SHARJAH BIENNIAL 8
SHARJAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
APRIL 4-JUNE 4, 2007
The oil in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has fueled rapid growth for its country. Theme malls, hotels, apartments, and businesses are being built at such a rapid rate that an estimated 15 to 25 percent of the world's cranes are in Dubai, one of UAE's seven emirates. Just over thirty years ago, most of the area was an empty desert and this rapid cultural and economic growth begs the questions, is the United Arab Emirates building too fast? How is it dealing with issues of sustainability? Thus, it is not surprising that this year's 8th Sharjah Biennial was titled, "Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change." The Biennial's curators, Mohammad Kazem, Eva Scharrer, and Jonathan Watkins, with the assistance of Artistic Director Jack Persekian, put together an eclectic show (developed by Director Hoor Al Qasimi) that brought together many different philosophies and ideologies from artists whose work addresses notions of ecology. Persekian stated that he sees the role of the Sharjah Biennial team as "opening possibilities, providing the means, and establishing the platform for individuals and groups ... to raise awareness of pressing ecological issues and sound the alarm." (1) However, at the Biennial's press conference, Persekian pointed out that this Biennial, "is not a place to go for answers but rather a place to raise questions." (2) Nevertheless, the program went beyond the traditional notion that ecology deals solely with the physical environment.
A decentralized exhibition, the Biennial presented works by forty-two artists that span the emirate of Sharjah and filled the main venues: the Sharjah Art Museum, the Expo Center Sharjah, and the Sharjah Heritage Area. From the poetic single-channel video installation by Alfredo Jaar that immerses the viewer in Angolan life and history (Maxim, 2005) to the floating utopian city project of Thomas Saraceno (Air-Port-City, 2007) to the hard-hitting documentary installation addressing the controversy of the Brazilian Chiquitano forest by Sergio Vega ("Paradise on Fire," 2007), the Sharjah Biennial offered food for thought regarding contemporary culture. In order to help facilitate dialogue, the Biennial also presented a three-day symposium where artists, curators, architects, and contemporary thinkers discussed various aspects of ecology.
At the Expo Center Sharjah, the vast space was transformed from a room for convention attendees to buy and sell their wares into a sophisticated space to view large-scale works of art. Exhibition designer Mona El-Mousfy created an exhibition space that was easy to navigate and allowed the work to be viewed from a number of different vantage points. From the catwalk allowing visitors a bird's-eye view of the artwork to the video installation rooms where there were very few sound leaks, the exhibition space was well designed. El-Mousfy writes, "The exhibition's spatial strategy takes shape through its performance. Visitors can establish their own route, and it is as they weave freely through the exhibition space that they tangibly perceive the fluid morphology of the scheme and discover at every turn a new layering of installations." (3)
Entering the exhibition space, the viewer was first confronted with Mona Hatoum's Hot Spot (2006). This large cage-like metal globe structure is tilted at the same axis as the earth with a red neon light outlining the contours of the continents and eliciting issues of global warming and political hotspots. To the left of Hatoum's work was El Anatsui's Wrinkle Of The Earth (2007), a large colorful tapestry made of copper wire and discarded liquor bottle tops. The piece appears to be an aesthetic charmer but contains a biting commentary regarding the negative impact of western influence on parts of Africa.
In an alcove was Anawana Haloba's Road Map (2007), an interactive sound installation where the crudely drawn sign at the entrance of the piece stated, "Draw a road map to peace with your 'tongue' on the map surface. …