their heads into hundreds of slashes in a white piece of fabric, piercing it with their bodies. Annette Kelm's Untitled (White Target) (2006) conflates Fontana with another modern master, Jasper Johns, through a photograph of the back of a target (a classic Johns motif), revealing the violence of its pierced surface. Pedro Cabrita Reis's Scandinavian (2001) appears at first to be an elegant abstract geometric sculpture in gray and blue, but one may read the word "Scandinavian" on the side of the small paper piece and understand it as an airsickness bag for the airline SAS. Our sticky, sickly insides are called to mind-vomit. In this trajectory we find Charbel-Joseph H. Boutros's Occupation #2 (2010), with its architectural and material unfoldings. The matter that makes up the monochrome on the wall seems to have oozed onto the floor space, spreading itself beyond the strict confines of the somber rectangle onto the gray cube. Ernesto Neto's Dois Cortex no Vazio (Two Cortexes in the Void, 2003) consists of a black thread taped to the wall. The unassuming and fragile abstract artwork drawn by the velvety thread is subverted bythe title; the cerebral cortex is the brain tissue that plays a key role in memory, perception, consciousness, thought, and language. In a more poetic and passionate representation of the body, Leonilson gives human features to colors and geometric shapes in his Bad Boy, Fragile Soul (1990), a gold rectangle juxtaposed with a bright red one. On the corner of the former we read "bad boy," on the latter, "fragile soul."
Other artists have overt political content infiltrating their abstractions. Yaima Carrazana's "Untitled" (Two Illustrated Histories of the Great October Socialist Revolution) (2010) is a work that could very well be featured in Untitled (History). It consists of two copies of the book mentioned in the work's title. Both are displayed open to a red double page, as if the revolution could be represented (or obliterated) by the diptych red monochrome. The artist, of Cuban background, shows the work on the floor, as if it were a minimal monument. Its vertical height and historical grandeur, reduced to 2.5 centimeters, evokes the work of the minimal master Carl Andre. Intertwining politics and nature, Wilfredo Prieto, another Cuban, also plays with the signification of red. He offers a minimalist shape, the cube, carved off a loaded and perishable material, a watermelon. The title of the work, Politically Correct (2009), seems to suggest that political correctness has its own decapitating features. Juan Capistran's White Minority (2005-7) fuses the early abstract geometric style of Frank Stella's high-modernist black paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s with the logo of the American punk band Black Flag from the 1970s and 1980s. The title could be read as a description of the work's geometric composition, with thin white lines squeezed by their black surroundings, but it is also a reference to the racial content of the band's song of the same title.
Memory and history may offer loaded narratives for geometric abstraction, and a number of artists in the exhibition explore these possibilities. At first view, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's 180 Seconds of Lasting Images (2006) appears to be a large-scale white monochrome with 4,500 photographs arranged in a grid. Upon closer inspection, some of the photographic fragments reveal themselves as filmic, veiled figures. The material was developed from a film that belonged to Joreige's uncle, which the artists found 16 years after the uncle's kidnapping during the Lebanese Civil War in 1985 (he is still missing). What remained of the almost completely whitedout footage were these 180 seconds, whose frames the artists developed into photographs and transposed into a large-scale mosaic. Jac Leirner's Fase Azul (Blue Phase, 1995) is part of her series made with devalued Brazilian currency. In this particular example, she juxtaposes 100,000-cruzeiro banknotes with 100-cruzado notes, illustrating a symptom of Brazil's hyperinflation in the 1980s. Stamped on the banknote, the figure of president Juscelino Kubitschek appears against images of Brasília, the modernist capital that he helped build in the late 1950s. On some of the more soiled banknotes, the artist found pieces of colored tape that, aligned with the constructivist composition of the woven banknotes, assume the role of colorful geometric shapes played out against the ruins of a mid-century modernist tropical dream. Runo Lagomarsino's Trans Atlantic (2010-11) is a set of drawings bearing horizontal and vertical white lines. The work's title alludes to the journey the drawings made from Europe to South America, crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a boat with a single sailor. During the journey, the drawings were exposed to the sun, fading the paper yellow, and the abstract geometric composition was provoked by the shadows cast by the boat's ropes. Traveling between North and South is also part of Lagomarsino's biography. His parents emigrated from Argentina to Sweden, where he was born; he is now also based in Brazil. Johanna Calle brings different political narratives and accounts from the Colombian context and represents them through abstraction, often bringing in elements such as lists and maps. Here, three of her "processual boxes" gather many examples of her investigation into the subject. Jorge Macchi presents a horizontal and vertical grid made out of newspaper, out of which all texts and images have been cut. The only remaining information is the text "Ouro Preto," which translates literally as "Black Gold" and is also the name of a city in Brazil that in the colonial period was the focal point of gold extraction by the Portuguese. Thus, the seemingly oxymoronic phrasing of a color signifies an important chapter in Brazilian history.
Ending with a more conceptual play with notions of the abstract, Clara Ianni's Trabalho Abstrato (Abstract Work/Labor, 2010) consists of a shovel from which a square has been cut. The subtraction renders the object useless, and transforms it into "abstract art." The title is borrowed from Karl Marx's concept of abstract labor, as opposed to concrete labor. In Portuguese, the words for "labor" and "work" are the same. The work's play is developed further when one considers the counterpoint to abstract labor/work in Marx's terms-concrete labor/work- "concrete" being an art-historical reference harking back to where our narrative of perversion begins: high modernism and mid-century geometric abstraction.