Sharjah Biennial 13

A desire for fluidity and exchange comes up against regional and socio-political limits

By Nadia Quadmani

Raqs Media Collective, The Necessity of Infinity, 2017. Performance, part of Sharjah Biennial 13: Tamawuj and March Meeting, 2017. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Fehras Publishing Practices, Soapy postmodern Bathwater, 2017. From the series ‘Institutional Terms’ (2015–16). Video, 24 minutes. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artists. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. Uriel Orlow, various works, 2016. Video, audio, photographs, library, publications, posters. Commissioned by The Showroom London in association with Parc Saint L.ger, Contemporary Art Centre, Pougues-les-Eaux, France; Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne. Courtesy of Mor Charpentier Gallery, Paris and LaVeronica Gallery, Modica, Italy and the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

Sharjah Biennial, various venues, Sharjah, through 12 June

Tamawuj, the title of the latest edition of the Sharjah Biennial, finds its root in the Arabic word mawj, (‘wave’), suggesting an interflow, and the steady rhythm of back and forth. The Sharjah Biennial 13, curated by Christine Tohme, spans a full year of exhibitions and public programmes. ‘Act I’, the exhibition and the discursive events of the annual ‘March Meeting’ in Sharjah, takes place at six locations and features the work of over fifty international artists, including works by İnci Eviner, Jorinde Voigt, Zhou Tao, and Nida Sinnokrot. The biennial will culminate in ‘Act II’, taking place in Beirut in October 2017.

The critical focus of the biennial, both in its form and subject, is that of the role of institutions in the region, prioritising institutions operating in the ‘MENA’ region (‘Middle East and North Africa’), though with next-to-no mention of the recent giant cultural real-estate developments in the GCC region for instance. Meanwhile, the question of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s responsibility regarding the inability of members of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition to attend the biennial was met with some agitation, when raised during the March Meeting. (Gulf Labor Coalition’s artists have boycotted the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project until the well-documented conditions of worker exploitation and abuse on Saadiyat Island are remedied.)

So if the March Meeting avoided talking about particular too-sensitive socio-political events, Christine Tohme’s vision for the biennial seems to centre around informal net-works, institutional infrastructure, and the viability, fragility and possibility of operating under and around socio-political realities. There is an undeniable virtue to ‘slowing down’, advocating for ‘a structure for care and cultivation’ as proposed by a panel conference titled ‘Desiring Institutions’. But what does such positioning amount to?

There is an undeniable virtue to ‘slowing down’, advocating for ‘a structure for care and cultivation’. But what does such positioning amount to?

The themes tackled in the Sharjah biennial range from work that pays careful attention to the practice and history of translation; to revising the colonial nomenclature and the dis-placement of local knowledge (such as in in Uriel Orlow’s What Plants Were Called Before They Had a Name, 2016-17); or which recommend taking the time to listen, as in Allora and Calzadilla’s video work The Great Silence (2014) — a parrot’s words, heeding man to look toward his fellow ‘verbal learner’ before he does to extraterrestrial life.

Instances that showcased the success of the biennial’s vision include Bilingual Camel (2017) by Fehras Publishing Practices, a group of Syrian artists based in Berlin whose research and work revolves around bilingualism, institution, translation, and the production of cultural dictionaries. A collection of bilingual (Arabic and English) art publications from the past decade are displayed upon a camel-shaped frame, so that both the form and content is subject to examination. The publications read as a collection rather than individual works, as a historiography or archive for the future. They form sites of transformation of modern Arabic, shaped by the structural power-relations inherent within the practice of translating western discourse. In an accompanying, slickly titled video-work Soapy Post Modern Bathwater (2017) by the group, a ‘bilingual body’ lies lifeless upon an operating table at the centre of a futuristic lab. The lab is stocked with containers filled with art terms, logs of keywords and glossaries. Kamal Abu Diib’s varying translations for the word ‘gender’, found in his 1981 translation of Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism, are noted onto a whiteboard.

This meditation on translation and on reclaiming speculations of the future also echoes in a captivating performance by The Raqs Media Collective. The Necessity For Infinity (2017) charts intertwining Persian, Arab, and Greek intellectual history by revisiting the often over-looked Al As’Ilah Wa’l Ajwibah (‘the Questions and Answers’), an exchange between two Persian polymaths of the Islamic golden era, Al Beruni and Ibn Sina. While a shruti box sounds a monotone unfaltering drone, both parts are read from a script by performers seated on a carpet. Al Beruni muses, ‘in my dreams I am the falling man’, while Ibn Sina asserts that the notion of infinity entails the possibility of there being many other worlds like our own.

Here and There (2017) a work by Roy Dib, a suspended striped curtain made of functional outdoor material, obstructs a corridor between the Emirati-styled gallery rooms. The curtain is of a different, specifically levantine arabic tradition — typically seen hanging on the balconies of tightly packed roads of Lebanon or elsewhere in the Levant— and contrasts with the surrounding, stylised, white exhibition space. In this environment, it could be read as a functional object, perhaps blocking a route where further construction work is taking place. The work is a call-back to Dib’s theatrical production, Close to Here (2017), also part of the biennial programme, where a curtain is climactically erected as a shield from the gaze of an elusive sniper killing everyone in the harra (‘neighbourhood’) – the motif of the curtain serving as a metaphor for spatial demarcation in an unspecified political context, although the production heavily alludes to the Lebanese civil war.

The call to pause, assess, revise, process and retrace in a critical moment of uncertainty is imperative in the midst of rapid change

In a gallery on ‘Caligraphy Square’, a courtyard site that would otherwise house Sharjah’s national Arabic Calligraphy Museum, is a scenographic installation titled Saydnaya (The Missing 19db) (2017). This work by Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s measures affect, trauma and violence in decibels. The ear-witness accounts of the survivors of the prison of Saydnaya, a military prison that has been used to hold political prisoners some twenty-five kilometres to the North of Damascus, becomes the subject of forensic investigations into the sonic environment. Switches on a motorised fader board flick back and forth according to changes in the volume of the prisoners’ whispers. Experiencing this work renders this trauma intelligible, the translation of sound into something visible mediates this trauma, and grants us status as secondary witnesses, however by extension this also, problematically turns us into spectators.

Tamawuj’s carefully self-conscious and reflective agenda – of working within and around regional and socio-political limitations – perhaps hints a sense of futility. Products of this defeated positioning result in gestures that reappropiate only to aestheticise, thematise, dramatise but do not activate. On the other hand, using the platform of the biennial to facilitate and empower small regional institutions and collectives is an undeniably progressive curatorial move. SB13’s call to pause, assess, revise, process and retrace in a critical moment of uncertainty is imperative in the midst of rapid change; be it a tide of destruction and violence on one hand, or the accelerated expansion of globalised cultural real-estate on another.

Online exclusive, 17 March 2016