It’s a sad fact that at the time of writing the most talked-about aspect of Sharjah Biennial 10 – a rich, sprawling show of some 100 works by artists from 36 countries, many of which explore ideas about translation, revolution and freedom of expression – is censorship. Mustapha Benfodil’s installation Maportaliche / Ecritures sauvages (It Has No Importance / Wild Writings, 2011) was removed from the exhibition due, apparently, to public outrage, and the Biennial’s Artistic Director, Jack Persekian, was, as a result, fired by Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi. Ironically, Persekian himself had, before his dismissal, decided not to allow a film by invited artist Cavah Zahedi to be included in the Biennial, because, he declared, ‘it was completely disrespectful of Islam’. In the case of Benfodil’s work, I do wonder whether the curators really believed that placing a huge installation of mannequins in T-shirts emblazoned with phrases of a sexual and anti-Islamic nature in support of rape victims – however well-intentioned – in a public courtyard close to a mosque wouldn’t cause a ripple or two.
Herein lies the contradiction that beats at the heart of Sharjah. It’s the most religiously and politically conservative member of the United Arab Emirates – which, the day after the Biennial’s opening, sent 500 police to Bahrain to assist with the suppression of a democratic uprising – but also the most culturally active. Sheikh Al-Qasimi has single-handedly funded not only the Biennial but 17 local museums, while his daughter, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, is the President of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Thus, although the Biennial has never shied away from showing difficult work, Sharjah is, it must be stressed, an Islamic country with strict blasphemy and decency laws that, if flouted, can result in imprisonment. So, quite apart from the lousy situation of someone who has worked hard getting the sack, to my mind, anything that encourages debate in a region not famous for embracing difference can only be a good thing. And this year, scandals aside, it was a particularly good thing.
Co-curated by Suzanne Cotter, Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian, the show was themed ‘Plot for a Biennial’, and was ‘scripted’ around the rather prescient keywords ‘treason, necessity, insurrection, affiliation, corruption, devotion, disclosure and translation’. Works – 65 of which were specially commissioned – were shown in locations ranging from the Sharjah Art Museum to various heritage sites, cinemas and a cricket ground. I was a little surprised though to discover that the exhibition was organized more through individual decisions than the group consensus implied by the appointment of co-curators. Salti and Aivazian, for example, took the rap for the inclusion of Benfodil’s installation and Cotter’s signature was absent from the petition – which Persekian distanced himself from – that raced around the Internet condemning the work’s removal and the artistic director’s dismissal. In ‘Plot for a Biennial’, sub-plots obviously abounded.
Despite the behind-the-scenes chaos, the exhibition was remarkable not only for the quality of work on show but for its sensitive and skillful installation. From the blunt (Imran Qureshi’s Blessings Upon the Land of My Love, 2011, a courtyard that at first glance appeared to be covered in blood, but which was, in fact, a painting of thousands of tiny red flowers) to the brilliantly complex (Decolonizing Architecture’s work about the ‘future archaeology of Israel’s occupation’), to the Bachelardian (Face Scripting: What did the Building See?, 2011, Shumon Basar, Eyal Weizman and Jane and Louise Wilson’s filmic meditation on last year’s murder of a Hamas official in Dubai), ‘Plot for a Biennial’ explored the intersections of art, politics and geography with a subtlety, coherence and occasional humour that is rare in shows of this size. There were, of course, bum notes: Raffie Davtian’s mawkish photographs, ‘The Evolution of the Angel in Line with the State of Exception’ (2010–11), and Josephine Meckseper's woefully misjudged installation The Fall into Time (2011) – which rather startlingly claimed to ‘create a context for renewed debate about off-shore drilling’ – spring especially to mind. But it’s worth mentioning a few more of the highlights. They include the meeting place created by Slavs and Tatars, Friendship of Nations (2011), which somehow managed to draw parallels between the Iranian and Polish revolutions; Trisha Donnelly’s enigmatic untitled marble sculpture and sound-piece in a derelict courtyard; Kamran Shirdel’s wonderfully trippy documentary Pearls of the Persian Gulf: Dubai 1975 (1975), which was censored in the ’70s