Malicious rumour has it that the Cairo Biennale used to pride itself on including the greatest quantity of artists from the largest number of countries, as if thereby trumping an unspoken criterion in the competition to be the ‘best’ biennial. True or not, (and it is in any case a suspicion that the biennale as a structuring principle often gives rise to), an air of cultural diplomacy does hang over the event. The title of the artistic director, this year the artist and curator Ehab Ellaban, is ‘commissaire’ (commissioner), there is a ‘guest of honour’, and in the Biennale’s 23 paragraphs of ‘Rules & Regulations’ there are oblique references to ‘nominations’ of artists by the Biennale’s president and organizing committee.
Thanks to the inclusion of a few outstanding projects, however, this 11th edition of the Biennale also seemed to signal a new beginning. Lara Baladi’s Borg El Amal (Tower of Hope, 2008) was one of them: an ephemeral construction and sound installation placed, like a tarantula on a birthday cake, in the manicured gardens of the city’s opera house. A red-brick structure mimicking half-finished Cairo residential housing, it rose nine ruinous metres in spite of itself. The Borg … answered back at the surrounding elite landscape and the vertical bunkers of the city’s banks and hotels not only with its gothic contours, but also with a peculiar soundtrack (inspired by Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, 1976) of mournful strings overlaid by the braying of donkeys. It sounded as though somebody had yanked the animals’ tails, and Baladi’s installation tugged equally hard on the viewer’s emotional strings: the hope expressed through the impossible yet deeply affecting architecture and its strange Aeolian tune rose from hopelessness and disappearance; it spoke of recovery through defiance. Balanced by emotional vectors, the work successfully walked the tightrope between scepticism and what Joseph Beuys termed ‘social plastic’.
In dialogue with Baladi’s work in the main exhibition building was Kimsooja’s installation Mandala: Zone of Zero (2004), a shimmering jukebox mandala in a dark space playing Tibetan, Gregorian and Islamic chants. It was in moments like these that the Biennale’s theme of ‘The Other’ came into its own, either through dissonance and conflict, (as in Baladi), or unexpected harmony between different sources, (as in Kimsooja).
Next to the Borg … was Christina Hemauer and Roman Keller’s Sun of 1913 (2008), a reconstruction of a solar-powered irrigation system devised by an American inventor, Frank Shuman, who, just before the outbreak of World War I, designed and constructed this ‘sun heat’ absorber units to replace the tens of thousands of fellaheen who pumped water manually. Shuman’s project was progressive engineering in the service of the British Empire – a kind of eco-colonialism. Hemauer and Keller’s work (with an explanatory text by Wageh George) resonated, as a historical readymade, with the current energy and ecology crises, but could perhaps have gained by highlighting the political ambivalences inherent to the original scheme’s historical context.
These new commissions related either directly or allusively to Cairo, and were amongst the contributions that ensured the Biennale didn’t simply land in the city like an UFO of cultural prestige. The exhibition’s theme of ‘The Other’ – which indeed operated as an overarching theme rather than a discursive tool and steering curatorial concept– ultimately remained a humanistic umbrella under which there was room for the meeting of numerous diverse artistic paradigms, although, at times, these sat somewhat uncomfortably next to one another.
Another event, launched in 2002 to coincide with the Biennale, inserted itself deeper into the fabric of the city and the local art scene. PhotoCairo4 articulated what was sporadically suggested by the presence of artists such as Lara Baladi in the Biennale: namely that, for some time now, a sea change has been underway in the Cairo art scene, helped along by local spaces such as the Townhouse Gallery and the Contemporary Image Collective (with which PhotoCairo4 curators Aleya Hamza and Edit Molnár are both affiliated). Spread out around the city centre in gallery spaces and empty flats, a string of small exhibitions presented works that dealt with informal strategies of existence as ‘creatively pragmatic answers’ (as the curatorial statement put it), to the exigencies of the rapidly expanding mega-city. Works included Heidrun Holzfeind’s video installation Friday Market (Long Take) (2008) – a journey through Cairo’s Friday market and its brutally informal economies – as well as Ala’ Younis’ Nefertiti (2008), a feminist archaeology of the Nefertiti sewing machine, produced and sold in Egypt in the years after the 1952 revolution as part of the government’s effort to nationalize the industry and to create productive symbols of Egyptian sovereignty. PhotoCairo4’s title, ‘The Long Shortcut’, encapsulated effectively the makeshift strategies that we often turn to out of necessity when the highroad of official solutions has been rendered inoperative.
Something similar holds true for biennials: they need to take the long way home in terms of curatorial effort, in order to become something more than official solutions to political needs. It’s a fact that the Cairo Biennale seems to be waking up to.