Photo Essays

A Biennial in Sharjah Offers Worlds Enough

The latest Sharjah Biennial features over 50 international artists, many of whom have created impressive installations in the Emirate.

Joe Namy “Libretto-o-o: A Curtain Design in the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love (2017) Site-specific installation, curtain, and stereo sound, dimensions variable (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

SHARJAH, UAE — The poet Andrew Marvell once wrote an elaborate and lush entreaty to his love interest which began “Had we but world enough and time.” These words occur to me as I think about my experience at the Sharjah Biennial earlier this month. Many biennials are full to bursting with work that is carefully chosen and presented. But this one, in particular, backed by a robust investment by the ruler of this Emirate his Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi via his daughter Hoor Al Qasimi, who is the director and president of the Sharjah Art Foundation, is both well organized and exceedingly well curated.

The Sharjah Biennial devises worlds that are full and rich enough to create confidence in them, enough so I plunge into them with held breath, explore their architectures of meaning and come back to myself gasping. I was certainly given worlds enough — visually seductive, conceptually complex, and emotionally devastating worlds — and though I was there for four days, I didn’t have enough time. There were fictional museums with very real, beautifully rendered objects to be placed in the structure that has yet to be, environments created with bamboo, mud, or wrenched steel, caverns in which light and sound immersed me in narrative, and a sound installation that evoked a story of prisoners enclosed in the dark even I was within that work.

Some absorbing pieces were essentially works of architecture, like Mariana Castillo Deball’s “Hypothesis of a Tree” (2016) an environment created in a gallery in Al Mureijah Square that consists of bamboo struts hung with curtains of Japanese paper imprinted with rubbings of fossil sediments. Walking through that piece was like walking through an ancient, newly discovered forest.

Nida Sinnokrot used electronic technology — projectors, motors, sensors amplifiers and screens — in his work “When Her Eyes Lifted”(1998/1999) to also embed me a space that felt like it was on the edge of civilization and someone was trying to send messages (in warning?) from the past. Shadi Habib Allah took me into a fevered dream with his installation “30KG Shine” which consisted of strange, funereal wooden sculptures that might the posters of an elaborate bed or monument, with twisted brass chandeliers cast onto the floor and illuminating the rooms from that vantage, plus a strange film of workers carving out an underground cemetery in Jerusalem. I never fully understood what was happening in that space, but it rang and echoed in my head. I will provide more highlights in a follow-up post providing a thorough, prosaic overview.

One of the venues within the Sharjah Biennial: the Sharjah Arts Square, opposite the Sharjah Art Museum, with a view of Rain Wu and Eric Chen’s “Collectivism” (2016) composed of 600 police shields that enclose a garden
Khalil Rabah “Palestine After Palestine: New Sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments” (2017) Mixed media installation, with variable dimensions
A crafted lion (one with a bit more force than a paper tiger) part of Khalil Rabah’s “Palestine After Palestine: New Sites for the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind Departments” (2017)
The Area C Fields of Gold (which includes the Botanical Department) section of Rabah’s “Palestine After Palestine”
Still image from Allora and Calzadilla “The Great Silence” (2014) three channel HD video, 16 minutes and 22 seconds
Another Still from Allora and Calzadilla “The Great Silence” (2014) three channel HD video, 16 minutes and 22 seconds
Mariana Castillo Deball “Hypothesis of a Tree” (2016) Bamboo structure, rubbings on Japanese paper, Sumi ink, dimensions variable
Abdelkader Benchamma “Neither the sky nor the earth” (2017) site-specific installation, ink and felt pen on wall, dimensions variable
Hind Mezaina “Dubai Gardens” (2017) Cyanotype prints with text by Todd Reisz, various dimensions
Donghee Koo “Way of Replay II (Off Peak)” (2017) wood, sand, Styrofoam, concrete, glass, umbrella, kinetic sand, video, audio, miscellaneous objects, dimensions variable
Another view of Donghee Roo’s “Way of Replay II (Off Peak)” (2017)
In Donghee Roo’s “Way of Replay II (Off Peak)” (2017) the artist has created another kind of park for play in miniature.
Jon Rafman “Rhino/Bear” (2016) from the Swallower Swallowed series CNC routed high density foam, acrylic paint 230 x 103 x 62 cm
Jon Rafman “Dog/Lion” (2016) from the Swallower Swallowed series CNC routed high density foam, acrylic paint
Lawrence Abu Hamdan “Saydnaya (the missing 19db)” (2017) sound, mixing deck, lightbox, dimensions variable
Still from The Otolith Group “The Third Part of the Third Measure” (2017) HD video 50 minutes
Another still from The Otolith Group “The Third Part of the Third Measure” (2017) HD video 50 minutes
Still from The Otolith Group “The Third Part of the Third Measure” (2017) HD video 50 minutes
Nida Sinnokrot “When Her Eyes Lifted”(1998/1999) 16mm film loop, modified projectors, stepper motor, sensors, amplifier, screens, dimensions variable
Takashi Ishida “Burning Chair” (2013) video installation, 5 minutes 8 seconds
Another view of Takashi Ishida’s “Burning Chair” (2013) video installation, 5 minutes 8 seconds
Jonathas de Andrade “O Peixe (The Fish)” (2016)16mm film transferred to 2K video, 37 minutes
Shadi Habib Allah “30KG Shine” (2017) Mixed Media installation with variable dimensions
There are a few works that lacked the compelling mystery of the ones I’ve featured here, but even in those cases they were hypnotic enough for me to stay with them, and staying with them long enough, time did momentarily fall away because that constructed world was more than enough.

The Sharjah Biennial 13Tamawuj, unfolds in five parts from October 2016 through October 2017. Featuring over 50 international artists, the biennial encompasses exhibitions and a public programme in two acts in Sharjah and Beirut; a year-long education programme in Sharjah; projects in Dakar, Ramallah, Istanbul, and Beirut; and an online publishing platform.

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