Sharjah Biennial 13 To Expand Far Beyond the UAE
By HG Masters
Tohmé, the co-founder in 1993 and still-current director of the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, was named the SB13 curator one year ago, in late September 2015. The expansion of the Sharjah Biennial’s format for this edition is very much in line with two of her longstanding interests: one being education—she founded the Home Workspace Program, a one-year postgraduate artist-residency in Beirut in 2011—and the other in fostering regional cultural networks, which she has elaborated and strengthened through the seven editions of Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices, organized to date in Beirut under the aegis of Ashkal Alwan, in conjunction with numerous regional curators and partner organizations.
SB13’s expansion of the biennial format, both in time and space, has had precedents. Okwui Enwezor, for instance, worked with six curators and extended Documenta 11 over five “platforms” on four continents between March 2001 and September 2002. However, the revamped format of SB13 reflects a new set of priorities for today’s curators, who seem to be interested in using the institutional platform of the biennial to address gaps in local infrastructure and discourse. For instance, over the last year, under artistic director Maria Lind, Gwangju Biennale 2016 (GB16) has also been running informal art programs with the Gwangju-based artist collective Mite Ugro, and GB16’s curators have been organizing public talks and coordinated programs (dubbed the “Infra-School”) with universities in Seoul, Gwangju, New York and the artist-run RAT School of Art. Tohmé’s SB13 will also unfold during a year when Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk has chosen Athens as an additional destination for its programming (already underway), and an exhibition in April 2017 to precede the 100-day-long festival that kicks off in Kassel, Germany, in June of that year.
The public and professional responses to these multi-city, multi-part programs will take time to accumulate, and it’s too early to know whether these additional components will become more permanent features of any of these organizations. But, at the moment, a vanguard of curators is pushing biennales away from being exclusively large-scale exhibitions (by way of comparison, a very traditional-sounding Venice Biennale, entitled “Viva Arte Viva,” is being organized by Christine Macel for May 2017) in directions that are more dynamic, discursive and locally rooted.