Sharjah Biennial 9

Haig Aivazian, Fugere (A Series Of Olympiadic Moments), 2009. Courtesy the artist

Sharjah Biennial 9
Various venues
March 19—May 16, 2009

In the spring of 2009, the Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai coincided for the first time, and if the simultaneous scheduling was provoked more by competition than by cooperation, it proved to be productive in turning the attention of the world to artistic ambitions in the Gulf. Too often, conversations about cultural projects in the UAE are cast in the future tense; the concurrency of Sharjah and Art Dubai effectively pulled the debate back into the present and even shed some light on the past. The Biennial in particular tackled notions of temporality head on, with an exhibition curated by Isabel Carlos titled ‘Provisions for the Future’ and a performance program curated by Tarek Abou titled 'Past of the Coming Days,’ both grappling with the idea that any given moment in time holds within it an experience of what has been and a foretaste of what will be.

Established in 1993 and revamped in 2003, the Sharjah Biennial has its own history to build on. Artistic director Jack Persekian has already experimented with the format twice before. In 2005, he enlisted curator Tirdad Zolghadr and artist Ken Lum to organize a remarkably tight exhibition, in which the theme of “belonging” resonated powerfully and poetically in a series of well-paced works. In 2007, Persekian brought in Mohammad Kazem, Eva Scharrer, and Jonathan Watkins to test out a more complicated curatorial concept. The title of that edition was ‘Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change,’ and, despite mind-bending works by Group Tuesday and a gorgeous, site-specific performance by Amal Kenawy, the exhibition was a mess.

For this, the ninth edition, Persekian decided to try something new. Instead of the event being curated in the conventional sense, the biennial put out an open call for proposals from artists and non-artists alike. From a pool of about five hundred submissions, some thirty proposals were selected for the biennial’s production program, and the bifurcated structure developed from there, with a final list of sixty artists in the exhibition and thirty in the performance program.

In addition to the high percentage of works that had never before been seen, the biennial distinguished itself by finally, tenderly, embracing its context. This was expressed literally, in the installation of works in spaces throughout the arts and heritage areas of the city, and metaphorically, in the ways in which artists engaged with Sharjah’s street life as a subject in and of itself.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, for example, exhibited a twenty-five-minute split-screen video installation titled Rendezvous, which grew out of a series of Super 8 and 16mm films he made as one of Sharjah’s first artists in residence in 2005. Hung opposite each other in a darkened room, the screens showed, on one side, video portraits of men — construction workers, mechanics, technology consultants, company managers — living and working in the UAE, and, on the other, video portraits of their families — wives, mothers, sisters, children — in front of their homes in the Indian state of Kerala. The positioning of the screens served to reunite these men with their families while underscoring the distance between them. Integrated with an ambient sound design, the piece emanated dignity, humor, and sorrow all at once. It didn’t marshal the migrant workforce for the sake of a cheap or sensational critique; rather, it articulated an economic condition, and it took its time, allowing each subject to express the emotional complexities of, say, a marriage, a separation, a duty, or a bond.

Another piece beautifully stitched into Sharjah’s urban fabric was Wharfage (Leaving Sharjah) by the Mumbai-based group of artists, filmmakers, and thinkers known as CAMP. Part of a longer-term research project examining the trajectories of the dhow trade between Salaya (in Gujarat, where the wooden ships are built), Sharjah Creek, and the semi-state entities within Somalia, Wharfage consisted of two parts: a book that was distributed during the biennial and a radio broadcast that was conducted over the course of four evenings from the old Sharjah port. Together the two elements explored the movement of goods, bodies, information, and ideas; cracked open the concepts of free trade and cheap ports; and considered all of them plotted along a route that is, due to the most modest economies of scale, proving itself quite resilient to financial meltdown, civil war, and piracy.

The Wharfage book consisted of the manifests of ships, long lists of goods, photographs, texts — a litany of possible narratives. One such narrative was an anecdote about a Yemeni trader who apparently used his connections with Somali traders to single-handedly reroute much of the trade moving through Dubai’s creek to Sharjah’s in the past year. Also explored were the stories lingering between the lines — asbestos, ceramic tiles, school stationery, matches, briefcases, macaroni, mango juice, and Mitsubishi Canters — on a vessel’s record of transported goods.

