Sharjah Biennial 12 is set within the city of Sharjah’s heritage area in a neighborhood that despite globalization is still very much the beating heart of the emirate. In the morning, souk merchants stretch outside their shops with coffee. Tweens race their bikes through the cobbled squares at dusk, looping figure eights. As a government entity, Sharjah Art Foundation has to stay engaged with the public, and for this reason, installations that provide accessible entry points are critical for a strong Biennial. On my first walk through SB12 I discovered Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ode to roses inside a historic home tucked within Calligrapher’s Square.
Rirkrit Tiravanija is the son of a Thai diplomat, was born in Argentina and grew up in Canada, Ethiopia, and Thailand. Perhaps because of his diverse and truly global upbringing, the artist’s practice is known for engaging installations and performances that serve to bring people together. Tiravanija visited Sharjah prior to the Biennial and was enchanted by a 14th century model of rosewater distillery found in Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.
Anyone who has spent time in the UAE will know that rosewater is fundamental to local culture and hospitality. It is sprinkled delicately on the hands after a meal, dabbed soothingly on the eyebrows after threading, added to cakes for weddings, and combined with boiling water for a late evening drink. Tiravanija took inspiration and recreated a rosewater distillery inside the Calligrapher’s Studio at SB12.
The studio’s courtyard embodies classic Islamic design. I stepped into a garden and felt the rocks beneath my feet shifting with every step. From the very beginning it was as though I was part of the installation. A door to the right led to a brass rosewater distillery and a majlis (a traditional meeting or discussion space). I slipped off my shoes and stepped onto the carpeted floors, admiring the neon windowpanes that bathed the courtyard in rose-colored light. The use of these colors gave the space a contemporary focus and brought the past to the present. Calligraphic odes to the rose from local poet’s verses were penned across the walls. I wished I had a translation available, but intuitively appreciated the poetry’s presence nonetheless.
Crossing the courtyard, I encountered a makeshift kitchen where a team of chefs prepared rosewater pastries and lemonade. I literally drank Tiravanija’s installation. My good friend, the writer Anna Seaman and I paused to rest against a window ledge inside a room devoted to rose petal drying. A long banquet table was blanketed in pink petals, as if waiting for a wedding party. Anna Sommers Cocks, the Founder and Editor of The Art Newspaper whisked in, dressed in purple linen, commenting on SB12, and for a perfect moment it felt that the art world had wonderfully collided with Sharjah’s living heritage.
You can visit Rirkrit Tiravanija’s installation in the Calligrapher’s Studio in Calligraphy Square throughout Sharjah Biennial 12 at Sharjah Art Foundation. For a complete schedule of the Biennial go here.
Image Credits: All photos by Danna Lorch.