The subtitle for the twelfth edition of the Sharjah Biennial—“the past, the present, the possible”—is a term that curator Eungie Joo took from an essay by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who wrote about the concept of the right to the city, calling city dwellers to action in collectively shaping their urban environments. Within the context of Joo’s biennial, the title was deployed to address the role of contemporary art—how art is a vehicle to freely express the intangible through tangible form. Enter Steel Rings (2013) by Rayyane Tabet. On the ground floor of the Sharjah Art Museum, I encountered this simple yet powerful steel sculpture. Rolled slabs of engraved steel imitating the shape and form of a spinal column dominated the hallway of an entire wing of the museum, while the small white cube gallery rooms on either side of the sculpture remained evocatively vacant. The piece replicated a portion of an abandoned 754-mile long Trans-Arabian pipeline, originally established in 1946, which snaked across Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, uniting the countries in a constellation of history, geography, and geometry. Tabet recreated the pipeline down to the thickness and diameter of the rings, and he engraved each ring with its original geographic coordinates.
Joo’s powerful “backbone” statement at the entrance to the biennial recalled a similar aesthetic choice made by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in her acclaimed curation of Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, in 2012. A cold, light breeze blew up from the air-conditioning vents embedded in the wooden floors of a cavernous, empty room on the ground floor of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, close to the front entrance. The contemporary British artist Ryan Gander’s oxymoronic, invisible yet physical work I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull) (2012) became one of the most talked about installations of the entire exhibition. Indeed, such big art statements in biennials of recent times explore immateriality and bareness, and it is through this ostensible formal simplicity that the in-tune visitor might grasp the conceptual nuances of the larger themes and narratives of the exhibition, which rely more on spontaneity than certitude or dogma. The significance of the Tabet sculpture as both the introduction and beacon to the Sharjah Biennial neatly encapsulated the full impact of the subtitle, as the artist unearthed a hidden past within our present while hinting at future possibilities. It might also point to the affective and conceptual undertones I experienced throughout the biennial, where tokens of the past intermingled with the present and the possible simultaneously, expressed through a myriad of multisensorial, multistylistic, and multimodal ways.
Despite the large display of fifty-one artists from approximately twenty-five countries spread across six locations, the Sharjah Biennial was quiet and modest. Hosted by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the twelfth biennial was organized over a two-year period by the veteran curator Joo, who was the Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs at the New Museum in New York from 2007 to 2012, with the associate curator Ryan Inouye. Joo brought together a diverse group of familiar and unfamiliar artists from several generations whose projects dwell on broad topics, ranging from labor and transnational economies, technology, urban development and sustainability, heritage restoration, religion, education, science, and everyday culture. A large part of the biennial consisted of commissioned works juxtaposed with reconstituted installations. Thirty-six commissions, many of which responded directly to Sharjah itself, effectively conflated local, national, and international politics with understated aesthetics. Biweekly film screenings accompanied the biennial, in addition to the March Meeting—two forums comprised of talks and debates focused on cultural production in the Arab world. The first forum, held in 2014, preceded the biennial, and the second was postponed to May 2015.
A first-time visitor to the city of Sharjah and the majestic desert of the United Arab Emirates, I was struck by the excellent quality of museums and galleries that I encountered during one hot mid-March day. As I walked under a blazing sun, from one biennial location to the next, many times getting lost in the maze of gritty streets, I would occasionally greet the odd stray cat while entering or exiting a gallery space. This year, Joo extended the number and geographical span of venues, which demanded more pedestrian time to get from point A to point B. Apart from the standard venues, consisting of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s galleries, Calligraphy Square, and the already discussed Sharjah Art Museum, installations were presented at a warehouse at Port Khalid, an abandoned ice factory on the east coast in Kalba, and the Flying Saucer building, a spaceship-like structure built in the 1970s and now a permanent venue for exhibitions of contemporary art.
Numerous works that aroused the senses drew my attention. I had great, memorable fun interacting with Eduardo Navarro’s XYZ (2015), which consisted of two six-foot tall PVC balls set up on a large area mat in the middle of the Sharjah Art Foundation courtyard. Shaded by a large sheet of stretched tarpaulin overhead, the two balls were accompanied by sensory jackets and goggles. As I donned the gear and pushed the balls around, I felt like a child in a playground. The movement of the balls triggered different sounds and pleasing sensations, ranging from the tinkling of bells, the slow thumping of sand hitting the surface of the balls in reaction to their gravitation, and the feel of the canvas material of the balls themselves. Here, Navarro developed an elaborate children’s activity with rules drawing on mechanical and analytical skills, and he worked directly with children from Sharjah’s local schools to give the installation a definitive integrity.
