Spelled out in flowers on a grass bank along an entry road leading into Sharjah is the welcoming phrase: “Smile You Are in Sharjah.” Such a generic proposal should be plausible anywhere, but here it feels incongruous, at odds with the complex social composition of the city to which it refers.
The phrase is taken as inspiration for a video by Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly, who were commissioned to produce new work for the exhibition, along with many of the biennial’s other participating artists, as in past years. But several changes in structure marked the Sharjah Biennial 9, “Provisions for the Future,” from its predecessors. The event, which this year had more than 80 participating artists, moved from the corporate setting of the Expo Center to the Sharjah Art Museum and surrounding institutions in the Sharjah Heritage Area, giving the exhibition a more public presence. In addition, while previous editions included an overriding curatorial concept, “Provisions for the Future” did not address a certain theme. Rather, as artistic director and head curator Jack Persekian stated, this edition aimed for a “theoretical/conceptual vision that creates a mood for a biennial that allows things to happen untethered by themes and curatorial agendas.”
Persekian conceded that some visitors would find “the biennial venues, spaces and presentations . . . detached, a sort of a bubble or utopia.” Curator Isabel Carlos, in her short catalog preamble, mentions “drift” as a key notion in the selection and commission of artworks. This loose concept shared space with ideas of fragility, entropy, temporality and tension, sub-themes which occasionally clashed. For example, Lara Favaretto’s collapsing confetti cube Only if You Are a Magician (2006) was shown opposite Simryn Gill’s delicate papier-mâché balls composed of the remains of volume 38 of the collected works of Gandhi. The two beautifully fragile works almost canceled each other out in their visual and physical sensibilities.
The layout of the biennial’s main venue, the Sharjah Art Museum, heightened the absence of a clear, structuring curatorial vision. The works in the museum were presented individually in a series of adjacent rooms rising up the museum’s gently sloping interior. As each room was walled off from the next, the arrangement didn’t facilitate a cumulative visual experience. Two artists exploited this condition: German artist Karin Sander with Ball Valve (2009), a bowling lane-like apparatus that allowed a heavy, polished chrome ball to roll down along the base of the ramp’s handrail, and Turkey’s Ayse Erkmen, whose Alright Now (2009) is an off-kilter room constructed at a 90-degree angle to the sloped floor, with only the lighting system from the original room still in place. The optical effect of Erkman’s new room, in contrast to the museum’s oddly angled floor, made the artist’s intervention appear horizontally and vertically aligned even though the original walls and ceiling were not. The clever room-inside-a-room ensemble read as a comment on the overly ambitious and speedily realized building projects in Sharjah and the surrounding emirates. But neither Sandar’s nor Erkmen’s work felt located enough to be more than an almost desperate reaction to the one given condition—the venue.
The lack of a binding curatorial concept and an installation in which artworks rarely interacted with one another made it unclear whether the biennial freed individual propositions while involving them in a more complex shared totality, or if it was no more than a collection of unrelated projects. If viewers were expected to respond work by work, what was the urgency for the particular commissions to take place in Sharjah at this time?
A number of pieces, however, did stand out in this void of contextualization. Included in the strong performance and video program curated by Tarek Abou el-Fetouh, an Egyptian artist based in Brussels, in venues around the museum was Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué’s Theater with Dirty Feet: A Talk on Theater into Art (2009), a lecture-performance with projected images on the appropriation of artworks. In the Islamic Museum, Maha Maamoun’s Domestic Tourism II (2008), a video compilation of sections from Hollywood films showing Cairo’s pyramids, similarly harmonized with the biennial’s open agenda. In the Sharjah Art Museum, the installation On Red Nails, Palm Trees and Other Icons – Al Archief (Take 2) (2009) by Hala Elkoussy, an Egyptian living in Amsterdam, was the one work to dramatically break the monotonous repetition of the museum’s similar-sized white cubes. Elkoussy built her own domestic-looking room off the museum’s central ramp into which visitors entered via a short corridor. Inside, Elkoussy hung an archive of hundreds of found and taken photographs from Cairo showing the city’s architecture, iconic locations and portraits of Cairenes, as well as videos that present recollections and memories from interviewed city residents. The material alludes to traditions, icons and stories from Cairo that are becoming lost. By taking control of the exhibition space, Elkoussy embedded the viewer in an alternate reality of her making, a contrast to the plain face and empty soul of the streets surrounding the building.
Bangalore-based sculptor Sheela Gowda’s Drip Field (2009) was a semi-private pool created by flooding a side street just outside the museum. Fed by a dripping irrigation system made from rubber pipes thrown languidly over faux wrought-iron street lamps, the installation was tantalizingly out of place. A “touristic recreation” site that ultimately failed to have any allure, Drip Field was a perfect fit for its setting. The uselessness of its water-circulation system also ironically mimicked the irrigation that feeds the out-of-season flowerbeds found on roadsides throughout Sharjah.
In one of the venues close to the museum in the Arts and Heritage Area was Beirut-based Lamia Joreige’s complex installation 3 Triptychs (2009), comprising nine consecutive rooms that visitors enter individually. The spaces contained video projections, with several showing a real-time surveillance footage of the viewer seen from behind but modified so that it appears the viewer is walking into a void. Other spaces host a triptych of videos fusing scenes from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (1972) with Joriege’s own footage of his childhood, landscapes and war. Seeing oneself in the work and Joriege’s projected images of Lebanon and the galactic backdrops
of Solaris called into question an individual’s certainty about one’s geographic and temporal location. As a response to an open curatorial position, 3 Triptychs felt urgent because it combines so many of the drifting references otherwise only hinted at in the exhibition, such as personal loss, fragility, fragmentation and confrontation—which were also feelings that Sharjah evokes through its complex visions of the future, its fleeting communities, awkward planning and issues with immigration and labor workforces.
Sharjah’s Heritage Area, where Joreige’s installation and others’ were located, is relatively empty and cleansed of shops, cafes and most human activity. But the streets just around the corner harbor the bustle of city life. It is this energy that the biennial needed to respond to, as much as, if not more than, the sterile and institutional one that it buffered itself within this year.