Set to take place between 10 May and 10 June 2024, the Sixth Mardin Biennial invites visitors to look ‘Further Away…’ We spoke with its curator Ali Akay and co-director Döne Otyam about the intriguing line-up of world-class artists. We also explored the different perspectives the exhibition offers on problems that we think we have solved but which actually continue, insidiously, to plague the world.Photography: Nazlı Erdemirel

PAPER The earliest findings in Mardin date back to the Paleolithic Age (approximately 2 million to 12,000 years ago). What has impressed you most about this city?

ALİ AKAY: We are in a place that is considered to be the cradle of civilizations. This is where our current mindset and consciousness were established, and writing began. Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians lived here… In Sumerian, the word kalam means country. The similarity between the Turkish word kalem (pencil) and the Sumerian kalam is uncanny. Ancient history still exists in our language and our lives today. Mardin is a place where this is especially true. We are staring at the birthplace of Western civilization and law. With this show, we look across history and from afar to “Further Away”, to the birthplace of the Code of Hammurabi[1], for instance. The codes inscribed on a basalt stele were found in the city of Susa in Iran and are today housed in France’s Louvre Museum. These are the imperial codes of “Marduk”, the chief god of Babylon. Article one of the code reads as follows: “If a man accuses another man but cannot bring proof against him, his accuser shall be killed.” Such codes, which no longer have relevance today, have been forgotten. Like Napoleon’s, Hammurabi’s Code was also universal in his time. For the Biennial, we created a conceptual framework that aims to look at this geography and beyond while considering contemporary problems.

DÖNE OTYAM: Built on an old sun temple dating back to the second millennium BCE, the Deyrulzafaran Monastery holds a very important place in Assyrian history. The most fascinating thing about Mardin, for me, is the spatial and demographic change that occurred in 1932: the relocation of the Ancient Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate from Mardin to Damascus. Despite being the capital of all Assyrians in the world, Mardin’s leaders voluntarily relinquished this title to Damascus after holding it for approximately 640 years. This event marked the beginning of an irreversible change and transformation in Mardin. Since then, the city has been losing its Assyrian population.

P: The Mardin Biennial has a long history. In the beginning, 14 years ago, why did you choose this city  to host the Biennial? What factors played a role in your choice?

DO: I hope the Biennial will flourish for many years to come. It’s a bit of a coincidence that Mardin was chosen. I worked for the GAP [2] Administration for a while. During that period, I travelled in the region frequently for work. I developed a strange bond with this place, a strange fondness for it. It’s hard to describe. It’s as if I have had this mission for a long time – for everyone to see, experience and know its places.

After leaving the GAP project, the Governorship of Mardin and the GAP Administration asked if I would hold a Fikret Otyam exhibition in the city. We built on this idea and came up with a biennial concept with my artist friend Ferhat Özgür. This was another opportunity to work for the promotion of the region. I started going there more often and Mardin began to feel like home to me. I was familiar with the region from my father’s (Fikret Otyam) accounts, but experiencing it and seeing it personally is something else. I heard new stories and met new people every time I was there. And I was surprised every time.

You have to take your time walking down those narrow streets, going in and out of shops, listening to people. This is a legacy from my father that I cherish. You must listen to the unique and sad stories of a university graduate who runs a hardware store. You have to walk down another narrow street contemplating that story. Mardin is different… The people are different. I’m glad it turned out like this.

P: Where do you like to go, and what do you like to do in the city? Ali, when did you first come to Mardin? What does it mean to you?

AA: My first trip to Mardin was in the early 2000s and I came a few more times in the following years. Once, Döne invited me to the opening of a biennial. That was an eye-opener for me. I realised how important the organisation was.

DO: First of all, I like to dine with my friends in beautiful places. Over the past 15 years, I have discovered new places, new villages and new churches every time I’ve gone. It has always been very inspiring for me. Mardin really always has something more to offer. What I love most is spending time at the Carpenters Coffee House and just observing the scene. Looking around the typical Mardin house where you can see my jeweller friend Metin Ezilmez’s collection. Going to Savur and spending time by the stove in Perili Köşk. These are just a few of the things I love to do.

We look ‘further away’ with the Sixth Mardin Biennial.

“Where can we look to find ways of breaking out of our limitations in the face of threats to our freedom? And how can we find ways to understand the globalised past of societies?”

P: What are the threats that infringe on our freedoms?

  • The extreme right gaining power, especially in Europe, without the intellectual acumen of, say, the 1920s
  • Growing cities, booming populations
  • Climate crisis and Nature’s rebellion and we are only experiencing the very  beginning of this series of phenomena
  • New interpretations of what it means to be a family
  • Issues around women’s rights
  • New understandings of personal and collective identity
  • Ongoing struggles with colonialism
  • Failure to prevent wars between factions

AA: All these problems point to extreme situations. By looking beyond these issues, the Biennial poses a series of questions starting with: How can we think further and beyond our traditional models? and presents the creative perspectives and solutions of international artists.

P: Earlier you said that Mardin Plain looks like a sea when viewed from the exhibition venues, allowing part of Mardin to be detached from Mardin, as a whole, and treated like a different geography. Can you elaborate on this idea?

AA: Actually, I was pointing to a phenomenon that is conspicuous to everyone here. This misleading vantage point pulls the viewer into a fantasy that seems to alter the material structure of its geography. The land is thought to be the sea. In the history of European martial law, the rules of war on land and at sea are quite distinct. So even though it is a mirage, of sorts, this way of seeing the city’s geography seems to combine the two – land and sea, and the discrete types of law that rules each domain. In our imaginations, this allows us to think more creatively about the distinctive place that is Mardin.

No matter how long you live, philosophy maintains the balance between pleasure and pain with its effects on the soul and body. Ali Akay

P: The concept of katastema is mentioned in the Biennial theme. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus defines katastema as a moment of painlessness and tranquillity. How do you present this concept in the Biennial?

AA: Yes, I think we have a lot to learn from Epicurus. The ancient philosopher thought of ways to deal with pain and curb our thirst for pleasure. He suggested freeing ourselves from our ambition, from superstition, accepting the impermanence of the soul, and so forth. As he wrote at the beginning of his “Letter to Monoeceus,” philosophy is good for the body and soul. At no age is it too early or too late to study philosophy. Reading and thinking make young people wiser and old people younger. No matter how long you live, this study maintains the balance between pleasure and pain with its effects on the soul and body. Therefore, it helps to cultivate katastema and serenity of the soul. I think we need this kind of discipline and wisdom to look “further” than the nearest horizon.

P: Have you experienced any katastematic moments in your own lives?

AA: I think it’s fascinating that our lives shift between finding and losing moments of tranquility in both  body and soul. Moments are events in their own right. The essential aspect of events in our lives may be hiding in one of those moments. It is extremely difficult to find.

DO: Yes, it is an increasing challenge in modern times filled with the “static” of technology, for instance, to find those moments, but I can say that spending time alone and taking time to reflect is our best hope for finding that katastema.

P: Artists whose works will be exhibited at the 6th Mardin Biennial include Ahmet Öğüt, Ali Kazma, Allan Sekula, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Ayşe Erkmen, Bouchra Khalili, Brice Dellsperger, Bruno Serralongu, Büke Uras, Cevdet Erek, Claire Fontaine Collective (Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill), Claude Closky, Erik Bullot, Esma Ertel and Murat Ertel, Güçlü Öztekin, Güneş Terkol, İnci Eviner, İnci Furni, İrem Günaydın, Laurent Grasso, Le Peuple Qui Manque Kolektifi (Aliocha Imhoff and Kuantuta Quiros), Liam Gillick, Michele Ciacciofera, Mika Rottenberg, Nasan Tur, Nil Yalter, M/M (Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak), Özlem Altın, Rafael Lain – Angela Detanico, Sarkis, Serkan Özkaya, Seza Paker, Tarek Atoui, Ugo Rondinone, Thierry Kuntzel, Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), Victor Burgin, Yıldız Moran and Yüksel Arslan. What do these artists have in common?

AA: What they have in common is that they are all great artists.

DO: It’s the same for all of these remarkable artists… How will they look further?

[1] The Code of Hammurabi is the oldest and best-preserved legal text known to date. The laws were written in Babylon, Mesopotamia, around 1760 BC and contain the decisions of King Hammurabi to establish justice.

[2] The Southeastern Anatolia Project is an integrated, multisector regional development project based on the concept of sustainable development for people living in that region of Turkey.