ON THE EVE of the fifth Marrakech Biennale, I dined with two kings. They are the founding monarchs of Elgaland-Vargaland, an amorphous dominion occupying the border territories between every country in the world—including the virtual. “Every time you travel somewhere,” its website proclaims, “and every time you enter another form, such as the dream state, you visit Elgaland-Vargaland.”
The kings—Swedish artist-composers Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren— were inaugurating their Moroccan “embassy” that night at the Riad Kantarell, an intimate (no locks) guesthouse located deep within the gated, twelfth-century walls of the Marrakech Medina (the old city), a few dark-alley twists behind the sixteenth-century Saâdian tombs and up a sloping, narrow street crammed with butcher stalls fronted by raw meats. A raggedy flank of the escapist kingdom’s 980 current subjects attended the ceremony, including the London-based Touch label’s Mike Harding and J. G. (“Foetus”) Thirlwell, two of twelve sonic artists from Europe, Scandinavia, and America responsible for “Freq_Out,” a collective sound installation hosted by the biennial at the abandoned Theatre Royal.
Under the Elgaland-Vargaland flag, which looks very much like the Moroccan road sign warning of sharp curves ahead, speeches were made and new passport applications approved, while guests were treated to live music by traditionally costumed Gnawa players and a buffet of Moroccan specialties. After getting fleeced by two shopkeepers, a cab driver, and a guide through the Kasbah, the evening made a perfect introduction to the biennial’s surreal conjunction of contemporary art and the ages-old, unlikely-to-change-anytime-soon culture of Marrakech.
Indeed, the Red City’s historical pileup of migrations and identities prompted the artistic director, Alya Sebti, and the curators for visual art, film, literature, and performing arts to pose the question “Where Are We Now?” as the biennial’s title and theme. In Marrakech, however, that is not a question so much as a functional metaphor for the bewilderment that sets in soon after arriving and attempting to walk across any street (basically by diving headlong into oncoming traffic).
That’s one reason why Vanessa Branson, the former British art dealer (and sister of Richard Branson, the hot-air balloonist who created Virgin Atlantic), founded the trilingual biennial nearly ten years ago as a bridge between cultures. Despite a lack of infrastructure to support contemporary art, Marrakech, she concluded, was ripe for something other than shopping in its labyrinthine souk. “You can discuss contemporary ideas through art without causing offense,” she told journalists gathered for a press conference the next morning at Riad El Fenn, the high-end caravansary that she owns with Howell James, Christie’s media relations chief in London. As headquarters for the biennial, it was also the site for talks, readings, roundtables, and screenings.
The press conference preceded a daylong preview of the festival’s principal art exhibitions led by their Moroccan-born, Netherlands-based curator, Hicham Khalidi. “Ninety percent of the artworks are site-specific,” he said. “I think that’s unique,” chimed in biennial director Stefan Holwe. A total of 450 international artists were participating, ninety-seven from the visual arts, and many of those from Africa, India, Europe, and Morocco. “What is the status of Morocco today within the arts?” Sebti said. “That’s what we are asking ourselves.” The point, Khalidi told me, was to look forward and backward through all the layers of Moroccan history at once.
During dinner that night at El Fenn, I joined the American dealer Curt Marcus, a biennial board member at Branson’s table, where I met her ninety-year-old mother, Eve Branson. It wasn’t hard to see her children’s philanthropic DNA in Eve, when she spoke of her own foundation’s mission to help Berber women and children of the High Atlas Mountains to help themselves. “Everything is strange here,” she would tell me. “Just expect it. Nothing is normal.”
On Wednesday, February 26, as the biennial began its five-week run under the first-time patronage of King Mohammed VI, “normal” definitely had become an abstraction. Opening ceremonies took place within the ruins of the twelfth-century El Badi Palace—the exhibition’s primary visual art venue—while mating season for the dense population of storks nesting atop its pockmarked walls was also under way. Various dignitaries, including the mayor of Marrakech, biennial vice president Amine Kabbaj, British ambassador to Morocco Clive Alderton, former French culture minister Jack Lang, and Branson, spoke from a platform set up behind Madonna, a standing but unarmed crossbow made of two-by-fours by French sculptor Max Boufathal, who had it aimed at the resident storks. “It works,” he said. “But we wouldn’t want to hurt anybody here.”
