Sharjah Biennial: open invitation to artists leads to focused and evocative show

Participants asked to make new work in response to the specific attributes of the emirate

SHARJAH. “Right from the beginning we wanted to break some rules,” said artistic director Jack Persekian at the opening of the 9th Sharjah Biennial. “Biennials start and end as a showcase but this one is about process not product.” To this end Mr Persekian has dispensed with an overriding theme, and rather than compiling a stellar wish list, an open invitation was issued to artists to submit ideas instead of realised pieces. In keeping with this more proactive approach, he was also keen to emphasise that the exhibition was only one strand of the biennial, and runs alongside a film and performance programme curated by Tarek Abou El Fetouh, director of the Arab Young Theatre Fund.

Unusually for an international biennial, the exhibition, entitled “Provisions for the Future”, is dominated by female artists: of the 62 artists on show, 36 are women. However, this factor is not entirely the outcome of the initial invitation: after the 500 applicants had been whittled down, curator Isabel Carlos decided that what was lacking was “maturity and women”, so she issued particular invitations to redress the balance. The result is a smaller, leaner Sharjah Biennial, which introduces many less familiar names and which seems more sharply specific to its surroundings than its ecologically themed predecessor.

One outcome of inviting artists to offer their open-ended responses to Sharjah is a number of works that animate and often interrogate their surroundings. Lest we forget who holds the power and the purse strings in this city state, one of the first works to greet the visitor in the main location of the Sharjah Art Museum is Turkish artist Halil Altindere’s gold-framed portrait of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, which swings away from the wall to reveal a sizeable safe.

Italian Lara Favaretto has gently subverted the courtyard of the historic Shamsi House by filling each niche with a pair of vividly coloured car-wash brushes that whirl and then subside like coupled dervishes, while Maider López from San Sebastian engages directly with the inhabitants of Sharjah as kids play football on the pitch she has painted onto an empty square opposite the museum, and passers-by make grateful use of her mosaic drinking fountain.

Issues of need and lack run through this biennial. In the arid Emirates, Indian artist Sheela Gowda’s sculpturally elegant barrier of interlocking metal water pipes carries a particular resonance, especially as these pipes now only contain the barely audible voices of the dispossessed, which can just be heard through the open pipe ends, talking of their very basic needs for a kitchen, or a toilet. Gowda has also flooded a space between the museum buildings and amplified the sound of the dripping water into the building—reminiscent of the drip irrigation in use throughout the Emirates, as well as the preciousness of a commodity that is all too often squandered to tend the environmentally inappropriate emerald turf of roadsides and hotel lawns.

Explorations of place—whether private, public, political, actual or imaginary—form another common preoccupation. US artists Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly’s film Smile You’re in Sharjah accompanies the day-to-night progression of Sharjah’s inhabitants (and a few deliberately placed actors) through its parks, shops, suburbs, squares and kerbsides, while Dubai artist Lamya Gargash (representing the UAE at this year’s Venice Biennale, see below) goes behind closed doors to document the now fast-disappearing Majlis, the Emirati reception rooms traditionally used for receiving and entertaining guests. Peruvian born, Swedish-based José Luis Martinat’s film takes old cartoon footage and removes all the action to leave a series of empty urban backdrops whose vertiginous views of soaring skyscrapers, all syncopated to a jarring musak soundtrack, are strongly reminiscent of the corporate vistas of neighbouring Dubai.

This city state of superlatives—the biggest mall, the highest tower, the most expensive hotel suite—with a constantly changing skyline seemingly under perpetual construction elicits an ambivalent response from artists and visitors alike. In an installation entitled “Dubai: What’s Left of her Land?”—part building site, part abstract sculpture and both chaotic and heroic in its arrangement of pulleys, tools, maps, cement and silhouetted workers—young Dubai artist Reem Al Ghaith simultaneously celebrates and critiques the voracious urbanisation of the region. Like many of her contemporaries, Al Ghaith is all too aware that without the runaway developments of the past two decades it would be much more difficult for Emirati women to train and practise as artists.

The less palatable consequences of economic development and urbanisation are presented in some of the most effective pieces of the biennial. Chinese artist Liu Wei films the Chinese farmers that supplement their income by daily trips from the countryside to one of Beijing’s rubbish dumps, where they now use their centuries-old agricultural implements to hoe the piles of toxic waste; while the UK’s Jane and Louise Wilson present a video installation that focuses on the refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina who now work in the quintessentially English companies of Rolls-Royce and Bombardier in Derby.

These works reverberate across the global marketplace, and especially in the Emirates, where the workforce is almost entirely made up of immigrant labour. In a powerful work by Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Sharjah’s overlooked and frequently exploited workforce is given new dignity and identity via the deceptively simple device of presenting video portraits of the male workers of Sharjah in their building sites, government offices, garages and workshops, while depicting on another screen the families back home in southern India whose survival depends upon their income and from whom they may be separated for years at a time. Amidst the sometimes frenzied cultural activities currently taking place around the Gulf, works such as this vindicate Mr Persekian’s aspiration for the 9th Sharjah Biennial to be about knowledge, experiment and experience rather than investment and acquisition. Sharjah Biennial 9 runs until 16 May.

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