Sharjah Biennial Report: The Opening

Mar 21, 2013 7:50AM

It is easy to get lost in the labyrinthine passages, baking courtyards and rooftop terraces of the Sharjah Biennial, this year featuring over 100 artists and 42 newly commissioned works, many of which chart the cartography and choreography of space. But a visitor can delight in this sensation, approximating the feeling of surprise and danger, and be almost disappointed when oriented by a sign or obliging guide.

Curated by Yuko Hasegawa, “Re:emerge Towards a New Cultural Cartography” takes on the theme of public space and utilizes the historic sites of the small Emirate. Although the show may sentimentalize Islamic medinas—where, Hasegawa genuflects, “water, greenery and sunlight [created] an analogy with paradise . . . a plane of experience and experimentation—an arena for learning and critical thinking”—the artworks are guided by a pragmatic spirit. If an argument is being made, it is that the priorities of the artist and the architect are the same. The works thrive at the happy intersection of art and social life, all the while safely bypassing confrontational or explicit critiques.

Indeed, although Hasegawa looks to the past—evoking Arabian nights spent sleeping on cool rooftops and footnoting 13th-century accounts of peripatetic scholars—the theme inevitably brings to mind more recent history. After all, public space, particularly censorship within its confines, became the accidental subject of the Biennial’s last edition when two works were removed. An installation by the Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil that included texts with graphic accounts of rape resulted in the dismissal of the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation Jack Persekian. In addition, the film Plot for a Biennial (2011), commissioned from American artist Cavah Zahedi, was dropped before the event’s opening, purportedly for disrespecting Islam.

The theme of this year’s biennial, though suggestive of such issues, is not aggressively corrective or retrospective, and the artworks, on the whole, are luxuriously mild. 

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