For the radio broadcast, CAMP set up a station for two nights on the MSV Nazre Karam, a dhow docked at the port, and for two nights on the pavement just in front of the ship. Taking over the airwaves of a local station, CAMP broadcast radio chats between ships in the Salaya and Mandvi channels; phone calls to Boosaaso, in Somalia; and interviews with local Iranian shopkeepers, the crew of the MSV Nazre Karam, and dock loaders from Pakistan. The radio show also featured music — Bollywood anthems, Qawwali songs, South Asian pop — that was collected or sent by Bluetooth from friends, fellow artists, sailors, traders, merchants, and more. In a rather genius dialogical move, CAMP also took the field recordings collected for the last Sharjah Biennial by the group e-xplo (for the sound installation I LOVE to YOU: Workers’ Voices in the UAE) and played them back to the audience, who had donated them to begin with. CAMP’s project, which deservedly won the biennial’s grand prize, not only embedded itself in the city, but also opened up an entire ecosystem for aesthetic consideration. It pushed the boundaries of performance and exemplified Tarek Abou El Fetouh’s success in generating the rhythms and patterns of a dynamic, historically striated cultural life.

For his portion of the biennial, Fetouh proposed a number of ideas — contemporary art is no longer served by distinctions among disciplines; time-based performance is equal to object-based art; we’re living in a post-medium situation now — that were expertly picked up, expounded upon, and problematized in the very works he selected. Rabih Mroué’s performance piece masquerading as an artist’s talk, for example, was punctuated by the following questions: “Can I consider myself a visual artist, or am I merely an intruder in this field? Is it possible to sell a performance to a museum? Is it possible to sell ideas rather than objects? What differentiates a visual artwork from a performance piece? How can we protect our work from being appropriated, or is it the fate of any artwork to be claimed and used, no matter how revolutionary or vulgar or violent?” The work, titled Theater with Dirty Feet, unpacked a series of tough intellectual concepts and suggested several different strategies for the incorporation of time into contemporary art.

The case against specification of mediums is, of course, nothing new, but the prospect of emboldening the criticality and contemporaneity of performance — particularly in the Arab world, where theatrical tradition, verbal culture, and the art of storytelling are so strong — gave Fetouh’s program a radical edge, as did his decision to stage many of the works for ‘Past of the Coming Days’ in theater spaces that have been functional in Sharjah for years, even decades.

In past years, the biennial’s exhibition was confined to the Sharjah Art Museum and the Sharjah Expo Center, a space the size of an airplane hangar, with no character at all. This time, organizers thankfully ditched the latter venue. True, the Sharjah Art Museum and its sister venue, the Sharjah Museum for Arabic Contemporary Art, were a bit too confining, squeezing works into the spatial equivalent of market stalls that run up and down a rigid series of ramps. But the old rooms of the Serkal House, all wooded beams and stained glass, were wonderful additions to the biennial experience. Nida Sinnokrot’s installation West Bank Butterfly, Hayv Kahraman’s series of paintings Domesticated Marionettes, and Sharif Waked’s beguiling video To Be Continued all benefitted from their placement there.

Biennials are always a mixed bag, and the ninth edition of Sharjah included a lot of filler — works that seemed bland and inconsequential, taking up space. But the exhibition fielded a respectable number of hits, including Haris Epaminonda’s enigmatic series 'Polaroids’; Hamra Abbas’s miniature paintings collectively called God Grows on Trees, which used portraits of ninety-nine school children in Pakistan to illustrate the ninety-nine names of God in Islam; Simryn Gill’s touchable balls that made the texts of Mahatma Gandhi; Sheela Gowda’s site-specific reflecting pool, which filled an alleyway between the two museum buildings; Maider López’s football pitch and potable water fountain; José Luis Martinat’s terrific installation of drawings, for which he asked street artists in Lima to draw his portrait and imagine the scene of his death; and Lamia Joreige’s triumph of technology and visual poetry in the installation 3 Triptychs, a work marred only by the didactic inclusion of Jalal Toufic’s book Forthcoming, replete with passages marked for visitors to read.

During a press conference for the opening, Persekian stressed the fact that this biennial was about process rather than product, about making rather than showcasing works of art. Arguably this should always be the case. But Persekian and his team deserve credit for actually pulling it off. It will be interesting to see whether the biennial can shift from being an event to being an entity, whether the performance and production programs can be spun off into their own autonomous organizations, and whether Sharjah can one day summon the courage to drop the biennial format altogether to concentrate on keeping the local art scene active, open to the public, and engaged with the city all year round.