7 Artists Changing Our Perceptions of the World at the Sharjah Biennial
For better or worse, an “echo chamber” is apt way of visualizing what it feels like to be in the world today. The concept of a domain where we encounter ideas and opinions that resonate with our own potently speaks to the current media landscape. The way we consume content can feel like a “choose your own adventure” novel, from the personalized stories you’re served on a chosen online news platform, to the suggested shows and movies you may watch on Netflix.
“Leaving the Echo Chamber” is the premise of the Sharjah Biennial 14 (SB14), organized by Sharjah Art Foundation and curated by Claire Tancons, Omar Kholeif, and Zoe Butt. With sites across the city of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, the biennial opened during the first weekend of March with over 80 participating artists from around the globe. Now in its 14th edition, the sprawling exhibition has culled a loyal community of artists, writers, and thinkers from the Gulf region and beyond, and this year, the inherent scale and chorus of interweaving voices challenge the very concept of an echo chamber.
After traveling to the U.A.E. to unearth the unique and enthralling offerings of SB14, we share below five of the most compelling presentations (all works dated 2019).
Isabel Lewis transforms a factory into theater
Kalba Ice Factory
For the past decade, Isabel Lewis, the Dominican Republic–born and Berlin-based dancer, artist, and critic, has been imagining what 21st-century rituals look like through multisensory choreography. Expanding beyond the movement of bodies, Lewis and her collaborators foster what the artist calls “host occasions”—performances that incorporate visuals, sounds, smells, and even taste to create a radical, shared intimacy.
With Lewis’s SB14 commision, Untitled (inwardness, juice, natures), the artist reactivates an abandoned seaside ice factory in Kalba, located over an hour ofrolling desert away from the Sharjah city center, on the Gulf of Oman. Collaborating artists Matthew Lutz-Kinoy and Hacklander / Hatam set the scene with visual art and sound, respectively; striking tapestries that move like crashing waves are paired with ambient sound recordings captured at the local Kalba Nature Reserve. The frantic joy of Lewis’s piece only builds as viewers are served fragrantcardamom coffee, and a series of multi-part performances unfold: from the offerings of an improvisational flutist to cars spiraling around a dancer.
Wu Tsang’s magical realist take on the refugee crisis
Bait Al Hurma
Wu Tsang, One emerging from a point of view (video still), 2019. Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.
“For me, filmmaking is a space of emotional truth, to shift the way people think about others,” filmmaker and performance artist Wu Tsang recently explained of her practice. The 2018 MacArthur fellow’s film for SB14, One emerging from a point of view, continues her interest in documentary fiction, this time plunging viewers into the seaside community of Lesbos, Greece. Over half a million refugees have entered Europe through the island since 2011.
Rather than a straightforward documentary, Emerging introduces the in-betweenness, trauma, and resiliency of human movement, at times pushing beyond reality into magical realms (for example, we see a mermaid and goat-human hybrids). Though dizzying at times, Emerging had an engrossing effect on the Sharjah audience. I noticed that almost all of the viewers—who sat on tree stumps adorned with shards of mirror—stayed for the entire 43-minute duration of the film, enthralled with Tsang’s arresting visuals, as ominous and charged as the churning Aegean Sea.
The very recent history portrayed in Khadim Ali’s tapestries
Sharjah Art Museum
Pakistani multimedia artist Khadim Ali’s tapestries appear as delicate as an illuminated Book of Hours, and chaotic as Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500). Hanging in the Sharjah Art Museum, the long, silken tableaux contain not ancient myths, but the extremely recent, lived realities that have deeply affected the artist, who was one of the persecuted Hazara people of Afghanistan. Now based between Sydney and Kabul, Ali creates work that examines the normalization of violence through symbols, characters, and propaganda language.
Ali’s larger series commissioned for SB14 expands beyond tapestry. The artist created watercolor prints, an expansive wall mural at the Emirates Fine Art Society, and even a powerful sound installation utilizing the same metal horns that broadcast religious extremist songs in Taliban stronghold areas. But it’s the soft, hand-embroidered tapestries that pack the biggest punch—balancing the surreal beauty of flowers and mythological creatures with sinister, weapon-toting U.S. soldiers.
Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör’s sundial does more than tell time
Bait Al Shamsi
Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör, Suntitled, 2019. Photo by Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör. Courtesy of the artists.
The beating sun shines down on the roof of Bait Al Shamsi, a building along the Sharjah city waterfront, where there is a giant wooden box, painted in a soft, millennial-friendly blue-green hue and punctured with cut-outs that resemble emoji smiley faces. The work, Suntitled, is meant to be what Manchester-born writer and critic Hannah Black calls “an inverse sundial” that people can experience from the inside. Black created the work in collaboration with the Berlin-based designer Ebba Fransén Waldhör.
I get a coveted spot inside the box, and wait for 11:11 a.m.—the time of wishes, and apparently, the hour that Suntitled activates. Inside the box, there are slim, vaguely anthropomorphic piles of crumbled asphalt. At 11:11, the eyes and mouth of one cut-out lines up perfectly with one such rock pile, animating it into being. The rock pile begins talking, and even singing at points, about being an objective witness to how humans use and abuse time. The rock’s speech is revelatory and darkly funny; Black herself performed the complete monologue to the Sharjah audience during the opening weekend.
The Biennial Prize winners offer an antidote to the “echo chamber”
Bait Al Aboudi
The winner of this year’s Biennial Prize went to Nigerian artists Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh for their multimedia installation that poetically embodies the resilient rituals and lives that cycle onward, even in the most dire of contemporary circumstances. Located in an outdoor courtyard of Bait Al Aboudi, Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past is a miniature, walled-in ecosystem, yet its garden appears to be anything but thriving. A large, dead palm tree dominates the untended yard, and crater-like pools of water collected from the sea seem stagnant—perhaps due to the salt the artists added.
However, Aging Ruins does not fester in despair. Nkanga and Ogboh created a series of interventions within the space to imbue it with life, and to draw attention to the abundant possibilities of living gently and empathetically with nature. Hidden speakers fill the courtyard with the sound of local Emirati children singing a traditional “rain song,” and Nkanga reads texts from the point of view of the trees, water, and earth. As night falls, screens around the courtyard light up with poetry and reflect onto the pools of water. Focusing on the cycle of birth and death in a natural landscape that is often disrupted by human activity, Aging Ruins bring down to Earth the largest questions of the present in a simple and effective framework.