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Thoughts on Thought Forms: Reactions to the 14th Istanbul Biennale

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FIG. 14. VAGUE RELIGIOUS FEELING: from Thought Forms, A. Besant & C.W. Leadbeater.

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The title of the 14th Istanbul Biennale is SaltWater: a Theory of Thought Forms. Curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev the exhibition includes colour plates from Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater’s book Thought Forms (1) which Christov-Bakargiev places in ‘The Channel’ a small area with artworks that are particularly resonant as a curatorial source.  In Bakargiev’s Documenta ‘The Brain’ served as the same device.

Besant is a fascinating figure, being at various times wife of a clergyman, a Fabian socialist, Marxist, and prominent member of the National Secular Society in Britain. As a political radical she participated in union activity and in 1877 she was prosecuted for collaboratively publishing a book on birth control. In 1889, she was asked to write a review on ‘The Secret Doctrine’, a book by H. P. Blavatsky. Besant was electrified and she became a member of the Theosophical Society moving away from Socialism. As part of her theosophy-related work, she travelled to India and was active in establishing schools and supporting the Indian Home Rule Movement during the First World War that led to her election as president of the India National Congress in late 1917.  At the same time as Besant’s political activities she maintained a mystic strand of life that included claiming her adopted son Jiddu Krishnamurti, was the new ‘World Teacher’ and incarnation of Buddha. The Radical Political Besant and the Spiritual Besant cannot be separated.

Besant met Charles Webster Leadbeater in 1894 (2). Together they conducted clairvoyant experiments and co-authored Thought Forms in 1901. The paintings in Thought Forms were executed by Mr John Varley, Mr Prince, and Miss Macfarlane, after Besant and Leadbeater’s visions. In the Istanbul Biennale, the colour plates from the book are only attributed to Besant and the date given is 1905.

What is a thought form? The Theosophist idea of a thought form can be seen as roughly the equivalent concept to the Tibetan Buddhist concept of a tulpa, an external manifestation of emotion, atmosphere and feeling. In her introduction to Thought Forms Besant mentions the Spirit photography experiments of Dr Baraduc (3). The idea that deep emotions and states like meditation and prayer can be ‘seen’ and depicted is the foundation of the book. This has a distinct and important implication for artists, and Kandinsky was famously interested in Theosophist ideas. Christov-Bakargiev emphasises that making the invisible visible and creating a visual language for thoughts and emotions are of profound significance still today and the images are of striking freshness.  It is easy to understand why Christov-Bakargiev included them, and titled the Biennale in homage to the Besant. What is difficult to understand is why in the next room of the Istanbul Modern, Lea Porsager has copied the illustrations in watercolour. The same size as the originals, and presented in a very similar way, what possible interest is there in the copies made in 2015? Although Porsager often works with occult ideas, the drawings are not illustrations of visions experienced by Porsager following the systems of Besant/Leadbeater, they add no further knowledge or creative interpretation and contribute nothing to the exhibition. They cannibalise a parallel system of understanding the world into the system of making contemporary art.

This shallow historical/political join the dots agenda is furthered throughout the exhibition where Christov-Bakargiev seems to use Armenian artists, reducing their diverse individual artistic practices to comments on their ethnicity and the one hundred year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. The 1963 Yolngu landrights petition is also included along with bark paintings from Yolngu artists. That the petition, while a powerful and fascinating historical document is contextualised as an artwork equivalent to Djambawa Marawili magnificent ‘Mundukul’ bark (2015), is symptomatic of Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorical approach. Throughout the Biennale scientific photographs, equipment and data, historical documents and archival material are included as equivalent to artworks, robbing both the documents of their political agency and the artworks of any relevance beyond illustration of a curatorial concept.