Quiet Storm

Left: Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, president and director of Sharjah Art Foundation, with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. Right: Sharjah Biennial 11 curator Yuko Hasegawa. (Photos: Scott Rudd)

THE NEXT EDITION of the Sharjah Biennial won’t open for another seven weeks but already the blitz is on. Held in the sleepiest and most austere of the seven tiny sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, this perennial art event is highly unlikely and therefore wholly intriguing. It was a little over a year ago that the Sharjah Art Foundation named Yuko Hasegawa the curator of the next exhibition, and since then, they’ve been carefully parceling out information at a rate of about a press release every other month, leaking an enticingly partial list of artists here, tracing the curious outlines of architectural interventions there. Now, the push for serious support has begun, and the biennial seems to have moved into full-disclosure mode.

Last week, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hosted a brief but potent panel discussion on the event, detailing everything from the concept to the parallel programs (for film, music, and performance), a handful of public gardens (designed by OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen), five new exhibition venues, thirty-seven commissions, and a grand total of ninety-five participating artists, calligraphers, designers, architects, filmmakers, and more. This week, London’s Tate Modern is doing the much same, with the added promise of a public debate on the exhibition’s many themes featuring the artist Wael Shawky and the academic Sarat Maharaj.

Left: Artist Ernesto Neto. Right: Architects David Van Severen and Kersten Geers. (Photos: Scott Rudd)

Coming at this from a distance, it is still lamentably easy to survey the upper echelons of the international art world and see an old boys’ club among the ranks of major museum directors and global supercurators. In the humbler, heartier pockets of interest tied to the various art scenes of the Middle East and the Arab world, however, not so much. This was palpably clear on Thursday evening as the audience packed into a basement auditorium on West Fifty-Fourth Street. In addition to Hasegawa, there was Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, daughter of Sharjah’s ruling family, president and director of the foundation she created (after taking over the biennial back in 2003, when she was still in her early twenties), and a capable artist and curator in her own right. There was also Judith Greer, the foundation’s director for international programs, who wrote a book on collecting contemporary art with the hard-nosed journalist Louisa Buck; Livia Alexander and Mahnaz Fancy, the incoming and outgoing directors, respectively, of the New York–based, Middle East–focused nonprofit Arte East; Deena Chalabi, onetime head of strategy for the Mathaf in Doha and former executive director at Alwan for the Arts in Lower Manhattan; the tough-talking, no-nonsense curators Sadia Shirazi and Leeza Ahmady; and a slew of dealers who either do business in the region or represent artists in the biennial, including Tanya Bonakdar, Jane Lombard and Alia Fattouh of Lombard-Freid Projects, Carla Chammas and Nayla Hadchiti of CRG, and Helena Anrather of the newly opened Taymour Grahne Gallery. MoMA PS1’s director Klaus Biesenbach maintained a politely low profile; MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey, who was moderating the event, kept his introduction and his questions to the panelists quick and concise.

Of course, it has to be said that the run-up to Sharjah’s eleventh biennial has so far involved some serious bulldozing amnesia over the tenth, which, lest anyone forget, imploded a month after it opened when an installation by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil was pulled from the show and the biennial’s director, Jack Persekian, was unceremoniously sacked. Those fireworks had already followed others, including a protest (timed to coincide with the biennial’s official red-carpet inauguration) against the UAE’s role in suppressing political dissent in Bahrain, and the swift removal of Caveh Zahedi’s short film The Sheikh and I from the program, just days before it was set to screen, on the grounds that it was offensive, or blasphemous, or aesthetically a wreck and conceptually ill conceived. (Zahedi turned it into a feature, which opened in local theaters last month.) All of that provoked a spiky online petition and months of grueling debate within small circles of artists and their ilk who considered themselves professionally, emotionally, or intellectually invested in the biennial and the larger arts infrastructure the Sharjah Art Foundation was trying to create.

Ernesto Neto, Kersten Geers, David Van Severen, Yuko Hasegawa, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, and MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey at the Sharjah Biennial 11 Panel Discussion at MoMA. (Photo: Scott Rudd)

And so, counterintuitive as it may seem, it might be to Sheikha Hoor and Hasegawa’s great credit that they have batted away all of those scandals, dismissing them as overblown and buried in the past, while at the same time, without uttering a word of acknowledgment, pinpointing many of the issues underlying the trouble of the last show. They’ve named the event “Re:Emerge” and built a conceptual framework around the courtyard. They’ve emphasized the volatile chain of relations where art encounters audience in some self-styled version of a commons. “We tend to focus on works that are participatory and engage with public space,” said Sheikha Hoor, as she illustrated a fine lineage of public art projects from previous editions of the biennial, recalling how tentative and delicate works such as Olaf Nicolai’s Ritornello, made of laundry strung between the two buildings of the Sharjah Art Museum, were when they were first installed back in 2005. “Things tend to stay as long as they are relevant,” she added, meaning that the foundation keeps public art on view for as long as people find uses for it.

From there Hasegawa took over and, followed by an adorably enthusiastic performance by the Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto (who paced the room and waved his arms and shared his dreams), unfurled a constellation of common references for the biennial, including the desert, an oasis, the silk road, Arab traders, migrant workers, a pearling industry rendered obsolete, oil rigs, a camel, and Edward Said. A consummate professional who has already tucked the Seoul, Istanbul, and São Paulo biennials into her portfolio, Hasegawa stressed the importance of courtyards as “social spaces where people meet,” as “metaphorical spaces for generating knowledge,” and as “arenas for learning, critical thinking, and experimentation.” The architects Kersten Geers and David Van Severen had the unenviable task of maintaining Neto’s momentum, and they raised a hundred eyebrows in the audience when they described one of their gardens as a bar. (Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Sharjah; the bar will serve tea, Geers later clarified.) Then, after a bit of succinct back-and-forth on the slippage between decoration and Islamic art and the fine line between large-scale sculpture and architecture, Eleey ended the discussion without opening the floor to questions from the audience, suggesting everyone mingle in the reception area instead. This was totally understandable considering Eleey was three days from opening three shows at MoMA PS1, but given that so much of the ruckus last time came down to the barest of desires for public debate, any opportunity for a little give-and-take about Sharjah that gets shut down by the foundation or its affiliates feels like an act of bad faith.

Left: Curator and Art in General director Anne Barlow with writer and Parkett US editor Nikki Columbus. Right: CRG Gallery cofounder Carla Chammas and Lombard-Freid Projects cofounder Jane Lombard with Nayla Hadchiti of CRG and Alia Fattouh of Lombard-Freid Projects. (Photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

And indeed, the grumbling outside was fair enough. “Two years after the start of the Arab Spring, do we really need a biennial in the Middle East that is so committed to being quiet?” asked one curator. “Why are we still fetishizing courtyards and peddling in clichés?” asked another. A project manager wondered why there hadn’t been more environmental awareness at play, given how many of the projects involved planting trees and finding ways to irrigate them. “Here comes the art world,” she said, “creating waste and wasting resources.” It may not have been truly public, but good debate was had. The reception went on forever and then tumbled around the block and turned into drinks and dinner at MoMA’s restaurant, the Modern. Hours later, a fellow writer and I packed up our pickled livers, jumped in a cab, and retired to a bar downtown to further scrutinize the list of artists. For every name—including Thomas Demand, Olafur Eliasson, Anri Sala, Gabriel Orozco, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton, CAMP, Raqs, Marwan Rechmaoui, Joumana Manna, and Amina Menia—we asked three questions: Playing it safe? Assuaging guilt or commerce? Setting the stage for subversion? We’ll know soon enough.