SHARJAH, UAE — Expectations were high for Lebanese curator Christine Tohmé’s take on Tamawuj, the 13th Sharjah Biennial (SB13), organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). As co-founder and director of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Tohmé has been pushing, connecting, initiating, and challenging contemporary artistic productions and critical discourse in Beirut and the surrounding region for more than two decades. Given her outspoken position on matters cultural and political, many were anticipating a hard-hitting curatorial slap in the face. This — to her credit — Tohmé did not deliver. However, she did offer an open, rich, multilayered, and in many ways poetic biennial for a region and a world in turmoil.
In a time tainted by curatorial hubris ranging from the revolutionary to the messianic, in which art so often becomes instrumentalized, Tohmé’s proposal was refreshingly modest and placed the artists’ work center stage. The Arabic word tamawuj translates as a rising and falling in waves, a flowing, a swelling, an undulation. As the guidebook explained, this biennial was interested in “realising what conditions we are working within and what conditions we are working against.” A tad undefined? Maybe. A little vague? Perhaps. But in many ways the rhythm of ebbing and flowing can be translated to the political, economic, social, and environmental fluctuations of our times, in particular those in the Middle East. These are the main themes running through this biennial.
Tohmé’s modus operandi has, throughout her career, been one of connecting people, practices, and geographies. SB13 is an extension of this, and her curatorial statement emphasizing that the biennial is a continuation of conversations she was having with “friends and colleagues” is a deliberate one. Professional and social networks fuel the art world and are the glue that keeps it together. They often facilitate the impossible in increasingly challenging geopolitical conditions, and making this explicit means something. It has become a bit of a fad to decentralize biennials or other large-scale exhibitions (Documenta in Kabul or Athens, anyone?), but in a part of the world where inter-regional mobility is fraught or impossible (Tohmé cannot travel to Palestine, for example), this makes more sense. Long-term collaborators like Zeynep Öz, Lara Khaldi, Kader Attia, Reem Fadda, and Hicham Khalidi are organizing thematic projects in, respectively, Istanbul (crops), Ramallah (earth), Dakar (water), and Beirut (the culinary). The themes read like the elements of a food chain, and to an extent, this might be exactly what Tohmé is getting at. How indeed do you survive nowadays, and what is the potential of art here?
Ecological survival and plant ingenuity was on the menu of the performative climavore lunch by London-based duo Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe). Befitting the landscape of the UAE, desertification, aridity, and salinity inspired the six-course meal that was shared among biennial attendees on tables carved out like desertification patterns. I would not order a serving of the moss-tasting moringa leaf cake again, no matter its anti-desertification qualities (it made my mouth go appropriately dry), but the fried cassava (a so-called “insurance crop” that grows and keeps under challenging conditions) served with a garlicky desert truffle and chickpea mayonnaise was a winner. For Cooking Sections, food is a tool to critically explore how we are, quite literally, consuming our planet. By bringing people together to eat, they remind us that, differences aside, we all bear responsibility for the sapping of our environment.
Animal, human, mineral, and the passage of time come together beautifully in an inspired install that juxtaposes Mariana Castillo Deball’s “Hypothesis of a Tree” (2016) with Monika Sosnowska’s “Façade” (2013) on the lower floor and Marwan Rechmaoui’s “Blue Building” (2015) on the mezzanine of one of the main SAF spaces in Al Mureijah Square. Deball’s sprawling installation consists of rhizomatic bamboo structures that resemble an evolutionary tree diagram. They delicately hold paper rubbings of fossils, bringing together not only the notation of biological time, but also its imprint. The piece dialogues well with Sosnowska’s seven-meter steel sculpture, black and drooping from the ceiling. It has in fact been modeled from a modernist building maquette but looks organic, pliable, and soft. Architecture and genetics: Both Sosnowska and Deball offer deconstructed building blocks for the ways nature and cityscapes may be constructed and engineered.
