notes from a biennial – on reflection

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Notes from a Biennial – On Reflection

21.03.2011, 12:01

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

The opening week of this year’s Biennial was very intense; promising and delivering much. I’m glad I had early access to it all, could play that off repeated circuits and discrete returns, along with mini wanders with various artists and writers, old and new friends, listen to other’s highlights, tips, and ‘zoom’ in and out of the city, region and world in the process.

I was invited as a writer to write critically and I would fail the Biennial as much as myself if I did otherwise. I’m a demanding judge or at least have very high thresholds and am not biddable! Yet Sharjah Biennial 10 has been a triumph for all those involved. It took big risks and pulled off a very significant amount of them and curators, artists, editors all deserve real praise [I did see some music performances but not many and could not see the cinema section as well!]

Lebanon boasted a very high proportion of artists present, while India and Pakistan, Iran, Palestine and Quebec created very strong collective presences here, much as I dislike thinking in national terms. This is not the time or place for elaborately theorised responses, however. But it’s impossible not to mention that military and political events [as well as the status of migrant workers] very close to hand and further afield preyed upon most minds and many conversations during the week. It was not the work, but the world that stirred them.

Sharjah itself is the kind of city I like very much and I felt at home here precisely for its vital range of peoples, cultures and histories. The Biennial reflects all of this positively and productively and for all its engaged critique it’s also a celebration of life and making, let me say. It’s been an exceptionally ambitious undertaking and while I thought the publications suffered from under attention and the March Meeting would benefit from a revival of more focused break out groups etc. it has been a beautiful thing to see its successes substantiate.

The art that I was excited to see before coming delivered in substance, gravity, and beauty. Some of those artists, whose work I knew and who’d made new works for the Biennial exceeded themselves, notably Aisha Khalid [long interview to follow], Imran Qureshi and Khalil Rabah as well as Shumon Basar and Eyal Weizman working with Jane & Louise Wilson. Some of the work that I’d seen or knew of before -like CAMP whose film I’d seen an early version of [short interview to follow], or Emily Jacir whose work has peculiar poise in this world- surprised me by growing in stature, exactitude and bite.

Otherwise, there was a mass of work by artists I know or don’t know that I’ve not been able to mention here, like the surprising success of Adel Abidin’s ‘Their Dreams’. Again I was caught out by low expectations for an installation derived from children’s dreams, but this is a brilliant piece of work, somehow both morally serious and as light as the children’s ‘songs’ on the soundtrack. You have to see it to appreciate the finesse used with the children’s running shadows and the perfect proportions of the installation itself. A triumph.

Their Dreams Adel Abidin [Ph. Guy Mannes-Abbott]

Jumana Emil Abboud’ s work drew me down to a hot underground car park more than once, because it contains such puzzling elements; film, drawing, sculptural elements, a huge origami winged horse and the most fully achieved element for me, a series of large photographic images. While this didn’t quite cohere, I’m curious to see more of this highly singular artist’s work…

I think I must have missed one or two works, judging by the catalogue, but tried very hard not to! Similarly, I admit to not seeing every single artist’s film all the way through. However, I do have to mention the work of Walid Raad once more. It struck me at a strange angle from day one and ricochets within me now. ‘Index XXVI: Artists’ is a powerful piece in itself, but it also embodies an endearing intellect and wit. This is a version of a piece shown in London last year but bears a sophistication all of its own.

Index XXVI: Artist Walid Raad [Ph. Guy Mannes-Abbott]

One other note of some puzzlement is to do with my attempting to understand the relationship from Sharjah between cultures of the Indian Ocean World, let’s say. Explicitly, I note that there is an applied curiosity and investment of that healthy collective breath I referred to earlier from the subcontinent [Pakistan, India, Bangladesh all present] which I’m not convinced is reciprocated. I’m left with the impression that the obvious and historic connectivity is understood more fully from the former than the latter.

Minds are open clearly, but I was surprised to feel that while the subcontinent is still a more or less two dimensional entity from London [despite the city’s actual cosmopolitanism], it’s certainly not acquired three dimensions yet in the Gulf. It’s not idle speculation if I characterise this and the dominant role of migrant workers hereabouts as a parallel phenomenon [though I won’t indulge ubiquitous black and white posturing about this]. In London, for example, there is a glut of books from India, while at the same time virtually no translations from an indigenous Indian language exist. Curiosity about otherness only goes so far, and replicates the mode of the take-out…

In the Gulf it strikes me that curiosity about how and why a much-needed workforce comes here is missing, with a convenient blind spot over the role that rural debt and bonded labour plays in the process. There is a perception that the relationship is inevitably one-way, too. So I ended the week unconvinced whether -despite the admirable cultural energy of the Biennial- Sharjah is any better -or worse- than the ex-Imperial power in London in its attitudes towards the interiority of the other across the ocean…

I write this because, just as I want to convey how good the Biennial has been with as much angular sincerity as I can muster, the same sincerity has other demands upon me. I’m a writer, the sincerity we word polishers and players of and with words have is of a very humble kind. But writers have to write…

However, the keynote at the end of opening week here should be a clearly rung one of celebration. Sharjah Biennial 10 is a memorable triumph; may its inspiring writ run far and wide.

4 thoughts on “notes from a biennial – on reflection

  1. Good review by the ever sharp and readworthy Jennifer Higgie in frieze here:
    “…the exhibition was remarkable not only for the quality of work on show but for its sensitive and skillful installation… ‘Plot for a Biennial’ explored the intersections of art, politics and geography with a subtlety, coherence and occasional humour that is rare in shows of this size …”
    JH’s picks are good too, although Bouchra Khalili is not a ‘he’ ; ]

  2. Very good information. Lucky me I recently found your blog
    by chance (stumbleupon). I have saved as a favorite for later!

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