SHARJAH: The eighth edition of the Sharjah Biennial opened last week with an irony too rich to ignore. Sharjah is one of seven tiny emirates constituting the UAE, a rentier state on the Gulf whose export of fossil fuels has made it the fourth wealthiest nation in the world. To mitigate the foreseeable exhaustion of oil and gas reserves, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and to a lesser extent Sharjah are in the midst of a massive construction boom aimed at creating additional sources of income through tourism, financial services and trade. With its rampant consumerism, man-made islands, audacious luxury towers, energy-chomping desalinization plants and cookie-cutter suburbs carved into desert sands, the UAE is something of an environmentalist's nightmare.
For the government of Sharjah to fund a "green" biennial certainly flips things around - and stokes considerable skepticism. Is the event motivated by a genuine desire to cast a critical eye on the UAE's role in environmental degradation? Or is it predicated on a keen understanding that critics, particularly artists, can be co-opted and made complicit in a public relations feint?
The science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, who gave a keynote address for the biennial's symposium, probably framed it best when he termed the event a harbinger of things to come. Climate change, he argued, will fundamentally alter fashion, commerce, infrastructure, government, culture and nature - in that order. The only motivating factor will be fear, he said, so jumping on the green bandwagon now is nice, but art's time will come. The biennial, then, is a practice run.
With 79 artists and artists' collectives, 53 original commissions, three primary exhibition venues and a slew of site-specific works strewn throughout the city from now through June 4, the current Sharjah Biennial, or Sharjah 8, addresses the unlikely theme of "Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change." Strange, yes. But perhaps due to a breadth and depth of curatorial vision, it is also, in key instances, productively strange.
Hoor al-Qasimi and Jack Persekian - the biennial's director and artistic director, respectively - have littered their statements in the accompanying catalogue with variations on hesitancy, reluctance, mindfulness and modesty. No surprise, then, that Sharjah 8 comes off as cautious, awkward and unable to hide its discomfort with reconciling activism on one hand and aesthetics on the other.
That is not to say the event is a failure. But its success is tentative - arising in imaginative bursts from specific artworks that are installed here and there, rather than pulling the entire exhibition together in a tidy, legible knot.
To their credit, curators Eva Scharrer, Jonathan Watkins and Mohammad Kazem have invited - yet contained - the kind of militancy and hysterical handwringing that too often render environmental initiatives tedious and didactic. Sure, one can romp around in Peter Fend's oversized sandbox or take a wrist-slapping from Tea Makipaa's "Ten Commandments for the 21st Century." But some of the most striking artistic responses to the biennial's theme come from those works that interpret its terms loosely and offer nuance and poetic gesture in place of a scolding.
The best and rarest of the lot shy away from brash activism altogether to create mournful reflections on the ruins of what we've done - both to the planet and to ourselves. The biennial's three prizewinners - Amal Kenawy's "Non-Stop Conversation," Group Tuesday's "Knowledge of the Expelled" and "Tragedy in a Moment of Vision," and Michael Rakowitz's "The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist" - address ecology abstractly and through vivid acts of embrace, sustenance and restoration.
Kenawy, who is showing her video animation "You Will Be Killed" in the Sharjah Art Museum, located a crumbling structure on the edge of the city's heritage area. Spliced between two mosques, the building is so old it has been literally wiped off Sharjah's map. In an attempt to reassert its presence, Kenawy took its measurements, returned to Cairo, and made an enormous pink quilted blanket to cover it. As a performance piece, "Non-Stop Conversation" finds her scaling the building to wrap it in a soft, sensual skin. Sewing the blanket's many pieces together with a needle and thread while set against a dramatic sky and to a soundtrack of jarring mechanical music, Kenawy seems to enclose the structure as a mother would comfort a child and keep it safe from harm.
Where Kenawy makes her subject matter manifest, Group Tuesday insists on the immateriality if its work. A collective project by Lebanese artists and writers Walid Sadek, Bilal Khbeiz and Fadi Abdallah, Group Tuesday is so named for the weekly meetings they hold to discuss and debate. "Tragedy in a Moment of Vision" consists of a tiny video projector propped up on a tiny tripod with a stack of books on a shelf behind them. Per the work's instructions, viewers place the book in front of the projector to catch the image - a young woman with her back turned to a television broadcasting images of destruction during the war in Lebanon last summer. The piece uses the space of the museum to circulate a text yet leave no permanent trace behind.
