"PROVISIONS FOR THE FUTURE," the ninth edition of the Sharjah Biennial, raised a host of unsettling if necessary questions typically repressed by the protocols of the global biennial circuit--though in light of the stated ambitions for the show, this might not at first appear to be the case. Organized by artistic director Jack Persekian and chief curator Isabel Carlos, "Provisions for the Future" seemingly mined familiar thematic terrain, and with a deceptively optimistic inflection. "The pursuit of happiness," Carlos writes in the rainbow-colored tome that is the catalogue, "is an important motivation for humanity to relocate itself from one place to another. In such relocation, notions of Utopia and the future ... play a major role." The work of some sixty artists, running the gamut from the emerging (Haris Epaminonda, Hayv Kahraman) to the emerged (Lawrence Weiner), was pressed into the service of this thesis. These projects focused on, in Carlos's words, "concepts like immigration, travel, narrative, fiction, memory and history, escape and exile." The litany reads like curatorial boilerplate at this late date, offering nothing new in the round-robin of biennial culture. Yet somehow in Sharjah this familiar set of curatorial rubrics actually took on some urgency.
The million-dollar question inadvertently posed by the biennial was: What future? With every indicator suggesting that the financial crisis has yet to hit rock bottom, might the "provisions" of the exhibition's title now be regarded as, well, provisional--proposing that the era of the global biennial has hit a plateau, an impasse wrought by the excesses of the art world and a concomitant failure of the imagination? Crudely put, to what extent is the provisional character of this curatorial format pathologically implicated in the mood swings of the market, no matter how loudly such exhibitions disavow this relationship in their critiques of neoliberal economics? It was clear that the Sharjah Biennial's implicit set of responses to such questions was continuous with its markedly regional considerations, a fact that contradicts the received wisdom on global large-scale exhibitions as everywhere and always the same. Carlos may well describe Sharjah as "a cultural meeting point where the notion of 'future' is permanently evoked," but the site-driven dimensions of her biennial served less to bolster the city's profile as a node on the art-world map than to undercut the show's ostensibly roseate thesis.
Much of this had to do with a brute fact of geography. As Dubai's less glamorous and more conservative neighbor, Sharjah, dubbed the "cultural capital" of the UAE, provides the starkest contrast imaginable to the Disneyland swank of its neighboring city-state. In flush times, the difference between Sharjah and Dubai seems so obvious that even to point it out courts redundancy: Dubai's profile as the epicenter of globalization renders Sharjah irredeemably provincial. These days, the comparison proves instructive once again, dramatizing the radical unevenness of globalization and its profoundly local consequences, and providing an object lesson about large-scale exhibitions that, however obvious, bears repeating: The motivations behind such shows are as relational and comparative as they are site-specific. To be sure, it was impossible to approach "Provisions for the Future" without thinking of the recent fortunes of Dubai, where the formerly relentless movement of construction cranes has now ground to a halt and the proliferation of TO RENT signs plainly broadcasts the hard new economic realities. At the Art Dubai fair, which opened in mid-March, two days after the biennial, with the usual complement of symposia and satellites, the uncertainty was palpable in the fauxrabian environs of the Madinat Jumeirah resort where the participants set up shop. And so it was in Sharjah, despite the consensus that attendance seemed robust. …