Aerial view of lunch tables for Cooking Sections’ Climavore: On the Movement of Deserts, 2017, Al Mureijah Square, Sharjah, March 2017.

Aerial view of lunch tables for Cooking Sections’ Climavore: On the Movement of Deserts, 2017, Al Mureijah Square, Sharjah, March 2017.

the Sharjah Biennial

Various Venues

Aerial view of lunch tables for Cooking Sections’ Climavore: On the Movement of Deserts, 2017, Al Mureijah Square, Sharjah, March 2017.

AS PART OF the Sharjah Art Foundation’s push to expand its presence into more remote areas of the emirate, recent editions of the organization’s signature event have spread beyond its existing facilities to satellite venues across and outside city limits. This year’s ambitious Biennial goes a step further, extending the program over a year and dispersing it internationally across the greater region. Titled “Tamawuj”—an Arabic word that means “a rising and falling in waves; a flowing, swelling, surging, or fluctuation; a wavy, undulating appearance, outline or form”—the Sharjah Biennial’s thirteenth edition, curated by Christine Tohme of Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan association, supplements the main exhibition in Sharjah (dubbed “Act I”) with four off-site programs. Each of these is organized around a keyword: a symposium on “water” held in Dakar, Senegal, this past January; a set of newly commissioned works about “crops” presented in Istanbul in May; a series of publications on “earth” to be launched in the Palestinian city of Ramallah in August; and a pair of exhibitions (dubbed “Act II”), as well as related public programs centering around “the culinary” in Beirut in October. The expansion seems to have come at a cost: Logos of neoliberal multinational corporations, such as Dubai-based real estate developer Emaar and the luxury brand Van Cleef & Arpels, were prominent on banners and hoardings advertising the otherwise largely government-funded event.

The Biennial’s keywords suggest a curatorial focus on issues related to climate change—the most urgent sociopolitical crisis of our time, as we grapple with whether life on earth will remain sustainable. This is not unfamiliar territory, even within the exhibition’s own past. Its eighth edition, titled “Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change,” presciently explored similar terrain a decade prior, with a forthrightness that was eye-opening and revelatory. But that was before the temporary collapse of global capital; the political upheavals of 2011’s Arab Spring and its aftermath; the censorship of a “blasphemous” installation commissioned for Sharjah Biennial 10 that same year (and the subsequent dismissal of the foundation’s director); a fall in oil and natural gas prices, and the corresponding geopolitical consequences; a heart-wrenching refugee crisis; the triumphant reemergence of authoritarianism, nativism, and populism around the world; and the chilling official acknowledgment of the advent of the Anthropocene. While concern regarding climate change and its effects is now widespread, the urgency of the crisis has grown, and addressing this issue has become a trickier endeavor, given the heightened geopolitical stakes around fossil fuels in the region. The usually outspoken Tohme has adopted an oblique—some might say evasive—approach by retreating into metaphor, as demonstrated by the Biennial’s lyrical title. Yet as a metaphor, tamawuj, couched in the cyclical rhythms of nature, opens itself up to politics and history, and its invocation here allows for a critique of teleological models that rely on notions like revolution and rupture. Instead, encompassing ideas of fluidity and flux, it posits a model for change and resistance that is repetitive and regenerative, variable and incremental, elastic and adaptive—one that has the capacity to yield when needed without ever conceding completely.

“Act I” is distributed across six distinct clusters, including a new studio building in Al Hamriyah, a sleepy coastal town a half-hour drive north of Sharjah. Waves reappear in very different guises throughout the Biennial, from numerous fabric pieces, many of which are presented in outdoor settings that allow the works to gently undulate in the wind like flags or sails, to a preponderance of works featuring sound waves. Notable among the former are Hana Miletić’s abstract handwoven textiles, which range from large curtain-like sheets to smaller sculptural fragments made of thick yarn that resemble cocoons and bandages. Regularly punctuating the courtyard-facing walls at Al Hamriyah Studios, these subtle works evoke notions of nurture and care historically associated with cloth.

