By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Nothing better sums up the theme of this year's vast Istanbul Biennial exhibition of contemporary art than Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen's "bangbangbang" featuring a replica of a wrecking ball swinging from a crane.
The exhibit is outside a former customs warehouse on the Bosphorus Strait, one of the historic structures due to be redeveloped as part of the government's rush to modernise the ancient Ottoman capital.
Plans to also redevelop Gezi Park, one of the city's rare green spots, and build a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks touched off street protests in May in Istanbul and other Turkish cities that left six dead and 8,000 injured.
As a response to the protests, plans to hold Turkey's biggest expo of contemporary art mostly at outdoor venues were dropped. Organisers moved the exhibits inside and scrapped entrance fees.
"Bringing the project inside was a genuine philosophical and artistic gesture," curator Fulya Erdemci said. "By withdrawing, we made a political statement. We said, 'Through our absence, we demonstrate our existence'."
The exhibition's title, "Mom, Am I Barbarian?", expresses the sense of alienation segments of Turkish society feel amid rapid political and economic change in a city of some 15 million people. Many of the works by almost 90 artists grapple with poverty, gentrification, city planning and migration.
The message of many of the pieces seems to have struck a chord. A record 270,000 people have visited the 13th edition of the Istanbul Biennial, which finishes on October 20.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is determined to leave his mark on the Istanbul cityscape, with grand plans for Turkey's biggest mosque atop a hill overlooking the Bosphorus, a third bridge linking its European and Asian shores and a shipping canal designed to rival Panama or Suez.
His critics see the plans as the aggrandising pet projects of an increasingly authoritarian leader.
SPECTRE OF GEZI
"They're taking from the poor to give to the rich," hip-hop artists rap in one of the installations - "Wonderland" by Turkish artist Halil Altindere - which depicts Roma youths settling scores after the state construction firm expropriated a Byzantine-era district to make room for luxury villas.
Moving indoors meant some works had to be abandoned, such as Dutch design studio Rietveld Landscape's plan for a light installation on the Ataturk Cultural Centre, an iconic building overlooking Gezi Park occupied by protesters during the riots and due for demolition.
Rietveld's alternative, set in a pitch-dark room and called "Intensive Care", is a tiny model of the theatre pulsating with light at the frequency of a patient breathing on life support.
Spontaneous artistic expression flourished during the three weeks when protesters occupied Gezi and graffiti lampooning Erdogan sprung up around town.
But some in Istanbul's art world fretted that the Biennial's retreat from the public domain and its dependence on corporate sponsorship meant it had abandoned Gezi's anti-capitalist ethic.
"How do we not cheapen what happened during Gezi, yet show that it is important?" said Kerimcan Guleryuz, who owns The Empire Project, an independent gallery by Taksim Square.
"I don't think that there was anything the Biennial could have done that was going to be clever enough, funny enough, smart enough, sensitive enough after what we saw in the public space this summer."
Erdemci, who directed the Istanbul Biennial for much of 1990s and most recently headed Amsterdam's Foundation for Art and Public Domain, said curating this year's festival during "a once-in-a-century civil awakening" was a mixed blessing.
"Some people expected me to be the curator of a revolution, not a biennale," she said. "But this biennale could never compete with Gezi, something that was larger than life." (Editing by Nick Tattersall, Michael Roddy and Alison Williams)