BEIRUT — As the Sunday evening sun set on the 13th edition of the Sharjah Biennial, Tamawuj, elbow room became scarce on the third floor of a well-worn stately home in Beirut’s Sanayeh neighbourhood. A large number of visitors navigated around a jumble of personal effects piled high and wide in the center of the room — all the furniture of a 1970s parlor condensed into a singular mass, draped with dusty plastic sheets. It seemed as though the room had been prepped for a paint job about four decades ago, and the residents simply forgot to move back in.
Mostly, the crowding on the third floor could be attributed to the time crunch — there were only a couple of hours left to see “Beirut Heterotopia,” (2017) Akira Takayama’s voyeuristic, audio-guided contribution to Act II, the final component of SB13. A middle-aged man peered at a copy of Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, balanced carefully on the couch back; a young couple looming over an elementary school globe studied the wooden birds peeking out from under the plastic wrap. I was more taken with a bold ‘70s typeface poking out from behind a couple of chair legs, displaying an Arabic/French language version of the board game Risk: le jeu mondial de la strategie!
There were five rooms to explore in “Beirut Heterotopia.” After finding the doorframe’s QR code and aligning it with an online platform via my smartphone, five family stories played — each one equipped with its own cast of characters who staged intimate dramas illuminating the effects of conflict on members of the family unit. It was crowded, but quiet, each visitor fully engaged in the stories, both dramatic and mundane, unfolding in their headphones.
After a jam-packed week of Act II —which consisted of lectures, performances, film screenings, and informally charming, thought-provoking discussions throughout Beirut — the quiet of this exhibition at Zico House made it a good place to wander and choose your own adventure, a useful metaphor for the many narratives considering “otherness” illuminated in the work displayed throughout the city.
The main event of chief curator Christine Tohmé’s ambitious, border-crossing SB13 was Act I, hosted in Sharjah back in May, which had included a yearlong program of four off-site projects (in Dakar, Istanbul, Ramallah, and Beirut) organized around the themes of water, crops, earth, and the culinary. Act II, the week-long, concluding chapter began in Beirut on October 16th, in contrast, is something of a homecoming for Tohmé, since it was organized in conjunction with Ashkal Alwan, the non-profit she founded in 1993. A good number of the readings, discussions, and performances have taken place in the organization’s expansive warehouse space smack in the middle of an industrial park in the Jisr El Wati neighborhood. Tohmé’s well-established presence in Beirut’s contemporary art scene (and that of the wider region) meant that this last chapter of the Biennial is able to utilize the city’s cinemas, theatres, galleries, and museum spaces to great effect. Act II has the feeling of a magnifying glass being held up to the continuing, wide-ranging dialogues she seeks out with curators, artists, performers, writers, and researchers.
Perhaps this idea of dialogic exchange was nowhere better displayed than during “History Ate Everything,” Céline Condorelli’s discussion at Ashkal Alwan with Zeynep Öz. Condorelli, interested in going beyond a traditional conversation encouraged Öz to respond to four different stories of legacy informing her current practice. Describing in the detail the friendship of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, and the defacement of Eileen Gray’s Cap Martin home by Le Corbusier, Condorelli reached deep into familiar art historical stories and punctured them. By the conclusion of the discussion, the audience was responding, as Öz was, to the idea that artistic legacies are generated and mutated by art historical power structures, opportunistic narrators, and even social relationships between those involved in things like the Sharjah Biennial.
At the Beryte Theatre, Madison Bycroft engaged a packed house in “Mollusk Theory: Soft Bodies” (2017), a performance inspired by the sea creature, which, when separated from its shell, is simply a wet, lolling body. Mimicking the rubbery physicality of the mollusk, the performance began with the extension of limbs, tongues, and eyes appearing and disappearing through holes — first on a video screen, and then on-stage, providing the backdrop for Bycroft’s impressive sequence of changing costumes and roles. Describing in rapid-fire prose and poetry her personal engagement with one particular intelligent invertebrate (the cuttlefish), she visually morphed herself into one, prancing around stage in a specially produced, pink mollusc costume. Funny and factual, “Mollusk Theory” struck an absurd balance: it’s not every day that a tale of love, dance, and spineless species can give David Attenborough a run for his money in educational value.
Some of these events were presented as lectures: Ho Rui An’s “DASH” (2016) began with ruminations on the dissemination of (and obsession with) serious car accident footage via dashcams, which expanded to scan the Singapore government’s crisis-prediction apparatus. Others, like Rayyane Tabet’s “Dear Victoria” (2016–ongoing) were part-reading, part-performance, in which a family history is intertwined with that of Max von Oppenheim and his early 20th-century excavation of Tell Halaf, a Syrian archaeological site. As Tabet describes the individual fates of the area’s reliefs (some back and forth across a divided Berlin, some in the Met, others unknown), we also learn about his great-grandfather, who was enlisted as a translator/spy by the French to report on von Oppenheim’s operations. As Tell Halaf’s cultural heritage is dissected and destroyed, the backdrop chosen by Tabet takes on special significance: sections of a family rug, an heirloom divided into smaller pieces and passed down to successive generations.
So many narratives, so little time — for those who were tired out by the week of performance-hopping, two exhibitions commissioned by SB13 will continue through the end of the year: “Fruit of Sleep”, curated by Reem Fadda at the Sursock Museum, and at the Beirut Art Centre, “An Unpredictable Expression of Human Potential”, curated by Hicham Khalidi and Natasha Hoare. The Tamawuj online publishing platform will continue to house the many texts that resulted from SB13’s emphasis on exchange of ideas. Over the course of the year, Tohmé succeeded in abandoning the pretense that can so often overshadow international art biennials, and brought together an incredible range of voices, stories, and artworks across (and taking into account) borders. In Beirut, the diverse exchanges encouraged by Tamawuj fully realised the biennial’s myriad aims and goals — an open-ended conclusion that will hopefully serve to inform those faced with mammoth curatorial tasks in the future.