And then there is Rechmaoui, who ups the ante by underlining unbridled human intervention and greed. Using the construction materials of real estate development — concrete, iron grids, and tarp — he depicts in his tableau a construction site that sat across from his studio, one of many such sites in Beirut’s frenzied building craze. As with much of Rechmaoui’s work, the piece has a rough and unfinished yet enticing, ghostly, painterly quality to it. This echoes the stark reality of the questionable legality and the exploitation of cheap labor of Syrian refugees that these building projects often entail in Lebanon. The absence of builders hovers over this eerie work. Rechmaoui continues in this vein for his newly commissioned project in Al Hamriyah, a fishing village north of Ajman and a 45-minute drive from Sharjah city center, where SAF has built new artist studios and exhibition spaces. For “Untitled 12” (2017), he pits high-paced coastal development against its negative effects on marine ecosystems. With the UAE being one of the most highly impacted marine areas in the world, the artist sounds a subtle but urgent word of caution in twelve panels that together create a shoreline in which concrete makes up the land and beeswax the sea. In Rechmaoui’s abstract cartographic composition, nature, urban development, and globalized hyper-capitalism quietly battle each other.
Back in Sharjah, in Bait Al Serkal, a 19th-century heritage building and one of the main venues for SB13, Oscar Murillo has, for his site-specific installation Condiciones aún por titular (Conditions not yet known) (2014–17), ripped out the courtyard’s pavement stones and placed them in the windows, blocking the view. It’s an interesting take on the politics of looking: You are forced to either enter the site or see it from the top floor. Dug trenches are lined with colored fabric and there are half-painted canvases on the floor, draped on rusty mortuary beds, and hung from rusty scaffolding as if they were trophies or perhaps cadavers. Together they puncture the broken space in which time, but also labor, seem discontinued. Are we witnessing a construction site, a forensic crime scene, or an archaeological dig? Murillo’s violent undoing of this particular heritage site could be seen as a bold move in the UAE, which is pouring significant resources into constructing its cityscapes at a dizzying pace and with dubious labor conditions, but at the same time is investing in museological heritage projects that tell narratives of national history and identity. There is something disconcerting yet attractive about Murillo’s installation, and however we look at it — from within the scene or from above — the complicity of our gaze is haunting. There’s a fine line to walk between creation and destruction, just as there’s a fine line between ruin and spectacle, and Murillo walks it well.
Some other projects contemplating the tension between artistic gesture and depletion are Ismail Bahri’s looped video “Revers” (2016) and Nesrine Khodr’s newly commissioned video installation “Extended Sea” (2017). Here we find Tohmé’s idea of ebbing and flowing at its most poetical and, perhaps, artistically radical. Bahri’s video shows the artist’s hands in close-up crumpling up a magazine cover, and as he flattens the paper and scrunches it up, again and again in a repetitive ritual, the ink, and by extension the image, transfers to his hands. An act of visual and tactile erasure has paradoxically become the artistic gesture that creates Bahri’s image. More durational back-and-forth is to be found in Khodr’s two-channel video, which sees the artist doing laps for 12 hours in an outdoor pool in Beirut with one camera trained on the pool and one on the sky. Here it is invisible physical exhaustion vis-à-vis physical performance, as well as the slow passing of time, that create a hypnotic and immersive experience. Political readings offset the outstretched possibility of the sea and the horizon with the confines of the pool and the region’s shrinking mobility. For Lebanon — with a closed border with Israel in the south and complicated access to Syria due to its grueling civil war — the sea may well be the only way out.
That craft can be something deeply transformative is exemplified in an exuberant manner by Abdelkader Benchamma’s cave-like site-specific drawing “Neither the sky nor the earth” (2017), which covers the walls and ceiling of one of the Al Hamriyah spaces. There is an incredible amount of detail and movement in Benchamma’s black ink and felt-tip pen strokes. They envelop and transport the viewer forcefully. And Hana Miletić’s hand-woven textiles, which thoughtfully punctuate the perimeters of the Al Hamriya space, are based on photographs of damage and neglect the artist took of her surroundings, but they translate into tender frayed weaves, beautiful in their intended imperfection. Craft and its economy is also something at stake in Christodoulos Panayiotou’s contribution, “Untitled” (2017), which transforms marble crystals into jewelry, performatively taken out of precious jewelry boxes and shown to viewers.
With Tamawuj, Tohmé has achieved a rare thing: interlinking human with non-human ontologies, showing how everything is inextricably connected and exists in a fragile ecosystem. This is why SB13 can veer from Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s chilling sound piece on Syria’s notorious Saydnaya prison to Allora and Calzadilla’s parrot perspective on humanity. It is generous and speculative, unfolding into something almost hopeful. For this Tohmé should be commended.
Tamawuj: The 13th Sharjah Biennial continues across venues in Sharjah and Al Hamriyah through June 12.