Sharjah 10: a report from the Emirates - Art - Domus
Sharjah 10: a report from the Emirates
 

Sharjah 10: a report from the Emirates

The biennial's most compelling work is unlikely to be understood as status-symbol art.

 

Art / Gabi Scardi

Launched in 1993, the Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates, was a precursor to the interest in art that is now in evidence across the whole region. Over the course of the years, it has undergone continual metamorphosis and grown considerably—from a more locally and traditionally orientated exhibition to a mature and well-defined event operating at a decidedly international level—today it proves to be the most interesting exhibition in the area and the one least geared towards regarding art as a status symbol.

Now in its tenth edition, this year for the second time it was held simultaneously with the fair in Dubai, a well-conceived convergence that has contributed to it being fully appreciated on the international art circuit, attracting an international audience of art globe-trotters to the Emirates. It has however maintained, and in this edition reinforced, the focus on the macro-region that includes the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Asia and this is precisely what makes it interesting; Sharjah is one of the few biennials where you find not only the omnipresent "must-have" artists, but also an extremely distinctive selection that aims to take stock of a specific panorama. Its strong point therefore is that it identifies and brings to light artists that are still little-known to an international audience.

This edition was curated by Suzanne Cotter, curator of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim and by Rasha Salti, the creative director of the New York not-for-profit organisation ArteEast, with the help of Haig Aivazian and was presented in various locations within a large area but all accessible on foot.

Bahar Behbahani and Almagul Menlibayeva, <i>Ride the Caspian</i>
2011 | 2-channel video installation, HD in colour, surround sound, digital photographs mounted on wall Coproduced by Open Society Institute Budapest—Art and Culture Network Program, Priska C. Juschka Fine Art and Sharjah Art Foundation.

Bahar Behbahani and Almagul Menlibayeva, Ride the Caspian 2011 | 2-channel video installation, HD in colour, surround sound, digital photographs mounted on wall Coproduced by Open Society Institute Budapest—Art and Culture Network Program, Priska C. Juschka Fine Art and Sharjah Art Foundation.

In truth, the somewhat intriguing theme "Plot for a Biennial", proved to be untraceable in the layout of the exhibition. The works however, mostly displaying political or social content, were eloquent and reflect the situation in the area. With evident gaps that underline the fact that in Arab countries at the moment, history is developing faster than art can be produced.

One only has to think of Rokni Haerizadeh who draws on media iconography relative to the tense public life of his native country, Iran, and carries out an operation that bears the marks of a long tradition in the history of expression in both east and west; attributing animal physiognomy to the protagonists of news images and in doing so reveals the animal—the otherness—that is part of us, or conversely, expressing man becoming animal to indicate his aggressive charge: a charge that can flare up into violence. Rokni Haerizadeh now lives in the Arab Emirates and claims that it would not be easy for him to return to Iran and he would certainly not be able to show his work there. He is not the only artist who can express himself only where he is a foreigner. A number of others are in the same situation, including Iranian artist Bahar Behbahani who together with Almagul Menlibayeva made the video installation Ride the Caspian, a kind of dialogue on power based on two mythological figures, the fox-woman and the bird-woman, and on symbols belonging to the culture of ancient Persia and Kazakhstan.

Bouchra Khalili, <i>The Mapping Journey Project</i>, 2008–2011, 8 videos and printed map mounted on the wall.

Bouchra Khalili, The Mapping Journey Project, 2008–2011, 8 videos and printed map mounted on the wall.

The work of Amar Kanwar is more intimate, a plain and minimal installation made up of videos, photographs and objects made in praise of a modest Burmese bookseller, Ko Than Htay who was imprisoned for removing the front page from the books he sold, containing ideological slogans of the military regime: it is a highly poetic piece, stark but intense, an ode to all who struggle daily for democracy.

The work of Bouchra Khalili meanwhile, regards the whole world; she asked a number of illegal immigrants to trace on a map the journey from their native country to the one they reached and to describe it in their own language. The result is eight videos illustrating the tortuous travels of people with no documents and therefore no rights. What emerges is a unique and original cartography, of those who in search of rights, well-being—or simply the prospect of earning enough to live on—come up against restrictions, controls and the politics of exclusion. With barely concealed clandestineness they cross geo-political borders that are paradoxically increasingly flexible and increasingly reinforced, more open to goods that circulate frenetically, than to people who move with a kind of monitored freedom.

 
Sharjah is one of the few biennials where you find not only the omnipresent “must-have” artists, but also an extremely distinctive selection that aims to take stock of a specific panorama.
 
Imran Qureshi, <i>Moderate Enlightenment,</i> 2005–2010, 16 paintings (from a series of 20) Opaque watercolour on wasli paper Courtesy of Aicon Gallery; Asal Collection Limited; Canvas Gallery, Pakistan; Khanna Family Collection; MAXXI Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome; Ali and Amna Naqvi; Private Collection; The Rachofsky Collection; Roddy and Kumiko Ropner; Julie Thornton.

Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment, 2005–2010, 16 paintings (from a series of 20) Opaque watercolour on wasli paper Courtesy of Aicon Gallery; Asal Collection Limited; Canvas Gallery, Pakistan; Khanna Family Collection; MAXXI Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome; Ali and Amna Naqvi; Private Collection; The Rachofsky Collection; Roddy and Kumiko Ropner; Julie Thornton.

A great many works of relevance were on show, some powerful ones such as Face Scripting: What Did The Building See? by Eyal Weizman, Shumon Basar and Jane and Louise Wilson—a theorist, a writer and two video artists—who combined their various skills to tell the story of the killing of a prominent figure of the Hamas, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, perpetrated by members of the Mossad in Dubai a year ago. Over the course of a few days the turn of events was reconstructed by the police services in minute detail, the protagonists identified thanks to the most up-to-date surveillance and identifications systems in existence, all diffused via a spectacular press conference and put into circulation via the Internet. The artists responded to the video by putting it with another video based on the idea of the threshold and the non-place, featuring elements such as turnstiles and sliding doors, airport lounges, hotels and long corridors; while Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is about to be killed, a narrating voice poses vital questions. It is a video of great form and high emotional intensity, that speaks of themes of control and espionage in the age of technology and show-business!

Imran Qureshi, <i>Blessings Upon the Land of my Love</i>, 2011. Site-specific installation, emulsion and acrylic on brick Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation.

Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of my Love, 2011. Site-specific installation, emulsion and acrylic on brick Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation.

Another extraordinarily powerful piece was the film by Harun FarockiVideograms of a Revolution, a documentary of the Romanian revolution from 1989 made by assembling fragments of amateur videos and clips of television programmes. For an hour non-stop we witness the coming together of individuals, the catalysing of forces and desperation, moments of dark repression, of the involuntary but great heroism of those who find themselves involved, up to the catharsis. It speaks of revolution, but there are also revolutions of customs, Yto Barrada in Family Tree presents an enlarged copy of a recipe book where his illiterate grandmother jotted down names and telephones of friends with her own personal method: a way of writing and numbering invented with the aim of recovering the distance that separated her from a world subject to continuous leaps forward.

Shumon Basar, Eyal Weizman, Jane and Louise Wilson, <i>Face Scripting: What Did the Building See?</i>, 2011. Single screen projection, surround sound, gauze box, 2 mirrors, HD projector, CCTV monitor showing footage from YouTube Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation, co-produced by the Farook Foundation with Mohammed Hafiz & Dalia Asaad and Luis Augusto Teixeira de Freitas.
Thanks to Nick Joyce/Enigma FX for in-kind sponsorship.

Shumon Basar, Eyal Weizman, Jane and Louise Wilson, Face Scripting: What Did the Building See?, 2011. Single screen projection, surround sound, gauze box, 2 mirrors, HD projector, CCTV monitor showing footage from YouTube Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation, co-produced by the Farook Foundation with Mohammed Hafiz & Dalia Asaad and Luis Augusto Teixeira de Freitas. Thanks to Nick Joyce/Enigma FX for in-kind sponsorship.

Jack Persekian opened the press conference by dedicating the Biennial to the spirit of change that is crossing the Arab world. However, one said that today art is behind history. Neither on the other hand would that free spirit be given easy passage in this context based on separation and extreme conservatism; one only has to note that a number of artists protested against the Emirati dispatch of troops to aid the government in Bahrain engaged in the repression of an uprising; for having exposed pages with names of protesters killed, some were interrogated at length. As well as Qureshi's drawings, the Biennial presented the site-specific work Blessings Upon the Land of my Love made in the courtyard of the Bait Al Serkal: the artist filled the floor of the courtyard with a decorative pattern of large dark red flowers that tend to break up into something indistinct that ends up evoking clotted blood. It is a piece that transforms the void of the courtyard into a cry and that has the universal magnitude of a parable.

It is precisely the rigorous set-up of the Biennial, with the presence of many works of political significance that brings out the contradictions: contradictions that have to do with the identity of the region, with what art is and the system that art is part of. In this biennial, history is reflected through a filter. But the works speak beyond the immediate meaning and the symbols are not inert, but rather always active. And to bring out silences and contradictions is no small thing.
Gabi Scardi

Yto Barrada, <i>Family Tree</i>, 2010. Colour C-print Courtesy of the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg, and Polaris, Paris. Produced by Sharjah Art Foundation.

Yto Barrada, Family Tree, 2010. Colour C-print Courtesy of the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg, and Polaris, Paris. Produced by Sharjah Art Foundation.

Sharjah International Biennial 7
Sharjah 10: interview with Jack Persekian
 

Sharjah 10: interview with Jack Persekian

The artistic director of the Biennial shares his vision for the Arab world's most international art event.

 

Interviews / Massimiliano Gioni

Sharjah 10: Plot for a Biennial

Suzanne Cotter, curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and Rasha Salti, creative director at ArteEast, recount their biennial.

 

Interviews / Massimiliano Gioni

Journey through new Polish art
 

Journey through new Polish art

Unlike much of the rest of Europe, Poland is undergoing intensive development and even its art scene is booming.

 

Art / Gabi Scardi