One of the highlights in Calligraphy Square included the much talked about installation untitled 2015 (Eau de RRose of Damascus) (2015) by Rirkrit Tiravanija, which replicated a fourteenth-century rosewater distillery, with the added effect of function. The biennial guidebook described it as a “frame of activities” and a “sensorial social experience” (65); the artist set up the distillery with an outdoor kitchen and invited local chefs to cook during the opening festivities. Tiravanija also installed a rose garden adjacent to the kitchen and, to cap it off, a lounge area, replete with Persian carpets and Emirati furnishings. Although no one was present during my time in the installation, the space was meant to function as a social one, which I imagine came to fruition during the opening festivities.
Many of my favorite works in the biennial were executed on unconventional or practical surfaces, such as Kerala-based Unnikrishnan C’s beautiful oil and acrylic painting and carving on a freestanding wall of terra-cotta bricks, housed inside the Bait Al Serkal building across from the Sharjah Art Museum. The artist’s vignettes, depicted on the surface of each brick, capture his everyday surroundings in Kerala, which range from a cup of tea, fruits and other foods, and specific engagements with people and objects. The accumulation of images across a total of three hundred bricks became an archive of sorts, or a journal and pathway for charting the artist’s life, but Unnikrishnan C also had an intended political purpose. Kerala is a city in India undergoing rapid industrial and commercial development, much like Sharjah, and Unnikrishnan C hopes that his modest images will provide a tangible record of a way of life facing extinction.
Within the same building, Abdullah Al Saadi installed a dramatic series of scarecrows in the center courtyard, which could be seen from both the ground and first floors of the open-plan space. As I worked my way around the circumference of the building, the scarecrows continued to draw my attention. Stripping the scarecrows of their original purpose, Al Saadi drew on the aesthetic power of the objects themselves, which were decorated with materials taken from the detritus of the city. The artist wanted to challenge ideas about gender and social relations, given the many questions these dilapidated objects bring in terms of identification between male and female, their interrelation, and how and why they have been deployed within this public, open-air, and privileged space of the biennial.
Joo included careful, exciting selections of extant works by modern masters, many dating from the 1980s with roots in the Arab world. These works took the form of more traditional mediums and styles through drawings, sketches, and sculptures, creating contrasts with their representational and abstract forms. Once again, Joo’s choices reminded me of the aesthetic choices from biennials in the recent past, as this aspect of the biennial was also characteristic of the eclecticism of Massimiliano Gioni’s Italian pavilion, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), at the Venice Biennale in 2013. In Gioni’s ambitious show, the curator chose to employ a loose, decontextualized folk-art or outsider-art aesthetic by interspersing work by untrained artists alongside work by more high-profile, leading contemporary artists. Similarly, Joo offered, on the one hand, historical, black-outlined representational portraits, such as Someone from the past (Autoportrait) (1980) by Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid—who was part of the 1940s École de Paris art movement that rejected abstraction and academic methods—and on the other hand, more abstract, repetitive, and patterned works demonstrating a high degree of artistic labor and skill, such as Mohammed Kazem’s Scratches on Paper (2014). In this work, Kazem scratched braille-like markings onto textured paper with scissors as a type of composition or poem.
Many other artists made an impression, such as Etel Adnan, Kim Beom, Byron Kim, Jac Leirner, Cinthia Marcelle, and Haegue Yang. However, I wish to conclude with the always remarkable, large-scale paintings by the Ethiopian-born, New York–based artist Julie Mehretu, as they beautifully filled up one of the larger gallery spaces within the Sharjah Art Foundation complex. Mehretu’s paintings seemed particularly fitting for a biennial that explored geography, development, and history, given her interest in architecture, maps, and geographical schemata. Invisible Sun (algorithm 4, first letter form) (2014) is also a response to the language of abstraction, like many other works in the biennial. Filled with an entire repertoire of markings ranging from brushstrokes, graffiti, smudges, and other esoteric scripts, Mehretu’s layered composition recalled both ancient and contemporary symbols that complicated an already dynamic offering of semiotics throughout the entire biennial. Through Joo’s measured focus and suggestion of transformation, this year’s biennial emphatically offered a special glimpse of reflection and hope, like a small yet vibrant diamond in the Sharjah desert.
PhD candidate, Department of Visual Arts, University of California San Diego
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