One of the trickier things about evaluating biennials is that there is no consensus on the function they should fulfil, the type of experience they should offer, or the audience they should serve. For some biennials, the curators seek to put international contemporary art in dialogue with a specific (often beleaguered) local social context; in others, the location serves as the backdrop for a clamour of imported perspectives and agendas. In 2007, the Sharjah Biennial took an ecological theme, one that is particularly pertinent to a country that is currently pouring resources pell-mell into construction with little regard for the long-term environmental effects. This year, however, artistic director Jack Persekian’s key achievement was not initiating a topical debate, but instead transforming the Biennial’s agenda by directing his budget towards commissioning new work, in large part through an open submission process. Commendably over half of the included artists were women. Concurrent to the exhibition, talks and performance programmes shared equal billing, aiming to foster a climate of productivity and exchange in what is the region’s most significant professional cultural hub.
As a result, the Biennial as a whole felt, at times, a little hard to pin down. While curator Isabel Carlos’ title for her exhibition, ‘Provisions for the Future’, did chime with that of Tarek Abu El Fetouh’s performance and film programme, ‘Past of the Coming Days’, the temporal thematic affinity did not develop much further. If indeed there was a theme, it might be said to be Sharjah itself; many works, such as Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly’s film Smile You’re in Sharjah (2009), were flat-footedly illustrative of the city, or else, like Eugenio Dittborn’s ‘Airmail Paintings’ (1984–ongoing), allusive of geographical drift and dislocation – reflecting the experiences of much of Sharjah’s predominantly immigrant population.
The performance and film programme shared this latter approach; El Fetouh writes (in a bravura display of evasiveness) that ‘“Past of the Coming Days” is a programme that positions itself as an interface between the ideologies, conditions and various cultural frameworks that constitute the distinct arts and culture landscape of Sharjah’. His selected films and performances sat in relation to Sharjah, even if they refrained from addressing it directly. Works such as CAMP’s research-based dockside project Wharfage (2009) or Rimini Protokol’s extraordinary Call Cutta in a Box (2009) – a one-on-one telephone conversation with a worker in an Indian call centre, who could control devices in the hotel room in which the participant sat – both drew attention to the complicated lines of manipulation that spider out from, and into, the city.
In case any visitors might have attributed the mild critical seasoning of such work to the fact that the ruler of Sharjah is also the father of the Biennial’s director, a work by Turkish artist Halil Altindere at the entrance to the show featured the Sheikh’s portrait only partially concealing a wall-mounted safe. Such political provocation, however, is so obvious as to be toothless; the reality of life in the United Arab Emirates is far more complex and intriguing than stereotypes suggest. The most successful works in the Biennial were in fact the most elusive; they refused to defend their contextual relevance, but nevertheless seemed appropriate in ways that were hard to identify. Lara Favaretto installed uneven pairs of coloured car-wash rollers along the wall of a courtyard; as they intermittently whirled, centrifugal force made their nylon strands touch, then flop apart again as they slowed. Even without the work’s title (Amamiya and Sasayama; Bobby and Laura; Harold and Maude; Kelly and Griff; Maria and Felix; Shirley and Cyril; Stephanie and Sabrina, 2009) it made me think of couples. Beyond that, the work was like a hallucination in a city in which the brand new sits alongside, and tentatively touches, the decrepit.
While it was nowhere acknowledged as a curatorial concern, some of the best works made subtle use of sound, or its implied absence. Around another courtyard, Brazilian artist Valeska Soares collaborated with O Grivo on (Shushhhhhh………) prelude (2009), a ripple of recorded shushes from hidden speakers that initiated hesitant silences in gathering crowds, and disturbed the peace when one was alone. Lili Dujourie’s clay fragments and iron-wire wall drawings are strange and timeless, and here also seemed to call for quiet. A significant retrospective display by the artist Robert MacPherson used Australian slang in text works, paintings and sculptures that were variously humorous, ebullient and austerely tight-lipped. Two outstanding installations by Sheela Gowda employed sound: in Some Place (2005) voices whisper from the ends of a network of pipes; in Drip Field (2009) the sound of a dripping hose is transmitted into the museum from a picturesque flooded roadway beneath the window. Accompanied by a Johann Sebastian Bach cello prelude, Haris Epaminonda’s bewitching projection Zebra (2006) was worth the seven-hour plane trip alone.
There were a few obvious duds by artists whose work was so out of step with the rest that it undermined one’s faith in the cohesiveness of the whole enterprise. However, as Persekian stated, the Biennial prioritized process over product. In a country that seems to be interested only in the short-term future and the immediate past, a slower, more long-sighted approach is perhaps not just prudent but vitally necessary.