Outside the salmon-pink concrete slab of the Holiday International hotel in Sharjah, a man is struggling inside a large plastic bag. The skirts of his white dishdasha crumple as he bunches the plastic, which is draped over a neatly pruned tree, around him. Finally he breaks free, sweat dripping beneath his checkered headcloth, and introduces himself as Abdulnasser Gharem, a 34-year-old artist from Saudi Arabia.
"This imported tree is breaking up the streets and destroying the native trees," he says urgently, over the sizzle of tyres on the highway behind us. "Man should be a friend to the environment, not exploit it."
It is hard to imagine a less appropriate backdrop to his words than Sharjah, a sprawling business park of an emirate built entirely on oil money. But Abdulnasser Gharem's feud with the interloping tree, a "site-specific performance" at the Eighth Sharjah Biennial, is a sign of change. Sharjah, in which the work is for show rather than for sale, is competing with Dubai (glitzier) and Abu Dhabi (richer) to import ever larger amounts of art, people to make it and places to show it off in. Dubai has just hosted the first Gulf Art Fair--described by its director, John Martin, as "a hundred million dollars' worth of art, all for sale"--and Abu Dhabi is constructing the multibillion-dollar Saadiyat Island, home to architectural spectaculars and "franchises" of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums. This is art as big business.
But the new Gulf culture industry lacks one thing: a soul. There are few local artists, fewer local curators, and only one local art school. There is not even anyone, apart from bussed-in students or optimistically projected tourists, to look at the work. Sharjah's government-backed biennale (its director, Sheika Hoor al-Qasimi, is the 26-year-old daughter of the ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi) is an attempt by Dubai's dowdier relation to provide the weight that the gilded bubble lacks--by tethering it firmly to its setting. "Unlike other biennales, we set out to commission a lot of new work that is specific to Sharjah," explains its artistic director, Jack Persekian, as he leads us round the Expo Centre. "Our theme, 'Art, Ecology and Political Change', is another encouragement to the artists to engage with their surroundings."
Over his shoulder thrum 120 car engines, audible even over the roar of the Dubai highway nearby. On a scarred, parched swathe of waste ground outside the centre, the veteran agit-artist Gustav Metzger has backed lines of empty cars on to the sides of a plastic-sheeted cube, exhaust from their idling engines feeding into it through pipes. Under Sharjah's fierce April sun, the cars radiate a harsh heat and choking fumes: a microcosm of every thing happening in this oil city and the cities around the world that it feeds.
Happily (it was originally designed for the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm) Stockholm, June fits perfectly with Persekian's brief. But this is as provocative as the biennale gets; not surprisingly, it has little desire to bite the various hands--government, big business sponsors, the media--that feed it. The guest curators squirm when grilled about the ethics of mounting a "globalised" eco-exhibition whose sponsors include Crescent Petroleum, the Sharjah Airport International Free Zone and Sharjah Transport, and whose 80 participants--with a correspondingly large press pack--have been flown in from around the world. "This is not an exercise in ecological correctness," splutters Jonathan Watkins, director of Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, whose catalogue essay "Confessions of a Curator" recommends "philosophical scepticism" as an intelligent alternative to carbon offsetting. "It's our own personal responsibility whether we accept these invitations, rather than an institutional responsibility," snaps Michaela Crimmin, head of arts at the RSA and one of the Sharjah symposium organisers.
The participating artists are frank about this balance of virtue with self-interest. "Travel is built into the structure of being a contemporary artist. If you want to succeed, it's inescapable," says Tea Makipaa, who made a point of travelling overland from Helsinki to deliver her Ten Commandments for the 21st Century ("I: Do Not Fly"). "Biennales all feed into one another," explains the Franco-Algerian video artist Zineb Sedira. "Once you've been in one, you're more likely to be picked up by others." This PR point holds as true for Sharjah as for each artist. As the contemporary art agenda is increasingly set by big international shows--Venice, Sao Paulo, the five-yearly Documenta, Istanbul, Manifesta, Sydney, Singapore--biennales have become status symbols for any self-respecting city. Sharjah is hoping to buy its way straight into the top flight.
