The 9th Cairo International Biennale 'Mythology: A Bet on Imagination, a Bet on Art' brought together 220 artists from 55 countries in what curator Ahmed Fouad Selim perceived as an attempt to resist 'the consistent campaign to manipulate the World Child Imagination' and 'defeat globalization in its defined sense as the authority to destroy humanity and force nations to kneel down.' In his manifesto, Selim discusses the gradual degradation of mythology and 'the noble fairy tale' only to be replaced by industry, science and technology. The Cairo Biennale is thus declared the site on which such an imbalance will be addressed and adjusted.
Alarm bells sound at such an introduction. Loaded with sweeping generalizations, the manifesto encourages much the same in the selected works. In an effort to resist the so-called scientific and global, there is an overwhelming move towards essentialism, a harking back to what can only be vaguely dubbed 'the authentic'.
Divided between three locations in the wealthy Cairene island of Zamalek, the Biennale hardly made itself felt beyond the gallery spaces. The crowded chaos of the city was evoked, though with much less character, as audiences weaved in and out of works, grappling to understand the curatorial logic.
There is something to be said for the fact that the Biennale included participants from countries that are often excluded from or underrepresented at other international forums; there was an overwhelming inclusion of Middle Eastern artists, with participants from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates to name but a few. However, it felt like an opportunity missed; the standard of some of the works selected was at times shocking and did little to reflect developments of potential interest in Egypt and the region at large.
Disappointingly the Nile Grand Prize was awarded to Egyptian Medhat El Shafik whose dream-like, conceptually weak installation of sand and copper constructions was certainly in line with the Biennale's manifesto but failed to create any kind of cohesion between its various aspects.
Nayel Yassin Malla's The Massacre of our New Generation (2003) - the second word in the title is in blood red lettering - is an equally disheartening example. Awarded the Hathor Prize, Malla's work consists of a slide show of images of children from across the Arab world suffering under conditions of war and occupation, set to Enya and projected in a blacked out space. The final result is closer to an Oxfam advertisement than anything else.
The work of another Hathor Prize winner Paul Pfeiffer is indicative of the gulf in curatorial standards. Largely concerned with the nature of video as a medium and the commercial consumer culture to which it has become essential, Pfeiffer's work predominantly focuses on the sports events and celebrities to discuss questions of identity and its construction. Through the removal of crucial elements from the image, he encourages audiences to question not only what has been deleted but more importantly also what is left behind.
A handful of potentially interesting pieces made themselves felt; more development or better execution would have made all the difference. Rashid Rana's This Picture is Not at Rest (2003) takes a tranquil European townscape, a common decoration in many Pakistani households, and infiltrates it with media images of war, death and terrorism. The most effective are those that are worryingly subtle and almost go unnoticed - a part of our everyday visual reality.
British representative Yara El Sherbini addresses the ironies inherent in local and international politics through her United Nations Survival Kit (2002) which includes toilet paper printed with the image of the US flag with each star replaced with the star of David and a McDonald's fries bag to act as relief shelter. However, the humour of the piece - much of which was lost on a non-English-speaking audience - salvaged the work from the brink of triteness.
Austrian artist Johanna Kandl's Speaking in Public (2003) is an interesting and playful interchange between sculpture and public intervention. Her mobile sculptures take the form of balloons, accompanying visitors out into Cairo's streets, each bearing the inscription of a woman's utopian dream. The lightness of the balloon is balanced by the weight of the words it carries but with a constant awareness of the vulnerability of both.
The Cairo International Biennale continues to grow both in terms of the number of participants and participating countries. However, this expansion does not appear to be a selective one. Little attention seems to be given to the cohesion of the event as a whole; it is curatorially baffling and ultimately disappointing. Above all it continues to embody the growing gap between the governmental and private art movements within Egypt. One need only look at the concurrent exhibitions on offer in Cairo and the work of Egyptian artists exhibited abroad over the last few years to realize that what is on show here is by no means a reflection of the strength and concerns of this incipient movement.