Magazine article The Spectator

Can Artists Save the Planet?

Magazine article The Spectator

Can Artists Save the Planet?

Article excerpt

Given his interest in the merging of blue with green, David Cameron would presumably feel at home in the United Arab Emirates while Sharjah's 8th Biennial is on. The Biennial's title and theme is Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change. I imagine that the first two words refer not only to the historic painting genre -- a genre which reminds us of our mortality on the occasions when it includes the depiction of a human skull. The two words may also suggest sentences such as 'Despite man's destructive tendencies there's still life on planet earth but we can't take it for granted.' Whether or not there is a double meaning here, the Sharjah theme is serious, responsible, apt and perfectly timed.

Sharjah Biennial is billed as the largest art event in the Gulf. That's now saying something considering the recent ambitions of other Emirates to partner the Louvre and stage art fairs, not to mention a rival Biennial even.

A Biennial is not built in a day, however, and the Sharjah Biennial, after 16 years' experience, is large enough. It is staged in the Sharjah Art Museum, the Expo Centre, the Qanat Al Qasba, the Heritage Area, the Khalid Lagoon and elsewhere.

Much credit is due to the Sharjah Biennial director, Hoor Al Qasimi, and the artistic director Jack Persekian. More than 80 artists, from some 40 countries, have responded to Hoor Al Qasimi's theme in more than 80 very different ways. Given the undesirability of trying to analyse these individuals into groups, what follows is some general thoughts provoked by the event, interspersed with random snapshots of work by just a few artists.

Unlike at the mother of all Biennales, Venice, founded 1895, where Tracey Emin bats for Britain this year, no artist is formally representing his or her country in Sharjah. In this approach the Sharjah Biennial is more like Documenta Kassel, founded by the painter, curator and pedagogue Arnold Bode (1900-77).

Documenta Kassel has a less hectic fouror five-year cycle. Although this somewhat remote German town is less blessed by nature and by man than Venice, it established itself from 1955 onwards as the most serious of all regular surveys of contemporary art. However, a two-year cycle has proved to be the norm. São Paolo Bienal of Art (Brazil) began to make itself felt from 1948 on. There are now over 50 Biennales or Biennials of varying importance worldwide. Their themes do not lack ambition, scope or lateral thinking. Earlier this year, for example, the title of Moscow's 2nd Biennale -- make of it what you will -- was Footnotes on Geopolitics, Market and Amnesia.

Outside the Sharjah Museum two Swiss artists called Lutz and Guggisberg set a half-humorous, half-doom-laden tone with masses of roughly chopped, charred wooden birdlike inventions, larger than ravens.

Some of these strange, torched, stricken and blackened creatures stare down on visitors like eyeless vultures. Many more are grounded. Each bird is different. The total effect hovers back and forth between solemnity and irreverent wit.

Can artists save the planet? Can Biennales save the planet? The answer that emerges from Sharjah's highly stimulating series of commissions and other displays is that the imaginative creativity of both does indeed have a special part to play, alongside the talents of scientists, economists, politicians, industrialists, businessmen, farmers, fishermen, consumers -- all of us, in fact. Of course, man will find it hard to beat fate or nature in the production of disasters such as meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes, pandemics and the tsunami that wiped out Minoan civilisation. …

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