Water, crops, soil, culinary: the keywords to Sharjah Biennial 13, “Tamawuj.” In a conversation with Christine Tohmé and the interlocutors on the second day, a Turkish journalist had asked whether the organizers had felt any responsibilities to address climate change. As I finally had a chance to look more closely through the exhibition on the third day, it was hard to miss the ecological concerns and proliferation of green spaces. In Gallery 4 of Sharjah Art Foundation’s main spaces was Allora & Calzadilla’s three-channel video The Great Silence (2014), about the language spoken by the parrots that live underneath the radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which humans are using to transmit messages to the universe. In Gallery 5 was Mariana Castillo Deball’s Hypothesis of a Tree (2016), a radiating bamboo structure from which were hanging rubbings (frottages) of fossil sediments. There was Futurefarmers’ Seed Mast (2017), a recreation of a ship mast, which doubles as a radio antenna that is receiving transmissions from the collective’s “voyage in which ancient grains are transported to their geographical origins throughout the Middle East,” entitled Seed Journey (2017). Hind Mezaina had created cynotype prints of plants found around Dubai. In the courtyard of Bait Hussain Makrani, Tonico Lemos Auad had planted a meagre herb garden of familiar plants (I could name most of them by sight, and I’m not a gardner) and then presented a couple dozen books about herbal remedies. Don’t get me started on artists’ projects that involve presenting selections of second-hand books as tokens of accumulated knowledge. And elsewhere in the Biennial, was Uriel Orlow’s What Plants Were Called Before They Had a Name (2016–17), a plant dictionary the artist created from nine South African languages, and Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’s installation and videos Forest Law (2014), a multimedia installation about the struggle of the Sarayaku people to protect their rainforested lands in the Andes from international corporations.
So while ecology was very much a prime topic for artists in the Biennial, the responsibility to address climate change—that is, the human component of the erasure of indigenous peoples, lands, species, as raised by the Turkish journalist—was curiously absent. Of course, the background context of environmental degradation is the human lifestyle, resource extraction, fossil-fuel consumption, and the systems of global capitalism that necessitate and enable all this. But it was notable, and I think regrettable, that as an exhibition, the Biennial doesn’t make a link between the struggles of the planet and the politics of climate change itself—because there is a real and ongoing intra-human conversation happening about what to do about it and who is responsible for resolving all the paradoxes of modern development. Something like Bruno Latour’s re-enactment, or simulation, of the Paris climate change conference, COP21, just for example, could have been a bridge between the ecological and political. Or some work that references the human suffering already caused by climate change or environmental degradation. Because, no offense to Futurefarmers, but sailing in a wooden ship, sending radio telegrams to anthropologist Michael Taussig in Brooklyn, and handing off precious little pouches of seeds to friends is not going to inspire anyone to reform the global agriculture business that has wiped out local varieties of plants and devastated farming communities around the world—topics that were much more beautifully and substantially dealt with by Amar Kanwar in his project, “Sovereign Forest” (2011– ) about farmers in India and their struggles against the agro-business. It’s just dilettantism, a romantic artists’ posture in the face of the realities that 99 percent of the world has to live in. Artists should either engage in self-critical thinking about how to bring new approaches to crucial topics, or just go off and enjoy sailing a wooden boat.
What Kader Attia spoke about the second day, of “enacting a field of emotion,” was what many of the ecological-themed works still failed to do. Allora & Calzadilla’s video has physical and sonic presence: its imagery is strong and it has a humorous but tragic narrative, told from the point of view of the parrots. Attia’s own piece in the Biennial, Mimesis as Resistance (2013), is a short video of a lyrebird presented as a kind of nature-documentary in which a narrator is describing how the bird imitates the “sounds of the forest,” including the chain-saw and car alarm. Even if you’ve seen this video before, it gives you a double-take—is the bird actually making these sounds? And, if so, or even if not, how poignantly comical and stark is this, as a testimony to the extent that humans have imprinted themselves on the natural world. It’s a simple video with an intriguing paradox (real or not real? real but un-real? real but all too real?) and once you’ve seen it you can’t un-see it.
It was one of initial frustrations with certain works in the Biennial, that as artworks or even as curated propositions, they are not lovely, or brutal, or provocative or sensuous enough. In Gallery 4, for example, there is Mariana Castillo Deball’s hanging sculpture of bamboo and paper, and next to it is Monika Sosnowska’s Facade (2013), which is also a hanging sculpture, except it’s the collapsed steel outline copied from the eddifice of a modernist building. The two sculptures almost melded together. They were shown alongside Zhou Tao’s film Blue and Red (2014) comprised mostly of scenes of Bangkok from around the time of its social unrest in 2013, Marwan Rechmaoui’s representional depiction of the many new constructions in Beirut, made with actual materials, Blue Building (2015), and Metahaven’s film Information Skies (2016), about a heterosexual couple drifting through virtual, animated and partially-animated virtual worlds. The connections between these works certainly weren’t visual—they were practically clashing or too similar—and didn’t seem to be thematic either. As a curatorial proposition, this space didn’t amount to more than the respective merits of its pieces. In the coming posts I’ll look at some of the other areas and outer venues of the Biennial, where there have been moments of greater aesthetic impact and discursive cohesion.
HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.
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