Though the Sharjah Biennial 10: Plot for a Biennial engages and scintillates, its achievement, attested to by recent events, is hard won. Intellectually, it presents a forum in which the viewer can challenge their beliefs, synthesize them with those of others, and then walk away with a better understanding of the world. If only it were so easy.
Curated by Suzanne Cotter, Rasha Salti, and Haig Aivazian, the exhibition, featuring work in all media by more than 80 artists from 36 countries, elicits responses to what it’s like to be an artist who makes and exhibits work in a heated, sometimes volatile social climate. Its staging in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, in the Middle East, at this moment of tumultuous, who-knows-how-it-will-end change, rings especially significant.
A sub-plot for the Plot for a Biennial narrates the fragile balance struck between the practice of progressive art in 2011 and its impact on more traditional realities. This sub-plot insinuates that nothing is absolute, that the beauty of a moment can easily fade in the blink of an eye, the issuance of an edict, and the signing of a petition.
Three pieces in particular provide a portal into the fragile, dandelion-beautiful and fragile achievement of this Biennial. Straddling the fence between the traditional and contemporary, the sacred and profane, they seem innocuous enough. They create an intuitive space for the viewer to watch, played out before them, in the guise of style and iconography, the clash of cultures and beliefs. For this reason, you have to commend this Biennial for its near-flawless execution of such a task in such a non-receptive environment.
The intersection of the timeless and the temporal can be seen in Aisha Khali’s “Pattern to Follow.” These four paintings, made from gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, suggest both classical Islamic geometric designs that allude to “divine knowledge” as well as the heritage of abstraction bequeathed from progressive Western art of the twentieth century.
Ebitam Abdulaziz’s “Womens’s Circles” consists of 20 digital prints mounted on aluminum. Documenting a performance staged in collaboration with a dancer, the piece crystallizes perfect moments, described with circles. The piece functions as a document of Platonic beauty, of perfection captured amidst the flux of movement in time. Straddling the line between utopian form and degenerated reality, the piece simultaneously refers to the closed circles that circumscribe the lives of women.
“Moderate Enlightenment,” one of Imran Qureshi’s twenty opaque watercolors on wasli paper, contrasts the precious, Middle Eastern miniature tradition with the profile of a male figure in contemporary attire. If Abduzaziz’s piece suggests the parameters of existence for a modern day women, then this piece suggests such parameters for a modern day man, a fact attested to by the figure’s lack of modeling: he doesn’t blend into the tradition but instead rests atop it.
One hopes that the lessons imparted here – tolerance, understanding, and empathy – will endure long after the show comes down. That’s asking a lot. Freedom of expression is a fragile, tenuous concept that requires constant tending, nurturing and effort. This message turns out to be more relevant and closer to home than expected. A few weeks after the Biennial’s opening, Jack Persekian, Biennial Director, was sacked because an installation by Algerian artist Mustapha Benfodil, “Maportaliche/It Has No Importance”, placed in a public space next to a mosque, raised public outcry. Following his dismissal, a well-intentioned though poorly-conceived petition was instigated, demanding a boycott of the Biennial.
The exhibition itself provides the proper response to the petition. If one considers biennials as a forum in which to formulate to responses to issues such as this (see above Milton quote), then the exhibition serves that purpose to a tee. But if that profane conception of space runs head on into a sacred conception of space, there then needs to be an even bigger forum that can continue the dialogue. The bigger forum is the understanding that the Biennial offers to its attendees after they depart. Boycotting the Biennial is to remove one of the generators of that dialogue.
That’s not right.
The matter requires free and open discussion. To boycott the Biennial is to remove an integral part of that discussion. To that end, voices – all of them - should be moderated not censored. To dismiss the Biennial because of a reaction to an oversight would be a shame; it would substitute incremental progress with a strategy of one step forward, two steps backward.
Attending this Biennial is one thing. Experiencing it is another. Experiencing it requires vigilance, not kneejerk reactions; for, as this Biennial reminds of us, free expression is not a given, it must be assiduously pruned. To their credit, these three pieces and the Biennial itself raise and then answer the spectacle’s overarching question: what holds such an enterprise and its desimination together? An act of faith.
The exhibition runs until May 16. For more information visit www.sharjahart.org.