Facing this work is "Knowledge of the Expelled," a set of 10 museum tags imagining texts scrawled onto the back of 10 paintings depicting variations on the Roman Charity story, in which an old man named Cimon is imprisoned and starved until his daughter Pero, who has just given birth, sneaks into his cell and clandestinely breastfeeds him in order to keep him alive. As with previous works by Sadek, "Knowledge of the Expelled" asks viewers to conjure images that have been withdrawn from view.
Michael Rakowitz's "The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist" reconstructs archaeological artifacts looted from Iraq's National Museum in the aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003. Meticulous and precise, the work joins objects rendered in street materials - newspapers, cardboard packaging - with evocative epigrams and a fragmented narrative about Donny George, the former antiquities chief who fled Iraq for Syria. A quiet monument to the missing and a symbolic attempt at recuperation, "The Invisible Enemy" ties into Rakowitz's ongoing study of architecture, urban planning and the catastrophic disintegration of a country to which the artist traces his ancestral roots.
Elsewhere in Sharjah 8 are two stately works by Mona Hatoum - "Hot Spot" and "Projection" - which frame the entrance to the enormous Sharjah Expo Center; Mounir Fatmi's sculptural, ghosted urban skyline entitled "Underneath"; Sophie Elbaz's moving photographs in which the film stock has been corrupted by mold; Alfredo Jaar's video-lament in 10 parts, named for the Angolan folk song "Muxima"; and a partially successful realization of a piece by Gustav Metzger from 1972 (120 cars spewing fumes into a plastic structure). The second part of the work, in which the cars overheat and combust, was left aside for the time being.
Sharjah 8 is, more accurately, Sharjah 2.3. In 2003, the event was revamped when Hoor al-Qasimi, the ruling sheikh's daughter, took over as director. Sharjah 6, curated by Qasimi and Peter Lewis, was huge and chaotic. Sharjah 7, curated by Jack Persekian with Tirdad Zolgadr and Ken Lum, explored the broad theme of belonging but pulled off a remarkably tight show considering it came together in less than six months.
Sharjah 8, a year in the making, makes good on the promise of its predecessors. Where Sharjah 7 had 20 original commissions, Sharjah 8 funded 53, proving the biennial's worth as a regional laboratory for the production of new work. Though the event is resolutely international, there is simply no other biennial in the world that emphasizes art from the Middle East and the Arab world as comprehensively as Sharjah.
And yet, one wonders how far the event can go in an autocratic state whose ambitions to house art may very well falter fast if and when that art seeks to disrupt the power structures that inform its production.
Compared to freewheeling Dubai, Sharjah is a backwater of austerity and asceticism. A hundred years ago it was a fishing village. Twenty years ago it was a playground. Now it is by and large dry, dull and draconian, with close ties to Saudi Arabia and a mean set of decency laws prohibiting alcohol, bars, late-night Internet cafes, immodest dress, indecent speech and the improper mixing of men and women.
At least 80 percent of the population comes from somewhere else, mostly India and Pakistan, and the lingua franca of Sharjah's shaabi street culture, such as it exists, is a mix of Hindi and Urdu moreso than Arabic and English. Like most Arab states, there's no naturalization process in the UAE, so the expats who have built the emirates with their blood, sweat and tears have no hope of ever gaining citizenship, even if they were born there, and endure a precarious existence based on temporary visas and work permits that can be revoked as swiftly as they can be granted, if not faster. (A collective piece in the biennial by the group e-Xplo addressed this predicament relatively well.)
In 1998, the United Nations Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Sharjah a cultural capital of the Arab world. Sharjah's ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad al-Qasimi, is banking on the distinction to shore up his emirate as a site of artistic and architectural heritage - a barrier of authenticity against a barrage of artifice.
But with the sudden arrival of the international art market to Dubai and Abu Dhabi - the auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's, the new Gulf Art Fair, recently announced projects to build a Louvre and a Guggenheim and a gallery scene that is mushrooming literally day by day - Sharjah seems to be losing ground on the culture front, high-minded biennial or no.
The Sharjah Biennial runs through June 4. For more information, please call +971 6 568 5050 or check out www.sharjahbiennial.org