The evolving showcase of the Sharjah Biennial
DUBAI - Art, according to Oscar Wilde, is the most intense form of individualism. And in nation-states where individuals struggle to cope with conflicts both internal and political, art becomes the most intimate expression of the self. Freeing itself from the confines of the expected and predictable, it draws upon experiences that are all but forgotten, seeking to explore the unchartered with a mix of scepticism and ardour.
The past, the present, the possible — the title of Sharjah Biennial 12 (SB12) — is as articulate as the works represented in it and as diverse as the emirate itself. A unique place steeped in the legacy of human presence dating back 125,000 years, Sharjah, one of the seven emirates making up the UAE, is nevertheless well poised for the transition into a future that is at once exciting and unknown. With 51 artists from 25 countries presenting their works, many of them site- and context-specific, the title becomes all the more relevant.
SB12 does not, however, expect the artists and their works to conform to a theme. Rather they are encouraged to engage in conversations with each other. In the process, it does exactly what the title says: Acknowledge the past, without the typicality of wistfulness and nostalgia and, while standing firm on the vitality of the present, explore the possibilities the future holds
In a sense, this freedom from having to restrict themselves to a theme has worked to the artists’ advantage, particularly when it comes to artists of Arab origin. Liberated from the need to make overt political statements, their works seem to depict traumas and struggles in an intensely personal yet understated manner. The casual visitor does not actually squirm but the disturbance felt is as real as it is lasting.
Steel Rings, a sculpture by Rayyne Tabet, from Beirut from the series The Shortest Distance Between Two Points talks about the establishment and eventual abandonment of The Trans-Arabian Pipeline (TAP), an ambitious project “conjoining history, geography and geometry” to build and operate a 1,213-kilometre-long, 78-centimetre-wide pipeline to transport oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria.
Comprising ten-centimetre sections manufactured to the same dimensions of the original pipeline, the installation occupies an entire wing of the Sharjah Museum and represents the hidden history of the TAP.
In her curatorial note, Eungie Joo says: “Mobilising a host of new commissions and works juxtaposed with a historical wealth of abstraction, The past, the present, the possible signals a distrust of narrative certitude in favour of unexpected simultaneities and potential alliances.”
While not entirely devoid of a narrative, serendipity does account for Cyprus, the fourth work in the series of Five Distant Memories: The Suitcase, The Room, The Toys, The Boat and Maradona, another installation by Tabet featuring an 850-kilogram wooden boat precariously balanced next to a human-sized anchor.
Tabet’s father had rented the boat 29 years ago in a clandestine attempt to flee Lebanon with his family, a journey that lasted a mere 30 minutes due to the impossibility of manoeuvring the massive vessel to Cyprus as planned. A chance encounter with the same boat, now decommissioned, marked the starting point for the work.
In his video titled The Fourth Stage, Ahmad Ghossein, also from Beirut, forays into the land of dystopia, interweaving cinema, magic and the changing landscape of southern Lebanon. Through an inquiry into the implications of the disappearance of a famous magician he assisted as a child, the artist raises the quintessential question: Have illusion and magic, elements that are essential in shaping a country’s collective imaginary, been replaced by other ideological and religious systems of fabulation forged by political parties and the nation-state?
Through his works using the sawdust and glue relief technique, Abdul Hay Mosallam Harara, an active member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and former military pilot, speaks volubly about his commitment to liberation and peace, while decrying the violent suppression of his homeland. His works are a depiction of culture and traditions such as weddings and celebrations, of the normalcy of an everyday life that is in danger of becoming extinct.
In the absence of the objects seen by Palestinian Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri of Iran one moves away from the immediately personal and political to a more global and existential realm. Integrating performance art with workshops, films and publications they raise questions of the human condition “in a world of increasing speed, scale, automation and accumulation by dispossession”.
Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation, the project encourages visitors not to just pass through, but take part in conversations, food and learning experiences, making through workshops organised by artists and their collaborators throughout the duration of SB12.
Of particular note are the works by Rheim Alkadhi, including her new commission Communications from the Field of Contact (Each Hair is a Tongue) where she has solicited eyelashes of sea labourers — stranger-participants — working along Sharjah Creek, and through those intimate exchanges with unfixed identities asks: Within this temporary field, how close can we get to seeing differently than before?
Emirati artists including Mohammed Kazem, Hassan Sharif and Abdullah Al Saadi narrate their own individual journeys in ways that are uniquely theirs, often reductive and minimalistic.
Since its inception in 1993, Sharjah Biennial has evolved, its growth as lateral as it is linear. Today it has become a confluence of “artists involved in numerous and varied conversations, confrontational and collaborative, formal and existential.”
“Together their works offer both material experience and meditative pause to reassert the need for wonder, mindfulness and query at this particularly disharmonious and decadent moment in human history,” Joo concludes.