The palace grounds are large enough to accommodate a couple of football stadiums, so it was hard for the artworks installed outdoors to make themselves visible—generally the thorn in the side of the whole show. “We need to be more adventurous with our heritage,” said Asim Waqif, who had assembled the bones of a house from scrap timber found at the palace. But contemporary art can’t compete with the color, chaos, and mystery of daily life here. It can only hope to merge, which is exactly what happened when the Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku sent out a fez-topped band of face-painted drummers and acrobats, the Dakka Marrakchia, to lead the art crowd on a procession through the streets of the Medina—at rush hour yet. Their destination was Dar Si Saïd, the Moroccan crafts museum (another biennial venue), and along the way they picked up a thickening swarm of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists forced to join the parade, as there was no way around it.
This was definitely not normal, even for Marrakech. It was fabulous. The drumbeat, if not the parade, continued inside the museum, where the hands of Gnawa musicians, their bodies hidden behind gallery walls and their hands protruding through holes in them, tapped out a staccato rhythm on a snare drum or the hand cymbals they were holding. This was the work of Gabriel Lester, one of seventeen biennial artists, including Adriana Lara, Walid Raad, and Sandra Niessen, making interventions within the museum. The woodpecker-like stork sounds of Turkish artist Cevdet Erek’s 4 Sounding Dots and a Shade—part of his effective installation in the underground caverns of the El Badi Palace’s onetime prison—resounded in the museum’s leafy courtyard, where I found luxury hotelier Meryanne Loum-Martin and video artist Shezad Dawood among more familiar faces belonging to Gagosian Rome director Pepi Marchetti Franchi, Thyssen-Bornemisza Contemporary Art founder Francesca Thyssen, Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar, Fiorucci Art Trust founder Nicoletta Fiorucci, and the dealers Paul-Aymar Mourgue d’Algue and Kate McGarry.
After wandering through the galleries and identifying biennial works among the museum’s ceramics, metalworks, and carpets, we all trouped to the former Bank Al Maghrib on Jemaa El Fna Square, the central plaza and marketplace of old Marrakech. By now, evening was coming on, and in the evenings, the chained monkeys, the storytellers, trinket-sellers, Gnawa players and tourists give way to the people of Marrakech, who throng the steaming food stalls and hang out till midnight. Sebti brought me to the roof of a café to watch the transformation from day to night. It was magical. Really.
For Branson, it was important to involve the conservative local population in the biennial. At the bank building that night, her dream came true. “This is what it’s all about,” she said, beaming, as people who had never come face to face with contemporary art streamed in with their families and friends. Curiosity may have brought them to the bank, which had long been closed, along with the opening-day free admission. But their eye-opening experience inside kept them coming.
A crowd formed immediately around a sculpture by the Belgian-born artist Eric van Hove, now resident in Marrakech. Resting on a kind of bier placed front and center was an exact, jewel-like replica of a Mercedes-Benz V12 engine, each of its 465 distinct parts handmade in fifty-three different materials—ceramics, animal fossils, goatskin, tin, bone, terra-cotta—by fifty-seven top Moroccan artisans that van Hove had sought out. Talk about heritage. And people did.
In another room, a Muslim woman was engaged in a heated argument with family members and the two curators who oversee the Alliances Foundation’s sculpture park in Casablanca. The family had been watching Visions of Paradise, an hour-long documentary by Dutch artist Anne Verhoijsen. To make the film, Verhoijsen went around the world asking people for their definition of paradise. For this woman, there is only one paradise, that of Allah. She felt it was dangerous to expose her children to the secular fantasies Verhoijsen had gathered. The visitor didn’t know that the woman watching intently from the back of the room was the artist. “This is what’s great about these sorts of biennales,” Verhoijsen said. “They take you out of your comfort zone.”
