By Susanne Fowler

As published in Globespotters' Blog at the New York Times

The members of the Croatian collective WHW. The group, who are curating this year's Istanbul Biennial, are pictured in the Feriköy Greek School, one of the festival's venues.

ISTANBUL | For WHW, the Croatian collective that is curating the 11th International Istanbul Biennial, which opens today, one of the biggest challenges was how to stay true to its creative philosophy of the past decade without being seduced by being in the global spotlight.

And then there were the lures of Istanbul itself.

"It's hard not to be mesmerized by Istanbul," said Sabina Sabolovic, one of the members of WHW — or What, How and For Whom — which also includes Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic and Natasha Ilic. "But because this moment in history is so crucial for the whole world, we wanted to get away from being Istanbul-obsessed and ask a question that absolutely has global resonance."

That question — "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" — became the title theme of the festival, which runs from Sept. 11 through Nov. 8 and features more than 120 works by artists from 40 countries, including Sanja Iveković of Croatia, Nam June Paik and Sharon Hayes of the United States, Hans-Peter Feldmann of Germany and Canan Senol and Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin of Turkey.

The title comes from a much-covered song from Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera" which examines conventional definitions of wealth and poverty. Such questions of identity and economics have been central to the works of the Zagreb-based WHW.

The artists that the group has brought together will be examining globalization and the effects of the economic meltdown.

Courtesy of the artist Jinoos Taghizadeh's "Paper, Rock, Scissors" (2009), one of the works included in this year's Istanbul Biennial.

"A lot of our work and even this biennial are very much about the struggles and questions of what is a European identity,'' Sabolovic said. "Look at our own country, Croatia. Our work is very much criticizing the blind obsession with being European that is shaping daily politics and the daily reality of people, the idea that the road to EU membership and liberal capitalism is the only path and a complete amnesia about any sort of socialist path.''

"Our collective,'' she added, "always tries to deal with the social and political topics which we feel are swept under the carpet."

To help find the range of works, the members of the collective traveled for a year and a half through Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, Central Asia and the Middle East. Many of the included pieces grew out of this journey of discovery while others came from artists and groups who have influenced and shaped the collective for the past 10 years.

Although WHW was catapulted into prime time when it was selected to curate the biennial, its members have tried to resist putting on a show that might be more market-oriented and less faithful to its core values of solidarity and collaboration.

"We really tried to resist reinventing ourselves," Sabolovic said. "We are not doing a loud, big, shiny overview of recent projects, but more really building of a thematic exhibition bringing together different generations of work by artists ranging in age from 27 to 76 and showing works from a very large time span, from 1965 to new works created for this show.''

"This is the most high-key, visible thing we've done and the pressure was on to produce something new," she said, "but it was really important for us at the same time to remain stubborn."

The biennial, organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts under the sponsorship of the Koç Group, takes place at three venues on the European side of the city: Antrepo, or warehouse, No. 3 in Tophane; the Tobacco Warehouse, also in Tophane; and the Feriköy Greek School, in Şişli.

Ticket information can be found here.


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