Sharjah Biennial 12 opened at Sharjah Art Foundation 5 March and is set to run through 5 June. Although around 20 of the 51 artists and groups participating in ‘The past, the present, the possible‘ have roots in the Arab world, SB12 includes established artists from around the world. I love nothing more than falling hard for a work of art, then realizing I have never heard the artist’s name before. Follow me on a visual tour of the Biennial’s exhibition spaces as I name and examine a chain of highlights:
Does America’s beloved Lady Liberty smell of Southern tobacco and tea plantations? With his installation, “Come to where the flavors are,” Danh Vo merges several projects. First, he reassembles a portion of his to-scale reproduction of the Statue of Liberty. Here we are treated to a 9 metre high copper section of the project that features the statue’s armpit! While coming face to face with the oversized underarm, expect to encounter shipping containers used to export Lipton Tea and Marlboro cigarettes, two essentials of Americana. What a clever way to explore a country’s material culture and overriding commercial influence.
Remember how when you were a child everything felt larger than life? Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet has reinterpreted his first 5 memories in an ongoing series titled, ‘Five Distant Memories: The Suitcase, The Room, The Toys, The Boat and the Madonna‘. Although I was part of a boisterously networking crowd, I fell into my own little world when I encountered ‘Wooden Boat’, in which Tabet resurrects the memory of his father’s heroic attempt to escape war-time Lebanon for Cyprus in a rickety boat. The desperate adventure lasted just 30 minutes before Tabet’s father realized that the leaky vessel was no match for the angry sea. I suspect that the boat was much smaller in real life. Go stand beneath the installation and try to recall your own melancholy childhood memories.
On the ground floor of Sharjah Art Museum, Tabet visually examines the Middle East’s borders and oil industry with his extensive industrial installation, ‘Steel Rings’, which visually references the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company, a now dissolved enterprise which attempted to operate a 1,213 kilometer long pipeline to pump oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and (post-1967) the Golan Heights. The installation compels us to consider the ability of a pipeline or other underground system to cross borders that people often cannot.
I lost myself (twice) in a gallery of paintings and glass sculptures by the late Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid, whose dramatic life story reads more like a novel than a modern master’s biography. The late artist was born into a prominent Turkish family known in the arts. After studying art in university (she was one of the first Turkish women to do so), she wed Jordan’s Prince Zeid el Hussein in 1934. In an extensive essay on Zeid’s life and practice Darat Al Funon, a gallery in Amman, quotes her as once writing, “While painting, I find myself integrated to all living things… Then I lose myself and become a part of a superhuman creative process, which produces pictures like a volcano erupting lava and rocks. Mostly. I become aware of the picture only after it is completed.” This ecstatic creative process is what led to a prolific studio practice grounded in abstracts thought to have roots in Islamic geometry.
One of my favorite experiences at SB12 involved observing several clusters of local teenage girls taking a series of art selfies with one of Zeid’s portraits. Perhaps they identified with a spark of her adventurous spirit still burning quietly behind the subject’s eyes.
Upstairs at Sharjah Art Museum, I was introduced to Saloua Raouda Choucair, a Lebanese abstract artist born in 1916. Sadly, men tend to get all the credit for advances and experiments in modern Arab art, and so I was pleased to learn about Saloua’s pioneering endeavors in abstraction. I was particularly taken with her sculptures in wood and metal, chiseled and forged in shapes that were clearly grounded in Islamic geometry, but departed on curvaceous journeys of their own devices. I found the sculptures so stimulating that I could practically hear the artist thinking as I stood before them. I later learned that Choucair was given a well-received show at the Tate Modern in 2013.
Seoul-based Beom Kim’s humorous works on paper stand in real contrast but are installed in the same exhibition hall. Although initially appearing simple, each of these small framed pieces contains a unique existential struggle. I was reminded of the early 20th century Dada movement, which simultaneously scorned and adored modernity, and is known as much for an inquisitive philosophical exploration as the actual art that resulted.
I laughed darkly at Kim’s ‘Self Torture Handbook’. Who hasn’t at some point questioned the very meaning of our overly connected, overly goal-oriented global culture?
Tomorrow I’m planning to live out my Sci-Fi fantasies with a visit to The Flying Saucer, a building constructed in the 70’s, which has had multiple incarnations (including as a fast food chicken joint) and has been repurposed by artist Hassan Khan for SB12. The intervention includes two billboards constructed in collaboration with Andeel, one of Egypt’s most popular cartoonists, as well as a number of other site-specific works.
Sharjah Biennial 12 runs through 5 June. For a complete schedule go here.