SHARJAH, UAE — Curated by Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, the Sharjah Biennial 11 opened this past Wednesday with a packed program of live events by artists, performers, and musicians, film screenings, as well as a series of talks and panels by invited academics and researchers at the concurrent March Meeting (March 14-17), which was designed to reflect and expand on the concepts articulated in the Biennial proper. - See more at: http://instage.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/880178/yuko-hasegawas-sharjah-biennial-and-its-experimental#sthash.do6vDjU2.dpuf
Entitled “Re:emerge — Towards a New Cultural Cartography”, the Biennial features a roster of participating artists that was conspicuously tilted towards what Hasegawa calls the “global South”, with a large percentage coming from the Arab world, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Within this elastic, open-ended conceptual framework, Hasegawa managed to fold what might have ended up as an incoherent sprawl into a loose, yet convincing constellation of artworks that highlight neglected or suppressed narratives fallen by the wayside of national histories, forgotten regional political alliances and cultural exchanges that crisscross the Arab world, North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, in addition to various other excursions that remain insufficiently “mapped” — to borrow the Biennial’s metaphor of choice.
Some works made direct and pointed references to the socio-economic realities of the emirate of Sharjah itself. Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siri's film “Dilbar” (2013) traces the dazed and dreamlike meanderings of a Bangladeshi city builder — one of a million fellow countrymen who collectively make up nearly 18% of the local population — as he shuttles between construction site and dormitory.
Wael Shawky’s “Dictums 10:120” (2011-3), on the other hand, was an experimental exercise in cultural translation that tried to transpose the peculiar rhetoric of contemporary art from a major language (international English “artspeak”) to a comparatively minor one (Urdu). Thirty-two members of the Biennial’s mostly Pakistani production and technical team were tasked to translate fragments of curatorial talks into lyrics that were then performed live as an adaptation of a devotional Sufi qawwali song.
Hasegawa places a particular emphasis on the traditional Islamic courtyard as a “plane of experience and experimentation — an arena for learning and critical thinking of a discursive and embodied kind.” The desire to reinvent the courtyard in the image of this ambitious, self-imagined epistemological mode is not just a curatorial conceit — the exigencies of real life have turned the courtyard into something of an anachronistic object of nostalgia. A casualty of urban redevelopment, Sharjah’s irregular, low-rise courtyard house is already something of a token heritage relic, confined to housing calligraphy schools, cultural associations, or theater performances.
At a more practical level, the Sharjah courtyard is an anachronistic architectural typology that is not easily adaptable to the logistical demands of both modern comfort and the display of large-scale contemporary art installations. Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), notes that Sharjah’s traditional arish (palm tree) and coral-walled courtyard houses are less hardy and durable than they look. “The wooden rafters that you see on the ceilings of many of the traditional houses used to exhibit artworks at the Biennial are taken from certain trees native to the area, and are only available in certain lengths. This necessarily prescribes the compact dimensions of rooms and houses that are built using these woods, which mean that they are unsuited to the more expansive modern spaces required to display larger pieces of art.”
Working with a design team from the SAF, senior architect Mona El-Mousfy created a suite of new Art Spaces in the Al Mureijah area that selectively preserved aspects of existing traditional courtyard architecture, while simultaneously offering visitors a subtly reworked experience of the intimate spatial dynamics that characterize a walk through the narrow alleyways leading onto the public squares and open roof terraces of the old city.
Hasegawa’s show is strongest when both the physical and metaphorical dimensions associated with the courtyard theme mirror and reinforce each other, giving the exhibited artworks an urgency and resonance that can produce unexpectedly powerful messages. For her live performance “Snapshot” (2013), held in the central courtyard of a building that used to house calligraphy studios, Turkish artist Isil E?rikavuk hired two professional news anchors to read out “reconstructed” fictional reports written by Biennial visitors, based on headlines from the last forty years that were culled from news archives in the UAE. One particularly sharp punchline ran: “The Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of the Exterior held talks today to discuss whether illegal immigrants ought to be held inside, or outside the UAE.”
The pithy, deadpan delivery of these parodies momentarily turned the courtyard into a self-consciously performative arena, where E?rikavuk’s charade of credible reportage started to mirror the actual political realities of the region with more cutting candor than the glossed-over doublespeak of polite journalism.
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