The fifth iteration of the Marrakech Biennale asks 'Where are we now?' At first sight this rather banal, overly encapsulating proposition fits unremarkably into the vernacular of contemporary biennales. The pronoun makes way for ideas of the 'glocal' (global meets local) while the open, rhetorical question hints at overarching metanarratives of universal artistic values, ways of working and means of display. Despite its earnest title, the Marrakech Biennale demonstrated a conversation between the city and the work that was rarely disingenuous. The ultimate failures of some of the works shown (or not shown) spoke of the specific challenges of working with (and against) the state and the inevitable act of translation and transliteration demanded by the biennale format.
Without dwelling on the rhetoric expounded during the endless press conferences and official openings of the Biennale--as a transformational vehicle for economic and civic development etc, all held in the colonial tongue (French) and without Arabic or English translation--these meetings raised the pertinent issue of the Biennale's precarious position. Given its lack of state funding, despite many attempts to secure it, the lion's share of support has fallen upon its founder Vanessa Branson (Sir Richard's sister), who launched the event in 2004. The reality is that this may be the last Marrakech Biennale.
At this year's event, 43 artists and groups participated, including eleven Moroccan artists--unlike the 2012 edition which, to international outrage, included only two local artists. The Marrakech Biennale commissioned much of the work; ostensibly concerned with site-specific artworks, artists were invited to spend time in Marrakech, and to collaborate with local craftspeople, students and artists--in that order.
The visual art and sound programme was curated by the Dutch-Moroccan Hicham Khalidi. His curatorial schema was reflexive and reassuringly unassured; it felt less like a going-through-themotions of a contemporary biennale and more like a thoughtfully balanced experiment with the dominating spaces that housed the work. The inaugural venue, the Palais El Badii, is a 16th-century ruin which, a century after completion, was stripped of all its ornamentation in order to adorn another, newer palace. Effectively a shell and a ghost of its former self, it has since been occupied by the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts (MMP+) and a colony of storks that one can see and hear throughout the site, casting huge shadows on the ground and calling to each other by means of otherworldly glottal birdsong. Cevdet Erek (Reviews p28) insinuated the palace's latest occupants into Courtyard Ornamentation with Sounding Dots and a Prison, 2014, a sound installation that spread into another key location, the Dar Si Said. Erek captured and modified the sounds of the storks to create a digitised, rhythmic version of the source that built, dropped and echoed throughout the palace and its subterranean walkways. Asim Waqif's The Pavilion of Debris, 2014, again took inspiration from the palace--hashing an informal architecture out of discarded wooden remnants of the palace down a long corridor, miking the panels to speakers resonating various frequencies when one stepped among the debris. During the opening week Jelili Atik was scheduled to present his performance I Will not Stroll With Thami El Glaoui, 2014, a procession with a herd of sheep through the palace. At the last minute it was cancelled, with very little explanation other than confusion over permissions and miscommunication with the authorities. A much-modified performance instead took place in the Jaama el Fna square.
Nestled in the centre of the labyrinthine old town, the royal 19th century former mansion Dar Si Said today houses the Museum of Moroccan Arts. Here, works were shown as interventions in the permanent collection of Berber crafts--from carpets to weaponry, jewellery, pottery and textiles. …