Istanbul—What makes a good neighbour? Is a good neighbour someone who reads the same newspaper as you? Is a good neighbour a stranger you don’t fear? The 15th Istanbul Biennial, curated this year by Scandinavia duo Elmgreen & Dragset, attempts to answer these and other questions through an exhibition that features 55 artists from 32 countries set across 6 venues, concentrated in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, all within walking distance from one another.

One of the main exhibition venues is the Galata Greek Public School, which includes one of the most captivating works in the Biennial—Bilal Yilmaz’s Dirty Box (2016)—a work that pays homage to Istanbul’s neighbourhoods in the form of a “mechanical shadow box,” a multimedia installation that outlines recognizable patterns of Istanbul’s streets projected onto a wall, adjacent to images of the craftspeople that inhabit them. The work features images taken by the artist of a local woodturner, metalsmith, carpenter and a manufacturer, lamenting the disappearance of these local craft traditions as a result of Istanbul’s hyper-gentrification.

Other works in the exhibition speak to the displacement not of labour, but of people, notably Volkan Aslan’s video installation Home Sweet Home (2017), installed at Istanbul Modern as well as a satellite location of the Elgiz Museum on the Greek island of Lesvos. In it, the artist approaches the theme of displacement meditatively, portraying a long female subject who is forced to come to terms with living precariously on a boat along the Bosporus.

Investigating the impact of the estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey, Victor Leguy’s installation Structures for Invisible Borders (2016-17) examines the histories and material traces of refugees in a series of exchanges the artist developed while living in Istanbul. For the project, Leguy frequented a library, coffee shop and bookstore known as The Pages, which is located in the Fender neighbourhood of Istanbul, one of the city’s oldest districts. Through the relationships he built there, Leguy was able to exchange personal objects he then treated with white paint and installed at Istanbul Modern, in what I saw as recalling the symbolic invisibility—or ‘whitewashing’—of the narratives and histories of the millions of Syrian refugees currently displaced within Turkey.

If the biennial was anything, it was approachable and intimate, except in the monumental mural by Latifa Echakhch, a mural that reflects on the decaying state of democracy and recent global measures limiting the public’s ability to gather and protest. Entitled Crowd Fade (2017), the site-specific installation consists of two large crumbling fresco paintings of figures gathered in public space, subsequently chipped away leaving only very small traces of their visibility, a sort of effigy to freedom of speech and expression.

As with most large-scale international art exhibitions, there were a number of parallel events that opened during the biennial seeking to take advantage of the visibility it provides. Over at MarsIstanbul, a group exhibition entitled “Collateral,” perhaps referencing the title of the infamous Wikileaks video “Collateral Damage,” features a number of politically urgent works by Issa Touma, Erkan Özgen, Chto Delat? and Pinar Ögrenci. Curated by Artists at Risk, a collective non-profit founded by Ivor Stodolsky and Marita Muukkonen that aims to provide material support—such as exhibitions, residencies, visa applications and other critical support services—to artists who face acute political threat in their home countries, the exhibition is exemplary not just because it typifies what it means to be a good neighbour, but also because it typifies what it means to be a good curator: socially aware and engaged in long-term progressive projects.

Both inside and outside the official program, the 15th Istanbul Biennial explores how perceptions of home and belonging, togetherness and solidarity, can co-exist and even thrive despite the persistence of authoritarian regimes. Navigating the obvious political and institutional restraints of working within Turkey today, none of the works directly criticize Erdogan nor his party, the biennial assembles works that activate public debate but does so in markedly non-confrontational, more subtle and nuanced way, effectively providing a platform and amplification for artists at time when they need it most.

Featured image: Lawn 1, 2016/17 Wood, 3.168 broken Coca Cola glass bottles, petrol, ink 25.5 x 484 x 366 cm.  Courtesy of the artist Photograph: Sahir Uğur Eren