Bienvenue à Marrakech

Kimberly Bradley
Mar 3, 2014 8:45AM

Walking through the souks of Marrakech, Morocco these past few days, I was repeatedly stopped by hawkers asking why my bag said “where are we now?” in several languages (some wanted to assure me I was in Marrakech; thanks, guys!). The explanation was easy: the tote was a logoed press bag; “Where are we now?” the title of this year’s Marrakech Biennale, the fifth edition of an event launched a decade ago by entrepreneur Vanessa Branson.

What began as a small arts festival has evolved into a full-fledged biennial, this year with an artistic director (the Berlin-based Moroccan curator Alya Sebti), and an interdisciplinary curatorial team. Visual arts curator Hischam Khalidi has assembled a mix of Moroccan and foreign artists whose criss-crossing themes of fiction, migration, and (post-)colonialism permeate an exhibition that plugs itself into and interacts with its locations in ways that are both provocative and poetic.

Venues include the vast ruin of the 16th-century El Badi Palace; the financially ailing yet hauntingly beautiful Dar si Said museum; the former Bank al Maghrib on Jemaa el Fna square; the Theater Royale (an unfinished opera house where the collective freq_out has installed a heavy-bass sound piece), and L’Blassa, an abandoned Art Deco building “squatted” by emerging artists (and the trendy Hassan Hajjaj, who’s created the ground-floor café space).

Highlights are many: Cevdet Erek’s sound installation Sounding Dots and a Prison (COSDP) in the Palace echoes the clicking calls of storks nesting on the ramparts above. There’s Shezad Dawood’s sci-fi film, shot in southern Morocco and scripted in Berber dialect. At Dar si Said, Walid Raad cuts and pastes western elements into the museum; there and at the Bank al Maghrib, Belgian artist Éric van Hove’s Mercedes V12 motor, made in natural materials over nine months by/with Moroccan artisans, is shown both disassembled and whole (the motor’s sheer decorative aspect is both attractive and repellent, but one can only think of the Mercedes trucks that were driven for decades between Europe and northern Africa). In the bank is some great video work by Burak Arikan, Karen Cytter, Hamza Halloubi, Tala Madani, and Katarina Zdjelar. Like its city, perhaps, the Biennale is heavy on Sound Art and performance – a program of 100 Sound Art works playing in ten designated taxis was far less gimmicky than I’d expected, and Saâdane Afif’s twilight geometry lesson on the square attracted local crowds every night.

I attended the 4th Marrakech Biennale two years ago. This one is more grounded; more dialogue than spectacle (although a massive ark on a desert mound inspired by the 2012 Costa Concordia disaster – a parallel project by Ukrainian artist Alexander Ponomarev – is about as spectacular as it gets. The red-berber-carpeted and helicoptered opening was La Dolce Vita meets Fitzcarraldo). The next month sees literature, performance and film augmenting the visual arts exhibition, continuing the exploration of the million-dollar question. We'll keep watching which answers arise.

From top: Hischam Benohoud, Éric van Hove, El Badi Palace, Saâdane Afif's geometry table, Katarina Zdjelar, Katinka Bock, Walid Raad, Adriana Lara, Wafae Ahalouch el Keriasti, Alexander Ponomarev (2), Marco Montiel-Soto. http://www.marrakechbiennale.org/

Kimberly Bradley