Ebb and flow are present in primal form, reduced to the steady rhythmic pulse of a heartbeat, in James Webb’s All that is unknown, 2016. Emitting from two speaker cones at either end of a corridor-like gallery, the soft, comforting sound transforms the space into a womb, distilling life into a simple continuous palpitation. This same gentle percussiveness can be felt in Roy Samaha’s Residue, 2014–17, a video travelogue of a trip from Beirut to Mytilene, a port city on the Greek island of Lesbos, whose route recalled that of countless Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. Made up entirely of GIFS, each oscillating between forward motion and reverse, the piece assiduously avoids all signs of this contemporary tragedy, instead presenting glimpses of quotidian life along the shores of the Mediterranean—generic interiors, empty public spaces, fishermen on boats, people sitting and sleeping by the water—parceling time into minute movements and isolated gestures. The film’s pulsating structure animates the footage in an uncanny way; it feels haunted, as if dogged by the ghosts of those it cannot represent—the refugees who, in waves, traversed the coast and finally braved the waters of the Aegean in search of better lives. Ismaïl Bahri’s video Revers, 2016, is similarly somber and meditative, showing a pair of hands repeatedly crumpling and then smoothing out a page from a magazine, its image gradually degrading as printed ink rubs off onto fingers. And Christodoulos Panayiotou’s installation Untitled, 2017, incorporates cyclical rhythm into a choreography of ritualized display and desire, as a man repeatedly opens and closes various luxurious leather cases, each containing exquisite handmade jewelry featuring pseudomorphs—crystals composed of certain minerals that have adopted the appearance of another geode. The hypnotic repetition of the act of presentation is entrancing, lulling our desire to covet and possess these objects. Each of these works harnesses repetition in the service of a somatic rather than industrial logic, encouraging the viewer to accept the inevitability of difference between iterations or cycles.

Other works underscore the political resonance of voice and music. Listening as a political act is the subject of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Saydnaya (the missing 19db), 2017, which is devoted to the artist’s work with prisoners held at the notorious titular Syrian prison. Forced into silence, Saydnaya’s inmates developed acutely sensitive hearing and the ability to communicate via whispers audible only to each other. A barely perceptible nineteen-decibel drop between the utterances of prisoners before and after Syria’s bloody 2011 uprisings and violent suppressions implicitly testifies to the facility’s shift from prison to death camp. Beginning with a series of tones that decrease in volume from the earsplitting roar of a jet plane to the almost inaudible whispers of Saydnaya prisoners, and followed by “earwitness” testimonies, Abu Hamdan highlights this often overlooked extreme of the aural spectrum, imbuing the delicate registers of near silence with the weight of evidence.

Sound and politics are similarly intertwined in the Otolith Group’s The Third Part of the Third Measure, 2017, a two-channel video that centers on the underrecognized African American composer Julius Eastman. The video is divided into three sections: Its middle chapter presents a performance of the composer’s avant-garde work, a trio of minimal compositions propelled by an angry, almost militant urgency, played by four pianists sharing two pianos. This musical passage is preceded by footage of a black male speaker measuredly reading a 1980 speech by Eastman—prepared in response to advance objections by faculty and students at Northwestern University, where he was set to perform—explaining his “organic” compositional approach (whereby each new section incorporates and builds on the previous ones) and the provocative titles of his compositions: Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla. Another recitation of Eastman’s statement, this time by a black woman, follows the performance. Her delivery is playful and impassioned, as if, following Eastman’s “organic” principle, the composer’s uncompromising music has transformed the tenor of his words, revealing the potency of his radical propositions.

