It took two years of planning and presumably came with an eye-popping price tag, considering the number of commissioned works and the attention paid to every detail of installation, but the verdict is definitely a thumbs up for Sharjah Biennial 11. Critics have been watching carefully to see what the Sharjah Art Foundation would come up with after the former director Jack Persekian was sacked during the last event and, while there will be no feathers ruffled with Yuko Hasegawa’s Re: emerge, Towards a New Cultural Cartography, it is certainly an all-out engaging affair. So, for those of you having second thoughts about making the trip to Sharjah’s art district, think again: it is well worth the effort.
The main difference between the Biennial and Art Dubai, which closed last week and took much of the global art crowd with it, is that the Sharjah event is non-profit, so the works are not for sale – it is purely art for art’s sake. In fact, many of the spectacular pieces such as Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa’s giant acrylic bubbles that fill Calligraphy Square and Ernesto Neto’s woven dreamcatcher upon which a large egg of ice is installed every day, will not be seen again after May, when the Biennial ends.
So too, is the case with the star of the show, Thilo Frank’s Infinite Rock – the black angular structure that engulfs most of Bait Al Serkal’s courtyard. Inside is a room of mirrors and light, which allows only one viewer in at a time. Sitting on the swing in the reflective capsule is a somewhat metaphysical experience, where your ego becomes king as you see your own image repeated into infinity but at the same time your fragility is brought home by the altered sense of perception and reality.
“It is a bit scary,” exclaims Sal Beveridge when she emerges. “My knees were shaking”. Beveridge, from the UK but living in Hong Kong, is here to visit her sister Jane Bailey, an art teacher at Dubai College. “What excites me the most is the new area and the architecture here,” says Bailey. “It is so sensitively done. The set-up is amazing. Also the wide range of materials and ideas is exciting to me as a teacher.”
But away from the large and interactive works and in so many different corners of the Biennial are hidden gems. On the roof of the creek-side house Bait Al Shamsi, for example, are Zeinab Alhashemi’s enlarged fish traps that, in their size and placement over the port, make a pointed comment on industrialisation. Also sharing that rooftop are works by Fumito Urabe, a Japanese artist and Ravi Agarwal from India. The latter spent a year-and-a-half producing a six-minute video of a sewage pond as an ode to the dwindling ecology of his homeland. The former was one of the seven prize-winners who shared US$40,000 (Dh146,924) in awards.
In the Collections Building, expertly curated so that you enter a maze of mostly video work, there is a sense of reminiscence and longing. John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation opens up the unknown world of colonial civilisation in Jamaica and Anri Sala’s Làk-kat is a short and repetitive piece that deals with racism. Then there is Sharjah Islamic Bank, which the art foundation saved from demolition specifically to use as a venue in the Biennial. The building still looks like a bank from the outside and occasionally passers-by clutching documents wander in only to be confronted by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s photographic series Desert of Pharan / Room with a View. These vast images show the prolific construction around the holy mosque of Mecca and were a big hit at Art Dubai. In the back room is another Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah, who has painted a car wreck in pink to illustrate the situation of Saudi women unable to drive.
Picking your way across the tarmac in the centre of the busy road – incidentally another art piece by SUPERFLEX, a Danish artist collaboration – and through more courtyards and houses all full of art, you will eventually find the Sharjah Art Foundation’s new spaces that were inaugurated this year.
Just when you think you couldn’t squeeze in any more art into your senses, the 20,000 square feet of new spaces transport you to a world far away from the traffic and noise of Sharjah. A cool fog garden by the Japanese artist Shiro Takatani soothes away the dust and commotion of outside and the shaded alleyways are filled with Wael Shawky’s Dictums 10:120’s spiritually uplifting sound installation. On opening night, the sound, a qawwali song comprised of fragments from curatorial talks and translated into Urdu, was accompanied by live drummers who sat cross-legged at intervals amid the space. Shawky and another Egyptian, Magdi Mostafa, who produced an abstract evocation of a Cairo neighbourhood, also picked up awards for exceptional contribution.
With so much more to explore and so many more sensory mediums to experience than is possible in one visit, the biggest problem with Sharjah Biennial 11 is how to fit it all in.