Dissidence and dumplings: served at the Istanbul Biennale

The story goes that in 17th century Germany, dumplings called maultaschen were invented during Lent as a way to hide meat from the all-seeing eyes of God. In Turkey today, people care more about the prying eyes of the state than about God, and dumplings – manti in Turkish – have once again become a means and a metaphor for smuggling banned goods past the authorities.

Published as part of the 2022 edition of the Istanbul Biennale, a journal titled dumpling message maintains the spirit of resistance that inspired the
2019 Kayseri dumpling festival, organized in response to the repeated banning of a conference on the social, cultural and economic history of the
town. To celebrate the publication of the first of three issues, the Hrant Dink
Foundation (HDF) organized a reception in the opening week of the Biennale, a
convivial affair in which manti were cooked under the shade of a pomegranate tree for a court full of supporters, journalists and VIPs.

The foundation, which has its headquarters in a quiet street in the Şişli district on the European side of Istanbul, was created in 2007 following the assassination by a Turkish nationalist of journalist Hrant Dink, founding editor of the weekly Turkish-Armenian Agos. It aims to continue the work of the journalist, to advance the causes of democracy in Turkey and to foster cultural relations between Turkey, Armenia and Europe.

To this end, the HDF organizes international conferences “aimed at deepening the understanding of the social, economic, socio-political and cultural changes experienced in different cities of Anatolia in the 19th and 20th centuries”. Events held in cities like Ankara and Izmir were to be followed by a conference in Kayseri, scheduled for October 2019, but it was banned by the local government. Moved to HDF headquarters in Istanbul, the event was again banned, just a day before it was due to take place.

Writing in the number one of dumpling messagewhich is distributed free of charge during
the Biennale and available online, journalist Ayla Jean Yackley describes
how traditional Kayseri dumplings offered a key to talking about the city differently. Instead of a lecture, they landed on the Kayseri dumpling festival – wrapping the forbidden in an innocuous-looking package, just as the monks of 17th-century Germany had done.

Yet there was nothing wrong with the event. Write in the Jobwine expert Levon Bağiş recalls the arrival of the police: “I will never forget the look
of surprise on their faces when they entered, only to see busy women
make manti on the tables. Our conversation with the police commander, which had started on a high note, ended with a plate of manti in his hand which he said was better than the manti made by his wife from Kayseri.

What the police commander had lost sight of was exactly the inspiration of the festival: that manti-making is a communal activity, its repetitive actions the natural accompaniment to conversation.

After seven frantic days of planning and organization, the festival attracted
500 people. Yackley writes: “They came not only to make dumplings, eat and listen to speeches, but to show their solidarity with us and to take a stand against the restrictions imposed on civil society.

The dumpling message, which is a bilingual publication in English and Turkish, is a guarantee of the political sharpness of the 17th edition of the Istanbul Biennale. In previous years, it focused on large public spaces and
although large institutions such as the Pera Museum are involved this time around, exhibits are scattered throughout the city, with an emphasis on smaller, more intimate venues. There is a distinctly dissenting flavor. The comforting aromas of food waft through this year’s program, an evocation of home, hearth and tradition that involves not just the strength that comes from family ties, but the empowerment of women and children.

The Hrant Dink Foundation mantis reception in collaboration with the dumpling message. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

London-based artist duo Cooking Sections have made a long-term project out of exploring the culture, customs and precious environments embodied in food, and more specifically the complex relationship between food and the climate crisis. . In a small shop in Beyoğlu, they served traditional Turkish puddings made from buffalo milk, including kaymak (a very thick cream made from buffalo milk) and sütlaç (rice pudding). The shop is part of Wallowland, a project commissioned by the Biennale to highlight the plight of Istanbul’s water buffaloes, under threat from the loss of wetlands in the area now dominated by the city’s new airport, one of the most explosive vanity projects commissioned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last held in 2019 and delayed for a year due to the pandemic, the Biennale
seems to be considerably more outspoken than three years ago and, to an outsider, conditions in the city seem to have improved in the meantime.

