Two months on and it’s gone quiet in Sharjah’s Art District. Only a few weeks ago these cobbled courtyards were packed with tourists, foreign journalists and artists from Slovenia to Sydney. But we wanted to find out, after the hype, if Sharjah Biennial really measured up, and if it remains the most enriching art shindig in the Emirates.
A staggering flock of 58 artists have been brought together under curator Isobel Carlos’s ‘Provisions For The Future’ concept. Aside from three zigzagging floors of the Sharjah Art Museum, there are another three satellite galleries just nearby and several momentous works dotted around the courtyards. Walking up the staircase of the museum, we’re greeted with a windy exposition of what Carlos was getting at in her selections.
She suggests that these explore a yearning for utopia innate in us all, and also how we cling to a fictionalised future to realise that. One line reads: ‘The notion of the pursuit of happiness as the main motivation for humanity to dislocate itself from one place to another.’
But turn into the main gallery and we’re greeted with ‘Inshallah’ written in snaking neon. It’s as if the work’s creator, Danish artist Nikolaj Larsen, is raising an eyebrow to all those ideas we read about on the way in. Inshallah, he seems to say to the whole thing, ‘God willing’.
A stroll through the first few exhibits is punctuated by continual industrial banging and the odd bleep, bleep, bleep. The source of these noises are artists Nika Oblak and Primõz Novak, who are trapped in a TV, and attempting to beat their way out. As a novel twist, the TV is wrapped in rubber and underneath its outer coat lies a pneumatic contraption, timed to work in unison with the on-screen events. As Oblak punches at the walls, the rubber film suddenly bounces out with tiny, fist-like protrusions.
Accompanying ‘The Box’ is a hoax documentary where the artists claim to have pushed two wheelbarrows from Slovenia to Sharjah for three years to break a world record. What they’ve really filmed is a few scenes in Bosnia (calling it variously Bulgaria, Serbia and so on) and around the UAE (which is offered up as everywhere from Turkey eastwards) in the space of a few weeks.
There’s something refreshingly irreverent about watching these two drag their wheelbarrows through a dusty desert track, clearly somewhere near Dibba, as the monotone-Slovenian voiceover states ‘We met many incredible people in Iran.’ It’s an astute comment on how much we trust voiceovers, videos and foreignness. We must trust this pair of beatific Slovenes, as they drink coffee with a construction worker and remark on the wonderful, generous people they’ve met on their journey.
There’s a strange streak of Sharjah-love throughout the biennial. Take Doris Bitter, her city-wide, site-specific pieces where she has stuck markers leading people around Sharjah’s expat history fall as flat as naan bread. Upstairs, there’s far too much preoccupation with the Sharjah Art Museum building itself. Ayse Erkmen has ‘geometrically corrected’ the sloping aspect of the museum’s galleries by installing another, temporary room within the space.
Just down from Erkemen’s piece, Maider López has sectioned up a gallery space with a batch of hastily painted temporary walls. So many of these site-specific pieces feel too temporal, too desperate in their attempt to make something relevant to the place. Asking artists to reflect on Sharjah, a place they know little about, was bound to elicit these literal responses. And, in among these pieces, a number of artists have chosen to deal with the Palestinian struggle, which has helped to confuse things further.
Still, some exceptional pieces are to be found. Liu Wei’s video ‘Hopeless Lands’ (above, inset) shows Chinese farmers forced to pick through waste dumped on arable land in a bid to bolster their ever-shrinking incomes. With grey skies and sun-starved trees around them, they pick the refuse with scythes and hooks in a nightmarish glimpse at the modern condition of waste.
A grim and beautiful bicycle ride through a harsh reality of post-Mao China and one of few works in here that feels sufficiently borne of the Biennial’s initial directions – the ‘bright future’ and the ideological utopia, Liu Wei seems to suggest, is getting dimmer by the minute.
Over in Serkel House, one of the Biennial’s satellite galleries, Nikolaj Larsen presents an affecting installation that explores Sharjah’s migrant labour population. On one side of a blackened space an Indian expat is shown on a monitor. His fingers fidget at his sides, his grubby shirt protrudes as he leans forward and he looks inquiringly at Larsen’s camera.
On the opposite side of the space, we see his family on the screen, saturated in a wash of tropical Keralan freshness and colour. Larsen can be commended for his willingness to interrogate this place as an outsider, and the piece does pose a disturbing question: is it us who stand between this separated family unit? It’s a darker element that saves the work from drifting into an outsider’s sentimentality.
Gita Meh cooked up a storming Soffreh for the opening events, amassing a huge Persian feast on a tablecloth made of sugar, placed in Serkel House’s courtyard. The only remnants of the performance are two monitors that show both the crazed processes involved in putting something like this together and the final success as the public tuck in. But we’re left with a sense that a real, cross cultural happening took place in here.
Yet this biennial is too saturated with video and installation. The central concept that Carlos cooked up to justify all this is wholly valid but really needed space to breathe. Right now, a walk through the galleries becomes a throbbing, incoherent mass of bangs, squeaks, drones, bird song and Bach. It’s like wading through a sandstorm.
We’re assaulted on the left, we’re barked at on the right, even the vaguest possibility of picking up the conceptual thread once you’re in the space is lost. The team behind the Biennial can be celebrated for managing to pull together a number of exceptional artists, but next year they might want to think about reining it in a bit. Too many artists and too grand a concept have made this feel like a disparate collection and, sadly, too much like an art fair.
Yet, with some superb pieces, it remains an incredible symbol of the UAE’s artworld. And it is still well worth a visit before it’s finally packed away. But good luck getting a clear sense of why this legion of creatives have all been thrown together. Inshallah, indeed.
Until May 16, Sharjah Art Museum behind Emirates Post in the Rolla district of Sharjah. www.sharjahbiennial.org.