In art circles, architecture exhibitions get a bad rap. ‘[I] wasn’t convinced that an art biennial should be hosting an architecture edition,’ writes Hoor Al-Qasimi, Sharjah Architecture Triennial chairperson, in the guidebook to its inaugural edition (she’s also president and director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which organises the emirate’s longstanding art biennial). ‘I often found exhibitions about architecture limiting, and sometimes detached from the broader issues that surround them,’ she continues. Which already leaves you wondering whether or not this is going to be an exhibition about architecture at all.
Part of the problem is that in architecture exhibitions you’re always conscious (with or without reason) that you’re looking at something that’s standing in for the real thing, a reference that has no independent ‘life’ beyond the referent. As opposed to artworks, say, which are supposed to be self-sufficient independent entities (even a portrait presupposes its subject’s death). So perhaps it’s not surprising that the triennial’s curator, Adrian Lahoud, has chosen to use this multivenue presentation, titled Rights of Future Generations and featuring 35 projects, to attempt to redefine the common-sense definition of architecture. Buildings are out (by and large); management of the environment, ecology, land rights and land use are in.
At the Al-Qasimiyah School, a former elementary school constructed during the mid 1970s, whose repetitive cell-like classrooms serve as one of the triennial’s main venues, the new ways are not always in evidence. Take Bangkok-based architecture studio (all)zone’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (2019). The title (lifted from a 1968 Pink Floyd track) conjures apocalyptic sci-fi narratives: we’re all gonna burn! The work itself is more prosaic: a passive alternative to air conditioning that offers environmental and psychological (it connects people to the ‘natural’ environment) benefits. It’s an aesthetically pleasing red and orange fabric net, spanning a courtyard. The gallery next door is air conditioned, leaving you to ponder whether the work represents an idea, an ideal, a product, a colourful, decorative geometry or simply a throwback, a fantasy in a land in which architecture and air-conditioning are now so intricately linked that you’re not sure which is the product of which. Indeed, air-conditioning is one of the innovations that prompted the construction of a new souk in Al Jubail back in 2015, leaving the old market (constructed during the early 1980s) available to be the triennial’s second hub. ‘The old market was crowded, lacked proper ventilation and was smelly,’ one relieved shopper told The National at the time of the upgrade, not realising that she was talking about an important piece of the emirate’s architectural heritage that would one day anchor the triennial ‘within the context of Sharjah’s long history as a trade hub, with a vibrant, multi-ethnic landscape cultivated by migration and exchange’.
Back on message (and in the former school), Dogma’s Platforms (2019), a series of geometric details and a book, archives the foundations of architecture through an index of 24 historical examples of the platform – from aboriginal Bora rings and Ancient Greek threshing floors to Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House – in order to suggest that the levelled ground from which architecture begins is not a pragmatic point of connection between a structure and a base, but rather a site upon which people meet or gather to interact: the byproduct of social and political negotiation. It’s a message that Dogma singularly fails to communicate in visual terms (perhaps because the argument is at best visually uninteresting or at worst fundamentally nonvisual), but that finds extension (and, in a sense, extension is what this exhibition is really about) in Feral Atlas Collective’s nearby ‘transdisciplinary experiment in the art of telling terrible stories’ (a multimedia archive documenting the nondesigned byproducts of human intervention in ecologies and landscapes). Feral Atlas (2019) is presented in such a way that it looks like an exploded ebook. Swiping through text and image, presented on tablets and screens, we learn about how railway construction in the Bay of Bengal led to the rampant propagation of water hyacinths clogging up its waterways, cutting out its light and increasing oxygen demand; we learn about how the poisonous cane toads introduced to Australian sugar plantations to control native pests went rampant, devastating the indigenous ecology. ‘We work in the hope that this kind of noticing will make a difference,’ the collective concludes, without entering the specifics of how or to whom. But perhaps the real effect of this is to suggest that architecture’s status as the locus of political and social negotiation (an argument that was much more powerfully communicated in the talks programme that marked the triennial’s opening, covering topics such as the struggle for water rights of the Quechua people in the Atacama desert, the problematics of humanitarianism in Gaza and the protection of native seeds in Mexico, to name but a few) extends to its relationship with non-humans too.
It is humans that remain at the centre of the most successful elements on show here
And yet despite a sense that one of Lahoud’s goals is to propose that ‘rights’ belong to landscapes as much as to people, it is humans that remain at the centre of the most successful elements on show here. Marina Tabassum Architects’ Inheriting Wetness (2019), a study of the changing territory in the delta region of southern Bangladesh, where land emerges and submerges in a way that forces a migratory living on local residents (whose houses are often built so that they be easily dismantled), provides an impetus to illuminate often murky ownership records for lands that may one day reemerge from the waters as an inheritance for future generations. Presented in three stilt houses (and as such one of the only projects that directly addressed building) it is nevertheless the interviews with residents and their personal stories that bring the project and its display to life. ‘Someday my son will build me a brick building,’ says one of the elderly interviewees. Although the triennial, as a whole, buries such basic desires.
Staying with the theme of people, the Ngurrara Canvas II (1997) is an abstract painting that maps a territory and played a key role in a successful native title claim put forward by Aboriginal communities from the Great Sandy Desert in Australia. Almost uninterpretable by a non-native audience, the painting is on display at the Sharjah Foundation, where it was activated at the triennial’s opening when its makers and their descendants walked across it to describe the landscape it represents and to tell the stories of where they were from and where they had travelled. Meanwhile, in the local desert (about 45 minutes outside the city), DJ and composer Nicolás Jaar (Chilean– American, based in New York) is seated on the ground outside the ruined Mleiha Fort, entertaining a crowd of lounging listeners, splayed out on cushions around him with a new ambient soundwork experienced via 16 speakers buried in the sand. The idea, one presumes, is that this meditative experience might encourage them to feel and hear the desert. But he abandons the work shortly before the end saying that they might better experience the landscape and its ruins without his intervention. More esoteric than that is artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s multimedia lecture-performance Natq (2019), originally commissioned for last year’s Sharjah art biennial, which further positions storytelling as the central feature of this triennial via the work’s exploration of xenoglossy, reincarnation and the possibility of past lives as a legitimate (and perhaps the only) means by which hidden, concealed or overlooked injustices can be revealed and made right. Just as you’d learned that it was painting that was supposed to do that. One of the curiosities of the triennial’s vision of an expanded realm of architecture is that it seems to look everywhere except where it is in the rapidly urbanising territory of the UAE. As intriguing as Tabassum’s display is (and, let’s face it, the way things are going the problems it covers are going to be shared by more and more of us), what of, for example, the estimated 700,000 Bangladeshi migrants, who often live and work under difficult circumstances in the country? What about the people who just want hygiene and shelter? There’s an abiding sense in which a real common-sense definition of architecture gets lost here in the attempt to create a definition that expands away from bricks and mortar. But the implications of Lahoud’s thought are as intriguing as they are problematic. Perhaps the real assertion in this triennial is that, left to their own devices, humans create problems not solutions. And that the best we can hope for from architecture is merely an organised means by which to clean up our mess.
Rights of Future Generations, Sharjah Architecture Triennial, 9 November 2019 – 8 February 2020
From the March 2020 issue of ArtReview