Noise in the Courtyard
Sharjah Biennial 11 – Re:emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography
Writing a review of the 11th Sharjah Biennial Re:emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography (13th March to 13th May 2013) is a schizophrenic affair. On the one hand, such a large curatorial undertaking deserves to be critiqued purely on its own merit. On the other hand, the black page of Sharjah's Biennial 10 – when Sharjah Art Foundation director Jack Persekian was unceremoniously sacked over Mustapha Benfodil's censored and removed piece Maportaliche/It Has No Importance – still looms heavily over Sharjah Biennial 11. In addition, it is difficult not to read the Biennial's title Re:emerge, as a sideways comment on what happened two years ago. And so, the Sharjah Biennial has indeed re-emerged, not with a vengeance, but rather through calculated consensus and through a curatorial framework that – when announced – raised more than a few eyebrows. Indeed, when guest curator Yuko Hasegawa announced that SB11 would take 'the courtyard' as its organising concept, many – myself included – frowned at the idea that such an orientalist and tame trope would be mobilised for a biennial that has made its mark with showing challenging and inquisitive work that pushes boundaries and refuses to categorise work from the region under a homogenising geopolitical umbrella.
Hasegawa's introduction in the catalogue reads more like an advertorial in the guise of a history lesson, replete with references to Ibn Battuta and the Silk Road, than an engaging curatorial vision. Much is made of Sharjah's multi-ethnic character due to its migrant communities. But no mention is made of what the civic, political and social statuses of these migrants hold, in a place where they make up over 80% of the population yet do not enjoy the same rights as Emirati nationals. However, a few artworks nodded in the direction of this contested relationship. For instance, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chai Siri's excellent video Dilbar (2013), with its mesmerising beat, portrays a Bangladeshi construction worker who worked on building the Sharjah Art Foundation's new art spaces. And Japanese artist Shimabuku's boat trip across the Sharjah Creek, where visitors could 'meet' South-Asian workers and then have salt or pepper ice cream afterwards. Shimabuku's project produces an encounter with the 'labouring other', raising questions around what this notion of the worker means more precisely. Nevertheless, what remains of such encounters after the international art crowds leave Sharjah, remains to be seen. Much of the critical undercurrent of Re:Emerge isinsinuated, implied and suggested, but never really becomes express. This is artful as a strategy, but hardly convinces as a statement.
Does this mean that this Sharjah Biennial was a big letdown? Not at all. In fact, there was much to love. There were the playful crowd pleasers installed in various courtyards, such as German artist Thilo Frank's Infinite Rock (2013), a polyhedral walk-in structure that revealed itself as a mirror room with a swing in the middle. Then there was Shiro Takatani's lovely fog sculpture, or Carlos Amorales' We'll See How All Reverberates (2012), thirty-five cymbals of different sizes ready to be played by the audience. Unfortunately, even though Hasegawa chose to work with the courtyard as a directive principle, it got stuck at the level of the courtyard or other (semi-)public spaces as showing venues for the artworks. The site-specific, architectural, social and political dimensions of these spaces were mostly lost, as was the idea that these sites would facilitate knowledge and exchange. The best case of activating space was a communal project The Bank (2013) by Danish collective Superflex. The artists asked people who lived or worked around Bank Street in Sharjah to name city objects that evoke certain memories. These objects were subsequently reproduced and placed in Bank Street. The result was an urban playground that pulled in people from various walks of life. Not only did Superflex create a spot that was truly public and for the public – in a region where public space is very scarce and managed – they also replaced monetary capital with subjective and narrative currency. Compare The Bank to Japanese collective Sanaa's installation of huge acrylic transparent bubbles in the midst of Calligraphy Square, and the latter leaves you with an exercise that is decorative, unoriginal, and completely superfluous.
SB11 boasts a well-curated focus on sound art without ever really framing these choices specifically. Amongst the strongest works were audio pieces and performances expressing through the abstraction of sound and music what cannot be articulated critically otherwise. Paradoxically, this shows the constraints a biennial in this region will always operate under, while also drawing attention to them by literally making noise. Wael Shawky's impressive live installation Dictums 10: 120 (2013), performed in a narrow corridor between the new art spaces by thirty-two qawwali singers, is a case in point. The singers performed a song that echoed century-old Sufi traditions, but its lyrics were based on curatorial texts and talks from previous Sharjah Biennials translated into Urdu. As such, only those speaking Urdu, the predominant language of Sharjah's migrant community, could understand the lyrics. The 'artspeak' became – for once – unintelligible to the art professionals present for the performance. A completely different type of energy was to be found in the first part of Tarek Atoui's comprehensive Within (2013) project, which spans the whole duration of SB11. Ten renowned percussionists play their drums throughout the city in a free and improvised way, though influenced by the musical traditions of the Gulf region. Only the performance times are announced, not the location and the audience is pulled to the scene by the sound of the drums. Sometimes there is only one drummer performing, other times all the musicians play together. Similar to Shawky's project, this piece is about occupying space in the city and asserting a presence.
Music and sound art are inherently embodied practices. This is nicely evoked in Cevdet Erek's minimalist sound installation placed in a Heritage Area courtyard. Four directional speakers play a percussive pattern based on well-known dance beats. The result is catchy and rhythmical – you want to dance, or at least tap your feet. Meanwhile, issues of displacement, identity and belonging are beautifully explored in Angelica Mesiti's four-channel video projection Citizens Band (2012) portraying four musicians living as migrants in Paris and Australia. Away from their original context, they perform in new situations, such as a swimming pool setting the stage for Cameroonian water drumming, the Parisian metro for Algerian Raï on a Casio keyboard, a Sydney street corner for Mongolian throat singing, and a taxi for the whistling of Sudanese folk melodies.
If this particular biennial was meant as a healing exercise, then this was found precisely in the projects that communicated affect and complex social relationships in non-verbal ways. It is a pity that this line was not carried through consistently. Re:Emerge could have done better with less. Many artists were showing more than one project. There is nothing wrong with this if it makes sense exhibition-wise, but it also seems as if works were included because no decisive choices could be made. Volume won over content. Especially the projects displayed at the Sharjah Art Museum, which lacked focus and appeared auxiliary. Though the calligraphy of Mouneer Alshaarani, Hassan Massoudy, Wissam Shawkat and Yu-ichi Inoue are all very accomplished, what were they doing at SB11? Bringing together Arab and Japanese calligraphers felt like a forced gesture of 'cultural dialogue'.
Even the sub-title of SB11, Towards a New Cultural Cartography, is questionable. While a focus on non-Eurocentric practices might be laudable, this position also feels dated in 2013, especially in the context of the Sharjah Biennial, which was never Eurocentric to start with. On the contrary, the Sharjah Biennial has, over the years, proved itself to be the prime platform of showing newly commissioned work from the MENASA region. Hasegawa's selection of artists is solid, but most artists are well established within the international arts scene and biennial circuits. As such, there is hardly a new cultural map being drawn here. Moreover, it uses a well-rehearsed, tested and tried formula that fits a well-delineated and rather safe curatorial mould. It is true, a courtyard is not a midan (a square), where much of the dissent and uprisings in the region took place over the last two years, nor does it have to be. But if we are heading towards something new, as the sub-title suggests, its presence is not making itself visible on the horizon quite yet.
Sharjah Biennial 11 – Re:emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography, in on view to 13th May 2013. For more information, visit http://www.sharjahart.org/biennial/sharjah-biennial-11/information.