Magazine article Artforum International

Sharjah Biennial 8: Still Life; Various Venues

Magazine article Artforum International

Sharjah Biennial 8: Still Life; Various Venues

Article excerpt

The organizers of the eighth edition of the Sharjah Biennial set themselves a formidable task by using an exhibition of contemporary art to address environmental degradation in the United Arab Emirates. One of seven small emirates constituting the UAE, Sharjah is a Persian Gulf rentier state whose export of fossil fuels has made it the world's fourth-wealthiest nation. To mitigate the foreseeable exhaustion of oil and gas reserves, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and to a lesser extent Sharjah have engineered a massive construction boom to create additional sources of income through tourism, financial services, and trade. With its rampant consumerism, man-made islands, audacious luxury towers, energy-chomping desalinization plants, and cookie-cutter suburbs carved into desert sands, the UAE is an environmentalist's nightmare.

For the government of Sharjah to fund a "green" biennial certainly flipped things around--and stoked considerable skepticism. Was the event motivated by a genuine desire to be critical of the UAE's role in accelerating ecological disaster? Or was it predicated on a keen understanding that critics can be co-opted in a public-relations feint? Rather than evade such questions, the biennial's artistic director, Jack Persekian, and curators Eva Scharrer, Jonathan Watkins, and Mohammad Kazem braced for them in "Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change." With seventy-nine artists and artists' collectives and fifty-three original commissions attesting to the enabling power of oil money, the exhibition filled the Sharjah Art Museum and one of the four halls of the Sharjah Expo Centre and spilled into various sites throughout the city. Numerous public art projects were installed and performed, stitched into Sharjah's quizzical urban fabric--quite literally in the case of Amal Kenawy's Non-Stop Conversation, 2007, in which the artist sewed pink bedding material around a crumbling building.

But let's be honest, Sharjah 8 was no green biennial. A sprinkling of cute but speculative details--calculating the number of trees felled (seventeen) to produce the catalogue or the tons of carbon spewed (seventy) to fly in more than two hundred guests--does not make an environmentally sound event. Unable to finesse the biennial's inherent incongruity, Persekian allowed for numerous options through which artists could respond to the theme. …

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