THE DIRECT FLIGHT from Istanbul released predominantly Euro-American passengers at the Dubai airport, where they were gently ushered to interterminal shuttle trains by Southeast Asian DXB employees—all amid glossy ads for residential developments featuring traditionally dressed nuclear Emirati families. This image stayed with me not least because the developer and self-described “provider of premium lifestyles” in question, Emaar, was the Platinum Sponsor of the Sharjah Biennial 13, but also because the scene made the correlation between ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and their connection to mobility and leisure, all the more explicit.
I arrived in Sharjah, the neighboring emirate, two hours later, just in time for the “Interlocutors Conversation,” which served as an introduction to the geographic dispersion of Tamawuj (literally meaning “rising and falling in waves” or “fluctuation” in Arabic), the current edition of the biennial, across five cities. Each interlocutor––that is, section curators not wanting to call themselves “curators”––spoke for one of the four other cities: Kader Attia for Dakar, Zeynep Öz for Istanbul, Lara Khaldi for Ramallah, and Christine Tohmé for Beirut. But the real subject of the panel was the age-old question of what institutions are for––this time, aptly laden with natural and poetic metaphors such as Attia’s “field of emotions” and Öz’s “latent seeds.”
In the Q&A, one audience member rather clumsily pointed out the elephant in the room by saying certain Gulf Labor Coalition members were still not able to enter the UAE; in response, Tohmé thanked her for bringing up this crucial topic and passionately added that she was “against obliteration of any movement,” noting that she did everything in her capacity to bring artists with travel difficulties to Sharjah––to resounding applause.
Now that this rather delicate issue was voiced and addressed, March Meeting comfortably settled into the luxuriant yet often ironic poetry of (particularly Beirut-style) performances that either dealt with history in a speculative fashion or clinically deconstructed a historic or contemporary phenomenon. First was The Necessity of Infinity, a poignant new commission by Raqs Media Collective that unraveled as an imaginary dialogue on subjectivity and the universe between the tenth-century Persian scholars Ibn-Sina and Al-Biruni. At the end, we formed long lines to be seated for a different kind of performance—a “lunch performance” by Cooking Sections—in which all of the courses featured some sort of ingredient, such as sea asparagus or cassava, conducive to fighting against desertification. The Lebanese journalist sitting next to me seemed genuinely confused between bouts of foodstagramming, and with each course, made a point of asking Cooking Sections’ Daniel Fernández Pascual: “But do people really eat this in real life? How did you know it would work?”
At the biennial’s thirteenth edition, regional powerhouses were well represented by the likes of Mathaf director Laura Barlow and the Istanbul Biennial’s Bige Örer, as well as progressive European institutions such as the Van Abbemuseum, with its director Charles Esche; however, others, especially North Americans, were notably absent during the opening days, perhaps due to the concurrent Garage Triennial of Russian Art. In Mureijah Square’s village of white cubes, the talk of the town––including its shipment to Sharjah––was Monika Sosnowska’s seventeen-thousand-pound Constructivist steel Façade, 2013, which competed with another behemoth: Marina Castillo Deball’s similarly massive but more delicate Hypothesis of a Tree, 2016, made of bamboo and countless rubbings on Japanese paper. In the same gallery, Metahaven’s video on the possibility of “digital clouds” being dimensional frontiers, Information Skies, 2016, was singled out as the public favorite. Barış Doğrusöz and Lamia Joreige’s horizontally inclined, conceptually crisp propositions and Khalil Rabah’s Broodthaers-inspired Palestine After Palestine: New Sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments, 2017, also made lasting impressions. That evening we were whisked off to Al Hamriyah, forty minutes away from downtown Sharjah, to see works at the newly built Al Hamriyah Studios. After an all-too-brief stay, crowds overdosing on art enthusiastically flocked to a cozy dinner on cushions by the Gulf.
On Sunday, I got a chance to explore other parts of the biennial at Calligraphy Square, the Flying Saucer, and the Planetarium. The first of these was especially strong, with its blend of new and older medium-defying work that questioned limits and politics of perception, including pieces by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, İnci Eviner, and Nida Sinnokrot, next to reflective, water-themed gems of paintings by Tamara Al Samarraei and the late Ali Jabri. Later in the evening, London-based Arts Territory curator Katarzyna Sobucka rescued me and my lost friends, and we finally made it to the screening of Ahmad Elghoneimy’s cryptic Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You at the unlikely Al Hamra Cinema, the mecca of local Bollywood lovers.
The highlight of the following day was undoubtedly Abu Hamdan’s lecture-performance Bird Watching, which expanded on the subject matter of his sound installation at the Calligraphy Square—the Saydnaya Prison in Syria—to a full house, and left many heavy-hearted and teary-eyed with its brilliant intertwining of silence and violence. The collective mood of the biennial posse drastically shifted once everyone headed to Dubai for the closing party, with a brief layover at Alserkal Avenue for openings at Green Art Gallery and Grey Noise, as well as new Alserkal Avenue commissions. A long and narrow road with huge meticulously lit palm trees took us to a villa on a presumably man-made island, where Emaar is developing luxury condos. Under thumping beats, Kenan Darwich of Berlin-based Fehras Publishing Practices admitted that he was relieved to be able to “let it go” and drink in an open space, while I heard Galeri Nev’s Lesli Jebahar, a fellow Istanbulite, complain about the lack of breeze and yearn for the Bosphorus. The night ended promptly at 2 AM, not long after the bar began charging 50 dirhams (approximately 14 USD) for a can of Budweiser.
On Tuesday, I decided to make a second pilgrimage to the commission-studded Al Hamriyah Studios, which felt all the more deserted (pun intended) without the March Meeting crowd. Excepting a few indulgent works (Abdelkader Benchamma’s trompe l’oeil room), the art here spoke beautifully to an all-too-human desire to change one’s course of life for the better, not working against but with the world’s strange tamawuj. When I realized that I was the only visitor left in the building, I snapped out of the hypnosis invoked by the Otolith Group’s The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017, about queer African American minimalist composer Julius Eastman. The driver beamed at me as I hurried to the shuttle, full of fear of being stranded in the desert. Just as my panic was leaving, the engine stalled. He got out and left the door open without saying anything. This time I smiled and, thinking back on the day’s works, said to myself: “Bring it on.”