Propelled out of the square past “post-conceptualist” Saâdane Afif’s public geometry lesson and a “performance” involving a herd of live sheep, I paid a young man to walk me through to Ksour Agafay, the sixteenth-century riad where Thyssen was holding a dinner for the Freq_Out gang. (“Being alone in the Medina can be overwhelming,” the artist Izhar Patkin had told me. He was right.) Among the guests were the onetime punk performer Judy Nylon (currently a participant in the Aether9 collaborative production of real time–streamed art), Berlin dealer Michael Ruiz, and Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff,
Maybe it was jet lag, or culture shock, or both, but what might have felt samo at home became strangely disorienting in these environs. Next morning, Michelangelo Pistoletto discussed his obsession with infinity at El Fenn, followed by a conversation between Rupert Everett and British writer Anthony Horowitz. “I’m dying to be a movie star,” he said. “Being gay in the movie business is tough.” After that, the intrepid among us made the hour-long drive to the Agafay desert outside the city. There, with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains rising behind it, the skeleton of an enormous steamship teetering atop a lower mountain came into view. It was the work of Russian artist Alexander Ponaromev, who had directed Berber craftsman to remake the Costa Concordiathe Italian luxury liner that sank two years ago after the captain ran it agroundin bamboo.
Life in the surreal continued that evening, when some of us taxied to the opening of the Freq_Out installation—twelve electronic sound works, each programmed on site in a different frequency and combined to generate a single composition—in the eerie, concrete darkness of the Theatre Royal. The Brutalist pile was built over sixteen years, its construction stopped in 2001, when it became apparent that the beautiful, curving tiers would face away from the stage. The acoustics, however, were magnificent.
Call this the sound-art biennial. The next morning, back at El Fenn, I met Clara Meister, a Berlin-based artist whose project Singing Maps and Underlying Melodies instructed visitors to walk through the Medina by following “audible signs”—performances by a variety of Moroccan singers and musicians—indecipherable map in hand. A fascination with Moroccan music, Meister said, inspired this “sensory form of navigation” but I missed it, because artist-skier Angelo Bellobono and his “Atla(s)Now” project’s “embedded” curator Allessandro Facente were waiting to take English film producer Aine Marsland and a dozen strangers on a hike through three Berber villages in the (very) High Atlas Mountains, where they had been holding workshops for young men in each.
The chilly evening was spent on the roof of the nomadic van Hove’s studio and apartment, warming hands near the fire he used to grill chicken and lamb for the group of artist, writer, and architect friends who kept dropping in. The party set me up for a morning romp through the souk, returning afterward to the El Badi Palace for a brief but memorable performance by Yassine Balbzioui, who violently rummaged through a slew of masked identities created with duct tape, feathers, paint, and eggs. Watching him—and he is an artist to watch—was Hamid Fardjad, a legendary filmmaker and teacher who collaborated with Shirin Neshat on nine different projects.
Sunset brought van Hove’s dealer Rocco Olacchiohis Voice Gallery is virtually the only game in townto the openings of exhibitions organized at L’Blassa, an abandoned Deco apartment building in French Colonial Gueliz, aka the New City. If only the rest of the biennial had been as spirited and political as this, and as filled with young upstarts who would feel right at home in Bushwick. (One included Branson’s Mint Collective–artist daughter, Florence Devereux, who acted as an organizing curator here). Some of the best projects I saw in Marrakech were in these shows, but the humdinger was “Pimp My Garbage,” a fully immersive and pointed installation of sculpture, furniture, and collage that the four-person Z’Bel Manifesto Collective (Ghislane Sahli, Kabia Sahli, Saad Alami, and Othman Zine) made entirely with nonbiodegradable plastics.
Khalidi escorted me to a private dinner party in the Medina, where we met up with Assif at the modernist home of collectors Jean-Michel and Charlotte Attal. Other Europeans were there, some of them grumbling about the miniscule VIP program. “We each paid a thousand euros to come to this biennale,” said one. “We are looking for substantial art. We want to see content!” When I left to pack for the trip home, the other guests were dancing a wild hora.
If that’s not content, I don’t know what is.