for referring to Dubai’s coast as ‘The Persian Gulf’ as opposed to ‘The Arabian Gulf’; Qureshi’s exquisite series of watercolours, ‘Moderate Enlightenment’ (2005–10); Khaled Hourani’s Kafkaesque Every Palestinian Refugee in Lebanon is an Artist Unless Proven Otherwise (2011); Judith Barry’s videos Cairo Stories (2010–11), that appeared in stairwells, souks and entrance halls; and Bouchra Khalili’s moving video installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) that followed eight journeys taken by people fleeing their homelands to discover a place of refuge. Khalili’s description of her work echoed the mood of the Biennial as a whole: it was, she said, a collection of ‘singular lives […] which have become, through I know not what accidents, strange poems’. Jennifer Higgie
It’s hardly a surprise that some works in Sharjah Biennial 10 – which included 119 participants – were better installed and explained than others, some weren’t finished in time for the opening and that there were moments of terrific curatorial finesse. Even the press release was written in a murky language of breathless importance and moremoremore, with a long list of tropes, sub-tropes, themes and sub-themes. And yet there’s nothing wrong with a lack of a unifying topic – on the contrary. So whether Suzanne Cotter, Rasha Salti and Haig Aivazian’s curatorial premise of a ‘Plot for a Biennial’ was intentionally feathery or not, it did allow the works to breathe, and the stronger ones, I was impressed to notice, were all (co-)commissioned for the show. At the main venue, the Sharjah Art Museum, Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011) studied Hosni’s life via a montage of the legendary Egyptian actress’s films. The light-footed technique and retro sparkle ensured that the piece was deservedly the talk of the town, well beyond Sharjah. Close by, the prominent display of Khalil Rabah’s remarkable ‘Art Exhibition: Readymade Representations 1954–2009’ (2011) was more than justified: it’s a genealogy of Palestinian art, told through photorealist paintings based on snapshots of openings, depicting all manners of iconic art works and their equally iconic onlookers. The tangential telling of a pressing Palestinian narrative by framing it as a mere decoy is by now a Rabah trademark. While many of his colleagues are spinning circles in well-rehearsed meta-strategies of historical commentary, Rabah is shrewdly getting away with it still. For the time being, at least.
In the Collections Building, Ziad Antar’s Burj Khalifa (2011) – a black and white print depicting the tallest building in the world, which is in Dubai – was a stroke of brilliance. Developed from 1976 celluloid, the print is speckled with what looks like stardust one moment and fungus the next; it compresses so many chrono-political folds into one fell swoop it leaves you reeling. It was at weird moments of backhanded reflexivity such as this that the incongruous ambitions of the Biennial industries were obliquely echoed, and the promise of this particular incarnation of a biennial unfolded.
Compare this to Josephine Meckseper’s installation The Fall Into Time (2011), which on many levels is both beautiful and haunting. But combining prayer rugs, keffiyeh scarves and the oil industry in an ‘apocalyptic retail environment’ is a bit like doing sombreros and drug lords in Mexico. Meckseper’s contextual eagerness ironically suffered precisely from the context, and by the latter I actually mean other site-calibrated works in the show. Take Hans Haacke’s gawky proposal for a 1989 monument for France’s Assemblée Nationale, Calligraphie – a complicated constellation of stone and fauna, crowned with a gilded ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ written in Arabic – which was thankfully rejected back in the day.
It bears mentioning here that the Biennial’s director, Jack Persekian, was fired, officially due to the content of an installation by Mustapha Benfodil, which combined sexually explicit phrases with religious references in an uncommonly spicy manner. The Sharjah Art Foundation argued that its placement – a recreational area near a mosque – was ‘wholly unsuitable’. As associate curator of the Biennial 2005, I know censorship is a matter that is at least as complicated in Sharjah as it is in many other places, and it would be difficult to unpack such things in a paragraph. Suffice to say that by firing Persekian, the foundation squandered the professional legitimacy it was gradually accumulating. For all its limitations, the biennial embodied a key contribution to contemporary art in the UAE and beyond. With no comparable institution in sight, the event and its aftermath will leave an unfortunate gap in the infrastructural panorama for years to come. Tirdad Zolghadr