KHALIL RABAH, Art Exhibition, 2011/2016, oil on canvas, dimensions variable. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation. 

The Time is Out of Joint

Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces and other locations
United Arab Emirates Lebanon Palestine China Japan Singapore Malaysia Indonesia Kuwait Poland Morocco Egypt USA

Inspired by 13th-century Sufi master and philosopher Ibn Arabi’s theory of space and time being inexplicably interwoven, Brussels-based Egyptian curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh continues his investigative project of shuffling past, present and future to reflect on the fluxes of the modern Arab world. Expanding from his original iteration in 2013, for Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works 6 in Beirut, the project in Sharjah presents 21 artists (many showing multiple works), encompassing two exhibition sites, a one-day conference, reading room, digitization project and performances, supplemented by a two-volume publication.

An ambitious undertaking that transverses hypothetically across time and place, “The Time is Out of Joint” rehashes two seminal exhibitions from two pivotal moments in sociopolitical history—the First Biennale of Arab Arts in Baghdad in 1974 and Beijing’s 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition—as a backdrop for paving out a topography for art being produced in the current. Further echoing the disruption of linear temporality, the third leap in time transports Jogjakarta’s Equator Conference 2022 to today’s Sharjah, seeking our imagination for the future.

KYOHEI SAKAGUCHI, Zero Dirham House, 2016, mixed media, site-specific installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation.

The first leap in history takes us to the short-lived Arab Biennale founded in the wake of a revival in Arab nationalism following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The Biennale paved a bridge for Arab artists to connect and generate hope of liberation from the dictatorial regimes of the region’s sectarian nation-states. As quickly as it began, the Biennale folded after its third iteration, alongside the collapse of nationalist dreams. Revisiting the core values of the Arab Biennale, through the current exhibition inside the Sharjah Art Foundation art spaces, allows for a mindful contemplation of the current politics that continue to plague the Arab world today, while also serves as a curatorial ground for considering the trials and tribulations faced by other parts of the world.

Entering the exhibition, one is met with Khalil Rabah’s Art Exhibition (2011– ). The Palestinian artist becomes his own historiographer, creating photorealist paintings documenting people looking at other people viewing his exhibitions. In a more visually simple pen-and-paper work, Guangzhou-based Song Ta records the various names he used to refer to his parents while growing up a forbidden second child during China’s one-child policy. Names of My Papa and Mama (1991– ) draws attention to the psychological outcomes of nationalism on those forced to endure it.

Video art appears to be the favored medium of choice for El Fetouh. Meiro Koizumi’s emotionally-charged four-channel video of an actor rehearsing the scene of a young Kamikaze pilot bidding farewell to his family sends chills down the spine. Spreading a touch of dark humor, Beijing-based Cao Fei’s Rumba II: Nomad (2015) features fake chickens standing on household robotic vacuum cleaners that are let loose on the urban streets of Beijing. Magic finds its way to Sharjah in the work of Emirati artist Zeinab al-Hashemi. Composite satellite images of Abu Dhabi and Dubai become kaleidoscopic abstractions in the short video Urban Phantasmagoria Series (2015).

During the exhibition’s opening weekend, several performance-art pieces took place. Moroccon artist Radouan Mriziga delighted audiences with ~55 (2015/2016). Using his body as a compass-like measuring tool, Mriziga moved gracefully through a 40-minute choreography that attempted to deconstruct contemporary dance into its fundamental elements of movement and rhythm. On the following night, the audience was put to a true test of patience. Malaysian artist Mark Teh’s 100-minute performance Baling (2014/2016) involved performers, including Teh, reenacting the 1955 Baling peace talks of Northern Malaya through dialogue and acting. While the conceptual premise of passionately reimagining concepts of nation building was intriguing, one may think scheduling a performance with the length of a feature film at 9:30 p.m. was ill-timed. Fortuanately, they did serve coffee.

ZEINAB AL-HASHEMI, Urban Phantasmagoria Series, 2015, still from video: 2 min. Courtesy the artist. 

In an adjacent building, the show continued with a featuring of “China/Avant-Garde” (1989), the first mega public avant-garde art exhibition in Beijing that took place for two weeks at the National Art Gallery, a mere four months before the tragic events of Tiananmen Square. The outcome of post-Revolution China, when foreign art and literature began to flow through the country following the enactment of Deng Xiaoping’s reform policy, the exhibition of nearly 200 artists famously made institutional history. Several unapproved artists’ performances led to the show being closed by authorities within hours of its opening, namely when Xiao Lu fired a gun at her own artwork, declaring the work “dead.” Revisiting the exhibition today permits us to consider the practice of artists in the context of revolutionary or otherwise politically-motivated acts.

Indonesian artist Tita Salina challenges her country’s land reclamation project in 1001st Island — The Most Sustainable Island in Archipelago (2015). Salina created an artificial island in Jakarta, tugging it out to sea between the reclaimed islands and Thousand Islands, in an attempt to thwart the government’s reclamation project. In Sharjah, Salina reproduced her artificial island for the port of Sharjah by collecting trash from local neighborhoods. Also gearing towards sustainability, Tokyo-based Kyohei Sakaguchi installed a mobile house, Zero Dirham House (2016), in the courtyards of Sharjah Art Foundation. Made from recycled waste from previous exhibitions at the Sharjah Art Foundation, the prototype house forces one to consider the costs and one’s relationships to land and housing.

TITA SALINA, 1001st Island – The Most Sustainable Island in the Archipelago, 2015, still from video: 14 min 11 sec. Photo by Bagus Chaidir. Courtesy the artist.

Kuwait-born artist and filmmaker Basma Alsharif examines the historical background of bilocation in Doppelgänger (2016), which she performed in the Sharjah Institute of Theatrical Arts. Developed during the production of a film while under auto-hypnosis in Malta, Athens and the Gaza Strip, Doppelgänger engages in Palestinian history, but for the most part, is loaded with Alsharif’s autobiographic storytelling through dialogue. At the climax, pulsating images, flashing colors and driving sounds collectively draws audiences into a kind of hypnosis.

Singaporean Ho Tzu-Nyen exploits Hong Kong cinema, creating a montage of film clips to narrate the story of a triple agent in Southeast Asia. With dry humor, Cairo-based Maha Maamoun interweaves fact and myth from two sets of texts in Dear Animal (2016): first, a selection of letters written by Azza Shaaban, a director-producer involved with the Egyptian revolution and now based in India; and second, a fictional short story of a drug dealer who turns into a strange animal, penned by Egyptian writer Haytham el-Wardany.

Although difficult to follow its trajectory at times, “The Time is Out of Joint” is laced with reverberations of historic revolutions and political gambits—from the failure of Arab nationalism to China’s shattering of hope for a Chinese renaissance. The exhibition sparks consideration toward the present-day continuing tensions in the Arab region following the Arab Spring, as well as the political currents in the remainder of the world, and echoes the words of philosopher and novelist George Santayana (1863–1952): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“The Time is Out of Joint” is on view at Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces until June 12, 2016.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.