To do this, however, it needs not just money (the Gulf Art Fair, unashamedly awash with the stuff, turned more delicate critics' stomachs) but also curatorial credibility. This is provided at Sharjah by its prize import, Jack Persekian. The leading promoter of modern Middle Eastern art, Persekian has black-framed glasses, a chic line in black shirts, and a weakness for Baudrillard, Guattari, "signifiers" and "paradigms". The cavernous Expo Centre and faux-historic Art Museum in Sharjah are a world away from his cramped, underfunded foundation in East Jerusalem, al-Ma'mal, which runs educational projects and acts as home for the fledgling Palestinian art scene. "Sharjah is an opportunity for me to be totally free--it's a playground, the opposite of Jerusalem," he shrugs. "But finding connections between work and its context is just as important here." At his own gallery, the art is inextricably linked with the day-to-day realities of occupation; in Sharjah, the connection with the world outside the gallery is less obvious.
There is a bleak, down-at-heel air to Sharjah: sprawled around a greyish man-made lagoon, it is dotted with branches of Dunkin' Donuts and Hardee's and with unfinished tower blocks marooned along congested freeways. When the neon signs are off, the only colour comes from the lavishly irrigated lagoon-front gardens, with their startlingly green grass and palms planted in dead straight rows. But there are no pedestrians, and none of the cheerful tea-drinking, shisha-smoking chaos of other Middle Eastern cities. Despite the 25 new museums corralled into the "Arts Area" and the "Heritage Area" ("founded 1999"), the entire city is less than 35 years old.
Unlike Dubai, conservative Sharjah is riddled with anxiety over its dislocation from the past. Here, "heritage" is a fetish. Walking into the slick new Expo Centre, you pass a rough reddish-brown stone with a plaque announcing that it "signifies Sharjah's unshakeable conviction that the past is the bedrock of the future".
Some of the work in the biennale is similarly unconvincing. The British artist Graham Gussin has taken over an island in the middle of the lagoon, bathing it in high-wattage film lights. As we stumble ashore, blinded by the glare, Gussin explains that the island was previously used by boatmen for illicit drinking and bonfires, but the government cleared away the undergrowth and bottles for this project. "I saw it and I thought--wow, this is like the original desert island," he says. I suggest that the boatmen might not have thought so, and that the piece has uncomfortable overtones of dispossession and occupation. "It wasn't me who made the island a forbidden place, it was the sheikh," says Gussin narkily.
And this is the problem with the biennale: its licence (and will) to challenge its hosts is strictly limited. Sharjah is a rigidly controlled society--recent laws prohibit such horrors as men working in lingerie shops, the sale of unlicensed five-gallon water bottles, and smoking in hair salons. At the official opening, Sheikh al-Qasimi and other Sharjah dignitaries circle the galleries, dishdashas covered by thin gold or black robes, gazing gravely at the two men in pink latex bodysuits who writhe suggestively around one of the installations. It's a surreal scene.
But, jostled outside by the exiting procession, I find myself on a quayside packed with wooden-hulled cargo ships, filled with bright containers, pick-up trucks, children's bicycles and building materials. The ships' brightly painted names are Hindi, and flyers for "Arabic-Urdu-Hindi lessons" litter the ground. The crews are from immigrant groups, which make up 80 per cent of the Emirates' total population and keep Sharjah's economy afloat.
Asghar, a taxi driver from Tehran, has stopped to buy a bicycle for his son at home. I ask him if he will visit the biennale, and he laughs. "No, it's for the government," he says. "But have you seen that fruit over there?" Over the road, young Thai artists are exchanging paper fruit, made by passers-by, for real bananas, papayas and mangosteens. It is little more than an arty joke, but it's playful, colourful and perfectly at home next door to Sharjah's unofficial boat-bazaar. For all its serious intentions, this biennale works best as a bubble within a bubble.
The Sharjah Biennial runs until 4 June. More info from: www.sharjahbiennial.org
RELATED ARTICLE: Art in the Gulf
KUWAIT The al-Sabah family, led by the Emir of Kuwait, holds one of the world's largest collections of Islamic art. The emir has already donated money to two institutions in Paris--the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Louvre, where a new Islamic wing will open in 2009 thanks to his gift of $6.5m.
SAUDI ARABIA The Saudis distinguish themselves by their philanthropy. In 2006, Prince al-Walid Bin Talal donated $21 m to the Louvre, while the Jameel family picked up the $9.8m tab for creating the Victoria and Albert Museum's Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art.
BAHRAIN A Bahrain Art Museum is being planned, with Zaha Hadid rumoured to be the architect. Bahrain is also home to the Riwaq and Dar al-Bareh galleries, key players on the Gulf contemporary arts scene.
QATAR An Islamic Art Museum is opening this September, but plans for five other major art institutions have been downscaled since the head of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, Sheikh Saud al-Thani, was dismissed in a corruption scandal in 2005.…