Rhythmic chants, news dispatches and a multitude of impassioned Tunisian voices echo down the corridors of Sharjah's Beit Al Serkal. Elsewhere, discordant electronic strings float up shadowy staircases in this 150-year-old building, seeping into its nooks and darkened passages which shudder with a subdued bass drone.
Built as a residence before becoming the city's first hospital and once a short-lived home for the Sharjah Art Museum, Beit Al Serkal is the perfect venue to showcase the audio and video artworks commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2011. Its bare rooms are washed red and blue with light from the stained-glass windows, and the sound art pieces transform a stroll through this illustrious space into a sequence of clandestine, contemplative happenings.
The foundation commissioned more than 65 works of art for the 2011 edition of Sharjah Biennial, funding the creation of each work from start to finish. This showcase represents the New Media side of those commissions.
It's just one of a series of must-see art projects taking place across Sharjah until the middle of January. A short walk from Beit Al Serkal is the Collections building, currently home to Drift - An Exploration of Urban & Suburban Landscapes, an exhibition curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation. Over in the Maraya Art Centre in Al Qasba, Aida Eltorie, who assembled this year's Egyptian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, has selected eight works by artists from the region that explore the aftermath of revolution via video, sound and a lot of empty Coca-Cola bottles. Upstairs in Maraya, the Barjeel Art Foundation hosts a panorama of artists who reflect on a nostalgia for a halcyon, sometimes fantasy-infused Middle East.
As completion of the UAE's major museum projects continue to be delayed, Sharjah offers a high-calibre, refreshing alternative to the commercially orientated scene found elsewhere in the country. These are shows primed by their relevancy, and set the high-minded tone that the city's arts programme has become known for.
In Beit Al Serkal, visitors are left to explore three floors of coral corridors and lonely passageways, while hidden speakers provide a brilliant, haunting soundtrack of electronic pops and hums from one space to the next. Meanwhile, behind black curtains, 10 film works play constantly, representing top-flight video art talent from across the Middle East.
The majority of the audio pieces were composed by PWR&$$$ (Power and Wealth), a collective of New York-based sound artists who came to Sharjah in January 2011 to record market ambience, slightly out-of-tune radios and the general hubbub of the streets. Breaking this down into composite sounds, the artists have created warm, though not always harmonious, soundscapes of around two minutes each. Carefully positioned around the space, they work well - the more cavernous compositions seeming to oscillate deep into the recesses of this old building.
"PWR&$$$ wanted to create something that felt new and modern but with respect to traditional Arab sounds," says Sheikha Hoor, who positioned these pieces around Beit Al Serkal. "They wanted to present these sounds in a way that challenged expectations of what Arabic music is supposed to sound like.
"The building isn't relevant to these compositions, but it creates an intriguing relationship between the audio pieces and the architecture of the place," she says. "Beit Al Serkal is an interesting space for reflection and, by having the audio pieces dispersed throughout the building, one is taken through a reflective journey of contemplation and exploration on what is happening in the Arab world."
Highlights of the video selection include Javed by Bahman Kiarostami, son of the Iranian master of cinema Abbas Kiarostami. This 18-minute piece captures the melancholia of kooche bazaari (pop singer) Javed Yasari, who was banned from performing in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Javed recounts his journey from household name to obscurity, having moved to Dubai - one of the few places he can still legally sing in public to a big group of Iranians. It's a bittersweet tale, but one that speaks volumes about a continued yet ebbing nostalgia that many Iranians have for the country's past and for its icons.