The Théâtre Royal, the 4th Marrakech Biennale’s main venue, is an impressively scaled unfinished ruin. Initiated seven years ago by the Crown Prince after a visit to the Parisian opera, the project was abandoned when officials realized that the opera house would be too costly to maintain (the concrete shell had serious design flaws anyway, with poor acoustic properties and no views of the stage from ten percent of the seats). This Fitzcarraldo-esque folly, a monument to misplaced cultural aspiration, was a fitting venue for a biennial that featured solely site-specific installations by participating artists – mainly Western, though, commendably, mostly young and off the usual biennial radar – who were required to make two trips to Marrakech, one for research and the other to produce their works on site.
It was an ambitious curatorial approach from two curators (Canadian-born, Berlin-based Carson Chan and London-based Naddim Samman) who were previously untested at this level of exhibition-making, and one further complicated by the city’s limited art infrastructure, in a region still experiencing the reverberations of the Arab Spring. Even before it opened, the event got off to an unfortunate start: the original venue, the Palais Bahia – a crumbling ziggurat in the heart of the Medina – was made unavailable following the change of government at the end of last year. Furthermore, the curators decided to publish a picture of themselves posing in traditional Moroccan dress for the biennial’s press release, which also revealed that only two of the show’s 37 participants were Moroccan.
Titled ‘Higher Atlas’ and spread across four venues around the city, the biennial side-stepped the tricky problems of accurately situating itself in a region with multiple communities – Arab, Berber, Maghreb, African – and instead took an almost wilfully naïve approach to its commissioning and programming. While the curators’ strategy of admitting their ignorance of the Moroccan art scene and insisting that they would steer clear of tokenism was arguably prudent, their avoidance of the tricky questions could also be said to simply reinstate imported cultural dominance by other means. What resulted, with varying degrees of success, was a multitude of responses to being transplanted into a foreign culture with a limited time-frame to produce work. The dislocative process and the looming venue of the Théâtre Royal swallowed up much of the art, which for the most part reacted to the venue’s architecture itself. But for all the Théâtre’s cavernous space, the majority of the work was shoved into dark corridors and unlit alcoves.
Three pieces that shared a nuanced engagement with their environments were the most successful of the exhibition. Aleksandra Domanovic´’s Monument to Revolution (all works 2012), installed in the Cyber Parc Arsat Moulay Abdeslam, was a translated version of an abstracted fist made as an anti-fascist monument in the former Yugoslavia. Treated in a pink-dyed finishing material common to Morocco, the monument played on Domanovic´’s observation of the lack of public sculpture in Marrakech while referring to the shared ideals of the former Yugoslavia and Morocco – both members of the Non-Aligned movement founded in 1961 as a reaction to the Cold War. When I visited Monument to Revolution, Roger Hiorns’ work Untitled (al Ghiwane) was in progress, for which a group of male singers performed a number of traditional songs while moving around the sculpture – the artist’s only instruction was that, at some point, they all lay down in a circle.
John Nash presented two works that were the products of his research into the Moroccan subculture of car drifting in the desert. Stumbling across YouTube clips of young Moroccans performing these stunts, the artist presented a short video (New Thinking, New Possibilities) splicing automobile advertisements with lingering shots of a car’s paintwork. His sculpture Morocco Drift, installed outside of the Théâtre Royal, consisted of a smashed white Hyundai that Nash unintentionally crashed while driving between Rabat and Tangier.
In many of the other pieces, the disconnect between the imported art and local engagement was mirrored by the dramaturgy of the work and the catalogue, a curious compendium of apologies, anticipations of criticism of the curatorial gambit and rehashed biennalogy. Its essays positioned the biennial in a historical lineage of non-Western biennials from the first Havana Biennial in 1984 to the Biennale of the Mediterranean in Alexandria, which started in 1954, while also framing it both inside and outside of the contemporary art world discourse. Even without the varying missteps, unavoidable logistical difficulties and undoubted ambition, the curators of this edition missed a chance for the 4th Marrakech Biennale to be more than an experiential spectacle by and for artists and an audience requiring passports to attend.