Saturday, November 9, 2013

A haunted schoolhouse

Visitors' voices lower instinctively to a hush upon entering the echoing central hall of the Ioakimion School for Girls in Istanbul's Fener neighborhood. Bright sunlight streams through the windows into rooms marked "Orta III" (Middle III) and "Kitaplık" (Library), where multicolored layers of paint peel off into abstract patterns. Desks worn smooth through decades of use sit primly in their rows, facing blackboards from which the final lessons were never erased.

Constructed in 1879 and used as a girls' high school until 1988, when the last six students graduated, the shuttered Ioakimion stands as just one of many melancholy monuments to an Istanbul that once was -- a multilingual, multicultural city full of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. The sense of sadness and loss that has seeped into the school's walls must have been attractive to Greek artist Kalliopi Lemos, whose installation "I Am I, Between Worlds and Between Shadows," a parallel event to the 13th Istanbul Biennial, has offered a rare chance to peek into the school between Sept. 11 and Nov. 10.

Lemos's exhibition, which consists of a piped-in soundtrack of children's voices and seven bronze sculptures of hobbled, headless, hanging, or disfigured human-animal hybrids, is meant to bring attention to "the status of women and children and the upholding of their self-respect and human dignity," according to the artist's statement. Though a worthy aim, this topic is not necessarily what first springs to mind upon viewing her sad grotesques, which is perhaps why Lemos added the overly didactic (if suited to the educational environment) touch of placing articles about violence against women and children on some of the classrooms' empty desks.

Without the interpretative materials provided by the artist, the sculptures in some ways take on an even greater burden, allowing the viewer to project onto their misshapen forms any kind of pain, torment, or alienation. The disturbing figures Lemos has created further haunt the school's abandoned rooms, their ugly scars like physical manifestations of the wounds of a nearly disappeared community and the city it once called home.

TO VISIT: The Ioakimion School for Girls (Fener Yoakimion Rum Kız Okulu) is located at Mektep Sok. 15 in Fener, below the more prominent Fener Greek High School (aka the "Red School"), and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.