Mar 17 2013

Sharjah Biennial Report: Adrift

by Noelle Bodick

CAMP, still from From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, 2009–13.

Day four at the Biennial . . .

“Take in the scene well,” a sailor laying across the ship’s deck instructs a shaky handed cameraman, one of the many seamen from India, Iran or Pakistan who contributed cellphone videos to CAMP’s new film From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2009–13).

The vessels sculling across the screen are anchored just meters away as the film, commissioned for the Biennial, shows at the Sharjah Creek. Assembled on the benches or crouched on the dusty ground are local men, who point and murmur in recognition with the appearance of each new ship.

The sequence of grainy, short clips—shot over the course of the past four years—observes the brutal enterprise of life at sea: hundreds of cattle compressed onto a deck, ton after ton of pasta unloaded, goats hung up by their feet and skinned. If the frenetic videos lack polish, they make up for this as an immersive experience.

Yet even at their most intimate, these documents are never statements of affection. Rather than lamenting the effect of this battering toil on sailors’ lives, the banal and the spectacular are observed equally and even handedly. The mariners who exchange haircuts or drum on plastic barrels also hoist cars into the air or witness vessels on fire. At times, the footage records moments of beautiful, hallucinatory abstraction, following dolphins streaming through the water or throbbing lights at a dance club on the coast. 

SHIMABUKU, Shimabuku’s Boat Trip, 2013.  

Japanese artist Shimabuku also takes an interest in Sharjah’s nautical culture, particularly the abra dinghies that carry migrant sailors back and forth across the Creek. For Shimabuku’s Boat Trip, the enterprising participant descends cement stairs onto a small vessel, where a broadfaced, bearded captain sits at the stern. “One dirham,” he says, and obliging hands drop coins onto his makeshift counter.

The catalog informs us that: “On the boat trip, visitors will see the Emirate from a different perspective. They will meet workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere, and these laborers will meet people from all over the world.” The brief ride across the Creek allows for little more than furtive glances, and, on arrival back on shore, the participant is met by a barrow that offers “Ice Cream with Salt” and “Ice Cream with Pepper.”

Across the Sharjah Creek, a participant purchases ice cream topped with salt and pepper as part of Shimabuku’s Boat Trip.  

The opportunity to buy a five-dirham dessert, on which the vendor crushes salt or pepper, reinforces the uneasy sensation that this experience has been a cross between a Disneyland adventure and an anthropological exercise, accessed through strictly commercial means. It remains unclear whether the trip is an earnest attempt to see local life, as the description would seem to insist, or a mocking critique of our terms of access.

Of the two water-based explorations, Shimabuku’s Boat Trip is the less effective, despite being a face-to-face encounter. Compare it to a brilliant moment in CAMP’s film when a sailor’s cellphone camera meets the eager lens of a Western tourist—in this instant, as the ship embarks from a port, the men become two equally greedy sets of eyes. 

Noelle Bodick is assistant editor of ArtAsiaPacific and is based in Hong Kong.