On the one hand, Erdoğan’s creeping desecularization is blatant in
projects such as the vast new mosque in Taksim Square. But in front, it’s the
equally symbolic cultural center of Atatürk, reopened in 2021 and bulwark of secularism and free thought in this increasingly religious state.

The 2019 election of a leftist mayor in Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, ended a period of intense political wrangling, and seemed to hold promise for better times. Three years ago, riot control vehicles
stood in Taksim Square with their engines constantly running, manned by a very muscular staff, barely able to hold the Alsatian slavers to their side. In 2022, the police maintain their constant presence, but the black armored trucks are gone, and the dogs, for now, are back in their kennels.

In fact, it looks like Taksim Square is no less scary than it used to be. Indonesian activist and performance artist Arahmaiani produced an iteration of his flag project for the Biennale, which was presented for a procession through the grounds of the Gashouse Museum. It all sounded very liberal, but one viewer observed that despite using the only common lexicon of protest – “Equality”, “Justice”, “Struggle” – the rally allegedly resulted in violence and mass arrests had it happened in Taksim Square.

Beyond the vastness of Taksim Square and its ever-increasing quota of brand-new hotel blocks, Istanbul is a city of remarkable complexity, its networks of small streets lined with haphazard arrangements of impossibly flimsy and incredibly old patched up with duct tape and other eccentric materials. So narrow that they might have been built for the city’s cats, not its inhabitants, these streets, when nominally passable, are often set at slopes extreme enough to test the driver and engine, their corners hidden out of reach of the most knowledgeable inhabitants.

In one of these streets of the old district of Fatih, a fishmonger had set up in front of his shop, cutting off the heads of fish under the watchful eye of a
cat. In front of him, a small door at the bottom of a nested flight of stairs
of sight. Once inside the Küçük Mustafa Paşa Hammam, a 15th-century Turkish bath, the space takes on the proportions of a
church, with smaller rooms radiating around large central spaces, the
fully separate male and female facilities. The hammam was abandoned for many years but now restored, this ancient hidden place
takes on its full meaning within the framework of the Biennale, for which it hosts a
sound installation. Private, yet communal, it is a place of quiet resistance in the very foundations of the city.

A very different sense of community reigns over the Bread and Puppet Theater, although as its name suggests, breaking bread is key to the philosophy of the veteran team, one of the oldest political theater companies nonprofit in the United States. .

Operating from a Vermont farm since the 1970s, the Bread and Puppet Theater was founded on New York’s Lower East Side in 1963 by Peter
Schumann, “based on the baking and non-market distribution of
bread at moments created by art”. They participated in the Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and continued to produce theater that takes to the streets as much as it invites people inside. With titles like Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, Leaf smelling of moonlight and Wounds of Vietnamthey sit somewhere between carnival, event, and peace protest, urging action with an unbalanced yet wholly sane sense of purpose.

In the golden light of a late September afternoon, an assortment of banner-waving teenagers and bizarre creatures made from trash can lids, papier-mache and old clothes scurried across the grass outside. exterior of Istanbul Bilgi University. Among them was John Bell, a theater historian and puppeteer who began working with the Bread and Puppet Theater in the 1970s.
practice his trombone and check that the many performers, former and
young, were ready for the evening performance, he told me that Demons
of Society had been set up in just two weeks. Designed in collaboration with the university and Turkish puppeteer Cengiz Özek, the performers were drawn from the local community. “We expected to work with 25, and about 65 showed up,” Bell said, before being called out by longtime colleague Clare Dolan, who arrived on stilts, along with a protege wearing stilts.

For all its trippy inscrutability, the performance itself, shyly described as
“talking to the urgencies of the present moment”, was paradoxically audacious in its uncompromising rejection of restrictions on freedom. There was a paperclip, and something that seemed to be part plunger, and something else made from a twisted cake pan. “Be careful!” read a banner, “I am beautiful!” read another. It was crazy, joyful and totally unequivocal:
when people are silenced, they find other ways to speak.

The 17th Istanbul Biennale runs until November 20

Florence Hallett is a freelance writer and art critic

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