Identity in Transit: Moving, being, and seeing with island6
Contemporary Istanbul 2014
Off to Istanbul! November 2014 marks the 9th edition of Contemporary Istanbul and Liu Dao’s second trip to the rapidly growing art fair.
Being ever inspired by our varied surroundings and wanderlust, the Liu Dao collective has taken the history and culture of this ancient city to heart. It could be common to think that the western ending point for the legendary Silk Road would be Rome, which imported delicate Chinese silk until the 3rd century. However, from the 4th century and onwards, the “Rome” to which all roads led was Constantinople, built on the fabled foundations of Byzantium. Even before its eventual Ottoman conquest, the wealth of Constantinople was legendary, and its location ensured its very important role with Eastern trade. Later renamed Istanbul by the Turks, the city - rising like a phoenix, once again became the capitol of a great empire and played a pivotal role in east-west cultural and economic exchange. What’s not to be inspired by?? Enraptured by the fascinating narrative of Istanbul, Liu Dao began to meditate on all of the items and information that meandered their way down Silk Road paths…
Humanity has produced images for millennia: crosshatching is incised in clay, gold is formed into myriad shapes, oil is flung across canvas, LED dances behind paper. Visual culture – art – this simultaneously abstract concept and material reality, is not a mere by-product of identity, but a source and foundation that continually evolves with the needs of its producers and consumers – us. This visual culture, this torch of our very essence, has been jostled over beaten paths and foaming waters for as long as we have created it. Cultural, national, and individual identities have been exchanged hand over fist in our increasingly homogenous global culture.
The legendary Silk Road, the Dzungarian Gate, the Pan-American Highway, DHL, the worldwide web, we have literally moved mountains and airwaves to connect to one another. Of planes, trains, and automobiles, the later is most closely tied to personal freedom, the freedom to move one’s self and one’s life over roads we’ve built for that express purpose. The Autobahn, Germany’s famed high-velocity highway, plays host to an average of 50,000 vehicles on each of its 999 segments every day, and it’s merely the third largest road system in the world. Humanity is constantly hurling itself around the globe, and we drag our culture – visual, communal, personal – with us everywhere we go. One of the earliest and most legendary paths for cultural transmission was the Silk Road, which was never razed or forgotten, but simply morphed to suit the rambles of the modern age.
Modern-day Istanbul encapsulates this concept of syncretic identity and exchange as it has continually re-woven its global position over millennia. First, Byzantium, a Greek trade center with mystical origins. Next, Constantinople, Eastern capitol of many a world power, home to golden-encrusted walls and obelisks torn from Egypt. Today, Istanbul, a transcontinental megacity with a diverse industrial economy that churns out everything from olive oil to transport vehicles. Istanbul stands as a glittering example of how quickly the nexus of identity can reshape itself. Under immutable shifting sands, where do we look for self-referential epicenters of identity?
The car, this hunk of metal and rubber where so many scenes of our lives play out, seems like a logical place to look for cultural identity. The word itself belies how closely cars are tied to our sense of self. “Automobile” is a classical compound derived from the Ancient Greek autós (αὐτός), meaning “self,” and the Latin mobilis, “movable.” Cars are literally our movable selves. We go through great lengths to perpetually improve the automobile – more gas power, no gas power, more seating, less seating. Indeed, the lifestyles and trends of the globe’s citizens can be encapsulated by what moves us around at any particular moment.
Watery photographs of mid-century cities in China depict rickshaws shuffling down beaten mud roads and sullen faces looking through the camera’s lens. Pick up a slicked postcard of today’s Shanghai, and you’ll be confronted with an array of flickering LEDs, behemoth construction, and the glaring sheen of the nouveau riche reflected in the hood of the latest BMW model. The leap forward in Chinese car culture has been staggering. In the year 1985, China produced only a total of 5,200 cars. Today, the PRC is the world’s largest producer of automobiles, and not by a margin, but by a gaping chasm. The world is on the move, and we need our leather interiors and meretricious hood ornaments to keep up with us.
The car, traditionally a private space, is here made public. The LCD windows of Liu Dao’s cars are not just openings in canvas, but a platform for the diverse theatre of human existence and interaction. “Undercover Lives” illustrates how quickly our moral standings can fall away in the name of companionship. So too do the glamorous badge-bearing babes of “Just As Much As” skew social responsibility in the name of vanity. Viewer interaction triggers two very different displays of human interaction in “Backseat Baby” and “Mischief Opera.” “Love It or Take It” and “Talbot Lago Tango” ooze the glamorous ennui of bygone days, when even shiny new vehicles couldn’t slate man’s thirst for the latest and greatest.
Equally as powerful as transit is the power of looking. Eyes act as gaping, hungry mouths in the ceaseless banquet of visual culture that hounds our everyday lives. “Nazar from Near and Far” looks with such force that it’s almost unsettling, revealing our delicate relationship with eyes and the power of sight. The repose of the protagonist of “A Slight, a Shift” suggests the weariness of those whose eyes have seen too much come and go. Shisha, that languorous and inherently sensual pastime, is here lionized in acrylic and LED, its faithful smoldering allure intact after so many centuries.
Millennia of existence are dusted off of an ancient Roman aryballos in “Hushed Little Whispers of What’s to Come.” The vessel has lived a multitude of lives in its two thousand years on the globe, and now finds itself the subject of perpetual dusting at the hands of an insistent maid. Dirt isn’t the only thing released in the carpet scene of “Dust and Other Existential Issues.” Textiles have long served as ambassadors of cultural belief systems as they have been woven with layers of iconography by careful hands and shuffled across borders on the backs of juments, and now in the musty trunks of the ubiquitous automobile.
Through voyeuristic windshields and the angled tips of paintbrushes, and with their signature international humor, Liu Dao explores how identity and its harbinger, visual culture, has ebbed and flowed, crashed and burned, and perpetually reformed itself through the veins of today’s commercial and cultural exchange systems, just as it has done for millennia. Metropolises like Istanbul provide an ideal backdrop to expand on these concepts. As Istanbul is one (out of five) of the truly transcontinental cities in the world, Liu Dao was drawn like a moth to the flame. The continual passage of merchants, travellers, artists, and craftsmen from East to West who docked at the city’s harbors is a vital component of the city’s history and identity, ensuring that Istanbul remained a center of trade and exchange, even long after the Silk Road was traveled.
Continuing in the spirit of international exchange, this year’s fair takes place from November 13th to the 16th at the Istanbul Congress Center (ICC) and the Istanbul Convention & Exhibition Center (ICEC). The Contemporary Istanbul fair is now the leading international art fair in Turkey, bringing both a local and international focus to the dynamic art scene in such a vibrant metropolis. Liu Dao took part in the “New Horizons” section of the 2014 installment of the fair, which offers an annual focus of contemporary art from a selected geographical region – with 2014's focus being China.