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Notes from a Biennial – On a Day of Words [Three]
Sharjah Biennial 10
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
There is another dimension in which words as script, handwriting or line work here at their most productive and revealing of a good curatorial mind. It takes us from the ambiguities within the signs to ambiguities within the image of the word or the line of script; backwards in a sense, as well as fast forwards again.
In the Museum there are two inherently quiet pieces which work with the visual qualities of Arabic as script. My Arabic is too elementary to fully appreciate the work of Samir Sayegh [In Praise of Letters’ 2010] which stretches out across a huge four roomed space in such a way as to leave some of the walls ‘blank’. He is a master calligrapher, interested in abstracting the calligraphic element of ornamentation with reference to the mathemes of geometry in Islamic art.
What I can appreciate in the work is the transformation of words and letters in particular into other things; notably hints of buildings and other architectural forms [in turn reminding me of the great Baghdadi architect Mohamed Makiya’s fondness for abstracting Arabic in his designs for modernist mosques]. Of course this is inherent and yet something about it is also generative.
As if to make this point explicitly, I’m reminded of the work that Aisha Khalid is showing at the Dubai Art Fair and which she first showed me on her phone in the Sharjah Art Museum’s cafe. Two large works formed by a calligraphic ‘unit’ in gold plate, ‘filled’ by a meditative ‘sea’ of blue lines which visually iterate one of the the work’s titles; Bismillah…
Close to the Sayegh is an easily missed work which appears simply to be a series of framed images called ‘Declaration’  in which the Declaration of Human Rights is rendered into Arabic. So far so good, right? It takes closer inspection to realise that what at first looked to me like a gold script or an embossed text is actually formed by the letters having been cut out from the page by hand, so that their shadows can be seen from certain angles on the back.
Suddenly this is a brilliant piece of work, linking immediately in my mind to Marcel Broodthaers Un Coup de Des through the ‘version’ of it that Cerith Wyn Evans made recently, in which he hand cut out the textual blocks that Broodthaers had used to ‘blank’ out as well as emphasise the words and the radically formal use made of them by Mallarmé. Perhaps Molloy also means to point to the way the words have been evacuated of significance in an age of such selective universal jurisprudence and the regular abuses of it in Fallujah, South Lebanon, Gaza…
Earlier in the week I’d been intrigued by a series of framed images under polythene that trails about half of the ground floor of Bait al Serkal. That is; halfway around Imran Qureshi’s masterful ‘Blessings Upon the Land of My Love’ [a title, incidentally, taken from the poetry of the great Faiz.] When the polythene came off it revealed another puzzle. The series is a version of George Orwell’s novel1984 in which only one strand of the story has been used to create an inherently patchy copy of the entire book, page by page. Again, so far so good. But what is so exquisite about this piece is that the text is rendered in pencil, thus restoring printed matter to hand-written script.
The brilliance of the piece in this place might rightfully be shared between artist and curator [in this instance, Suzanne Cotter], because it could not be a finer companion to the Qureshi in the courtyard, whose work plays off/develops from similar sources of imagery in the illustration and ornamentation of books. Miniature schooling begins with the rigourous acquiring of technique through drawing lines, lines after line, until the hand performs perfectly. That hand made line links very directly to the calligraphic line and its abstraction in both traditional written form as well as schools of visual art.
Molloy’s visual re-rendering of a canonical text in hand made ‘line’ -in fact judging from a very close analysis, it’s almost certainly stencilled- with the first tool of the literate; a pencil, is also displayed as a single ‘sentence’ through the narrow arched corridors of the Bait.
© author and Sharjah Art Foundation