(Links to the original SAF site and these thumbnails no longer exist. UPDATED 2017)
Notes from a Biennial – On a Day of Words [One]
Sharjah Biennial 10
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
It should not be a surprise to find a lot of words -in the form of writing and image- at this Biennial in particular. Then again, it is quite surprising to find quite so many high quality publications; from the hulking sanctuary of the ‘Plot for a Biennial’ catalogue [ed. Ghalya Saadawi], to the thumb prints of individual artist publications and on to the stack of books entitled Manual for Treason.
Words flourish here as text and speech as well as in many languages, signing the Biennial site and as translations of the variously published texts. ‘Manual for Treason’ itself [Ed. Murtaza Vali] for example contains English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Kannada -at least. Manual for Conspiracy [Ed. Basak Ertur] is published in English and Turkish -and so on.
Throughout the Biennial works engage the world they were made to ‘breathe together’ with [to quote Ertur’s etymological elaboration on the word Conspiracy], to notable effect. It is to the credit of all involved that what these things mean has been taken seriously especially as it takes place at a time of real and systemic change in the region. In many places there is a radical revisiting of archives of revolution, from the large scale and actual [Harun Farocki & Andrei Ujlica Videograms of a Revolution 1993] through comic projection [Ahmad Ghossein My Father is Still a Communist 2011].
One morning artists and I breakfast on a headline reporting that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent military and police reinforcements to support the ruler of Bahrain. It’s clear that something must be said; next morning artists make a gesture of saying it. [For something of an elaboration on the wider context of this, see Notes from a Biennial – On Reflection] In the early hours of the next day, avid attention is paid to Blackberries for a New York Times report about a large group of distinguished artist friends, many of whom are present here, who have been working with Human Rights Watch to ensure or enable the coming Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi to pay all those who will build and service it properly. (A small cut of this last sentence, made live -by me, for an unnerved curator friend then involved both with SB and GAD- March 2011 is now restored. NYT link here PDF below. UPDATED 2017)
Words. CAMP are showing their 65 minute film; The Neighbour Before The House . I’ve seen a version of this before -in a show curated by Samar Martha at the Liverpool Biennial- and settle to watch it all here. It is a fascinatingly subversive use made of surveillance cameras to explore the view of the Occupied in Jerusalem/al Quds. As the security cameras are turned against the Occupation, zooming in and out on details in otherwise prohibited places, voices describe what I’m watching in Arabic, their words flashing up in English below.
In one section a family whose home has been stolen and who are forbidden to go close to it, narrate what is being shown close up from a significance distance away; “61 days they haven’t once cleaned the stairs” to the street. One notable thing is that the building has been extended, a right denied Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere. All of a sudden the family’s children appear before the house, insistently ignoring the ban and pointedly refusing to leave. Then there’s another child’s gasp as the mother of the family appears in frame, pressed up against security infrastructure attempting to peer inside her own, confiscated home.
Another section focuses on security cameras mounted on a building, but also a series of signature holes in the wall where they’ve been removed, on one occasion by a Palestinian seeking reparation -an anecdote that provides a bitterly comical moment. The words tell a familiar story to anyone who has noticed the daily demolitions, expulsions, detentions and killings that define the Occupation. But they remain peculiarly raw when, as Amitava Kumar’s contribution to the ‘Manual’ observes, “the world watches cowardly and indifferent.” [See Appendix i – Camp & I for an interview and more details.]
Words as aural and visual elemental are central to Naeem Mohaiemen’s brilliant and widely admired 70 minute film piece; The Young Man Was… [Part 1: United Red Army] which is about the hijacking of a plane to Dhaka by the Japanese Red Army in 1977. Tense negotiations ended with the release of hostages and the escape of the hijackers and prisoners they’d sought to free -during which time a military coup takes place. The end of the film lists the fates of many of the ‘cast’ and it’s notable that a number of Interpol warrants remain open for some of the revolutionaries involved.
NM found and used the actual records of negotiations between the control tower and the plane and those cryptic and repeated words make up a significant amount of what I’m watching, the sound track clear despite faltering English and Bengali background chatter. Viewers hear both sides from the control tower, which reveals the panic, duplicity and episodic fury that is anticipatable but unnerving to actually witness. It also reveals the robotic iterations of the hijacker’s simple and unswerving demands.
It’s a poem of a piece, beautiful executed, difficult to describe, not least because, as Naeem says himself, to do so and to sketch the mountain of which the film is a very small ‘tip’, takes longer than the film and inevitably undoes it as a work with real potency. The piece revisits a time when hijackers said things like “we hurt bourgeois people” or “it is duty of revolutionary soldiers” but the approach is pointed in its sophistication.
That point is well sketched by a phrase in the piece about how histories repeat in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times. It’s a point that reminds me of Mourid Barghouti’s response to the Tunisian uprising which ended; “When it happens, it will not have happened suddenly.” NM’s remark is a direct reference to revolutionary events in Bangladesh itself, as well as more of that ‘breath’ I referred to earlier.
These are just two of the films that any visitor to the Biennial should ring fence enough time to see. The fact that you can is, despite my need to mark the larger context of the day/s here and I think important to acknowledge too, a credit to all the curators and freedoms -granted by funders of the Foundation at a National level- that they have made such productive use of.
To be continued…
A pdf of the NYT article linked above, in case the link does into work: