Soul Searching: The Eighth Sharjah Biennial Is the Latest in a Series of Huge Art Exhibitions to Take Place in the Gulf. Rachel Aspden Finds That the Work on Show Fails to Challenge the Rigidly Controlled Society outside the Gallery
Aspden, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
Outside the salmon-pink concrete slab of the Holiday International hotel in Sharjah, a man is struggling inside a large plastic bag. The skirts of his white dishdasha crumple as he bunches the plastic, which is draped over a neatly pruned tree, around him. Finally he breaks free, sweat dripping beneath his checkered headcloth, and introduces himself as Abdulnasser Gharem, a 34-year-old artist from Saudi Arabia.
"This imported tree is breaking up the streets and destroying the native trees," he says urgently, over the sizzle of tyres on the highway behind us. "Man should be a friend to the environment, not exploit it."
It is hard to imagine a less appropriate backdrop to his words than Sharjah, a sprawling business park of an emirate built entirely on oil money. But Abdulnasser Gharem's feud with the interloping tree, a "site-specific performance" at the Eighth Sharjah Biennial, is a sign of change. Sharjah, in which the work is for show rather than for sale, is competing with Dubai (glitzier) and Abu Dhabi (richer) to import ever larger amounts of art, people to make it and places to show it off in. Dubai has just hosted the first Gulf Art Fair--described by its director, John Martin, as "a hundred million dollars' worth of art, all for sale"--and Abu Dhabi is constructing the multibillion-dollar Saadiyat Island, home to architectural spectaculars and "franchises" of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums. This is art as big business.
But the new Gulf culture industry lacks one thing: a soul. There are few local artists, fewer local curators, and only one local art school. There is not even anyone, apart from bussed-in students or optimistically projected tourists, to look at the work. Sharjah's government-backed biennale (its director, Sheika Hoor al-Qasimi, is the 26-year-old daughter of the ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi) is an attempt by Dubai's dowdier relation to provide the weight that the gilded bubble lacks--by tethering it firmly to its setting. "Unlike other biennales, we set out to commission a lot of new work that is specific to Sharjah," explains its artistic director, Jack Persekian, as he leads us round the Expo Centre. "Our theme, 'Art, Ecology and Political Change', is another encouragement to the artists to engage with their surroundings."
Over his shoulder thrum 120 car engines, audible even over the roar of the Dubai highway nearby. On a scarred, parched swathe of waste ground outside the centre, the veteran agit-artist Gustav Metzger has backed lines of empty cars on to the sides of a plastic-sheeted cube, exhaust from their idling engines feeding into it through pipes. Under Sharjah's fierce April sun, the cars radiate a harsh heat and choking fumes: a microcosm of every thing happening in this oil city and the cities around the world that it feeds.
Happily (it was originally designed for the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm) Stockholm, June fits perfectly with Persekian's brief. But this is as provocative as the biennale gets; not surprisingly, it has little desire to bite the various hands--government, big business sponsors, the media--that feed it. The guest curators squirm when grilled about the ethics of mounting a "globalised" eco-exhibition whose sponsors include Crescent Petroleum, the Sharjah Airport International Free Zone and Sharjah Transport, and whose 80 participants--with a correspondingly large press pack--have been flown in from around the world. "This is not an exercise in ecological correctness," splutters Jonathan Watkins, director of Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, whose catalogue essay "Confessions of a Curator" recommends "philosophical scepticism" as an intelligent alternative to carbon offsetting. "It's our own personal responsibility whether we accept these invitations, rather than an institutional responsibility," snaps Michaela Crimmin, head of arts at the RSA and one of the Sharjah symposium organisers. …