Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Sharjah Biennial 8: Still Life

Various Venues

The organizers of the eighth edition of the Sharjah Biennial set themselves a formidable task by using an exhibition of contemporary art to address environmental degradation in the United Arab Emirates. One of seven small emirates constituting the UAE, Sharjah is a Persian Gulf rentier state whose export of fossil fuels has made it the world’s fourth-wealthiest nation. To mitigate the foreseeable exhaustion of oil and gas reserves, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and to a lesser extent Sharjah have engineered a massive construction boom to create additional sources of income through tourism, financial services, and trade. With its rampant consumerism, man-made islands, audacious luxury towers, energy-chomping desalinization plants, and cookie-cutter suburbs carved into desert sands, the UAE is an environmentalist’s nightmare.

For the government of Sharjah to fund a “green” biennial certainly flipped things around—and stoked considerable skepticism. Was the event motivated by a genuine desire to be critical of the UAE’s role in accelerating ecological disaster? Or was it predicated on a keen understanding that critics can be co-opted in a public-relations feint? Rather than evade such questions, the biennial’s artistic director, Jack Persekian, and curators Eva Scharrer, Jonathan Watkins, and Mohammad Kazem braced for them in “Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change.” With seventy-nine artists and artists’ collectives and fifty-three original commissions attesting to the enabling power of oil money, the exhibition filled the Sharjah Art Museum and one of the four halls of the Sharjah Expo Centre and spilled into various sites throughout the city. Numerous public art projects were installed and performed, stitched into Sharjah’s quizzical urban fabric—quite literally in the case of Amal Kenawy’s Non-Stop Conversation, 2007, in which the artist sewed pink bedding material around a crumbling building.

But let’s be honest, Sharjah 8 was no green biennial. A sprinkling of cute but speculative details—calculating the number of trees felled (seventeen) to produce the catalogue or the tons of carbon spewed (seventy) to fly in more than two hundred guests—does not make an environmentally sound event. Unable to finesse the biennial’s inherent incongruity, Persekian allowed for numerous options through which artists could respond to the theme. The show was thus striated with strategies and subthemes, each surprising yet sustained.

To grasp the devastation of the planet, several artists endeavored to map it or make an object of it, as in Mona Hatoum’s Hot Spot, 2006, a cagelike steel globe with the continents glowing in fragile red neon, or Anawana Haloba’s Road Map, 2007, an interactive map of the Middle East that marries surveillance, sound sensors, and a salt lick. Others slipped into Romantic mode, reflected on nature’s ruin, or resorted to recycled materials—for instance Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger’s Desalination Waste Plant Garden, 2007, a work of stunning beauty made from fake flowers that collect the refuse of a desalinization plant over time. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s roadside signs, Less Oil More Courage, 2003, offered a blunt political appraisal of the situation, as did the collective e-Xplo’s sound installation I Love to You, Workers’ Voices from the UAE, 2007, which captures the precarious predicament of migrant laborers in the region through field recordings of their work songs.

Some of the most striking artistic responses to the biennial’s theme, however, came from artists who interpreted its terms loosely and offered nuance and poetic gesture in place of activism. The biennial’s prizewinners—Kenawy’s work, Group Tuesday’s Knowledge of the Expelled and Tragedy in a Moment of Vision, both 2007, and Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007—addressed ecology obliquely. Group Tuesday’s Knowledge of the Expelled consists of ten explanatory wall texts or museum tags for historical paintings, not shown, that depict variations on the Roman Charity story, in which Pero clandestinely breastfeeds her imprisoned father, Cimon, in order to save his life. On each tag, Group Tuesday has added an inscription, imagining what the artist (Peter Paul Rubens, say, or Jean Baptiste Greuze) might have written on the back of his painting upon completion. This work casts nature as a blinding force that destroys one’s capacity to make images. Sharjah 8 didn’t resolve the climate crisis, of course, but with the Cairo Biennial sinking into irrelevance and Beirut’s Home Works Forum postponed until April 2008, Sharjah remains the most comprehensive platform for artistic practices in the Middle East.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie