Sharjah Biennial 9

Various Venues

“PROVISIONS FOR THE FUTURE,” the ninth edition of the Sharjah Biennial, raised a host of unsettling if necessary questions typically repressed by the protocols of the global biennial circuit—though in light of the stated ambitions for the show, this might not at first appear to be the case. Organized by artistic director Jack Persekian and chief curator Isabel Carlos, “Provisions for the Future” seemingly mined familiar thematic terrain, and with a deceptively optimistic inflection. “The pursuit of happiness,” Carlos writes in the rainbow-colored tome that is the catalogue, “is an important motivation for humanity to relocate itself from one place to another. In such relocation, notions of utopia and the future . . . play a major role.” The work of some sixty artists, running the gamut from the emerging (Haris Epaminonda, Hayv Kahraman) to the emerged (Lawrence Weiner), was pressed into the service of this thesis. These projects focused on, in Carlos’s words, “concepts like immigration, travel, narrative, fiction, memory and history, escape and exile.” The litany reads like curatorial boilerplate at this late date, offering nothing new in the round-robin of biennial culture. Yet somehow in Sharjah this familiar set of curatorial rubrics actually took on some urgency.

The million-dollar question inadvertently posed by the biennial was: What future? With every indicator suggesting that the financial crisis has yet to hit rock bottom, might the “provisions” of the exhibition’s title now be regarded as, well, provisional—proposing that the era of the global biennial has hit a plateau, an impasse wrought by the excesses of the art world and a concomitant failure of the globalist imagination? Crudely put, to what extent is the provisional character of this curatorial format pathologically implicated in the mood swings of the market, no matter how loudly such exhibitions disavow this relationship in their critiques of neoliberal economics? It was clear that the Sharjah Biennial’s implicit set of responses to such questions was continuous with its markedly regional considerations, a fact that contradicts the received wisdom on global large-scale exhibitions as everywhere and always the same. Carlos may well describe Sharjah as “a cultural meeting point where the notion of ‘future’ is permanently evoked,” but the site-driven dimensions of her biennial served less to bolster the city’s profile as a node on the art-world map than to undercut the show’s ostensibly roseate thesis.

Much of this had to do with a brute fact of geography. As Dubai’s less glamorous and more conservative neighbor, Sharjah, dubbed the “cultural capital” of the UAE, provides the starkest contrast imaginable to the Disneyland swank of its neighboring city-state. In flush times, the difference between Sharjah and Dubai seems so obvious that even to point it out courts redundancy: Dubai’s profile as the epicenter of globalization renders Sharjah irredeemably provincial. These days, the comparison proves instructive once again, dramatizing the radical unevenness of globalization and its profoundly local consequences, and providing an object lesson about large-scale exhibitions that, however obvious, bears repeating: The motivations behind such shows are as relational and comparative as they are site-specific. To be sure, it was impossible to approach “Provisions for the Future” without thinking of the recent fortunes of Dubai, where the formerly relentless movement of construction cranes has now ground to a halt and the proliferation of TO RENT signs plainly broadcasts the hard new economic realities. At the Art Dubai fair, which opened in mid-March, two days after the biennial, with the usual complement of symposia and satellites, the uncertainty was palpable in the fauxrabian environs of the Madinat Jumeirah resort where the participants set up shop. And so it was in Sharjah, despite the consensus that attendance seemed robust. However utopian the biennial’s rhetoric of the future, much darker undercurrents were at work that could hardly have been anticipated by its organizers.

Such undercurrents, too, were relational, residing between and among works rather than in individual projects. The relative interest of “Provisions for the Future” was due not so much to the presence of singular art—as at every biennial, a fair share of mediocrity was on parade— as to the conversations generated via juxtaposition. In alluding to the notions of “drift” and “image dislocation” as animating principles, Carlos seemed to acknowledge that elective affinities among seemingly disparate practices were integral to her curatorial program. On this count she deserves credit for organizing a biennial with an even hand and through an open-invitation selection process. It was refreshing to encounter names underrepresented in the usual biennial outings. Likewise, a good balance was struck among different relationships to site: There was work that addressed the conditions of the Sharjah site generally, though not always in political terms (Maider López’s “football field” superimposed on the public square of the Arts and Heritage district, Ayşe Erkmen’s construction of a room-within-a-room as an alteration of the Sharjah Art Museum’s architecture); work engaging the everyday realities of the region and its subjects (Hala Elkoussy’s cacophonous installation of photographs, video, and various domestic props to evoke daily life in Cairo, Hamra Abbas’s ninety-nine meticulous miniature portraits of children studying in madrassas); and work that, driftlike, assumed local implications relative to much of the art in the exhibition, even if stemming from other cultural reference points. This balance was most evident in the biennial’s main venues, the Sharjah Art Museum and the Sharjah Contemporary Arab Art Museum, neighboring, architecturally linked institutions that together showcased forty-nine works. Among the first encountered was Halil Altindere’s Portrait of the Sheikh, 2009, a “site-specific” installation featuring a generic oil painting of the type commonplace in hotel lobbies and public buildings throughout the UAE. Approaching the picture, set at an oblique angle to the wall, viewers discovered the facade of a safe tucked behind it—a not terribly nuanced commentary on the equivalence between power, money, and representation.

But maybe subtlety is beside the point in the outsize culture of the Emirates, and especially so when confronting the near-iconic status accorded its sheiks. In any case, it is on account of such occasionally blunt gestures that one appreciated both the literal and metaphoric space Carlos gave to each artist’s respective project. Most of the works at this site were organized around the ramplike artery joining the two museums. As viewers made their way up and down the switchback, discrete spaces opened to each side, providing ample room for works to breathe, and enabling, rather than forcing, incisive comparisons across the walls. So, for instance, Reem Al Ghaith’s Dubai: What’s Left of Her Land?, 2008, attempted to capture the frenzy of building in the emirate via a theatrical tableau of construction props that literalized the fitful identity of a city as a work in progress. In the adjacent gallery, José Luis Martinat’s video City, 2006, was composed of material appropriated from six cartoons from which the characters had been digitally erased: The result was a generic urban-scape, a far tidier vision of city life with a faintly nostalgic appearance. Evacuated of any living presence, replete with images of empty flagpoles, and with a sound track courtesy of Muzak, the piece appealed to the routinization of the city through its rationalization and abstraction. The juxtaposition between the two works ultimately served to favor the latter: Highlighting the facelessness of the contemporary city spoke more cogently to global anomie than did the literal stage set representing the emirate next door. Nonetheless, the pairing neatly distilled the nexus between the biennial’s regional and global motivations, as if the messy realities of the UAE converged with the clinical workings of the global metropolis elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, such representations made a strong showing in photography and video and effectively played to the dynamics between public and domestic space in the Middle East. Ziad Antar and Rasha Salti’s photo- and text-based collaboration Beirut Bereft: Architecture of the Forsaken and Map of the Derelict, 2009, surveyed the ruined city in a dire catalogue of bombed-out buildings. The tone of the fourteen pictures shifted between photojournalistic color and more aestheticizing black-and- white; and the alternation between these two pictorial modes punctuated a genre of imagery to which, tragically enough, we’ve grown all too habituated. The difference here, though, was the not insignificant fact that most of the buildings documented had never been completed; they were under construction when they were bombed. Beirut Bereft is thus as much an allegory of desperately failed beginnings as it is an archive of bitter ends. In this sense it provided a compelling contrast with Lamya Gargash’s excellent photographic portfolio “The Majlis,” 2008–2009, which pictured upscale domestic sitting rooms throughout the UAE. This deadpan, even antiseptic representation of Emirati affluence—overstuffed sofas, crystal chandeliers, satin swags, flat-screen televisions, the ubiquitous box of tissues set out for guests—was both an oddly poignant expression of cultural decorum and a showcase of conspicuous consumption. In both Beirut Bereft and “The Majlis,” competing visions of excess were represented in unsparing if far from sensationalistic terms.

The constellation of the domestic, the local, and the regional found other variants throughout the biennial, arguably most resonant precisely when confronting situations elsewhere, as if the literal distance on offer provided metaphoric perspective on more immediate conditions. At the Serkal House, which, along with the museums, is part of the Arts and Heritage district, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen’s Rendezvous, 2009, comprised two video screen projections placed on opposite sides of a dark chamber. One featured images of Indian workers based in Sharjah, staring silently into space; the adjacent screen displayed families back home, gazing across a virtual void. The work addresses the centrality of foreign guest workers as essential to the economy of the Emirates by crystallizing both the metaphoric and actual distance between home and work: a space of the global uncanny captured through literally split images. Here the vaunted cosmopolitanism of the UAE takes on markedly bleaker implications, recalling an infamous recent New York Times article that chronicled the mass exodus from Dubai of its legions of foreign workers, thousands abandoning their cars at the airport in order to avoid debtors’ prison.

Indeed, the notion of a transnational “rendezvous” found correspondence in art that bore no literal relation whatsoever to the UAE. One such work was Liu Wei’s Hopeless Lands, 2008, a video registering the impact of Beijing’s urban sprawl and the shrinkage of its rural areas on traditional agricultural practices. With images of farmers scavenging mountains of garbage in order to supplement their diminishing incomes, Liu has given us The Gleaners for a post-Greenspan world. These killing fields of consumption might be thousands of miles from Sharjah, but Liu’s message nonetheless spoke powerfully to the biennial’s regional considerations: A landscape grown by excess can yield only a most abject harvest. This was the lingering thematic communicated by “Provisions for the Future,” and it applied to a range of work meditating on the geopolitical. But that message could also be generalized to speak to the current status of the global biennial format itself, sounding a cautionary note for the provisional future of the genre.

Pamela M. Lee is a professor in the department of art and art history at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.