Sharjah Biennial 12: Opening Impressions

This bright cloudless morning, Sharjah Biennial 12 opened at Sharjah Art Foundation to a crowd of curators, artists, journalists, and neighbors. Visitors in sunglasses carrying tote bags grew wonderfully lost in the labyrinth of traditional coral-walled alleyways leading to shockingly contemporary exhibition spaces bathed in natural light. Curated by Eungie Joo, SB12 is titled, ‘The Past, The present, The possible’ and incorporates work by 51 artists and groups, 36 of whom present new commissioned pieces or installations.

The coral-walled alleyways in the heritage area that lead to Sharjah Art Foundation's exhibition spaces

The coral-walled alleyways in the heritage area that lead to Sharjah Art Foundation’s exhibition spaces. Image courtesy of REM

The curatorial concept took its roots from a discussion that Joo shared with the artist Danh Vo concerning their lifelong entanglements with contemporary art. It also alludes to an essay in the late French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s book, “Writings on Cities” which expresses “The Right to The City”,  a Utopian vision for the collective inhabitants of a city to be able to lead their own urbanization, reshaping the city’s environment and themselves in the process.

The genius of the Biennial and its framework is that you can expect to view site-specific installations that artists from around the world have conceived in response to Sharjah’s cultural landscape, following immersive visits to the emirate over the past year. Consequently, this is not yet one more case of established international artists’ work being imported and cut and pasted into a UAE gallery space.

Eduardo Navarro's work 'XYZ' is a children's game that will be played throughout the SB12 opening. Here, one of the artist's PVC balls sits in wait within one of the Foundation's many courtyards. Image by Danna Lorch.

Eduardo Navarro’s work ‘XYZ’ is a children’s game that will be played throughout the SB12 opening. Here, one of the artist’s PVC balls sits in wait within one of the Foundation’s many courtyards. Image by Danna Lorch.

In this sense, the works feel like an invitation from the artists to the public to enter into a poetic, open-ended conversation, with installations spilling beyond institutional bounds and into unexpected locations like the sci-fi esque Flying Saucer Building, the local souq, and even an abandoned ice factory in Kalba which has been temporarily occupied by Adrian Villar Rojas, a team of skilled workers, and a range of found organic materials. The Biennial is also particularly heavy with performance art, a documentary film program, and interactive installations conceived with children in mind.

Entry to SB12 is free and nothing is for sale, which makes for a democratic viewing experience for everyone from Marwan Al Sarkal, the art-appreciating CEO of Shurooq, to the small child in a white dress who very naturally laid down on the concrete floor of Building I, gazing directly upwards into the cavernous belly of Rayyane Tabet’s suspended wooden boat. This egalitarian philosophy holds consistent for everything the Director of the Biennial and the Foundation, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi touches.

Installation shot of Rayyane Tabet's 'Cyprus' (2015), commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation

Installation shot of Rayyane Tabet’s ‘Cyprus’ (2015), commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation

Sharjah Art Museum has work from SB12 on display throughout its gallery spaces, including this copper pipe installation by the founding member of the Emirates Fine Art Society, Hassan Sharif.

Sharjah Art Museum has work from SB12 on display throughout its gallery spaces, including this copper pipe installation by the founding member of the Emirates Fine Art Society, Hassan Sharif.

Image by Danna Lorch

Image by Danna Lorch

I’ll be on site at SB12 blogging on location throughout the weekend. In my next post I will touch upon the upcoming weekend’s programming and also highlight a few of the site-specific works that I found particularly captivating.

Sharjah Biennial 12 runs from 5 March-5 June, 2015. For all information go here.