Environment takes centre stage at Sharjah Biennial

Sunday 30/04/2017
Survival topics. A view of the art works in Gallery 3 at Al Mureijah Square. (Sharjah Art Foundation)

Sharjah - The 13th Sharjah Biennial (SB13), with the theme “Tamawuj”, Arabic for “rising and falling waves,” is an attempt at decon­structing the concept of the bien­nial itself. It involves an education programme for “supporting the artistic and cultural landscape of the region,” said Hoor al-Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foun­dation (SAF), which is organising the event.

Tamawuj, which can also be in­terpreted as a flowing, swelling, surging or fluctuating and undulat­ing appearance, revolves around the key words of water, crops, earth and culinary, which form the basis of the displayed artwork by 70 international artists.

As is evident in the conceptual framework of SB13, the themes re­volving around environment and strategies of survival take centre stage. Survival also needs resist­ance methodologies to cope with the overwhelming contemporary uncertainties that societies and cul­tures worldwide face. These con­cerns are often accentuated in the Middle East.

SB13 used six SAF venues — Al Mureijah Square, Callig­raphy Square, Arts Square, the newly opened Al Hamriyah Stu­dios, the Flying Saucer and Old Sharjah Planetarium.

Act I of SB13 takes place in Shar­jah through June 12 while Act II and the closing event will be in the hometown of the event’s curator, Beirut-based Christine Tohme, in October.

An extended conversation is scheduled in Sharjah with artist Kader Attia, curators Lara Khaldi and Zeynep Oz and the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan.

Because of the way the theme has been structured, Tohme said “the artworks, which include 30 new commissions, can be seen to be conversing with each other.”

Qasimi notes that the works dis­played “offer new possibilities for understanding our role within the context of great uncertainty in the world today.”

Taiwanese duo Rain Wu and Eric Chen’s impressive site-specific installation “Collectivism 2016,” comprising 640 police shields, is displayed in the Art Square. The piece, inspired by the confrontation between students and police in Tai­wan, was first displayed at the Tai­pei Biennial. “It examines what it is to have a mass as well as ordered resistance,” Wu said.

In Sharjah, the structure en­closes a small garden and features a wooden platform enabling and inviting the public to walk through it despite the formidable outer core or one can peep through the view holes of the shields into the organic form of the small garden.

South African artist Dineo Se­shee Bopape’s mixed media in­stallation, “+/- 1791 (monument to the Haitian revolution 1791)” examines the healing and destruc­tive power of materials and how social change has a personal and spiritual dimension apart from socio-historical processes.

A stunning work comes from Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose “Saydnaya (the missing 19db)” is a sound installation that is part of a larger acoustic probe into the noto­rious Syrian prison 25km north of Damascus. This investigation docu­ments the chilling disappearance of voices and the transformation of the prison into a death camp.

Also staged during the opening week at SB13 was Abu Hamdan’s “Bird Watching,” an acoustic inves­tigation into the Saydnaya prison examining the politics of listening and the importance of the ear wit­ness.

Palestinian architect Khalil Ra­bah’s “Palestine after Palestine: New Sites for the Palestinian Mu­seum of Natural History and Hu­mankind Departments” explores the relationship between art and institutions. Rabah draws attention to the occupation of the Palestinian territories and to the resilience of sites and symbols that exist in spite of their contested states of being.

Iranian artist Abbas Akhavan, who lives in Toronto, is presenting three interrelated works at SB13 that explore gestures of aerial projec­tion and perspective. “Envelope” is a decommissioned hot air balloon that is occasionally inflated and is a symbol of the recurring process of rise and fall — a view of civilisation as well as the cycle of breath.

His work “Kids, Cats and 1 Dog” is a text work installed on the Gallery 1 rooftop and a call for rescue of the subjects from destructive develop­ments and from an Earth at tipping point.

Akhavan’s “Variations on a Gar­den” is an expression of another intense human desire to know and to be known by those who exist be­yond our immediate surroundings. The large photograph references the plaques carried on NASA’s Pio­neer 10 and 11 spacecraft launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s “The Great Silence” is profoundly moving, juxtaposing the Arecibo Observatory in Esper­anza, Puerto Rico, and the sur­rounding Riyo Abajo forest, home to the last wild population of en­dangered Amazona vittata parrots.

The three-channel, high-defini­tion video’s script is written from the parrots’ perspective, chroni­cling humankind’s quest to find in­telligent life by listening to signals from outer space. It is a tragic-com­ic viewpoint as the parrot species extends its love and admiration to humankind, which, on the other hand, is oblivious to them, their language and ecosystem, which is facing destruction.