In Allora & Calzadilla’s brilliant three-channel installation The Great Silence, 2014, voice emerges unexpectedly as an assertion of the presence of beings whose survival is threatened. Two facing screens show footage of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico—the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope, capable of transmitting and receiving waves to and from deep space—and of the Río Abajo Forest surrounding it, the refuge of the last wild population of Amazona vittata parrots. Via subtitles projected on a third screen that spans the distance between them, the parrots point out the irony of our quest to discover extraterrestrial life while we remain deaf to the sentient nonhuman life forms on our own planet. The work’s script, by science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, hinges on the capacity for “vocal learning” shared by humans and parrots, gesturing toward what Donna Haraway has termed “making kin,” a methodology for reversing the compartmentalization of culture and nature by acknowledging the deep entanglement of the human and nonhuman.

Such expressions of care for the rain forest and its inhabitants, inspired by the wisdom of indigenous cultures that retain an intimacy with it, feature in Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’s two-channel video installation Forest Law, 2014, and Jonathas de Andrade’s celebrated 2016 film O Peixe (The Fish). Meanwhile, Em’kal Eyongakpa’s “multimedia transcription” of the ecosystem, Rustle 2.0, 2016, immerses one fully into its distinctive sensorium. Although each of these works is exceptional, their shared reference to the lush tropics feels somewhat unnatural here, its incongruity with the immediate surroundings reminiscent of that of the recently opened “Green Planet”—a simulated rain forest in nearby Dubai, nature packaged as exotic spectacle. And, after watching The Great Silence, I could not help but wonder if Tohme’s lyricism and her expansionist desire to disperse the Biennial throughout the region may have been at the expense of more proximal resources for critique and creativity.

While many works are linked by their employ of sound and other time-based elements, only a handful engage with local ecosystems and environmental concerns. One such piece was performed during the Biennial’s March Meeting, in which the duo Cooking Sections presented Climavore: On the Movement of Deserts, 2017, the latest in a series of one-off multicourse meals that address the climate conditions of their ingredients—in this instance, vegetation that thrives under conditions of water scarcity. Served on communal tables whose snaking forms replicated the rhizomatic growth patterns these plants adopt, the meal demonstrated the hidden abundance of arid climates, challenging the conventional understanding of the desert clime’s inability to sustain life. Transforming an abandoned planetarium into a listening room, the latest version of Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Ashkan Sepahvand’s Carbon Theater, 2016–, presents soundscapes recorded at sites in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Germany dedicated to fossil fuel and clean energy production along with precious metal extraction (and at one indoor equatorial theme park and resort named “Tropical Islands”). Through these sounds—the result of complex interactions between the physical sites, the processes performed there, and surrounding environmental conditions—the structures speak for and about themselves, allowing us to perceive immaterial truths to which we are normally blind.

The Biennial also includes two notable works by local artists: Hind Mezaina’s Dubai Gardens, 2017, a wall of cyanotypes of plant clippings taken from gardens across the neighboring emirate, their sun-etched traces enlivened by Todd Reisz’s accompanying episodic history of urban greening there, and Vikram Divecha’s Beej, 2017, a traffic roundabout that will, in the coming months and perhaps even years, be cultivated by some of Sharjah’s municipal gardeners with seeds from their family farms in Pakistan, shifting their relationship with land and labor back from the hollow maintenance of urban landscaping to the self-sustenance of agricultural production.

Across “Tamawuj,” art rarely functions as environmental activism; instead, we are invited to look through art to nature for strategies of survival, for ways to resist—or, rather, persist—through periods of hardship, escalating authoritarianism, antagonism, and oppression. And given our dire political present, the wave reassures, reminding us that an upswing is inevitable—we just need to remain resilient until favorable conditions return.

Sharjah Biennial 13 is on view through June 12.

Murtaza Vali is a critic and curator based in Sharjah and New York.

Visit our archive for coverage of past Sharjah Biennials, including Yasmine El Rashidi on Sharjah Biennial 12 (September 2015) and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on Sharjah Biennial 10 (Summer 2011).